*70-mile hike of PCT Section I from Chinook Pass to Snoqualmie Pass.
Geez, I’ve read a couple of write-ups of this section of the WA PCT essentially calling it the worst, most unattractive part of the trail in this state. That may be relatively true in some areas, but I found this to be a lovely and varied stretch, winding through new and old burns, the open landscape of the Norse Peak Wilderness, sections of old growth forest, and alpine meadow brimming with blueberries and huckleberries. Definitely worth the trip! Highlight of the hike: cooling down and washing off the stink in Mirror Lake not far from Snoqualmie Pass.
I parked my truck at the USFS ranger station in Enumclaw (they said I could do it and asked me to put a note on my dash saying when I’d be back), and then walked over to the Safeway. I had hooked up with a guy named Hadley K. associated with a Chinook Pass PCT Trail Angel group on FB. He was headed to Ullrich Cabin/Government Meadows that day to spread some trail magic. And he kindly agreed to drive me all the way to Chinook Pass, adding a solid hour to his travel time. While waiting at the Safeway, a guy who self-identified as a “dirty street kid” named Machete waved me down. He and his friend and their dog had just been forced to jump off a train nearby and were looking to get east to Yakima, and eventually Atlanta, by freight hopping. “It’s the only way to live for me,” he said. We talked about the incredible train-hopping/railroad-bull-evasion sequence in Jack London’s The Road, 1907. “You wanna drink beers with us?” said Machete. I said thanks, but no thanks, and that I wished I could offer a ride, but we were only going to the pass. He agreed he didn’t want to get stuck up there. Hadley shows up in and old pickup truck with cracked window, wild hair, and a big smile. We got food and drink in Safeway for the thru-hikers (including beer and strawberries), threw it in his cooler and headed for the pass, talking about climbing and backpacking and work.
Upon being deposited at the Chinook Pass trailhead, I said my thanks and goodbye to Hadley and started up the PCT. The first mile or two was crowded with day hikers and families headed to Sheep Lake. After Sheep Lake (where I saw a young guy in full “hiker trash” mode washing his laundry) you steadily climb up to Sourdough Gap and the crowds essentially disappear. The next 20 miles track through the Norse Peak Wilderness—the site of a large wildfire in summer of 2017. The trail sticks mostly to the eastern side of the ridge with views down to the Morse Creek, Union Creek, and Crow Creek basins. Enticing names like the “Fog City Trail”, and the lush surroundings of Basin Lake call out for side trips. Occasionally, the trail wanders over to the western side of the ridge with views of the Crystal Mountain Ski area. Around the time you reach the water source at WA2334 (a solid source of clean water), the burn evidence transitions from “scattered” (throughout the landscape of predominately subalpine fir?) to “frank/severe”. Virtually all trees and understory seems to have been destroyed in a lot of these places and your shoes will fill with fine ashy soil, your legs collect soot. False Solomon’s Seal is already poking up though, green against black. I stopped for the night at Martinson Gap, which is about 13 miles or so north of Chinook Pass—a wide saddle that has been spared by the fire, and is one of the only places I saw on-trail to safely camp away from charred snags (many of which has obviously fallen in recent months). Farther north, the area around Arch Rock is especially badly burned and there are definitely no safe places to camp (the spring there was running as of this writing though).
On day 2 I walked past a large crew of trail workers (PCTA) and horse crews (affiliation?) cheerily clearing the trail, and descended to Government Meadow and the Ullrich Cabin. There I met a couple of trail angels from Greenwater who had snacks, beers, and sodas. I never drink soda, but downed two Mountain Dews (almost 100g of sugar!), poked around the trail magic/hiker box inside the cabin, and chatted with several other thru and section hikers. North of Government Meadow/Naches Pass, there was no obvious evidence of fire from the trail. You soon climb into old growth forest for the next 10 miles. I stopped around Green Pass after a 15-mile day.
On day 3 I left the old-growth behind and clambered up Blowout Mountain. It was hot (in the eighties), and even the thru-hikers were complaining. The walk along Blowout Mountains’ ridge was gorgeous, even if it is surrounded by second-growth forest and old logging roads. It got some cell coverage up here, a tower visible in the near distance. Passed through the 1988 Falls Creek Burn—a landscape of silvered snags and undergrowth, with young trees here and there. Thirty years on, it was sobering to see how long it can take for a forest to regenerate, and put the Norse Peak Wilderness fire into perspective for me. I stopped for the night a couple miles short of Stampede Pass, keeping company with several other solo men hikers.
On day 4 I shuffled into Stampede Pass a couple of hours after starting off to find a fellow with camp stove cooking sausage and peppers. Trail magic, courtesy of Too Clean (trail name garnered on the AT). Several hikers stood around eating and talking for a while. Being in the presence of thru-hikers who have come from Mexico can be a bit intimidating. They are tan, sometimes greasy, seem to be carrying next to nothing, and are in obviously fantastic shape. Most are in good spirits. Others seem to be the same cranky, cynical person they probably were when they started. I’ve met several thru-hikers who were absolutely fiending for booze or (especially) cigarettes, even after more than 2000 miles of walking. In Washington, virtually all of them will say something like: “Only [x] days/weeks left!” All exhibit a sense of ease in the way they move and seem to know they can walk another 20 miles here or there as needed, or can wait out a hot afternoon and walk into the evening. Too Clean came up with a rolled marijuana cigarette in a single-use plastic container and gave it to one of the thru-hiker women gathered there. “A doobie!” she said. “That’s the best trail magic I’ve gotten so far!”
The 7 or 8 miles between Stampede Pass and Mirror Lake are probably the suckiest part of this section of trail. Exposed to the sun a lot of the time, crossing over or near to forest roads, through underbrush of salal and bracken fern and huckleberry. If you look at a satellite image of the area, it looks like a checkerboard, but when you’re walking through it, it’s not so bad. There were plenty of berries to eat and the trail is easy to follow (not necessarily true in the past from what I’ve read). The climb out of Yakima Pass to Mirror Lake was hard and hot, but mercifully short. I jumped in the lake, swam out to a rock, and beat my clothes clean. There were a bunch of teenagers at the lake, being weird. I pressed on through gorgeous alpine old-growth beneath Silver and Tinkham Peaks, and ended my day at Olallie Meadow, where I had the entire place to myself. I gorged myself on berries.
On the morning of day 5 I walked under a couple of high-tension wires, past Lodge Lake (didn’t see it from trail), and zigzagged across the slopes of Snoqualmie Pass ski area. Headed straight to Aardvark’s, a food truck that’s hiker-friendly, got a cheeseburger, and chatted with a couple of other hikers. The hiker box at Aardvark’s appeared to have enough food in it for a full re-supply! Then I asked them to steal a piece of cardboard, got out my black marker, and wrote a sign. Walked down the road to the public rest area a Snoqualmie Pass, and stood outside. “Hiker to Town. à North Bend? Issaquah? Seattle? Hawaii?” After about an hour-and-a-half, a young guy named Alex in a pickup (also with cracked windshield) and his dog Copper, gave me a ride to North Bend. Alex told me about his friend Andrew, who’s been hiking the PCT this year to raise money for MS research.
From the outlet mall in North Bend I took a bus to Issaquah, then another bus to King Street Station in Seattle, then a train to Auburn, then a bus from Auburn to Enumclaw…and back to my old truck, still parked behind the ranger station. “Please please start,” I said in the 95-degree heat. It did, and I slowly made my way home through typical I-5 traffic.