Crystal Mountain

Sandy worked on email in the lodge - when the WiFi was working

After spending two days in the Yakima Valley waiting out the weather we were finally heading up into the mountains. Wine tasting and golf were fun but we wanted to do some hiking. As we drove higher it wasn't long before we hit snow. By the time we got to 5430 foot Chinook Pass the snow was ten feet deep. There were lots of cars in the parking area - families were up at the pass sledding and playing in the snow. I had assumed that some trails would still be snow covered this early in the season but this was a lot of snow for the end of June. Even if the weather cleared we would have to look hard to find trails that were open.

Our first destination was Crystal Mountain. It's the largest ski resort in Washington and is located just outside of Mt. Rainier National Park. In summer it's a good base for hikes in the northern part of the national park as well as the Norse Peak Wilderness. We found out when we got there though that with all the snow, one lift was still running even this late in the season. The resort is located in a valley and there was only snow on the upper parts of the slopes. But the hard core snowboarders and skiiers were still out, even thought hey had to walk down to the parking lot after their runs. Most of them were just up for the day from the Seattle area. There were several lodges at the resort and they were all nearly empty. The first night we were there, until another group arrived fairly late, we thought that we were the only people staying in our lodge.

Trees were covered in moss - it rains a lot here

It was quite a change from the Yakima Valley when we arrived. Playing golf that day, it had been sunny and in the low eighties. We had been worried that we would be too hot walking the course but a mild breeze made it pleasent. At Crystal Mountain, it was overcast and in the low fifties with a cold wind. We definitely looked out of place at check in wearing our summer golf outfits. "Just drove up today?" the lady at the desk asked. Gee, how could you tell?

Since we had eaten a big lunch at the golf course, we skipped the restaurant for dinner. We had a big box of fresh fruit that we had bought before we left Yakima - fresh cherries, apricots, peaches and pears. We were hoping to get some cheese but the tiny market at the resort was only open for a few hours in the afternoon and didn't have much stuff anyway. But we had plenty of wine with us from the previous day of winery tours!

The next morning was overcast and the mountains were completely socked in. But at least it wasn't raining. We thought that we would do a hike for the exercise even if we wouldn't get any expansive views. And who knows? Maybe the weather would surprise us and clear up once we started. Then again, maybe it would start to pour rain and we would get soaked. Nothing to do but give it a go and find out. We had a continental breakfast at the restaurant and met the only other people who had stayed the night before. They were a couple from Portland with a very young daughter, maybe two or three years old. The guy was very gregarious so we learned that he was a software engineer from Intel. They were on a grand tour through the northwest and had just driven from Idaho after visiting Craters of the Moon National Monument. The guy had a national park passport and was collecting stamps for as many destinations as possible. That's about the only reason I can think of for going to Craters of the Moon. I've lived in Idaho for thirty years and only went there once. I also thought that they were pretty brave taking a trip with a toddler with long drives and potential rainy days stuck in motel rooms. But the little girl did seem really well behaved.

The Old Man of the Mountains

The hike we picked out for today was the Norse Peak trail. We didn't expect to get anywhere close to the summit of the mountain which is 6856 feet. There was way too much snow. But the trail did start climbing on south facing slopes. When we had arrived the day before the overcast lifted enough that we could see the surrounding slopes. The area where the Norse Peak trail was looked to have the least snow of any area around the resort.

So after breakfast we took a short drive to the trailhead. One of several actually. The start of the hike was quite confusing considering that it was one of the main hikes recommended for the Crystal Mountain area. It is also one of the main ways to access the Norse Peak Wilderness. Our guidebook showed two trailheads on short forest road spurs off of the main road to Crystal Mountain. But the forest roads weren't signed and neither were the trailheads. Our guidebook was several years old so we weren't sure if things had changed since it had been published. It really was amazing that the major trailheads in the area weren't signed. I guess the Forest Service budget must have been cut. Damn Republicans.

We finally decided to just start walking and see where we ended up. Since we didn't think we would get anywhere close to the summit of Norse Peak and weren't expecting any views because of the weather, we figured anywhere we ended up would be good exercise. We started walking on an old overgrown forest road. After only a hundred yards or so a trail took off steeply up the hill. We followed it. After climbing a hundred feet or so it paralleled the road. Ok, that matched the description. In one or two spots it needed maintenance. Traversing some steep slopes there were a few delicate steps where the trail was partially washed out. No trail maintenance crews out this season. Must be those Republican budget cuts again.

Not much of a view but it could be worse. Could be raining.

After about half a mile we reached a trail junction. This fit the description. Now the trail climbed steeply in a series of switchbacks. But the trail was in good shape and the cool temperature was fine for the hard work of climbing the slope. We hiked upwards for about two hours before turning around. We only met one other hiker who told us that he hadn't made it to the peak - he had eventually lost the trail in the snow. We didn't get quite that far but at our turn around point we had just started to hit snow. There were only hints of a view - it was still pretty foggy. But to quote the famous line from the movie Young Frankenstein "Could be worse. Could be raining." The way down was easier of course and uneventful except that only Sandy's keen eye kept us from missing the turnoff near the bottom that led to where our car was. It wouldn't have been fun to have needed to hike an extra mile down the highway.

After our hard work on the trail we thought that we deserved a good dinner. We walked to the restaurant about 6:30 and were the only ones there. We were feeling kind of badly for the people working there, but later two other parties did show up. Afterwards we went back to the lodge and hung out in the lobby. That was where we had been spending most of our free time. There was a nice lobby and that was the only place we could get the WiFi. When we could get it at all. The previous night we couldn't find the network to connect to and I had to make two trips to the lobby to get them to fix it. Even after that it was hit or miss. It would be there, then gone, then back. Sandy and I and the Intel guy (who was also doing work stuff) had a running dialogue. "It's up now!" "It just dropped!" "It's back." Trips to the mountains didn't used to be so complicated.

Plot spoiler for next blog post - Steve on the road to Sunrise.

The next day was my birthday. Fifty eight years old! We were going to Mt. Rainier National Park. I wanted to do the Sourdough Ridge trail near Sunrise. It's short and easy but I think it is a beautiful as any hike in the world. But I was worried about snow, so I checked the website. I found out that the road to Sunrise was only going to open at 8 am on July 1. Ok, that settles that. If the road just got plowed, I doubt that the trail 500 feet above on the ridge is going to be snow free. But I still wanted to go to Sunrise. Mt. Rainier is a very complex mountain and looks different from every angle. My favorite view of it is from Sunrise. The forecast was for sunny weather for the next several days. I was psyched. Clear weather in the mountains would be a great birthday present.