Pacific North West – July 2021.

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Mount Rainier – Skyline Trail

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Snow-capped mountains, misty wildflower basins, ancient forests, glacial turquoise lakes … traversing avalanches and snowfields … wading through waterfalls and clambering over granite boulders in North Cascades National Park … chased out of the mountains by wildfire to the coastal Kitsap peninsula … lavender fields and Mount Olympus on the Olympic peninsula … glaciers, lupins, fat furry marmots and wild flowers at the most beautiful mountain on earth – Mount Rainier … and a potted tour through Seattle.

Our Pacific Northwest hiking vacation started in North Cascades National Park. We had rented a house in the closest gateway town to the western side of the park with the intention of having easy access to the iconic Cascade Pass hike (the very reason we were in the North Cascades at all!). A few days before arrival in Seattle, I discovered that Cascade River Road was closed indefinitely 5 miles before the access point to the trail … the best laid plans of mice and men etc. etc.

Still, if it had been open we would never have hiked Hidden Lake Trail so there was a silver lining to our cloud after all.

Our accommodations in Marblemount were quite odd – reasonably comfortable once I’d decided to ignore my OCD’s – but most definitely as close to hill-billy living as we ever want to get. When we arrived in town we took Route 20 North Cascades Highway (the scenic drive) through the mountains in order to orient ourselves for the forthcoming week. It didn’t take long to discover that our plans for the upcoming weekend (in 5 days) had run into an insurmountable problem. We were booked to spend the weekend in Winthrop at the Sun Mountain Lodge (the significantly posher end of the scale for mountain accommodations in these parts), however, the road to Winthrop was closed and the hotel was, effectively, totally inaccessible due to a large wildfire in Cedar Creek. During our orientation drive we reached the farthest point of the scenic drive at the Washington Pass Overlook where the air was thick with smoke and park rangers were busy closing the road. Since there was barely any cellphone signal back at the ranch in Marblemount we had to make emergency alternative plans sitting in a campground car park in Newhalem in the middle of the Cascades – it was the only spot for miles in either direction with a workable cellphone signal. One hotel canceled – and one substitute coastal cottage booked out on the islands in Puget Sound – and we were able to breathe a sigh of relief and recommence our vacation in the mountains.

For our first hike, we were lightweights and meandered along the Thunder Creek Trail at Colonial Creek campground. We reached the bridge over the Creek where we dug out the picnic and thanked our lucky stars that we had discovered early enough in the week that we would be homeless for the weekend before it was too late to make alternative plans.

The following day we hiked the Diablo Lake Trail up through ancient forests dripping in moss to an open ridge with glimpses of the teal green Diablo Lake way below us. The trail ends at the dam overlook which is the least attractive section of the hike. North Cascades is understandably famous for its glaciers, sparkling emerald lakes and so many hundreds of waterfalls and creeks that we lost count. Diablo Lake Trail is only 4.5 miles return with an elevation gain of a mere 800 feet – it was child’s play compared to our plans for the following day. On the road to the trailhead we saw our first and last bears of the trip – mommy bear and 3 tiny baby bears. Probably a good thing that we were still in the car since if we had startled her on the trail we might have joined the ranks of those who go missing every year in the Cascades.

Hidden Lake Trail off Cascade River Road tried quite hard to kill us at various points but it was worth every step. Even the off-roading to get from Cascade River Road to the trailhead was exhilarating enough – the rough dirt track was pitted with craters and littered with obstacles. Thankfully we had rented an off-roading competent Toyota 4Runner (with memories of the fun and games we’d enjoyed off-roading in Colorado last year still looming large). Still, the 4.5 mile steep, bouncy, rutted off-roading track was nothing compared to the physical challenges we were to face on the hiking trail itself.

The National Park Service doesn’t aim to put you at your ease when you’re about to head off into the wilderness – there were posters of missing people last seen heading out on Hidden Lake Trail. Who knows if they met sticky ends with bear or cougar encounters but, either way, it was a sobering reminder that this world belongs more to the furry, sharp-toothed creatures of the wilderness than it does to humans. The first mile uphill of the 8 mile return trail was through muddy creeks and a fir forest. When we emerged from the gloom of the forest it was into an early-morning atmospherically-misty valley where we were greeted by voracious mosquitoes the size of baby bears and a very immediately unnerving obstacle to our route up the mountain.

There had been a large avalanche and the east fork of the wide, fast-flowing Sibley Creek (which we had to cross) was littered with fallen trees, knotted tree limbs, scattered undergrowth and rocks. Frankly, I would have called it a day there and then but a young couple had caught up with us and we watched them for a minute hopping across the logs whilst we garnered some enthusiasm and planned out the least potentially catastrophic route. With no discussion whatsoever, Geoff suddenly forged ahead over a massive icy snowdrift which covered some of the debris and I had no real alternative but to follow. I was under orders “not to hang about” … no need for that advice – I wasn’t planning on it …

Once we were (surprisingly) safely on the other side of the creek we took a deep breath and stood in silent awe of the scene around us. We were surrounded by glaciers, waterfalls & creeks with myriad varieties of wildflowers (from the tiny to the huge) lining the rugged trail and blanketing the mountainsides in color. It wasn’t an easy hike up through Sibley Creek valley climbing never-ending steep switchbacks in the shadows of Mounts Baker, Sauk and the Twin Sisters. We leapt across countless streams, hop-scotched through waterfalls and clambered over giant granite boulders hanging precariously in mid-air between rocky outcrops all the while accompanied by bright displays of wildflowers. Lunch, sitting on a boulder overlooking the valley of snow-capped mountains, was worth every effort and every sweaty, dusty footstep. There was nothing but the sound of bee wings vibrating the air around us as they flitted through the pink heather at our feet. It was wonderful.

For anyone considering it, Hidden Lake Trail is roughly 8 miles return with an elevation gain of 3000 feet.

I would be remiss if I weren’t to mention the dearth of restaurants in Marblemount – similar in all ways to the dearth of our usual standard of vacation accommodations. The town of Marblemount pretty much consists of 2 gas stations, a bridge over the Cascade River and a couple of diners (which rarely sell our usual dining fare). Forewarned is forearmed, however, so we had stocked up for meals for 4 to 5 days and nights at Whole Foods in Seattle before heading into the boonies. Despite best intentions, one night we were too exhausted to stand at the stove and instead drove a 38 mile roundtrip to Annie’s Pizza which was housed in a former gas station in the town of Concrete (every bit as lovely as its name suggests). It was full of locals and, surprisingly, it was worth the one hour roundtrip drive. Other than that, in Marblemount we had the choice of Mondo … or Mondo … for our last night when (again) we couldn’t be bothered to cook. It was a peculiar cross between a Japanese restaurant and a typical American diner. Again, far better than expected.

As I mentioned, we were supposed to be heading to the eastern side of the North Cascades mountains for 3 nights over the weekend with the plan to hike Rainy Lake and Blue Lake trails from Sun Mountain Lodge but since that plan had been scuppered by the wildfire we were, instead, back on the road heading west to Seattle. Given that the emergency plans were made mere days before a sunny and beautiful weekend in the height of the summer vacation season, it was nothing short of a miracle that we found such a lovely oceanside cottage on the Kitsap Peninsula in Port Gamble. A few hours on the road and one mid-morning ferry ride from Edmonds on the mainland to Kingston on Kitsap and we were back in civilization and relative culinary paradise.

To be honest our trotters were ready for a break from the hiking boots and we were looking forward to resting our weary legs whilst contemplating the view from our balcony over Puget Sound and the surrounding islands. As it turned out it was quite a bonus long weekend in the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas after all. Lucky for me the lavender fields in Sequim (the Lavender Capital of North America) on the Olympic peninsula were in full bloom – yippee!! Not quite Provence, but beautiful all the same. There are a half dozen lavender farms at least in the town (which is itself also quite attractive) so I stuck a pin in the map and chose B and B Family Farm and the well-known (instagram famous) Jardin du Soleil (which charges $10 per person to wander through their scented fields with lots of other tourists). There is no better aromatherapy than the waft of warm pine on a mountain trail – and the warm summer air perfumed with the scent of lavender at a countryside farm. The bees were buzzing in the tens of thousands. It was deafening. I loved it.

The town of Sequim is most definitely geared towards tourists in lavender bloom season so we were in no danger of starving there nor dying from lack of half-decent caffeine (at the centrally-located Hurricane Coffee Company). We had also hit the town on market day and splurged on various locally grown fruit and veg – and an obligatory bar of lavender soap 😊

Whilst the well-preserved (but tiny) settlement of Port Gamble, with its boutique stores and historic General Store, is also a major draw for tourists since the milling town (founded in 1853) ceased operations in 1995, the excitement is over quite quickly unless you fancy kayaking in the bay, buying skeins of wool or chilling indefinitely on the terrace. It was, nonetheless, a delight to be back in civilization as far as culinary options were concerned – stand-outs were lunch on the patio at Scratch Kitchen and almost everything non-meat related produced by Butcher and Baker Provisions (which was a particularly bad find for our waistlines).

Ten miles or so south of Port Gamble we visited the kitschy town of Poulsbo founded in the 1880’s. It is named after a village in Norway (and is known in these parts as Little Norway). Norwegian was the primary language of the residents until the 1940’s, drawn as they were from various Scandinavian immigrant settlements across the midwest. Because we had been anticipating temperatures in the low 80’s in North Cascades (and into the 90’s in the plains around Winthrop) I had failed to pack any clothing which allowed for the startling drop in temperature we were experiencing out on the islands. Consequently, we had to make a detour to the REI store in Silverdale (the only place for miles catering to hikers and outdoorsy types) to buy long pants as my Floridian legs were turning blue with the cold. In Poulsbo I also added to my collection of fabulous (faux) furry hats for skiing. There was a moment (in the middle of July in Puget Sound) when I thought I might actually have to wear it to avoid frostbite to my ears from the chilly sea breeze – never mind save it for its debut in Colorado in February 😉 Poulsbo has an eclectic mix of boutique/arty stores and restaurants – we near froze but ate dinner on the trendy terrace overlooking the harbor at The Loft (which was good).

Since we’d made one too many stops at Butcher and Baker Provisions in Port Gamble we took the opportunity to stretch our legs and hike a trail at Olympic National Park. To be honest, I would have preferred driving the coast road across the north of the peninsula but the most spectacular parts of the coastline are owned by various Native American tribes and pretty much the whole northern coastline (Cape Flattery/Shi-Shi beach/Neah Bay) was closed to non-natives due to COVID-19. So, we headed up to Hurricane Ridge instead to walk the Hurricane Hill trail. Once at the top we pretty rapidly gave up fighting off the mosquitoes and massive blood-sucking horse flies and descended back to the coast. The welts from the bites we sustained up at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic were still with us 10 days later. We probably haven’t given it a fair shot but Olympic National Park didn’t immediately appeal. It was a lot less dramatic and considerably less spectacular than North Cascades. Maybe we were still awe-struck by the Hidden Lake Trail …

Not to leave any touristy stone unturned in either the Olympic or Kitsap peninsulas, we decided to throw in lunch and tend to our irritating bites at the Victorian town of Port Townsend which we liked considerably more. Lunch on the sunny patio overlooking the harbor at Doc’s Marina Grill was great. There were musicians playing on the waterfront in town, the Victorian architecture was immaculately preserved and the stores ooze eclectic bohemian charm.

Our unexpected side-trip to the coastal islands over, we stopped en route to Mount Rainier for coffee at Java and Clay on the waterfront in the exclusive (but small) tourist enclave of Gig Harbor, an old fishing village located on one of the most picturesque harbors in Washington state. The town consists almost entirely of coffee shops and a few restaurants (all with inconveniently limited opening hours) for the well-heeled tourists.

Now for the highlight of the 2-week Pacific Northwest hiking vacation – Mount Rainier National Park. Three hours southeast from the coast to Packwood (one of the gateway towns to the mountain) and light years back again in time when it comes to culinary options. Once again my research had paid off and we went well-prepared with food supplies for the week after another stop at Whole Foods.

I had booked a log cabin at Packwood Lodge which I was mildly concerned might have been ghastly. I have never (in 22 years in the USA) imagined a time when we might have taken a summer vacation in a mountain cabin (or garden shed as Geoff affectionately called it) at the side of a scruffy, dodgy-looking hotel – but needs must in COVID-world when you decide to explore the wilderness instead of enjoy the luxuries of a European city! Thankfully, it was brand-new and very comfortable – and I’m quite sure – nothing like the average cabin-based vacation in the boonies. I rather liked it. It had a corner whirlpool bath and a fake log-burning fire in a TV screen (we paid for the upgraded couple’s cabin), a small kitchen and a picnic table out front.

Utterly luxurious! 😉

We stopped twice during the week for coffee and warm straight-out-of-the-oven chocolate/almond/coconut cookies at Mountain Goat Coffee House in Packwood. Other than that we were entirely self-sufficient. The National Park Visitor Centres were closed (again due to COVID) although strangely they had opened the National Park hotels but none of the cafes/coffee shops etc.

We arrived mid-afternoon at the cabin, picked up a National Park map at the Packwood Visitor Centre and decided to orient ourselves with a drive via the Stevens Canyon Entrance towards Paradise. We made the fatal mistake of stopping at the Grove of the Patriarchs. It is usually a rule not to stop at the first viewpoint or trail in a national park because they are always over-crowded and far too easily accessible for the masses and tour groups. We remembered why we had agreed this unwritten rule within a half-mile of leaving the carpark and we should have turned back there and then. This is a mere 1.25 mile loop through the forest which took 4 times longer than it should have done because of a swinging bridge over the Chinook Creek. The bridge only allows one-way walking with only 1-2 people crossing at a time. The lines were backed up in both directions to cross the bridge – with the added bonus of the entitled few who thought it’d be a great idea to take a variety of selfies and family shots of their kids running backwards and forwards across the bouncy bridge whilst the rest of us watched on in irritation batting away bugs. We carried on our evening drive to Box Canyon Overlook to see Rainier in the late-afternoon light before turning around for the evening.

The following morning the mist was thick and the cloud was so low we could barely see a few feet ahead of us on the switchback roads (never mind the mountains we knew were towering around us) as we drove through the park on Stevens Canyon Road towards Paradise. The difference in weather from the previous afternoon couldn’t have been more stark. It wasn’t until we reached considerable altitude at Reflection Lake that we saw the sun and Mount Rainier in all of her glacier-covered glory. We had driven up through the clouds and emerged into near-paradise near Paradise 😊 The sun was shining in a crystal-clear blue sky, the temperature was perfect for hiking and we couldn’t wait to get to the Paradise Visitor Centre.

Wow. Mount Rainier is, from any angle, absolutely spectacular.

I thought we’d hike the Alta Vista trail and start off gently but once we’d started up through the lower level meadows filled with white avalanche lilies and orange tiger lilies it was obvious we’d hike the whole Skyline Trail Loop up to Panorama Point and around the mountain pass. We hiked through wildflower meadows resplendent with blue and purple lupins, fluffy oval pasqueflower seedheads, and pink and purple asters. Pale blue phlox clustered with scarlet and magenta paintbrush flowers. We were alone for much of the trail (despite its popularity) listening to the bees flitting between flowers and catching glimpses of the occasional hummingbird. The High Skyline Trail Loop is only 5.5 miles but it requires a 1700 foot elevation gain which is not impossible (even for a couple of ancient mid-50 year olds) but it certainly put us through our paces with some sections of elevation gain and rock-hopping through streams and creeks as the trail headed up into the snow above the tree line. As with almost every other hike we did in the Pacific Northwest we frequently found snow fields and unmelted snow patches blocking the trail paths completely. At my most stressed, slipping and sliding over the snow and ice, I did mention that next time I’d bring a pair of bloody skis on my summer vacation to the Pacific Northwest 😉

There were furry marmots scuttling across the rocks collecting food to fatten up before they hibernated in fall under the snow for 9 months; an inquisitive pine marten scuttled past us and chipmunks tried to steal our picnic at our private rock perch from which we could see snow-capped Mount Hood and Mount St Helens in the far distance.

At the summit of the trail it felt like we could reach out and touch the glaciers they were so close.

The Paradise Glacier side of Mt Rainier really is paradise.

Unable to better the hike on the Paradise side of the mountain, we drove up to Sunrise the following day to hike in the icy blast of Rainier’s largest glacier – Emmons. All of her glacial faces are breathtaking in beauty. The first day at Sunrise we followed the Sourdough Ridge west to Frozen Lake. The wind was howling and everyone but us was wrapped up in winter hiking gear with balaclavas, gloves and woolly hats. I managed to stagger on a little further up towards Berkeley Park leaving Geoff to defrost down in a rocky sun trap by Frozen Lake. Even with the almost overwhelming desire to see what lay over the next ridge, I couldn’t take the icy blasts dressed for summer in my hiking skirt so I retreated and we found our way back down to the shores of the emerald green waters of Shadow Lake where we refueled. The following day we returned mid-morning to Sourdough Ridge to hike east through enormous swathes of lupins to Dege Peak. This was only after we had already completed the Naches Peak Loop down in the Chinook Pass in record time. The Naches Loop Trail starts at Tipsoo Lake – it crosses rocky outcrops with wildflower meadows and passes shallow ponds – all against the backdrop of glacier-capped Rainier. It is a very easy 3.5 mile loop – chosen because it was supposed to be an easy hiking day – but with Naches Loop and the Deges Peak trail under our belts by the end of the day – we had still hiked nearly 8 miles with combined elevation gains (to say nothing of descents) of 1500 feet.

At Sunrise, the views of Emmons glacier from either direction along Sourdough Ridge are glorious. There were purple lupins, red paintbrushes, white asters – colors abounded. The final steeper ascent to Dege Peak looked as if it might be just a step too far but thankfully it was shorter than it looked and the views all around us at the summit were worth the last few steps before collapsing on a boulder for lunch.

The only downside to Mount Rainier (aside from the lack of decent restaurants for which I’m prepared to forgive her) is that there was nowhere to buy postcards for the family. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem because you can buy them at Visitor Centers – but not if they are closed due to COVID. We ransacked Packwood in search and ultimately ended up driving a 2 hour round trip for 6 postcards at Longmire General Store towards the Nisqually entrance to the park. Luckily it was a very scenic drive despite GPS sending us up a dirt track into the middle of nowhere to a locked gate 😉

It was very hard to leave Mount Rainier – we really didn’t want to go. She’s too beautiful to leave in the sunshine but our trip out west was nearly over and Seattle was our last stop for the final weekend.

We stayed in a beautiful “french country” cottage in Tacoma – yet again surrounded by the scent of lavender in the cottage garden. We weren’t particularly enamored of the Tacoma area, although Steilacoom was a tiny but attractive historic village on the water. The whole area is quite industrial – unsurprisingly since this is a massive seaport entry for the region. We booked Harbor Lights (which was OK) for dinner on the Tacoma waterfront watching harbor seals frolicking in the water against the backdrop of the port. Our last vacation day started early to avoid the crowds at Pike Place Market. If ever there was a COVID super-spreader event it’s a Saturday morning at the market when a cruise ship is in town! It wasn’t overwhelming at 9am but by 10.30am it was horrendous. Whilst we meandered through it early, without getting mown down by cruise ship escapees, it was fun and lively. The flower sellers were doing a roaring trade in elaborate bouquets and giant sunflowers. The air was thick with the scent of pollen which was a relief because the flower section is next to the fish market which can do with all the help it can get 😉 Naturally, we couldn’t leave without trying out one of the iconic Seattle coffee shops – anything but Starbucks which had an inexcusably long line snaking down the street all morning – really people???!! Storyville Coffee, in a building overlooking the market building, was worth the wait – since we had so much time to kill in line we signed up for their first-time visitor offer and received 2 free mugs – what a bonus! The vegan coconut/cashew “mylk” latte was to die for which made me happy since it was $7.50. We couldn’t take any more of the chaos at the market and escaped the crowds almost completely by driving north out of the downtown area to the trendiest part of the city – Ballard. We hung out at Gracia on Ballard Avenue for lunch and margaritas followed by the best (albeit not very vegan) ice-cream on the planet at Salt and Straw (oops). Best to avoid Ballard Avenue in the future because we followed the caramel ice-cream with warm peanut butter vegan molten chocolate cake at Hot Cakes.

We finished up (en route back to Tacoma) at the somewhat unusual Georgetown Trailer Park Mall where (if we weren’t already hitched) we could have had an emergency shotgun wedding in the only shipping container chapel in the USA 😉 Could there be anything more romantic??!

Never has 2 weeks flown by so rapidly…

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