In mid-September, the stress and excitement of my daughter's wedding over, I was ready for some wilderness therapy. So I asked my friend Catherine if she'd be willing to join me for an exploratory hike on a "new to me" trail. One thing I love about Catherine, she's always up for an adventure!
|Off to another adventure!|
Today's trail of choice was a jaunt on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) into Washington's Indian Heaven Wilderness. After a couple of miles, we'd leave the PCT for a side trail leading to an alpine meadow known as "Indian Racetrack." From there, the plan was to climb up the side of Red Mountain to see the views and fire lookout tower on top.
|Old PCT Trail marker|
It was a humid, unseasonably warm day that found my friend, her daughter, and I at the PCT trailhead on Forest Service Road 60. Traveling a mere few hundred feet down the trail we met our first PCT through-hiker, a man from Georgia. Fascinated by his journey we detained the poor guy, peppering him with questions. The man explained he'd started from the Mexican border in March and was averaging over 30 miles a day, trying to reach Canada before the winter snows hit. Although I mentioned he was going to be hiking through the incredibly beautiful Indian Heaven wilderness, the man didn't seem interested at all. So focused on getting miles in, the Georgia guy wasn't paying attention to the spectacular places he was hiking though.
Finally bidding him goodbye, despite hauling a huge backpack, the man took off like a rocket and was quickly gone.
|A PCT hiker left this along the trail|
Catherine and I had a discussion about why someone would hike all those miles so focused on covering ground that you didn't make time to stop and enjoy the scenery. We both agreed it kind of defeated the purpose. But never having never tackled such a huge undertaking, I'm not one to judge. Maybe after covering so many miles, I'd feel that way too.
A bit further along the trail, we came upon some sticks arranged in a "2200" pattern, which we assumed meant this was mile 2200 of the PCT.
My hiking buddies and I then passed by a lovely alpine pond, reflecting the surrounding trees so nicely I just had to stop for photographs.
|Beginnings of fall color|
About that time Catherine, who loves to harvest wild mushrooms and knows quite a bit about the subject, began to notice the forest floor was full of different types of fungi. The recent unseasonable wet weather had brought them out in great numbers.
|Autumn hues light up the forest|
Catherine found one rather large tan-colored mushroom, a little bigger than my hand, that she said was good to eat. Rummaging through her pack she found a plastic grocery bag to hold her find.
|Colorful huckleberry leaves|
We passed by another tiny pond, really more of a swamp, that was surrounded by the beginnings of autumn color. Some huckleberry leaves were already turning crimson. My favorite season, I was thrilled to see the leaves starting their transition.
|Catherine shows off her chanterelle stash!|
Between Catherine foraging for mushrooms and me taking photos, progress to the Indian Racetrack trail junction was slow. Passing by one particularly fungi-rich area, Catherine was thrilled to find a patch of chanterelles, which I learned were really good to eat. These golden, fluted-shaped 'shrooms were awfully pretty too.
|Another PCT trail marker|
Despite the distractions, my friends and I finally reached the junction of the PCT and Indian Racetrack shortcut Trail. This was the path would take us to the foot of Red Mountain, our day's destination.
|Leaving the PCT for Indian Racetrack|
Of course this track was also lined with hundreds of mushrooms. Fungi of every shape and color poked their heads out of the rich forest soil. Catherine's mushroom bag began to fill.
|Catherine finds some large mushrooms|
Catherine found a couple of big 'shrooms that looked like little loaves of bread. Apparently these were also good eating. (Note to readers - please consult a guide before picking and eating wild mushrooms! Don't rely on these photos.)
Here's a photo compilation featuring some of the many mushroom varieties we saw dotting the forest floor. Lots of unusual colors, shapes, and sizes (I liked the speckled ones best!)
|Photo collage of the mushrooms we saw|
Soon the wide open meadows of Indian Racetrack came into view. This area was so named for the Native American tribes who gathered here to harvest late summer berries and race horses.
|Broad meadows of Indian Racetrack|
After a little searching, we located the trail up Red Mountain at the edge of one meadow and began the steep climb to its top. Gaining 800 feet in 0.8 of a mile it was a steep trudge. About halfway up we hit a hillside covered in red volcanic rock (giving Red Mountain it's name). The final quarter mile followed a rocky road. This was the longest section - it was a hot, muggy slog. I thought we'd never see that darn fire tower.
|Finally Red Mountain Lookout!|
But of course after much toiling and grumbling (mostly by me) the forest opened up and my friends and I glimpsed the gray outbuilding downhill from the fire lookout itself. A bit more effort to climb the final pitch and we were on top of Red Mountain!
|Lookout cab through the trees|
Although the day was cloudy, we lucked out when the ceiling lifted just enough for a good look at a barren Mt Adams (the Cascade peaks all look so naked without snow).
|Mt Adams view|
There was a man sitting on the lookout tower deck when we arrived. He invited us to come up, but warned it was cold and windy. Not wanting to disturb him, my friends and I settled into a sheltered area behind some low-growing bushes and enjoyed a late lunch.
|Checking out the tower|
Once the man left, however, I was the first one up the ladder. Despite cloudy skies, the views were still spectacular. I could only imagine how much better it would be on a sunny day.
|Fine views from on high|
Online research revealed the Red Mountain lookout was constructed in 1913. In the next several years it underwent a couple of reconstructions. During World War II the lookout was used as an aircraft warning service station, and was staffed 24 hours a day for 12 months. An outbuilding was erected below the tower to house the relief staffer.
|Not bad for a cloudy day|
The present lookout cab was built in 1959. In December 2006 a storm blew the roof off the tower and collapsed the cabin walls. The following summer volunteers from four states spent two weeks restoring the lookout tower and outbuilding. Red Mountain lookout is maintained to be "service ready" but today is only used in times of emergencies. It is considered the last remaining active fire lookout in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
|Looking towards the south|
Cold, windy conditions kept my friends and I from spending much time up on the lookout tower. Driven back to the shelter of the base, we finished our lunch, rested, and soaked in the views.
And much to our delight, a trio of cute chipmunks provided some entertainment as they tried to sneak up and grab our crumbs.
|Watching for spilled food|
My online research determined there were two return routes for this hike - we could either follow the fire tower's closed gravel road and make a loop, or we could return the way we came. Since I like loop hikes, the decision was made to follow the road.
Although I'm usually not a huge fan of road hiking, the downhill trek was steep, but pleasant. We passed the largest mushroom of all - and it was sitting right in the middle of the road! The thing was bigger than my foot. Other than a few patches of vibrant vine maple starting to exhibit fall finery, the miles passed by quickly and before we knew it we'd arrived back at Forest Service Road 60. A quick half mile trek brought everyone back to my car.
|Vine maple beginning to turn colors|
This lovely 6-mile loop had it all - lush forests, PCT through-hikers, fall colors, a cool lookout tower with views, and plentiful mushrooms of all shapes and sizes. A new trail that was definitely a winner!