Mason Lake in Early Winter

Ira Spring was a revered photographer, mountaineer, and conservationist who founded the Washington Trails Association, supplied photos for the 100 Hikes guide books, and helped establish North Cascades National Park, protected as a wilderness. Here is a trip report from an early winter hike on the Ira Spring trail to Mason Lake.

Snoqualmie Valley has the nearest mountain wilderness for Seattle residents. It sits on the west side of the Cascade Crest, meaning it’s wet and lush; timbered slopes rise up on either side of the river. The Mason Lake trail starts following an old logging road which quickly peters out into a narrow trail, ascends through the forest passing a waterfall (the last source for two miles!), then switchbacks through a broad, steep meadow. The views down the valley, and of Rainier towering over the surrounding peaks, are fantastic on a clear day. Through the spring and summer the meadow fills with lupine and Indian paintbrush, but this was a winter hike, the wildflowers were long gone, their remains covered with a dusting of snow.

The trail ascends the north wall of the Snoqualmie Valley, eventually reaching the crest of the ridge and entering the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area.

Ira Spring Trail, talus section

Talus slope under a dusting of snow

A side trail leads to the summit of nearby Bandera Mountain, but this hike instead goes to Mason Lake, which involves a short descent down the north side of the ridge, back into the forest.

Snowy boulders and Douglas fir trees

Dense west-side forest and snowy boulders

Eventually the trail crosses a small and slightly braided stream – water once again! – and comes out to an opening in the forest, Mason Lake.

Peninsula on Mason Lake

Peninsula on Mason Lake

Snowy Logs in Mason Lake

Snowy Logs rising out of Mason Lake

The trail meanders along the north shore of the lake, then splits once again, one branch heading east, and the other, which we followed, heading north toward Mount Defiance’s peak. Our branch rises up above Lake Kullakulla, which is not visible from the trail. The forest is just too thick.


Goals for 2014

I have this hanging on my wall at home, with hand-drawn boxes to check things off after I achieve them. I’ve been doing this for a few years now.

“The list” is in my living room, reminding me to get up and go have fun when I start to feel lazy. Instead of falling into the doldrums and doing the same favorite hikes again and again, this pushes me to go out and enjoy new experiences.  Maybe more importantly, as the year goes by and the page fills with checks, it makes me feel like I’ve been making good use of my time; it’s the cure to worries about squandered youth.

I read something Brendan Leonard wrote, called Make Plans, not Resolutions, and this is my way of doing that.

So what are my plans? Goals for 2014

  • Kayak on Diablo Lake
  • Kayak camp on Ross or Diablo Lake
  • Bike the North Cascades Highway
  • Bike the Columbia River Gorge
  • Bike the Skagit Tulip Flats
  • Continue to climb
  • Climb more: alpine, multi-pitch, lead
  • Backpack a Railroad Grade / Park Butte loop
  • Backpack to Stehekin (from Easy Pass? Spider Meadow?)
  • Backpack to Sahale Glacier Camp with the nice camera
  • Climb Sahale Peak
  • Get into the Picket Range (Terror Basin? Grand traverse?)
  • Hike in Mount Adams country
  • Explore the Goat Rocks
  • Play on glaciers
  • Hang out with mountain goats
  • Sleep outdoors 45+ nights

The last few are “summary goals,” if I do everything else on the list, I won’t be able to help achieving them. This leaves out a few things I know I’ll do anyway, like hike and scramble ridges in the Teanaway, which is how the goats will find me.

Most people who enjoy this blog like the photos, and I don’t want to let you down. Here are a handful of photos relating to the things I plan to do this year.

Hannegan Peak, Mount Baker Country

Hannegan Peak, Mount Baker country, one way into the Picket Range

Mountain goats!

A mountain goat in the Teanaway

Diablo Lake, and my Cervelo R3

Cycling the North Cascades Highway at Diablo Lake

Diablo Lake shows up three times on my wish list, it’s a glacial lake in the heart of the North Cascades. Later in the season the water slowly turns a beautiful shade of turquoise because of the glacier flower. This was from a very early spring ride.

Sunset from Sahale Camp

The view from Sahale Glacier Camp at sunset

Sahale Camp sits at the edge of the glacier, and is the highest camp in North Cascades National Park. It looks down on majestic peaks and glaciers, which seemed to radiate in the dark night. This was an amazing thing to see, paid for by a brutal hike. It’s something I need to photograph. Climbing the peak is something I’ve wanted to do for a couple years. Climbing in general may seem like a soft-ball goal; sometimes keeping momentum going is important.

Artist Point Snowshoe

Sunny weather + low avalanche risk = Mount Baker!

My good friend Jack and I got on the road before dawn yesterday, and drove to the Heather Meadows ski area. We stepped out of the car into the blistering cold, strapped snowshoes to our feet, and went exploring. As we hiked, the cloud cover broke up, revealing a cobalt blue sky and the warm sun. A perfect day in a winter wonderland, under the two ice giants Kulshan and Shuksan.

We hiked up steep slopes to Artist Point, powder crunching under our heavy snowshoes, looking up nervously at the slopes above us. There was no question the snow was coming down one day, but we decided it wouldn’t slide today, and continued up the trail. Still, it felt sketchy. At the top we had a brief celebration, then headed back down, arriving at the car just before sunset, and being treated to a brilliant display of alpineglow as we left.

Ski lifts and the North Cascades

Leaving the Heather Meadows ski area

Table Mountain

Table Mountain and the Heather Meadows Visitor Center, closed for the winter

Mount Shuksan

Mount Shuksan

Two snags

The North Cascades were our backdrop

Mount Shuksan

Mount Shuksan

Mount Baker

Mount Baker (aka Kulshan)

Although snow was blowing off the slopes of Baker like Everest, we experienced a perfectly windless day.

Appreciating the view

Jack taking in the view from the top

Alpineglow on Mount Shuksan

Alpineglow on Mount Shuksan

Shuksan stands high enough above sea level to catch the last rays of daylight, which have traveled through more sky than normal, removing all of the blue from the light, leaving only the red hues.

Franklin Falls (and the change of seasons)

I hiked to Franklin Falls with a friend recently; we left the trail and enjoyed some good, old fashioned creek-scrambling. This is a short and easy hike if you stick to the trail, good to take family on or introduce non-hikers to the trail, and not one I’d normally write about here. People come from the desert east of the Cascades to escape the sun, to see lush old growth cedars and Douglas-firs, and water. Normally, I prefer heading east to escape the trees and enjoy some sun.

We parked at the trailhead, which won’t be possible in a month. Cold rain poured down all around us as we stepped out of the car and put on our packs. As the day wore on the rain turned to snow, and slowly began to gather on the evergreen boughs. We hiked along the knife edge of the change of the seasons from winter to fall.

South Fork, Snoqualmie River

South Fork, Snoqualmie River

The trail starts at a dirt parking lot on a spur forest service road, and immediately enters the woods next to the river. We were happy to be able to cut right to the chase; when the winter storms come, the road will only be plowed to the last house, and the last mile and a half of the approach will require snowshoes. It won’t be long now.

Snow falling on the river

December (2012) snow falling on the river

This photo, from a snowshoe trip last winter, shows the river from one of the booth paths leading from the trail to the rocky shore.


Mount Saint Helens

My friend and I climbed Saint Helens a month ago. We had bought our permits in February, hoped against hope that the weather would hold out, and began to despair as the government shut down and closed the national parks. Mt St Helens is a “national volcanic monument,” and while there was some disagreement as to its status (Washington Trails Association announced that the mountain was closed), we were able to collect our permits, drive to the trailhead, and head up. In fact, it wound up being a sunny day, and very crowded, in part because permits were not being enforced.

We camped at Climbers’ Bivouac and set out on the trail just as dawn broke.

Mount Saint Helens from the trailhead

Fading stars and morning light on the mountain

The trail gains altitude for two miles, and ends abruptly at 4,800 feet, where the trees stop growing.

End of the trail

The end of the trail; hiking stops and climbing begins here

Mount Adams stands in the distance

See the wooden post toward the bottom of the picture, just left of center? These begin at the trail’s end; you follow them up an endless gully until you attain Monitor Ridge. These are the Forest Service’s way of preventing climbers from getting lost.

The endless gully

Gully leading to Monitor Ridge

We met Saint Helens on October 5th, which turned out to be a warm, sunny autumn day. So much so that I got a slight burn. But we saw patches of snow here and there in the woods, and it only got deeper through the ascent.

The views were spectacular, both at the trailhead, and as the climbing route broke away from the timbered slopes. My friend and I live in Seattle, and spend much of our time in the central and northern Cascades, so we were treated to see unfamiliar peaks. My friend commented that he had never seen Rainier from this angle before, and didn’t believe me when I told him I thought it was Adams. We looked out to Mounts Hood and Jefferson in Oregon.

Hood and Jefferson

Hood from the snowy flanks of Saint Helens

Washington’s southern Cascades feel like a different range; longer but lower ridges, big lakes, and individual mountains piercing the sky. The North Cascades is a sea of peaks, the south Cascades are mountains that fight their own battles without allies.

I regret to say that I didn’t reach the summit. We had made a few mistakes, which caught up with me. I skipped dinner in response to delays from Friday’s awful traffic. I skipped breakfast, too; we woke up to find frost all around us, and got moving partly to stay warm. I carried too much weight (camera, more water than I needed, a lot of extra layers). Eventually I began to run out to steam and slow down. The days are short and we agreed it was vital to get off the upper portion of the mountain before dark. So, at about the 7,000 foot level, I told my friend to go on without me. It was still a great time, and I’ll make sure not to repeat these errors on my next climb.

Now, on to camp. As I said, we spent the night at Climbers’ Bivouac to get an early start; this is a little clearing in the woods at the base of the mountain. The clearing affords a view of the heavens above.

The night sky

Clouds lit up by Portland’s and Vancouver’s light

Driving up the lower section of the mountain in the dark, toward camp, we passed another clearing and saw Portland sprawled out below us. It was a brightly lit city in the dark. Its light reflected orange in the low clouds that hung around the mountain, and made for wonderful night photos.

The Milky Way

The Milky Way

Golden Larches at Blue Lake

Larches are like the holy grail to northwestern hikers; these trees drop their needles in the fall and grow them back in June. Before they come down, the needles turn a brilliant shade of golden yellow. Sadly, the display only lasts about a week.

Brilliant golden alpine larches

Alpine Larches near Washington Pass

I camped at Diablo Lake on Saturday to see the larches, then got up the next morning and set out for Washington Pass. Blue Lake’s trailhead is just before the pass, a small flat spot in the woods beneath Liberty Bell and the Early Winters Spires. The trail goes up, up, and away (but not very steeply) through a dense forest, eventually coming into a meadow-like area where the trees are more sparse, but never really vanish. As the trees thin out, the views become more and more dramatic.

Brilliant golden alpine larches

Alpine Larches near Washington Pass

You may have noticed the snow in these pictures; there’s a reason two of the peaks in these photos are called Early Winters Spires. Yellow larch needles and snow tend to come at about the same time.

Larch needles glowing in the sun

Back-lit needles shimmering in the autumn sun

The trail ends at the lake, but a better view is waiting at the top of a little knoll beside the water.

Ice forming on the lake surface, with larches and other trees in the background

Blue Lake is beginning to freeze over

The granite peaks behind Blue Lake

Liberty Bell and the Early Winters Spires

It’s no wonder I love the North Cascades. :)

May Creek Boat Camp, Ross Lake

I tried something new (to me). My plan was to rent a kayak and paddle in to Cougar Island with my tent and sleeping bag, but when I applied for my permit I learned I’d have to share the island with a couple who was already camping there. The ranger told me “the most popular site on Ross Lake is available. It has a waterfall, and room for one.” So I found myself at May Creek Boat Camp, and because it’s farther than I planned to go, I took the water taxi.

The boat dropped me off early Thursday morning, and we arranged for it to pick me up on Saturday. As the boat left, the feeling of being alone in an immense wilderness came over me, it was a joy.

Ross Lake is a 20 mile long finger lake surrounded by big mountains, greenish blue with silt from melted glaciers. At one end is the Ross Lake Resort; this is where you can rent kayaks and canoes, and catch the water taxi. The resort it a mile from the road, a short hike that goes steeply down hill.

A creek on the way to the Ross Lake Resort.

Hiking to the Ross Lake Resort

On the way down I ran into two Border Patrol agents, one of them with a machine gun draped over his chest. This, also, is something I’d never encountered before. They said they had been doing boat patrols, since Ross Lake extends into Canada, about 15 miles away.

At the resort, I loaded my backpack into a small boat, and we left for May Creek Camp.

The ride begins

Leaving Ross Lake Resort

In the background is the Ross Lake Dam and Colonial Peak behind it.

Around a corner on the lake, and civilization disappears.

Into the Wild

Dropped off.

Alone in camp for the next three days

First order of business: find this waterfall. Turns out it’s best viewed from a boat, it sits at the bottom of a ravine. The ground is steep and wet. I got a glimpse from above and some pictures that didn’t turn out well.

May Creek running into Ross Lake

May Creek outlet to Ross Lake

The bright, vibrant greenish blue color of the water is true to life, believe it or not. The water is startlingly clear, giving a view 20+ feet below of the submerged cliffs and tree trunks. In the bottom right corner is a hint of the waterfall that graced my camp.

The first night was clear and cold, with a full moon rising from the south east.

Watching the night sky from the edge of the lake

Stargazing in camp

The next day I hiked the East Bank Trail to Devil’s Creek and then a bit south of my camp on the way back. As the day wore on, clouds came in over the lake, growing darker. I gathered fuel for the fire that would keep me warm, mostly drift wood. Eventually the rain came and I took shelter in my camp. All night it stormed, but the sun was out the next day, mixing with the clouds, letting me dry my tent’s rain fly.

Clouds remaining after the storm

Volatile weather after the storm

Eventually the boat came to pick me up, right on schedule. We went back to the edge of the lake, and I hiked out to the trailhead where my car and a clean set of clothes were waiting for me.

Small creek on the Ross Lake Resort trail

A bridge over a small creek on the Ross Lake Resort Trail


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