Denali National Park is so big, the bus ride from the visitor’s center to the end of the road, which is not even at the far end of the park, is over 90 miles. Denise and I had only one day to see what we could, and the park entrance is over a two hour drive from Talkeetna. That doesn’t count our requisite random mountain photo stops. Denali dominates the landscape much of the way, but beyond that, there were countless lesser peaks, some glacier draped, some craggy, some forested. The entirety of these peaks, these wild areas, borders on overwhelming. It is good to know that such wilderness still exists when development threatens it in so many other places.
At the visitor center, we asked a few questions, used the plumbing, saw some exhibits, then headed toward a spot I’d already considered based on a tip from my sister Sarah. She and my niece had been in the park a few months earlier, and they had love the Savage Alpine Trail, a dozen miles into the park. Good enough for me!
The Savage Alpine Trail is a point to point hike with a car or bus shuttle in between. We opted for the closer beginning because we found parking there and heard it could be tight at the far end. The trail climbed casually through a scrubby forest above a creek, with views popping out here and there. Eventually we started climbing the side of a ridge, and views became far reaching in short order. We passed other hikers, and they passed us back a few times until the trail began climbing in earnest, switchbacking above the treeline into a world dotted with rocks and various ground cover. Denise was the one pushing the pace. I was almost giddy with excitement to hike in such terrain. I love open alpine ecosystems.
Descending hikers told us there were Dall sheep hanging out near the trail above us. It would be our first large Alaskan mammal sighting. We rounded a sort of promontory and got stunning views of the broad ridge above us, but more importantly, to the Alaska Range in the other direction. We were probably fifty miles from Denali, and range after range were in front of it. They could not hide the massive peak’s majesty. I geeked out on the terrain right here, on the shoulder of a minor peak, only a two mile hike from the road. Then we turns up hill and saw the sheep. They were lying in repose on a rocky crest above the trail, seemingly at ease with hikers nearby. Awesome.
The trail descends a bowl in an arc, then angles toward a rocky spur. It was fun terrain that got challenging on that spur, where we navigated among small crags and descended steep rock steps. No casual switchbacks here. It was an entirely different trail than the one we’d casually climbed. It made me wonder if traversing the route the other direction was more popular and easier on middle aged knees. There certainly seemed to be more hikers at this end. The snowy high peaks of the Alaska Range seemed to tease us in the distance. At the same time, the farther we descended, the more we could see of the shining Savage River. The final half mile took longer than expected, but the views were always there, in every direction.
At the bottom of our descent, I wandered along the Savage River while we waited for the shuttle bus. This was a fantastic introduction to Denali National Park. Certain spots and certain views reminded me of places I’d seen in Colorado or California, but ultimately, Alaska is always its own place. The scale is too grand to compare to anywhere else in the U.S. I hope I’ll be back for more. For now, it was beer thirty, and then we would move on to other Alaskan adventures.
I’ve climbed mountains in the Rockies, walked in temperate rainforests, scrambled in the Sonorans, and ambled across eastern wildflower meadows, but Dungeness Spit might be one of the most unique spots for a hike I’ve encountered. Situated on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, the spit bends like a fishing rod into the Strait of Juan de Fuca as it reaches out to shake hands with Puget Sound.
I’d read that the spit was a nice place to visit, so when my mom visited from Virginia, I put it on our itinerary. I didn’t realize that I’d actually want more time to explore Dungeness Spit. A flat trail stretches along the top of a long bluff, accessible from a few different points. There were great views of the strait. At one point I did my best Sarah Palin impersonation. If not Russia, I could see, in fact, see Canada from the bluff. At the east end of the bluff, a trail heads through forest to the base of the spit itself. There are a few interpretive signs on viewing platforms, but I wanted to get down there. I just checked out the beginning of the driftwood-strewn, wave-lapped spit, which extends over five miles into the water, where a persistent sand hiker will find a lighthouse. I already want to return. Happy hiking.
A few cracked pavement curves past an hour from Portland, hikers can find an easy trail meandering up one of the prettiest creek drainages in the Cascades. If you aren’t satisfied with tiny beaches along Siouxon Creek, wait a tick. A gorgeous emerald pool will be coming soon. If that isn’t enough, there are a handful of waterfalls scattered through the lush forest. Some of the campsites look rather idyllic, too.
I’d been meaning to visit this area for while, and I finally got around to it on Saturday after taking care of some business. The late start meant no peak climbs, but there was a lollipop style loop that seemed perfect for the old three hour tour. When I arrived at the trailhead, I was slightly surprised to see dozens of vehicles. The weather was nice on Saturday, so it should have been no surprise, but I’d barely heard of the place. That’s probably my Oregon bias. Yes, Washington, I love you, too.
The trail descends briefly in a typical Cascadian forest: lots of big and a thorough blanket of green at boot height in ferns, oxalis, and wild species of moss. It is the proximity to water and the loveliness of the stream itelf which earns its popularity. The trail crosses lovely tributaries with small cascades splitting mossy ledges, then meanders through pretty forests. I kept sneaking peeks at the stream, whose green tinted pool was stunning. That color!
After passing a few campsites as well as a couple side trails, I reached Chinook Falls, a 50 food plunge into a big pool flanked by a cliff. I had to decide if I wanted to continue on a loop which would involve a serious stream crossing or return the way I’d come. After reveling in the spot for a few minutes, I realized the decision was pretty easy. I will always opt for new territory and a taste of adventure, even if that term has become relative as I’ve hit middle age. Not exactly
So it was that I came to the icy ford below the side trail toward Wildcat Falls. Sullivan’s guidebook suggested the ford would be little more than a rock hop in summer, but dangerous in winter. This was in the middle. I would be getting wet. Off came the boots, up rolled the pant cuffs. Then I found a spot that seemed feasible. The water was almost two feet deep in spots, and it was as cold as I could remember wading through since I was a young buck. As I moved, careful not to stumble, I could feel my circulation slowing. Every year, people drown on hot summer days because, once immersed in cold water, their bodies shunt blood to the torso rather than the limbs. In this instance, the cold only affected my lower legs, and I was upright. I kept moving, careful not to stumble, and I made it to the far bank in a couple minutes.
As in many outdoor endeavors, the most interesting part often comes when we push the limits just a touch. Finding the balance point between ability, conditions, and desire can sometimes be tricky. Along the bank of Siouxon Creek, that balance point was relatively simple. I dried my feet off, laced up my old boots, and walked out a much more deserted path. I did pass a number of campers, but only one other group seemed to be hiking in. This was a great moderate hike totaling about eight miles. I would gladly return, but probably during the week. I might have to do that this summer to check out Wildcat Falls, which I missed.
Side note: as I write, my stepson Casey and his girlfriend Maya should have arrived in Yosemite for an early backpacking trip. I am so jealous, and so glad they find value in outdoor adventures. I am sure they are going to have a blast with their friends. Happy and safe hiking, everyone.
I have walked dozens of pieces of the Pacific Crest Trail, but it seems funny that I missed a nearby section until yesterday. It would have been one of the last legs which Cheryl Strayed hiked on her now famous PCT adventure. I started at the Herman Creek trailhead, where I have been a couple times (the starting point for an Indian Point hike), and once I veered off onto the bridge trail, I realized I had walked this route in reverse twenty years ago. I had gone on a quick backpacking trip over Green Point Mountain and across to Benson Plateau. I had completed a twenty five mile loop by descending steeply from the plateau to this point. The creek crossing is lovely. Not a soul in sight. Serenity now. It would not have been difficult to stay there for much longer, listening to the babbling brook.
The trail climbs mostly gradually, but really meanders through the changing forest towards the PCT. The trail junction there is punctuated by a fantastic splintered stump. The walking was still casual, and still I had seen nobody since the initial junction on the Herman Creek Trail. It was midweek, but the weather was absolutely perfect, so I was surprised at the solitude, but longtime readers will know I’m not complaining. Heading north on the PCT, the trail soon crosses a rockslide. Cliffs loom high above the trail. The sun is barely hitting the trail due to the massive walls above.
After a second, wider rockslide, the trail ducks back into the trees, turns a corner, and then I could hear the distant whispers of a stream. The noise soon increased. I looked up at the stream crossing. The waterfall is partially hidden by some maples, so I scrambled uphill for an improved view. Pacific Crest Falls is a lovely two step falls which few people probably see, and if you are headed north, it could be easy to miss, but it’s worth the hike.
Making the trip even better, a couple hundred yards down the trail, there is a series of odd rocky piles known as the Herman Creek Pinnacles. Their fractured structure is fascinating, and I found decent views after scrambling up a rocky bump to the west, taking in the Columbia River, Washington foothills, even the white wall of a distant Mount Adams.
This was a fascinating area to explore, from the water features to the incredibly lush flora to the rocks. The hike is probably less than five miles round trip, so it’s an easy half day venture, and one well worth the drive. It’s also easy to connect with other short waterfall walks or explorations of Cascade Locks and Hood River. Enjoy.
On any weekend with good weather, Cannon Beach tends to be swarmed by tourists, yet the area scenery is always peaceful and soothing. The ocean itself feels like an endless well of calm and inspiration. I enjoy staring at the shifting swells and breaking waves, the combination of scenery and the audible whish and splash of waves and the calls of seabirds making a truly unique spectacle. Westward lies a range of possibilities. Back in reality, I wanted to take a few modest walks right there, on the sand and in the forest. The weather even cooperated surprising for the Oregon Coast in early spring.
We rented a cottage near the beach and a quick walk showed an awesome sunset on display. Inhale that marine air! The next day, after hanging out with family for a few hours, I wanted to find a nearby hike and avoid repeating earlier endeavors. Once again, the internet was my friend. A quick search found a state park I didn’t know.
Multiple sites refer to Haystack Hill State Park, but I find no mention of it on the Oregon State Parks web page. Regardless, Haystack Hill is located roughly midway through Cannon Beach, climbing to a highpoint I’d previously missed. The acreage was supposedly donated to the state for preservation, and there has been no development beyond an unsigned trail which climbs the quarter mile to the top of the hill, then splits in a couple directions. I found a few unique views looking down on famous Haystack Rock. I also enjoyed some awesome trees and lush ground cover. What a great find.
There was some wind, and some walking. More wind and more walking. Did I mention wind? It was quite the day on the Cape Horn trail. Continuing in the recent vein of not letting the weather stop me, I picked one of the closest spots in the Gorge for a jaunt. I’d been atop Cape Horn before, as documented on this site, but I’d never completed the loop. Doing so became the goal for the day. Of course that was before I go out of my warm car and realized just how windy the gateway to the Columbia River Gorge was.
The temperature was probably in the high thirties or low forties, but the constant winds made the windchill well below freezing at times. Once I was on the actual trail, the views got fairly spectacular in a hurry.
I seemed to be the only human who opted to take the clockwise approach to the Cape Horn trail loop. This is a popular spot, but the lower half seems shamefully under-hiked. Finally I set out to hike this section, thanks to two underpasses and a road on which I walked without seeing vehicles for 1.3 miles, farmland beside me, and the cliffs and ridges of the Cape high above. I had stashed extra warm layers in my pack. In less than ten minutes, I had to pull out the gloves.
The topological and aesthetic surprises kept coming. I have always been of the mindset to head to high ground for the best adventure, but in this case, it was almost the opposite. The high ground on Cape Horn offers a few nice viewpoints, along with open fields, but the most unique features were on the lower section, close to the river, with up close and personal views of the cliffs from below, along with stunning Gorge views. In addition , there was more of a wilderness feeling at the lower elevations. Eventually, of course I had to start climbing. This began gradually and then started in earnest with switchbacks. I kept thinking I must be close to the highway, but it took longer than expected. I got a few nice sights in right before that with another stellar viewpoint, a small waterfall, and lovely brook.
After the trail ducks back under the highway, it starts climbing a ridge. Suddenly there is an oddly-built shack beside the trail, as if it were a homeless camp or hunters hideaway. Strange. The path continues uphill at a mild grade through attractive woods. In half a mile or so, after a significant amount of elevation has been gained, there is another spectacular viewpoint. A quartet of bundle up hikers hunkered below a gray masonry wall to avoid the vicious wind. I took in the expansive views of the Gorge behind them, snapped a couple photos, then continued walking. It was no place to dawdle. Not today.
Away from the gorge rim, the open land is gently sloping. A few homes are visible. The trail crosses a field, then hops a road and heads back into the woods. I started seeing lots of hikers and a few runners too. The numbers surprised me a little bit. Either I’m a bit wimpier than I thought, or other people are a little tougher than I thought. Both? With the exception of a quick photo op at the Fallen Tree Viewpoint, I boogied on down the trail, raising an eyebrow at runners in shorts, one of whom had music blaring from his backpack. I didn’t care for that (artificially flavored pop), but at least it warned me he was coming. All told, I hiked almost 7.5 miles, saw many stupendous views, and fully enjoyed a chilly half day in the gateway to the Columbia River Gorge.