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.
Here is the southwest face of the mountain, a thousand feet of rock that seems to bend gravity. If you crane back to see the top, the trees below begin to look foolishly tilted. If you orient yourself to the trees, the mountain juts over you like an angry anthropomorphized thunderhead. Below this monstrous wall, nearly three-quarters of a mile long, is a grand and precariously tilted meadow, tinted burnt sienna by the aging fronds of Athyrium distentifolium ssp. americanum (alpine lady fern). The meadow has grown over the colossal fans of broken rock fallen from the peak, which rush down to the lip of the same fault line that created the long meadow on the approach. Here a major fault zone coming east from Victoria, BC, bends southward to run parallel to the major north-south fault of the North Cascades. These work together to produce the giant reflective surface of the mountain face, which keeps the hiker warm in the afternoon sun.
Peeking around a venerable grove of Cupressus nootkatensis (yellow cedar), a cleft in the wall appears, a secret weakness for climbers to exploit. Great festoons of Juniperus pad the route, but we must rip ourselves away from that prospect and wend downwards to another cedar grove. The meadow itself is slippery and slow, and thanks to Valeriana sitchensis (Sitka valerian) underfoot, redolent of lemon and cat pee. Going around it, the trail soon becomes apparent again, and any lost elevation is easily made up for by the ease of travel.
In breaks in the heather and blueberry, small novelties begin to appear. Castilleja parviflora var. albida (white paintbrush), a veritable emblem of the North Cascades, grows with Ranunculus gelidus, an alpine buttercup that pushes its seedheads along the ground on long reclining stems. Exobasidium phyllodoces, a fungus parasitic on red mountain-heather, produces oddly charming shoots in cream and rose. High in a crack on a large boulder whose flat face stares at the flat mountainside that birthed it, there is a small tuft of Douglasia laevigata (cliff primrose). And lest we forget to look directly above us, large flocks of band-tailed pigeons circle above the meadow below the cliff, much as sky rats descend from the faces of our buildings.
The end of the meadow draws near, and looks more enticing by the minute: Springy zones drop off of miniature cliffs, where Erythranthe caespitosa (creeping monkeyflower) lifts its outrageously disproportionate flowers above its minuscule leaves, while creeping widely through chartreuse carpets of the moss Philonotis fontana. In gullies nearby, Erythranthe lewisii (pink monkeyflower) offers a surprisingly effusive last display, as does Elmera racemosa (an alpine relative of Heuchera) just above.
Our attention, unfortunately, must focus on the slope of broken rocks that terminates the greensward. For 250 vertical feet and thrice that in length, any pretense of a trail is abandoned. Straight above, this other corner of the mountain looks down and laughs, as if we thought we could escape climbing. Of course it's nothing so serious, and the grade is manageable. To one side, the quilt of colored shrubs we previously admired square by square is spread out again, but this time we see it all at once and in colors we hadn't known before. The rocks themselves, too, are fascinating. Swirls and striations tell of a turbulent metamorphic past, and in colors from jade green to denim blue to pure white to bituminous black. And straight ahead, as the grade softens and some semblance of trail reappears is, well, a cliff.
At left, Artemisia furcata. At right, Harrimanella stelleriana
But what a cliff! Below it, red-brown seed pods of Leptarrhena pyrolifolia (leatherleaf saxifrage) rattle above the pale thimbles of Parnassia fimbriata (fringed grass-of-Parnassus) - or are they miniature papal tiaras? On the rock itself, all I can do is list what treasures proffer seed and spore: Anticlea occidentalis (bronze bells); Artemisia furcata, a compact and apparently well-behaved species; Asplenium viride (green spleenwort); Draba thompsonii, with gray rosettes and twisted siliques; Lloydia serotina (alp lily), which is only ever found serendipitously; Luzula spicata ssp. spicata, an amazingly graceful woodrush who didn't read the book and grows in desolate crevices with Umbilicaria lichens instead; the largest Romanzoffia sitchensis (Sitka mistmaiden) I've ever seen; Saxifraga mertensiana, full of bulbils but well above the rocky streams where its broad leathery leaves usually flash innocent hikers with their lurid burgundy under-sides; and Silene acaulis, newly shorn of its subspecies distinctions. If we can bear to leave, Micranthes rufidula (rusty saxifrage) dots the shady back side of the cliff, and guides us up to the renewed trail to our final destination.
Few destinations are more final than this. Here, perched on the lip of a cliff 4500 feet above a river valley, is a small lake, a rock pond, a crystalline pothole. Here gendarmes step down from the peak, itself reflected in the impossibly clear water. Our gaze skids down its length and skips into oblivion, only to be caught by perfectly-framed peaks, changing like a zoetrope as we make our way around. Cassiope mertensiana (white mountain-heather) is here, but more precious are the yards and yards of Harrimanella stelleriana (bellheather), a unique creeper more closely related to blueberries and epacrids than to other heather-like plants. Its delicate white bells clasped by red calices, and hung above mischievously crawling stems made almost cuddly by the myriad cheery-green leaves, need only be seen to be adored.
Beyond the lake, a Juniperus-clad promontory thrusts us out from the proscenium and into the center of every peak in the southern North Cascades. Sperry, Vesper, Sheep Gap (nearly as famous as the dip), Monte Cristo, Daniel even, Sloan, Pugh. Finally, across the great north-south fault, is Glacier Peak, the most hidden of the Washington stratovolcanoes. Then back again, to the top of our own monumental peak, so close and present as to seem personable and proud, a weighty yet dynamic character to watch change as we pick our way back across to the car, the town, and home, all made so much smaller by our encounter with the behemoth and its bright botanical cloak.
See, I told you there was a trail!