Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Washington

Mountains of Summer

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Tahoma dominates the skyline as seen from a ridge above Spray Park in the northwest corner of Mt. Rainier National Park. The boggy area in the lower right was filled with splintered tree trunks, likely the results of a good-sized avalanche this past winter. 

As temperatures and cloud covers takes a decidedly fall-like turn here in central Washington, I’ve been looking back on photos from a whirlwind summer. While we were on the road for a good portion of the summer, we were able to make time for a few brief excursions to our “backyard” mountains: Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and the Goat Rocks. Here are some of my favorite images from those trips:

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Traversing the Nisqually Glacier on the south side of Mt. Rainier in early summer. I had the opportunity to take a basic mountaineering course this past spring, which culminated in a beautiful day on the ice in mid-June. A great way to kick-off the summer! 

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A view of Mt. Rainier from upper Spray Park, framed by Echo Rock (left) and Observation Rock (right).

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A lone glacial meltwater pool on the slopes of Mt. Rainier.

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Sunset light on the summit of Mt. Rainier, as seen from the Spray Park Trail.

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Ives Peak in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, flanked by clouds rolling in from the west and a sky made pale-orange by abundant wildfire smoke. 

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We spent a mostly cloudy and damp evening camped on Bear Creek Mountain in the Goat Rocks Wilderness. Every 15 minutes or so, there would be a momentary gap in the low clouds passing over the peak, allowing fleeting glimpses toward the west. Here, the outline of Mt. Rainier is barely visible through the clouds at left. 

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Mt. Adams at sunset as seen from the burn scar of the 2015 Cougar Creek Fire. A small cap cloud hovers over the summit. 

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The Big Dipper over Mt. Adams.


More Spring Wildflowers (this time with spines!)

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A clump of hedgehog cacti (Pediocactus nigrispinus) blooming in the deserts of central Washington

One of our favorite times of year when living in southern Utah was late spring, when the desert would come alive with a wide variety of vibrantly colored cactus blossoms (which were soon followed by delicious fruits that made superb sauces, beer, and margaritas!) Central Washington is a bit lacking in the cacti-department, but we do actually have a few species that can put on a springtime show if you know where to look. 

The most widespread species is the Columbia Prickly Pear (Opuntia columbiana), however I’ve yet to see any flowers. I am beginning to suspect that this species blooms only in certain years with the proper moisture conditions, though I haven’t been able to confirm this. 

Another species, a variety of hedgehog cactus (Pediocactus nigrispinus), is harder to find, but quite reminiscent of the stout barrel cacti of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Once more common in central Washington, Pediocactus nigrispinus has sadly been the target of illegal collecting and poaching, reducing its numbers to the point that it is now a threatened species here in Washington. We’ve run across patches of this cactus on two recent hikes, and the second time we were delighted to find many of the buds in bloom. This little cactus, robust but generally no more than a few inches high, has electric-pink flowers that really stand out, even when surrounded by tons of other spring flowers on the sagebrush steppe.  

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A hedgehog cactus (Pediocactus nigrispinus) blooming in the deserts of central Washington

And for good measure, a few other flowers from recent excursions:

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Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sp.) flowers in the Yakima River Canyon of central Washington. 

 

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Low-growing lupine (Lupinus sp.) in the Yakima River Canyon of central Washington. 

 

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Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sp.) flowers at Steamboat Rock State Park in central Washington. 

Tips on identifying specific balsamroot or lupine species are welcome! There seem to be dozens of different varieties out here, but I sure as heck can’t tell them apart…


Throwback Thursday: Glacier Peak

A tall mountain peak is just visible above clouds, with green meadows and forests belows.
A tall mountain peak is just visible above clouds, with green meadows and forests belows.

Glacier Peak…the top of it at least. This was about the most we saw of it on our three-day trip. 

While we wait for the snows to melt once again, time for another flashback to 2020. I realize that phrase likely strikes fear in the hearts of most, so feel free to pretend these photos are from some other year. While it was a rough year in many ways, the wilderness was just as spectacular as ever!

For a while last summer, our goal was to camp in the shadow of every active Cascade Range stratovolcano in Washington and Oregon. We ended up getting to 8/10, but late season plans for Mt. Baker and Mt. Jefferson ended up being derailed by fires, weather, or both. In total we camped 28 nights and hiked/backpacked over 250 miles in our COVID-safe exploration of the Cascades last summer. To minimize contact with others (and to save money), we eschewed developed campgrounds in favor of dispersed camping. Aside from backpacking permits, we paid for accommodations just once the entire summer, at a five-site Forest Service “campground” on the north side of Mt. Hood that we ended up having all to ourselves for the night.

One of our most memorable excursions was a quick two-night backpacking trip to the Glacier Peak and Henry Jackson Wilderness areas in north-central Washington.

Sunrise light illuminates rocks in an alpine lake basin.

Early morning light at a campsite along the Pacific Crest Trail in the Henry Jackson Wilderness Area of central Washington

Of all the active volcanoes in the Cascade Range, Glacier Peak is by far the most difficult to glimpse up close. Tucked away in the north Cascades, reaching the vicinity of the Glacier Peak edifice requires a hike of at least 10-12 miles, making a backpacking trip really the only way to truly experience the mountain. For us, it was a ~35 mile, 3-day, 2-night trip beginning from the valley of the Little Wenatchee River. While were able to get quite close to the mountain, this was (amazingly) the only trip of the summer where the weather didn’t really cooperate with our desire to see the mountain in whose shadow we were camping. We got a handful of summit glimpses through breaks in the clouds, but Glacier Peak was obscured for the majority of our trip.

The summit of a glacier clad peak is visible through a break in the clouds

Tantalizing glimpses of Glacier Peak through the low clouds. 

A tall mountain peak is just visible above clouds, with green meadows and forests belows.

A fleeting view of the glacier-clad (not surprisingly) summit of Glacier Peak. 

A variety of wildflowers on a ridge looking down into the valley of the Little Wenatchee River.

Looking down the Little Wenatchee River valley with some late season paintbrush providing a splash of color. 

A hiker stands atop a ridge looking out onto grassy meadows and mountains

The view from Kodak Peak in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Glacier peak is behind those clouds somewhere! 

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A marmot enjoys the view from Kodak Peak.

Despite the lack of peak views, the rugged, high altitude terrain was stunning and while we were a little too late for peak wildflower season, there were still lots of blooms covering the slopes:

A trio of yellow flowers with brown spots against a blue sky

Tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington

The most memorable elements of the trip came on Day 3. After a COLD morning and a close brush with hypothermia, we decided (based largely on consulting with other hikers) to take a slightly longer, but less steep, route back to the car. Our ascent two days earlier had been short, steep, and rocky, and we weren’t thrilled about the idea of descending the same trail with heavy packs. Plus an alternate trail back to the car would result in a loop and who doesn’t love a good loop? According to maps and other hikers, our descent would be about 8-9 miles, instead of the six miles we had come up. Despite the modest mileage, it ended up being quite the slog. I’ve done enough hiking and backpacking that I normally feel pretty confident estimating mileage, and that descent sure felt like a LOT more than 9 miles. The trail was in decent shape, save for crossing a series of avalanche chutes choked with head high brush. Someone had kindly taken a machete to some, but not others. By the time we got back to the car, I was spent to put it mildly. I honestly can’t ever remember being so totally wiped out after a hike in my life.

Thankfully there was a bag of Chex mix waiting for me at the car. A few moments after diving in, I realized that the container it had been in was filled with mice droppings…and we soon noticed that the rest of the car was as well. Yum!