Saturday, August 9, 2014

The PCT: Rainy Pass to Stevens Pass

I have been wanting to do the stretch of the PCT from Rainy Pass to Stevens Pass for several years, but something has always gotten in the way of accomplishing this goal; until this year.  The weather forecast was good, snow levels looked tolerable, the local fires were not threatening, my hiking partner was available and things were stable at home.  So we packed up our hammocks and 7 days worth of food and hit the trail, starting at Rainy Pass and heading south down to Stevens Pass, approximately 120 miles away.

According to Craig's PCT Planner, this stretch is 118 miles long with nearly 20,000 feet of elevation gain, although the halfmile app on my phone claims that the elevation gain is closer to 31,000 feet.  The elevation profile at right shows just how challenging this section would be, nearly always in the midst of a long ascent or descent.  I have heard it said that this is one of the ruggedest stretches of the PCT, and I can believe it.  It is also the most remote stretch of trail other than the Sierra's in California.  But it is offset by the amazing vistas and the gorgeous displays of wildflowers that were on display throughout the section.

This stretch passes through the North Cascades National Park as well as the Glacier Peak and Henry M Jackson Wildernesses.  These three areas in a way serve to divide up this section into three distinct regions.

North Cascades National Park

This stretch of the trail starts a couple of miles south of Rainy Pass and runs to the Ranger Station at High Bridge and the road to Stehekin.  This 20 mile stretch is pretty much all downhill and is not overly scenic.  It drops from about the 4900 foot level at the pass to 1600 foot at High Bridge.  This section had a lot of woodland wildflowers blooming as well as plenty of water.  But the trail generally stays in the deep forest, providing little in the way of the vistas that would come later.  The trail is generally in pretty good condition with few windfalls or brush.

Since we left late on a Friday afternoon, we stopped for the night about 6 miles down the trail at the Hide-A-Way camp, a spot with a minimum of flat spots as well as a fire ring and a crude privy, actually just a box with a lid.  There was a young couple already there who had the only real spot along with the fire ring, which seemed unconnected to any actually camping spot.  We ended up hanging out in the trees and had a comfortable night.

The biggest surprise in the section was an encounter with a rattlesnake.  I had expected them in Oregon and California, although had only seen one.  But I was unprepared to encounter one in the North Cascades.  But encounter one we did.  We were bopping merrily along the trail a couple miles north of High Bridge when suddenly there was a 3.5 foot rattler crossing the trail just ahead of me.  Definitely the highlight of the day.

We also encountered a group of about 11 trail runners.  They had been dropped of at Rainy Pass and were heading to High Bridge and the shuttle to Stehekin.  We saw the last of them just a couple miles from the end, and many of them looked like they were regretting the decision to go on this run.  Looks like it could be a fun run through if you could arrange the logistics.

If you chose to hike this section, be sure that you have a proper permit first.  I did not and it cost me $75 when we encountered a ranger hiking up the trail toward us.  I knew I needed one but had neglected to obtain it and have no one to blame but myself, but it still hurts a bit.  One should also be aware that camping outside a designated campsite is not allowed, and there is a quota on each of the campsites, something we did not know until leaving the south end of the park.

At High Bridge was a ranger station and residence, a campground and a road that runs to Stehekin.  There is a shuttle that makes the 11 mile one way trip several times a day, with a schedule posted at the pickup point.  It is worth noting that the posted schedule is different than the most recent schedule that halfmile includes with his notes.

Glacier Peak Wilderness

The Glacier Peak Wilderness starts just a mile or two beyond the exit from the park as you follow the trail over Agnes creek and then up its south fork.  The first 20 miles after leaving High Bridge is an ascent up to Suiattle Pass, following the south fork of the Agnes creek until you cross it midway and then head up to the pass.

As long as you are in the Agnes Creek valley, the forest is thick as is the brush in places.  We spent our second night at the Swamp Creek campground, a large campground with a broken box type privy.  Leaving there Sunday morning we quickly learned that all our previous encounters with brushy trails were nothing compared with the ascent to Suiattle Pass.  Early on the brush was waist deep, and sometimes higher, and wet.  The trail in places was not even visible and you just plowed through the brush, picking out the shallow dip in the sea of green to follow instead of a trail.  You could not see any rocks in the trail, and that made it even harder.

After fording Agnes Creek we started to climb in earnest, and in places the brush became even worse, although dry by this time.  Shoulder high brush that has completely overwhelmed a rocky and ascending trail is not easy to plough through.  With care it was easy to follow where the trail went, but frequently impossible to see the actual trail, requiring great care when planting your feet.

But finally we came out into the open and were able to start enjoying some of the vistas.  It was a pretty country with lots of mountains to see, some patches of snow and quite a few wildflowers popping up.  We also went through an area with lots of windfalls and a broken, although still usable, bridge, where the trail was a bit hard to follow.  We enjoyed an extended lunch sitting on a big rock and just enjoying the solitude and the beauty around us.

Shortly after topping Suiattle Pass the trail drops back into the trees, but you do start to finally get an occasional peek at Glacier Peak to the southwest of us.  We ascended the trail for a few miles to the Miners Creek camp and set up for the night, tired, but happy to have conquered the first pass and gotten a sight at what was to come.

Monday morning we were up early and heading down to the Suiattle River where we opted to take the shortcut across the log and the old trail, cutting off about 4.5 miles from the route that crosses the new bridge.  We found the log easily enough and scooted across on our bottoms and then followed the cairns and footprints across the rivers floodplain to the wooded hillside.  We lost the trail there and finally plunged into the thicket at the edge and eventually found the trail 100 yards or so into the forest and up the hillside.  The old trail has not been maintained in several years, and has literally hundreds of windfalls across the trail.  But the trail was easy to follow, and windfalls mostly easy to get around.  At the end of the trail was another washed out bridge and search for a log to cross and within 2 hours of leaving the main trail we were back on it.

Once back on the main trail, it climbs steadily up Vista Ridge through the trees until around the 5000 foot level and then breaks out into some of the prettiest meadows I could ever remember seeing.  Progress for me slowed to a crawl as I gawked at the flowers as well as the vistas to the north.  The trail continues to climb for another 1000 feet through the meadows and at some point we simply stopped in the middle of the trail, flopped down and had lunch.  If the ascent up Vista Ridge was a delight, the descent was a nightmare.  The trail was steep and narrow, the brush was thick in places, and it seemed to go on forever, and it probably did not help that I was worn out.  At one point the trail made a least 10-12 long switchbacks across a massive bed of Bracken Fern and False Hellebore that was waist to chest high, completely hiding the trail.  I was starting to think it would never end by the time we finally got back into the forest for a while.

Once we finally hit the bottom at Milk Creek, where we had hoped to camp, we found no easy access to the water, nor suitable place to hang, so up the other side we started.  Fortunately we did not have to ascend far before finding a small grove of trees on somewhat level ground.  Not sure if a ground dweller would have found any place to lay anywhere around there.

Tuesday morning we were again up early and ascending toward Fire Creek Pass.  We had heard from a number of northbound hikers that this pass was where most of the snow was.  Some did not think it too difficult, while others thought is somewhat dicey, especially without at least microspikes, something we didn't have.  This was another long ascent, but it was a bit more scenic early on.  We stopped at frozen over Mica Lake for an extended breakfast.  While there I met a couple of thru hikers than I had seen in southern California in April.

From there we charged on up to the pass, and there was more snow here than anywhere else, but it was still patchy and the trail was easy to follow.  The only tricky spot was right below the pass itself where there was a pretty steep but very short section of snow with a long runout below.  But with a little care we were soon over than and on top.  There was little in the way of flowers on top, but the views were pretty majestic.

Shortly after starting down I ran into Early Bird and Squirrel, two of the group I had hiked with from the Mexican border.  It was quite a surprise to see them again and really made my day.  South of the pass the trail meanders around several bowls, climbing and ascend 500-700 foot several times before finally heading down the Kennedy Ridge down into the White Chuck River Valley, although we never got within sight of the river.  Crossing the Kennedy Creek was interesting.  It had a big log with a handrail on either side, but the log was broken in the middle and had fallen down into the creek.  Fortunately it was stable and the top of the log was above water so we were able to easily get across.

We spent a pleasant night at Baekos Creek and met Patrick, another of those I had hiked with in southern California earlier.  He came into camp just as I was getting into my hammock for the night.

Wednesday morning the weather has started to change and was overcast when we started out.  Today was the climb into Red Pass, the high point on this section of the trail.  Unfortunately by the time we had broken out into the clear, we couldn't see more than 100 yards ahead because of the low clouds.  The trail was traversing through meadows with an abundance of shooting stars.  I had never seen more than a handful of them together anyplace before, so it was a delight to see hundreds of them along the trail.

The transformation when cresting the pass was amazing.  To the north visibility was zilch.  To the south we could see all the way to Mt Rainier.  There was still some patchy clouds but they eventually cleared and the afternoon was clear.  The wildflowers on Vista Ridge had been wonderful.  The displays between Red Pass and Dishpan Gap were simply amazing.  Pictures I am capable of taking just would not do them justice.  Whole hillsides were aflame with color from a wide array of different flowers.  That 3 or 4 mile stretch is now my favorite part of the PCT; and the vistas were just an added bonus.

Henry M Jackson Wilderness

Between Indian Pass and Dishpan Gap the trail leaves the Glacier Peak Wilderness and enters the Henry M Jackson Wilderness.  The trail here seemed to be less scenic with fewer flowers and less dramatic swings between high and low.  In its own right it is an inviting section of trail, but after the previous few days it was not as awe inspiring as it might have been for northbounders.

We had thought to stop at Lake Sally Ann for the night, but it was still early when we got there and a bit exposed so we opted to continue on a while after a long break at this picturesque lake.  While we were loafing along side the river a solo southbounder passed though with little comment.  Later we discovered it was probably Scott Williamson on yet another thru-hike.

We ended up at Pass Creek for the night with three other hikers, all heading north and hoping to finish their conquest of the PCT after 2 years for a couple of them and 10 years for the third.

Because of the longer than expected previous day, Thursday was to be a short day.  We were up early and headed to the last high point of the trail, Grizzly Peak.  Before getting there we passed a young man heading north with only a tiny backpack, little more than a standard camelback.  He said he was a speed hiker as he raced by.  We found out the next day that he was probably Joe McConaughy, attempting to set a supported speed record for the PCT.  Interesting that in two days we had seen a man likely attempting to set a southbound unsupported record and another trying to set a record for a supported northbound traverse.

We stopped for breakfast on a shoulder of Grizzly Peak in the middle of what was to be our last meadow, with a view to the north of what was to be our last look at Glacier Peak.  After breakfast we went on to Janus Lake and got set up early.  Janus Lake is pretty, but is shallow and seems to be in the process of slowly turning into a meadow.  I attempted to go swimming, but 50 yards out the water was still little more than waist deep, with muck midway up my calves.  So I just cleaned up as best as I could and waded back, trying to avoid the muck I had stirred up as much as possible.  The bulk of the afternoon was spent chillin around camp and made an early night of it.

Friday was a 10 mile jaunt through the trees with only a view of picturesque Lake Valhalla to offer relief from the forest tunnel.  A few miles from Stevens Pass we started to glimpse the highway and hear the cars roaring down it.  And soon enough we were at the lodge and waiting for a ride home.  A stop at the Baring Cafe for burgers and a trip across the street to say hi to the Dinsmores and then it was time to go home.

While this was one of my longest unsupported trips, and was physically very demanding, it was very rewarding.  The sweeping views of the North Cascades, the stunning wildflower displays, and the opportunity to reconnect with friends from earlier on the trail made this a trip to remember.

At the trailhead on Rainy Pass, rearing to go.

Just down the trail comes the first obstacle.  At a fork in the trail we take the wrong fork and come to this bridge.  We opted to go back and take the other fork and walk across the log.

This suspension bridge was a lot of fun.  Without the handrail you would likely not make it across.  Lots of fun.

Recovered from the shock at seeing a rattlesnake in time to get his picture before it slithered into the bushes.

Don't guess we'll camp here for the night.


Guess where the trail goes.  It can sometimes be a challenge to find it when the brush is chest high and encroached on the trail.

A small sample of the profuse wildflowers

This steep rock face had a stream flowing down it.  Pretty cool!

One of the bowls up near Suiattle Pass

The weather is not always kind to bridges in the high country.

There is water everywhere, including flowing down the trail.

Traversing across a talus field.

First look at Glacier Peak from just below Suiattle Pass.

Side view of the log across the Suiattle River

From up on the bank looking down on the log.

Demonstrating proper technique for crossing a log over a raging river.

A 6 foot diameter windfall that you get to crawl under.  So much fun :)

A trail being overtaken by ferns.

Vista Ridge is covered with fields of False Hellebore and other flowers

The view from part way up Vista Ridge

Another view of Glacier Peak

Set up for the night just above Milk Creek

Mica Lake.  No swimming today.

Looking up toward Fire Creek Pass.  The pass is just to the right of the picture and not quite as much snow.

Looking back down at the ascent to Fire Creek Pass

Early Bird, Eeyore and Squirrel

This notch plunged nearly straight down.  Could make for an exciting glissade in the snow.

Yet another picture of Glacier Peak.

Looking down the White Chuck Valley

Look closely at this log across the Kennedy Creek.  

This waterfall across the way was one of the last things we saw on the way up to Red Pass before the clouds socked us in.

The north face of Red Pass had an abundance of Shooting Stars.  More than I have seen in my whole life.

Mt Rainier as seen from Red Pass.

This cloud is blowing across the ridge between Red and White Passes

A little bowl of flowers on the traverse between Red and White Pass

One of the local gardeners taking a break.

Sometimes the trail tread is 2 feet or more below ground level as you walk through a meadow.

Fires have closed most of the trails to the east of the PCT in the Wenatchee Forest.

Lake Sally Ann.  Easily the prettiest lake we passed close to.  But a bit high and exposed so we went on.

Looks kind of like a ships brow laying on the trail.  I assume there was a big erosion problem here.

Standing nearly atop Grizzly Peak with Glacier Peak in the distance.

Janus Lake, a soon to be meadow.

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