Get October-fresh with a high-country hike
High lakes melt out late in summer but are rarely snowed under till late fall. This month might be the time to visit minus bugs and crowds — if you keep a close eye on weather.
Special to The Seattle Times
Some high-country hikes for autumn
Editor’s note: As of Wednesday, Oct. 2, the federal-government shutdown prohibited access to trails in national parks. Trails on national forest land remained open, though some forest roads could be gated. For recent trail reports and alternate suggestions, see the Washington Trails Association website: www.wta.org
Many high-country hikes in the Cascades and Olympics are open into October, depending on weather. Conditions can change rapidly, and it can snow any month of the year, so watch the forecast carefully. Some suggestions for fall hikes:
• Merritt Lake, 6 miles round-trip. From Stevens Pass, drive east 11 miles on Highway 2 to Forest Road 657. The trailhead is marked from the highway.
• Grand Lake, Olympic National Park, 7.2 miles round-trip. From Hurricane Ridge drive 7.8 miles on Obstruction Point Road (rough road, no RVs). Camping permits are required, issued through the national park office.
• Benchmark Mountain, 14.4 miles round-trip. Showcases a variety of old-growth forest, high meadows and panoramic views starting 4 miles in. From Skykomish, travel east on Hwy 2 for 1 mile and turn left on Beckler River Road (Forest Road 65). Drive 14.9 miles and turn right on Forest Road 63, then drive 4.3 miles to the trailhead.
• Upper Eagle Lake, North Cascades, 12.6 miles round-trip. Larch trees lining the lake turn a brilliant golden orange in the fall, making this one of the prettiest alpine settings this time of year. From Pateros drive north on Highway 153. Turn left onto Gold Creek Loop Road and then west on Forest Road 153. Drive 6 miles and turn left on Forest Road 4340 and continue on Forest Road 300 to the trailhead.
• Sahale Glacier, North Cascades, 12 miles round-trip. An accessible pass with grand alpine panoramas, glacier-strewn peaks and the occasional marmot. From Marblemount, drive east for 23 miles on Cascade River Road to the marked trailhead.
When you sit for long hours, it’s easy to get a chill in the mountains — even on the warmest of days. In October, this is especially true. Short days, and frigid nights make lolling around camp downright uncomfortable at times. And many high-country campsites don’t allow fires to warm your bones.
To stay comfortable, I make use of these four things:
1. In dry cold, the first thing I don is a goosedown jacket. They have a terrific warmth-to-weight ratio and compress down to almost nothing in your backpack.
2. A wool stocking hat. Yes, you look like a burglar. But keeping your head and ears warm is critical. And wool has a magical property — it will keep you warm even if it gets wet.
3. Unzip your sleeping bag. I’ve met countless campers who sit around camp complaining about the cold when they have a toasty warm blanket sitting in their tent. Sleeping bags aren’t just for sleeping!
4. When the cold reaches DEFCON 4, I use the boiled-water-in-the-Nalgene trick. Pour a liter of boiling water in your Nalgene, make sure the lid is tight, and stuff it under your jacket. It will keep you warm for hours, and it’s a great bed buddy at night.
Mosquitoes everywhere. Angry black clouds were bashing into our eyes, screaming in our ears and pouncing on exposed slivers of flesh. This is what camping at Merritt Lake is like in the summer.
With a classic alpine setting at 5,000 feet elevation, Merritt Lake is nestled on Nason Ridge, just east of Stevens Pass. It’s a postcard-perfect venue: deep blue water edging a shoreline studded with evergreens and a boulder-strewn amphitheater as backdrop.
There’s everything you’d want in a quick overnighter, except for the mosquitoes. Which is a shame because it’s hard to enjoy all that beauty when you’re fighting off fierce hordes of insects.
But fall is a different story.
By October, the air is crisp, the huckleberry bushes have turned a radiant orange and the mosquitoes have called it quits for another year.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to stop camping just because school is back in session. I first started camping in the fall when I noticed that my hiking guidebook listed some of my favorite locations as “open until October.” That’s because many high-elevation spots don’t thaw out until July, but often remain snow-free well into fall. While recent early snow was a warning that you have to be wary — and prepared — we could just as easily have a spell of sunny autumn in coming weeks that will lure you back to the hills.
In fact, now is the time of year when you can have some of the best alpine locations to yourself, so long as you’re willing to put up with short days and some chilly weather.
A season in flux
On one visit to Grand Lake, near Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, a chilling mist sent us scuttling to bed at an early hour. Earlier, our group had been huddled together gawking at the tremendous bowl of stars above.
Come morning, we awoke to discover a layer of ice coating our tents like the glaze on Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The mist that had chased us from our stargazing had retreated, leaving a world of white in its wake.
Grass that had been brown and nondescript the day before stood like powder-coated soldiers around our camp. A thin film of ice frosted our gear, the lake, shrubs and rocks, until an advancing beam of slow-motion sunlight erased it inch by inch.
Was it cold? Of course, but a blinding white, ice-coated alpine landscape isn’t something you get to see every day, and enduring some degree of discomfort was a small price for witnessing this phenomenon.
Slow your roll
Camping is the chance to narrow your world. When you spend a day at a campsite, you sit for long hours staring at very small windows of life. You have a chance to notice the subtle workings of your environment.
The high country in October means those small windows reveal a narrative we don’t often get to see. It’s the last gasp of life before plants and animals are buried under several feet of snow for the next eight months.
At Merritt Lake, spent wildflowers are dropping their seeds hoping for a fresh start come summer. Fish break the surface of the water every few seconds. But harder to see are the pikas that live in the scree slope at the north end of the lake.
On a recent visit we bypassed the lake’s campsites, choosing to scramble up to a small cliff adjacent to the rock pile where the pikas live. We set up our Therm-a-Rest chairs and watched the gradual changes in the colors of the lake. Hours passed as we sat and watched quietly. Eventually we heard shrill “peeps” from the rock field to our left.
Shadows darted across the rocks. The adorable miniature, rabbit-like mammals with tiny round ears bolted from car-sized boulders to search out the last of summer’s grasses among the clefts of rock.
There are some unique safety concerns when you camp in the fall, most notably the changeable weather.
One of the most amazing sights in the high country is watching the weather transform from sunny skies, to sideways rain, to blowing snow, and back to sun in less than an hour.
Rangers recommend that you check the extended forecast before heading out, and pack a small weather radio. Don’t rely on your cellphone because the signal can be unreliable in the mountains. And be sure to tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to return.
Packing rain gear is essential. Even if the forecast looks promising, prepare for the worst. Carry a stove that you’ve tested (to ensure that it works and you know how to use it), a quality sleeping bag (you want one with a “minus” — below zero — rating) and emergency heat packets (the air-activated ones that are sold as glove warmers). Avoid wearing cotton clothing because it won’t keep you warm if it gets wet — instead go with synthetic fabrics and wool.
Another useful trick is to pack your spare clothes and sleeping bag in a waterproof stuff sack or garbage bag when you hike.
The hunting season is in full swing on many public lands in October. To stay safe, wear brightly colored clothing, talk loudly when you hike and make your presence known if you hear gunshots. If you’re hiking with a dog, consider getting your pooch a bright vest or sacrifice an old orange T-shirt.
Seattle freelancer Jeff Layton has traveled to more than 75 countries as a journalist, photographer and tour leader. He blogs at www.MarriedToAdventure.com.