Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Into the Crater

Remember in a previous post how I'd hiked up Ape Canyon, under Mt St Helens' summit, walked across the Plains of Abraham and got views of a lovely flower-filled butte, but it was just a bit too far for a day hike?  Well a few weeks later, I went back and hiked to this area via a different trail from the north.  That hike is what this post is all about.  (Be prepared for lots of photos!)


Morning light on Mt St Helens


I love hiking from the Windy Ridge (northeast) side of Mt St Helens.  However, reaching this trailhead requires a 3-hour (one way) drive from Portland, the last hour over windy Forest Service roads in poor condition. But my desire to see the flower fields before the wildflowers wilted away was further fueled by photos from a friend that had hiked the same area, and not only did she see loads of flowers, she also encountered mountain goats!   

Our first leg was on an old road


Luckily my hubby decided to accompany me on this latest hiking adventure, so I had company for the long drive.  We left early one mid-July morning and the drive was fairly uneventful except for when I hit a hidden pothole going a bit too fast (oops!).  Hubby got excited and made me pull over so he could check my car's underside to make sure I didn't punch a hole in anything.  (Spoiler - my car was fine, but boy did I drive like a granny after that!)


Loved the wispy clouds above MSH

Finally after a looonnng journey, we arrived at the Windy Ridge Trailhead parking area.  Naturally after being in the car for three hours, the first thing I did was sprint for the bathroom, only to be foiled by a filthy restroom completely out of toilet paper.  Good thing I keep a surplus of Starbucks napkins in my car!

Loowit Trail junction


After taking care of restroom needs, putting on hiking boots and resetting my gps I was ready to go.  Hubby and located the start of our trek - an abandoned road.  We'd follow this road for nearly two miles before joining the Loowit Trail proper.

Spirit Lake and a bazillion paintbrush flowers


The weather was perfect - blue skies and pleasant temperatures.  The road gave fantastic views of MSH's truncated north side.  You could see right into the crater, and I spotted the lava dome that's been building inside since the 1980 eruption.  From this angle the mountain kind of looked like a large melted cake. 


Looking into the crater - notice the lava dome in the center


Not only were the mountain views immediate so was the wildflower show.  Flowers lined the sides of the abandoned road, and my camera was out well before the half mile mark.


Rockfall from the west crater wall

After a long nearly 2 miles the road ended at the junction of the Loowit and Abraham Trails.  The Loowit is the trail that circles the entire perimeter of Mt St Helens.  Having hiked this route several years ago I opted to first follow the Loowit Trail towards the volcano's crater.  So off hubby and I went, past a huge field of orange Indian paintbrush.  As we progressed along the Loowit, views of Spirit Lake began to show over the horizon.

Dramatic views crossing a dry creek


The views into the volcano crater were amazing!  The closer we got the more the landscape changed.  The west crater wall still had a small amount of snow on top, but it appeared to be rapidly melting in the rising temperatures.  We even witnessed a large rockslide off the west crater wall.

Loowit falls from a distance


After nearly 2.5 miles of walking through this desolate but interesting plain we got a glimpse of our goal ahead - Loowit Falls.  This waterfall was created from melting snow in MSH's crater and flows towards Spirit Lake.  A side trail took us from the Loowit towards this cascade.  This trail's terminus at Loowit Falls is the closest hikers are allowed to get to the crater itself.

Mountain goats!
As hubby and I approached the waterfall, we noticed a few white dots moving on the rocky slope above us.  Mountain goats!  Quickly I switched to my zoom lens and attempted to capture a bunch of images.  Unfortunately the goats were quite a distance away, and a 200 mm zoom lens didn't quite cut it.  But the goats were still fun to watch.  A father, mother and baby goat slowly made their way to the shade of a large rock, where they finally bedded down.   

We watched the goats for quite some time


I could've watched the goats all day, but we had a waterfall to see and many more miles to cover.  So hubby and I continued along the trail until we reached the designated overlook for Loowit Falls.  We took a quick snack break, and I snapped a few photos.  Then, refreshed, we retracted our steps back along the Loowit trail.

Loowit Falls at our turn-around point

The second part of our loop necessitated a return on the same portion of the Loowit Trail we'd just covered.  After a mile and a half, however, we turned and headed towards Windy Pass.

Heading to Windy Pass


The landscape was stark.  Although some small bushes were beginning to grow, there were no large trees to provide shade.  Luckily it wasn't too hot quite yet, but I could feel the temperatures rising and switched to my floppy-brimmed hat and sunglasses.


One last look at Spirit Lake
As we began climbing towards Windy Pass, I took one last look at Spirit Lake, spread out below.  Mt Rainier's snowy summit peeped over the top of the surrounding hills.

Quick break on Windy Pass

The climb up Windy Pass was sketchy.  The trail snaked up the side of a steep slope, often only the width of our two feet.  The slope dropped off precariously below us and as we climbed, the elevation difference became higher and higher.  A couple of places, I pasted myself against the rocky cliff on the uphill side just to ensure I didn't slide down the slope below.  Hubby and I came upon an older couple standing in the trail.  The wife was freaked out by the steep slopes and exposure below the trail and, paralyzed by fear, was unable to move.  We somehow shuffled by the couple, and I recommended they descend and try another trail.  (I think that's what they finally did)

Fantastic Mt Adams view on the other side of Windy Pass
Finally after lots of huffing and puffing we reached the top of Windy Pass.  And boy the views were fabulous!  We could see Mt Adams and Hood from one direction, and Spirit Lake and Mt Rainier from the other.  And of course MSH's summit was front and center.  Famished from the climb, we took a break to eat our sandwiches.

Looking back towards Windy Pass
From my previous hike here several years ago, I remembered the descent down the other side of Windy Pass as a sketchy, treacherous slide down a sandy, rocky slope.  So I was a wee bit apprehensive about the route down.  But as it turned out, my fears were for naught.  Since my last visit, some trail maintenance had been performed and the trek back down was drama-free.  And as a bonus, there was an amazing view of Mt Adams as we descended.

Stepping aside for trail runners 

At the bottom of the slope was the Plains of Abraham, a barren rock-strewn desert created from the eruption.  But this area boasted some of the best wildflower fields.  Lupine covered the plains, creating some lovely photo ops.  At this point, we encountered a large group of trail runners, trying to cover the entire 32-mile Loowit Trail in one day.  I couldn't even imagine running that far!

Lupine was thick here!
From here the Loowit wandered across the Plains of Abraham, through lupine fields and stellar views of MSH.  After another mile this path intersected with the Abraham Trail, which coincidentally was the turn-around point of my Ape Canyon hike several weeks ago. 

Heading across the Plains of Abraham


But instead of taking the Loowit towards Ape Canyon, today hubby and I were hiking on the Abraham Trail towards those fantastic flower fields.  We crossed a gully and climbed the other side, and came upon the best wildflower display we'd seen yet. 

Wildflowers in every gully


Orange Indian paintbrush filled the slopes.  It was everywhere!  Any forward progress I had made stopped right there.

Then we entered the paintbrush zone

The next two miles on the Abraham Trail were a wildflower photographer's dream.

Fields of orange Indian paintbrush everywhere!
Huge fields of Indian paintbrush climbed slopes, filled gullies and lined ridges.  And to add icing on the cake, Mt Adams and Mt Rainier peeked over the horizon.

A very colorful gully


Not only paintbrush, many gullies were filled with pink and yellow monkeyflowers.

Orange hillside


My poor hubby had to do a lot of waiting!  I wasn't exactly the speediest hiker.


Flowers and Mt Adams

But with scenery like this how could anyone hurry through it?

Colorful trail
The Abraham trail wound through several drainages before finally topping out and following a ridgeline.

Then came the yellow zone
From this vantage you could see our trail all the way back to the old road - the very one we'd hiked at the beginning of the day.

Our trail snakes across the ridgetop

As the trail grew closer to this road, the wildflowers changed from paintbrush to yellow Oregon Sunshine.  It was equally as stunning.

Looking back at MSH


The concentration of wildflowers along the Abraham trail was simply incredible.  And lucky for me, I'd caught it near the peak bloom.


We had to navigate a series of steep log stairs
Towards the end of the Abraham Trail, the slope got so steep the trail builders had installed a few sets of log stairs.  I think they were intended to keep hikers from sliding down the sandy slope, but they were difficult to navigate.

Looking towards our path back to the car


But hubby and I managed to get down the endless sets of log stairs.  At one of the flat spots, hubby spotted a toad resting in the rocky soil.  Our second wildlife sighting of the day!  With no water nearby, it seemed like an unusual place for a toad to live. 

Surprised to see a toad in this dry environment
Although I enjoyed the trek along the Abraham trail immensely, I was happy to see the junction with the old road again.  By now the day was warm and I was hot and tired and ready to be back at our car.

More flower-filled slopes
It's no fun to end a hike with an uphill road walk.  But that was the price of admission to this amazing area, so hubby and I put our heads down and one foot in front of the other.  Luckily there were more great views of Mt Adams to keep our eyes occupied.

Final leg back on the road


A path that wandered close to the MSH crater, a secret waterfall inside, mountain goats, climbing over a pass with fantastic views, flower fields below, and an amazing wildflower-lined trail.  This hike had it all!  Another great day exploring one of my favorite places.

Monday, September 21, 2020

PCT - Santiam Pass to (almost) Three Fingered Jack

Before I launch into this latest hiking adventure, I'd like to take a moment and thank all the firefighters who worked tirelessly for the past two weeks battling the wildfires that ravaged Oregon.  Not only did these brave men and women help many people evacuate, they also fought these fires under terrible conditions (gusty winds and thick smoke).  Most of the blazes are now either under control or at least no longer posing imminent danger to populated areas.

Sooo.....jumping in where I left off in the prior post!  Continuing with my hubby and I's hiking/camping weekend in July.  (If you've forgotten, refresh your memory here.)

Gotta get the "official" sign pic!

After tackling two trails the previous day, hubby and I awoke for today's ambitious goal - hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (aka PCT) from nearby Santiam Pass northward.  According to my hiking "bible" - aka William L. Sullivan's "100 Hikes in the Central Oregon Cascades" there was a terrific view of Three Fingered Jack Mountain about 5 miles up the PCT.  One my 2020 hiking aspirations was to log 25 new miles on the PCT and this latest trek would help towards fulfilling that goal.


The beargrass was in great supply

After staying up late watching the sunset on Coffin Mountain, hubby and I slept in and lollygagged around camp, taking our time eating breakfast.  So even though our campsite was only 15 miles from the trailhead, we didn't arrive there until almost 9 am.  And despite having a huge lot, parking at this trailhead was already nearly full.  We managed to snag the last available spot - luckily it was big enough for hubby's truck!

Beargrass forest


Stepping out of the truck I was surprised by how warm it was for 9 am.  Hubby immediately switched to shorts but I decided to keep the zip-off legs on my hiking pants.  It would later prove to be a smart decision.

Hayrick and Hoodoo Buttes through the trees

The PCT northbound from Santiam Pass traveled through forest burned in a 2003 wildfire.  The ghostly gray dead trees were a somber reminder of the devastation.  However, beargrass had established itself nicely post-fire.  Cream-colored poofy blooms lined the forest floor.  Progress was slow as I tried to capture yet more stunning beargrass images. (And, no I didn't get enough photos of it from the previous day!)


Mountain parade - Mt Washington and the Three Sisters

Although I'm not a fan of wildfires, the lack of vegetation on trees did open up views of the nearby mountains.  As we climbed higher, a line of Cascade peaks paraded across the southern horizon.  Mt Washington was the closest, followed by the Three Sisters and Broken Top.

Looking towards Three Fingered Jack

And moving northward I got occasional glimpses of Three Fingered Jack's pointy summit.


Little trailside pond


About a mile in, we passed by a cute little pond rimmed with wildflowers.

A few lily pads

 I zoomed in to capture the lily pads floating on it's surface.

Happy to see new tree growth


Beyond the pond, our trail started to climb more steeply.  I puffed and sweated in the increasing heat.  Thankfully a strong breeze was blowing, and that made the temperatures bearable.  If not for the wind, I would've surely overheated.


Lots of little trees sprouting up in the burn area


Hubby and I passed through an area where the forest was covered with small fir trees.  It was heartening to see the forest beginning to re-establish itself after such a devastating fire.

A nice patch of lupine

Fire zones also produce great wildflowers.  We passed through many meadows flush with purple lupine and orange scarlet gilia.

Hoodoo Butte through the burned trees


About 3.5 miles up the PCT hubby and I came upon the top of a ridge.  Views to the east were fantastic with conical-shaped Black Butte prominently anchoring the skyline above a mixture of green forest and gray burn area.  A couple teal mountain lakes glittered like jewels below.

Ghost trees


It was here a southbound backpacker passed by and warned us that the mosquitoes were thick in the trees and in areas where the snow had recently melted.  I had a small bottle of repellent in my backpack, so figured we could always spray ourselves if things got too bad.  So we continued on.

Hiking through snow - in July!

Unfortunately, it turned out that helpful hiker was right - hubby and I no sooner entered the forested area when the mosquitoes came after us in droves!  They seemed to like hubby better than I, and he was soon regretting his switch to shorts.  Every time we stopped, even for a minute, they would swarm us landing in great numbers on our exposed skin.  I couldn't even get out my repellent fast enough - I was spraying mosquitoes as they were biting me.

Three Fingered Jack view at our turn around point

Although Deet works the best for repelling mosquitoes, it's so toxic I try to avoid using it at all costs.  So I'd purchased a small bottle of Deet-free bug spray for hikes.  But sadly that day it failed miserably.  Realizing that keeping ourselves moving was the best way to avoid these flying vampires, we marched steadily onward.  But it was past noon, and I was in dire need of some fuel.  Hubby promised we'd stop for lunch when we arrived at the Three Fingered Jack mountain viewpoint.  But we kept hiking and hiking with no viewpoint in sight.  My gps read 5.3 miles, then 5.4, 5.5.....surely we didn't miss it?  I was getting tired and hangry.  Where was that stupid mountain?

Black Butte and a couple of lakes

About a quarter mile from the viewpoint we ran into a section of trail totally covered in snow.  Gingerly hubby and I postholed through the wet, slushy stuff, trying to follow previous hiker's footsteps.  It was slow going, and to make matters worse, the mosquitoes were thickest in these melting snow areas.

Looking westward to another lake

Finally, rounding a corner there was Three Fingered Jack rising above the trail.  A fabulous view - totally worth the hot uphill climb, slogging through snow, and facing bloodthirsty mosquitoes.  But I was beyond hungry now, and insisted on taking a lunch break right there on the trail - mosquitoes be damned!


Lupine brightens the forest floor


So hubby and hastily tried to cram down some leftover meat and cheese from the previous night while fending off mosquitoes intent on making us their lunch.  It was the fastest meal break ever - after five minutes of battling those flying demons I was ready to get moving again.

Dramatic clouds


Bidding the mountain a fond farewell, we hurried back through the snowfield, through the mosquito-infested forest until finally taking a breather on the ridge, which thankfully seemed to be free of bugs for the moment.  Hubby pulled out the rest of our lunch and we finished refueling.


Nice afternoon light on the beargrass


From the ridge, our path back to the truck was all sweet downhill.  Good thing for me, as by now temperatures were blazing hot.  I was happy for the stiff breeze and the fact that I still had lots of water left in my hydration bladder.  Those two factors saved me from totally melting down.  Heading back downhill, we passed several folks with huge backpacks slowly climbing in the opposite direction.  I don't know how these people managed - they were obviously better suited for handling hot weather than I.


Beargrass everywhere!

And then we were back in the beargrass zone.  Hooray!  The afternoon light was now so fantastic on the plumes, I couldn't help adding yet more images to my memory card.

More pics of the beargrass and forest

 Not only the beargrass, but there were also some interesting clouds in the sky.

Mt Washington view down a beargrass-lined trail


It was a relief to finally reach the trailhead.  I pulled off my hot, dusty boots and grabbed some cold water from our cooler in the back.  And, one of the advantages of camping nearby - a very quick 15-minute drive to our campsite which meant a cold beer much sooner!

Our lovely campsite at Marion Forks

That day happened to be my hubby's birthday.  Not only did he get some tasty apres-hike birthday beers, I also brought a small pie and adorned it with a candle.  What a guy - he gave up fishing on his birthday weekend to go camping and hiking with me (through a vicious mosquito-infested trail even!)


Happy birthday to my hubby!

Although one of the recent wildfires burned very close to the campground where we stayed that weekend, I was happy to see it's been spared for now.  Nearby Coffin Mountain has also escaped the flames.  So there's hope I can return next summer to camp at Marion Forks and take in another sunset on Coffin Mountain.  But I think I'll wait until the snow is entirely melted before I hike this portion of the PCT again.