I am infamous in some circles for choosing hikes not by reading recommendations or researching trails, but by spending hours poring over maps, finding an interesting topographic or geologic or vegetation feature, then exclaiming "Let's go there!" It doesn't matter if there's a trail or not. It was bad enough when I was younger and using mainly USGS topographic maps, but the advent of Google Earth has truly unleashed the monster within. Now I can not only analyze the vegetation in surprising detail, but I can often find scraps of hunter/fisher/deer trails to add to my rhetorical armament. "I promise, there's a trail" seems to be more convincing than "those shrubs are way too tall and close together for that latitude and elevation" or "there might be a slightly odd form of a common marsh plant in the depths of that bog". The nature of the trail, you may imagine, I keep to myself.
Sometimes this leads to interminable hikes to forgotten peaks, where the silent splendor of the place burns away your distractions to leave you only there and no other place, suspended in the universe of one panorama for moments infinite and infinitesimal, until your all-too-mortal heels remind you of the many miles of up and down and up and down required to get back to your tent. Other times, it's a quick and dirty jaunt to the most accessible solitude. Of course I wouldn't tell you about the former. This is about the latter case.
The place is relatively close to civilization, as forgotten corners of the Earth go. It's at the end of a long ridge in the North Cascades, perched right above one of those mountain towns where the people carefully conceal their feelings about the surge of jabbering city folk that rolls in each summer weekend to drop litter and get sunburned. I would be wrong to suggest, though, that this place is totally unknown - it may not receive much recreating jetsam, but climbers regularly ascend the towering peak that terminates the ridge. Our journey starts following their tire tracks and footsteps, but we'll diverge from their more athletic route to see different plants and different destinations.
Two miles out, two miles back. Not quite 1500 feet up and down. This was one of our last planned hikes of the season, on a bright September day when the air is crisp and the sun sharp. The road up is mostly smooth, one of the useful accoutrements of logging. The trailhead is also high - almost 5000 feet. We stopped for the rare Diphasiastrum species (clubmoss) along the road (didn't find them), but decided against visiting the tufa spring. We were the only car at the trailhead.
The soil as we start out is volcanic ash from nearby Glacier Peak. The meadows are dry, with lots of sedges and not many flowers, or at least plants that would have been floriferous a month ago. Vaccinium deliciosum (Cascade blueberry) and V. membranaceum (black huckleberry), however, are putting on a different show. Every plant has turned a different shade of purple, from nearly red to copper to the color your fingers turned earlier in the summer when harvesting the berries. Amber sedges and icy blue Tsuga mertensiana (mountain hemlock) saplings extend the spectrum. Phyllodoce empetriformis (pink mountain-heather) and Luetkea pectinata (partridgefoot) are more stalwart, offering with the mature conifers a staid green riposte. With every step the tapestry becomes more intricate, and it's easy to lose time photographing each new part of the fabric - or miss the looming corner of the peak that has come into view. This bare rock bastion, perfectly framed by stout lichened tree trunks and an impossibly long meadow, seems totally incongruous with the rolling ridge of conifer woods. But let the climbers pick up that gauntlet - we shall soon politely decline the challenge and skirt the peak.
Here the trail darts into the forest, seemingly intentionally to build suspense. Streptopus streptopoides, the tiniest twisted-stalk, pops up here, as it has in so many other places where it's not supposed to be. Glimpses out reveal streaks of fiery Acer circinatum (vine maple) below, and Sorbus sitchensis var. grayi (Gray's mountain-ash) above. Then, in a gesture plucked from chivalric myth, a lone rock pillar blocks the way. It seems an ancient sword, buried to the hilt in the mountain, warning trespassers of the perils ahead. Pay no heed, ogle the woven textures of Empetrum nigrum (crowberry) and Juniperus communis (common juniper) and Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (kinnikinnik), and skirt around the shady side where Polystichum lonchitis (mountain holly fern) grows. One more meadow (where one can squint at Mts. Baker and Shuksan) and another jot of forest, and the spectacle is revealed.