Dateline: July 30, 2018
Snowgrass Flat, Gifford Pinchot NF
Note to self: Don’t hike when the temperature is forecast at 95 degrees in the closest town. I thought I would pass out several times. Apparently others knew better. There wasn’t much traffic on the most popular trail in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and most of what there was were backpackers. Hence we had little competition for attention from the flies. I read on WTA trip reports they were bad, so I succumbed to a small bottle of Deet. Don’t like it, but I like fly bites less; and I seem to have none on the morning after, so I guess it worked.
I had promised my sister I would take her with me on a hike; I don’t know if that felt like a gift to her or not, she is not a hiker. But she closed her shop for the planned day and got up early. Both sacrifices that felt like a gift to me!
We picked up our adventure lattes and headed for my new favorite trail, as of last summer. I was hoping, two weeks earlier than last year, the wild flowers would be at peak.
I promised her it was a pretty easy hike, with a big payoff.
Okay, so I hiked it after I did Indian Henry’s last summer. Compared to that it is a pretty easy hike. It wasn’t 95 degrees last year; and there were no bugs except when I sat on a log to eat my lunch. The sky was deep blue behind the white Mt. Rainier last year; there was no haze from California’s wild fires, making it more a white on grey view this time. And the signage on the long forest road up wasn’t broken off last year and was this time, causing us to miss the turn off. Twice. It was already hot when we started up the trail. I also lied a little bit about the mileage. Unintentionally of course.
The first two miles through the Douglas fir/cedar/hemlock forest are flat. Well, there was some downhill, but of course we didn’t notice that until the return. It would have been pleasant, but for the hungry flies. Then the up shit started for the next two miles. That’s when the almost passing out part came, when we couldn’t really stop because of, you know, the flies.
We reached the lower meadows, which, I see now, is the destination of the 4.1 miles the WTA lists, but the big meadow is higher up. We ate our lunch by a babbling brook, soaked our hot feet and dirty ankles in the icy water, and noted the flies weren’t so interested in us there.
There are many options when the trail breaks out of the woods to the lower meadows, and I picked the wrong one (didn’t read the minimal signage). We found out the trail with the brook crossing was heading for Goat Lake. I knew we didn’t want to go there, so after lunch—not sorry for the detour to the brook—we turned back through the paintbrush meadow and got on the right trail. More up. I’d forgotten that part of the trail. Rebecca didn’t believe me that there was a bigger meadow, and by the time we got there she was unimpressed.
The flowers were not what I had hoped, and we weren’t clear if they were past prime or still coming. The bear grass, though, was as pretty as I have ever seen it. And anemone (Old Man on the Mountain) always delights. And there was the paintbrush at the lower meadows.
We built a cairn for our mom and headed back for the bypass loop trail that adds a bit of mileage, but different scenery as it descends in full view of Herself.
Last year I missed the bypass trail, and after asking someone coming up from wherever that portion of the PCT comes from, I hiked back a mile to the missed trail. Rebecca impressed upon me the need not to miss it this time and I watched closely, knowing now what to look for. Still, I thought we’d gone too far and we turned back before we headed down another slope we’d have to come back up, if indeed we’d gone too far. Finding another PCT hiker at rest, we learned we hadn’t gone far enough, and hiked back where we came from, finding it this time, looking exactly as I remembered it.
We thought we would never get back to the car. The bugs weren’t bad up in the Flat, but picked up briefly when we returned to the forest. A beer at Base Camp Grill in Ashford was screaming our names! And the Grill closes at 8. I would have hurt someone if we missed it, and there was a chance. There was still the 12 or whatever miles of washboard road before we got to the 25 miles of winding road between Packwood and Ashford. And we weren’t down the trail yet. (I discovered the next morning the water bladder in my camel back was empty except for what was in the hose.)
Suddenly, as we walked in exhausted silence, there was a loud scuffling around a curve in the trail ahead. We stopped dead. What the hell was that? I knew what it was. There was only one thing it could be, and I raised my bear whistle to my lips. But it had no interest in meeting up with us, so I didn’t blow it. Black bear. One. We hoped. We started singing, “Valderie, valdera…” loudly as it crashed up the hillside as fast as it could go through the bushes and over fallen logs.
“Well, that was exciting,” I said, when the incident seemed good and truly over. We walked on clicking our poles against rocks and roots just in case.
Farther down the trail, we found tiny wild huckleberries. How had we missed them going up? How did the bear miss them? We picked some, until the flies found us, and the beer stepped up its call, tick tock.
Never have either of us been so glad to see a parking lot. Why the heck are trails longer on the return? We reached the Grill at 7:30. I don’t think Rebecca will ever hike with me again.
Last summer I thought I would do this trail often. (You can read about the first time here.) It was like Paradise without the crowds and flip flops. Now I think I’ve done if for the last time. Maybe I should stick with once per hike; except for Paradise, it will always be my favorite, crowds or not. I’m getting older, and there is still so much to see.
I guess if you try to go home again, you have to know it will be different.
Dateline: August 15, 2017
Snowgrass Flat, Gifford Pinchot NF, Goat Rocks
8.2 miles, + the added loop and my mistake
It was not an auspicious start to the day, I overslept—a rare occurrence. I didn’t wake up until the time I had hoped to leave the house. I carried written directions this time, not relying on memory, like I did when I went to Mowich Lake several weeks ago and ran down my car battery while I tried to figure out where I needed to be.
What I forgot was the WTA (Washington Trails Association) assumes everyone is coming from Seattle, and the inconspicuous sign I wasn’t yet looking for to Forest Service Road #21, was a right turn before Packwood, not a left turn beyond Packwood. Ten miles past the turn, while waiting at the beginning of the line for the pilot truck to take traffic past road construction, clock ticking and knowing this was good and truly not right, I realized I had a Gifford Pinchot map in the car door. That’s when I remembered I wasn’t coming from Seattle. I hate it when part of the adventure is my own stupidity.
I turned around in the La Wis Wis Campground entrance, which fortunately was right beside me, before having to pass the road construction and wait in line again. A victory.
The 15.5 miles of gravel FS road (with a stretch of serious washboard, but no potholes) took 45 minutes. I was at the trailhead at 10, an hour and a half past when I wanted to be there. The ambrosia alpine scent began right at the parking lot. It’s a smell that could make a person pass out, and it drove away any lingering disgust with myself.
The first hour through the beautiful forest was virtually, stunningly flat, with a few low grade downs that would be ups on the return. I chose this trail partly because at 8 miles, it wasn’t the 14 Indian Henry’s was. I wasn’t ready for that much again so soon. I didn’t expect it to be easy, though.
It started up, then, but never did get particularly difficult. Indian Henry’s is my comparison now; this was a piece of cake. And there were a few huckleberries to sweeten the climb! Also water features that are always a distraction. And glimpses of mountain peaks.
Climbing to these “parks” is like the heroes’ journey, the prescripted writing of novels and movies. The trail starts getting closer to the crowns of the trees and there are glimpses of the sky opening up beyond them. Your heart quickens for the climax; then nope, not yet. Then anticipation builds again toward the climax; and again, not yet.
Then, finally, the trail breaks out of the curtain of trees and stretched out ahead is the glorious open-meadow vista, the curve of the azure sky, the horizon of mountains, the flowers. And you want to fall to your knees, toss back your head, throw out your arms, and sigh or shout, sing or whisper: thank you, thank you, thank you.
I guess that sounds like sex. But I have more experience with the heroes’ journey than I do with sex. (Speaking of sex, did you know grasshoppers can hop while mating? Awkward.)
There were an unusual number of hikers at the top who were likely using their Senior Access passes on this glorious day. It was nice to see “my people” there. I even spoke to some.
In spite of the rigors of the road to get here, Snowgrass Flat is the most popular hike in the Gifford Pinchot. A note on the kiosk at the trailhead warns not to be surprised if there were 100 people at the flat. There weren’t that many on a weekday, still there were more than I usually see anywhere other than Paradise.
I knew many of the cars in the full parking area were backpackers. There are a plethora of campsites scattered about the meadows and in the trees, and it’s part of a network of trails, including the Pacific Crest. This is a national forest, not a national park. Although it is well cared for, the rules of use are less stringent. I even thought it possible I could manage to pack into here myself. The thought of watching the sun set and the sun rise in this place made my heart leap up. A personal questing time, perhaps. Probably won’t happen, but a girl can dream. I feel strong.
One of the (backpacking) elders I spoke with suggested I take the loop back. It’s two sides of a small triangle out of the meadow that follows the PCT for a ways then loops back via Trail 97 to Trail 96 (Snowgrass). I had seen that on the kiosk map and decided NOT to do it, given my late start. I confess I had in the back of my mind, if I got back to Packwood early enough, I could return home via Ashford and the Base Camp Grill.
Temptation overcame judgement; I decided what the heck, I would do it. But I wasn’t ready to head back yet. I walked on through the meadow on the PCT to a cairn on a small patch of dirt, and stood glorying in the vista. I gazed, further tempted, at the green hill beyond me, wanting to know with all my heart what could be seen beyond it. Possibly Mt. Adams and Mt. Baker, maybe even Mt. Hood, though it was a little hazy low on the horizon. The man who urged me to take the loop said the highest Washington point on the PCT is somewhere just over there.
But if I was returning by an unfamiliar route, I best not. I built my own wobbly cairn (falling as I snapped the shot) instead, took one more wistful look at the hill, and started back down the trail. I would be here again. I could save it for another day.
I met two women of my age or so coming up from the way I was headed. “It’s beautiful,” they said. Affirmation.
I watched a couple pikas playing in a talus field, trying and failing to get a good photo before they scampered off. And I missed the intersection with Trail 97. I thought it seemed too far, and it was getting late. I was a teeny bit anxious. Finally I knew it couldn’t possibly be right. I asked the next hikers I met. Yep, missed it. Maybe 3/4 of a mile back. The signs up here, unlike national parks, are mostly nailed on trees. This one was on the back of one, from the direction I’d come. Also they don’t have miles on them. And there are a lot of unmarked trails, that might not be trails.
I came to a river crossing, on logs and stones. The sign sorta sign said to cross it. It was nearly 4:00 now, and getting dark and shadowy in the trees. I met someone coming up. Okay, that’s a good sign. She liked my hat. I liked hers. Just as I was getting anxious again, I came to the trail intersection. Never been quite so glad to see a familiar place.
It was a beautiful loop. I’m glad I did it.
I scurried on down the trail and got to the car at 5:30. No time for the Grill. Next summer. Late July or so for the flowers.
I have picked a gloriosity of hikes this summer. Spray Park at Mowich Lake, Indian Henry’s at Longmire”—both at the height of the flowers. This one I will do again. And again. As long as I can. It’s my new Paradise, sans crowds and traffic.