One More Autumn Hike: Snowgrass Flat

“Stellajoe!” my father would say to my mother. “How would like to live in a place like this on a day like this?” We probably all rolled our eyes, he said it so often. Now that I have lived in other places, I can answer the question for myself: “Yes! Oh my goodness, yes!” I am forever grateful that five years after they met, and 3000 letters over one long war, my Michigan father and my Tennessee mother chose to migrate to the Pacific Northwest. Whatever must they have thought when all three of their daughters moved east. After thirty-six years away, I am ecstatic that I was able to return.

The forecast for Snowgrass Flat, a hike in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest I’ve done twice before, was for all sun on Sunday. The prediction for home had deteriorated, and I crossed fingers that it really would be sunny at my destination. On the other hand, other than the view of Mt. Adams, sun was not critical. I was mostly hoping for autumn color.

Even though it is a Sunday, I didn’t think I needed to leave home at my usual early hour. With sixteen miles (one way) of washboard forest service road, and in October, I didn’t figure there would be a crowd on trail. There isn’t going to be a sunrise over the prairie even.

Still, I am out the door at 6:30. No adventure latte, of course. . . Sunday. There is a shot of pink light through the overcast sky, and otherwise not a hint of clearing. No rain, at least.

I jar up the FS road—no potholes thankfully and a wide road—and two hours from home, stop at the Berry Patch parking lot to use the facilities. The lot is almost full. Rather than take the horse connector trail, I drive to the main parking area. Space is at a premium there too. Backpackers. Must be. There’s still cloud cover.

It’s pretty lonely the first couple miles or so, which is flat walking. I take my bear bell out of its pouch. I know bears can hear me; they don’t need the bell. But my mother gave it to me, to keep me safe on my solitary hikes. I rarely take it out, but I always have it. It reminds me I was loved. Am loved. Suddenly I need to hear it its tinkle, its mother-love.

A few minutes later I begin to meet the backpackers coming down. Many of them. Had I come on Saturday, or even Friday perhaps, I would have been sharing the trail with a lot of people. But no one at all passes me going in my direction; those I meet are quickly gone and it’s quiet again. They are virtually all half-grown adults, just two pairs of “my people.” My people hike on weekdays, and are day hikers. There are signs of clearing, patches of blue through the tall firs. There are water features, and a bridge! I love trail bridges of all sorts, from sturdy to logs with a wobbly rail.

Goat Creek

And huckleberry red lights up the trail!

If it’s autumn, there is fungi!

Washington Trails says this is an 8.2 miles hike, round trip. Did I mention I’ve done it before? I knew that was misleading; but I forgot. I arrive at the Lily Basin trail, and numerous other trails that go to campsites. Lily Basin is a great route during wildflower season, but not today. It’s also more mileage to the Flat. I remember that much, at least, from my second visit here. I continue on the Snowgrass trail.

When I left the car, I’d buckled my knee strap on the knee I had meniscus surgery on a decade ago. I haven’t needed it in a couple years; but when the temperature drops it aches, and it has been, so I put it on. I wonder if that stupid fall from a bar stool on New Year’s Day, putting up a track light over my kitchen peninsula, will be what finally curtails my hiking someday. Que sera sera. Living one hike at a time. This is a long one for achy knees, but the strap helps.

Turns out, the multi-trail intersection is where WTA calls the 4.1 miles, at the lower end of the huge “flat.” I swear they changed their trail description between Saturday—which I have photo proof of—and Monday as I write this. I keep going. I know what my destination looks like, and by the time I get there I’m at another uphill mile.

And it’s glorious! The sky is blue and cloudless—except for the horizontal cloud at the horizon that covers the mountain. There’s little color in the meadow, but the trail had autumn covered.

I eat my lunch, not planning to tarry here, or climb any higher. Then I change my mind. I hike up to the cairn, a pile of stones in a bare spot—I don’t know why it’s there. And is that just a wee bit of mountain? I decide to build an inukshuk of the shale. I haven’t done that in a long time, since the volunteer trail rover at Paradise knocked one I was building down with his pole, telling me it’s against regulations to build them. (He was an ass; though he did point out the marmot den, somewhat redeeming his assholiness.)

A PCT through hiker and his dog pass by; I’ve seen no one since I arrived in the meadow. “Glorious day!” we say to each other. “I don’t think the mountain is going to show, though,” I say, the hole in the cloud bank having closed rank. He tells me it was visible higher up, along with the top of St. Helens, and Rainier in the other direction. Well, I’m not going higher. My inukshuk falls over.

It’s one o’clock, it’s a long way back, it’s a long way home. But I start a rebuild, giving the mountain one more opportunity. I finally get the last rock to balance and look up. And there is the top. I add one small round rock to my inukshuk and watch the clouds drift across Mt. Adams’s bottom half.

Now it’s half past one. I decide she’s not going to completely clear, and I really need to go. My plan is to take the bypass trail; it’s beautiful and it’s shorter (I think). There is the issue of the wide river crossing on rocks. If the river is running high, it could be impassable, and it has been raining; but I’ll chance it. The first time I was here, I overshot the trail. It was really hard to see and the sign was only visible coming up. I know to watch for it this time and start down the PCT at the junction. I walk down through the meadow, the mountain in my face.

I watch carefully, and still get to the point where, on my first visit, I knew I had gone too far. There’s a deep ravine to my right, and I knew then, and now, there is no way that is on the route. I’d turned around then and seen the sign. I sigh. This was supposed to be a shortcut. I don’t find the sign. I do hear the “eep, eep, eep” of a pika in the talus slope, find it, follow it with my camera as it skitters up and over, through and under the rocks. I finally get a single shot. Not very good.

I don’t find the trail and go all the way back to the top. It’s after two o’clock now. I’m disgusted. Partly because I like the trail; and also that I didn’t find it. The only time I’ve wished I had GPS. I’m already ready to be done and it’s five miles back to the car. As I write this, looking again at the description, it says it’s a mile down from the PCT junction. I don’t think I went that far. I look again at the photo I took on Saturday. It says nothing at all about the bypass. What the heck?! Well, next time. What will be will be. I let go of irritation, letting it rise again briefly when I pass where I should have rejoined Trail 96.

The trail is devoid of people for a long way. I finally meet a few backpackers, and just two daytrippers—one going up and one passing me going down. They are the only day hikers I’ve seen all day. I pass back by the stupendous roaring waterfall, with no access or good photo opportunity. It’s both frustrating and gratifying that these trails were built to get hikers from point A to point B, with no side trails and overlooks for convenient and safe viewing of features. The wild stays wild, and largely unseen.

Likewise, I can see glimpses of Mt. Adams through the trees, and it looks like the clouds have finally cleared. But there are no clear photo ops of it either.

The sun is slanting through the trees. It’s almost impossible to capture it on the camera, but I try anyway.

It’s almost 5:00 when I’m back to the car; eight hours on the trail; thirteen miles. I’m exhausted. I get one clear view of the mountain from the car.

And I catch the sunset over Klickitat Prairie.

When I get home there will be a shower, left-over chili, ibuprofen, bed. It’s seven o’clock by the time I dump my stuff inside the front door. I should have left home earlier. But I would have missed the mountain.

5 thoughts on “One More Autumn Hike: Snowgrass Flat

  1. Oh my, I’m exhausted just reading this. I’ve never been there and while I would love the solitude (I have a bear bell I rarely use too) I fear I would get hopelessly lost out there. Beautiful fall colors and the forest looks divine. Why do I feel like this isn’t the last one for you ? Seems you’re just hitting your stride !

    Liked by 1 person

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