I had a friend who once told me, he really hates snow. I was really surprised, given his love of the outdoors and hiking. ‘So you don’t even like snowshoeing?’, I had asked. ‘Nope, hate it. I’ll carry them for miles, only use ’em when I have to. Snow just gets in my way, keeps me from doing the hikes I want to.’ I love to ski, snowshoe, make snow angels, so his words really surprised me. ‘I will always love snow’, I told him.
Yet here I sat, scouring Google Earth with Halfmile’s PCT overlay, and NOAA’s daily snow report overlay, looking at the undeniable while planning our weekend Pacific Crest Trail/Herman Creek Trail adventure. There was a lot of snow left above 4500 feet, near Wahtum Lake, on the HCT side, and it was in my way.
Having wandered through there in all seasons, I knew it would add too much time to our usual PCT/HCT loop, meandering through the relatively featureless landscape of trees and beargrass under snow with GPS in hand, route-finding. Too much snow for a twenty-five mile plus day loop.
My mind and heart are already pushing for the big hikes of summer, those all-day affairs where you pick a long target, and just roam all day (and often well into the night). I’m already blessed that ten minutes from any trailhead, my mind quiets, my heart is calm, and everything else is just…somewhere else. It’s the ultimate in-the-moment place and activity for me, no anxiety or runaway thoughts, just putting one foot in front of the other, until we run out of trail.
I picked the better of the two climbs out of the Columbia River Gorge, on the PCT vs. up Herman Creek. I love both trails dearly, but the rapid rise out of the Gorge to the Benson Plateau on the PCT is a real gem. Like Mt. Defiance, it’s steep and long, but unlike Defiance, it’s really pretty. You climb through 4000′ from nearly sea level in about seven miles, most of that in a three mile stretch below Teakettle Springs.
We found the small HC Trailhead lots crowded with cars by 8:20 AM, a formerly unheard-of density of aspiring hikers for this sleepy spot. With Multnomah Falls and Larch Mountain closed due to new rockfall, plus the Instagram popularity of hiking to Indian Point for photos, there’s nothing left up in the lot anymore on a weekend by 8:30 AM. Thankfully, they virtually all turn left away from the beautiful trails heading deep into the interior, and we’re alone again.
These trails are inexorably linked for me to the many trips I made last year as a volunteer with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, clearing these fire-damaged trails in the wake of the Eagle Creek Fire. I worked so many hours, over many months last Spring and into early Summer, hiking into the PCT or HCT with a hard hat, tools, and determination to do everything I could to repair the damage. I met the most marvelous people of formidable spirit, we accomplished things beyond what was considered possible.
Now, the trail itself stands as living memory for me. Here, at the bridge trail junction, ‘oh yeah, the huge hole and there’s Bill’s rock work. You’d never know the trail was missing last March.’ One of the beauties of trail work is if you really do it well, almost no one notices what was done.
The damage here in this small section took multiple work parties to fix
When you get to the junction of Herman Creek Bridge Trail and the PCT, and take that left up the hill, you settle in for a long climb. The long switchbacks take you back and forth across the face of the ancient volcanic flows, clawing its way up to the Benson Plateau, an area of incomparable beauty relatively untouched by the fires. On the way, we pass log after log, most have a story.
We spent three hours on removing this stubborn log, due to complex binds and the steep slope it sat upon. The ‘before’ photo from April 2018 is below.
Setting up to roll the upper half once cut. It was a monster Doug fir, felled by the fire
I noted the location of newly fallen logs, to pass along to the volunteer PCTA Caretaker
of this section. Thankfully, there were only about three locations that will need a logout crew with a crosscut saw to remove. Last year, we removed twenty-seven from these switchbacks in one day.
Job security, the forest that just keeps giving
Looking across the Columbia into Washington, at Table Mountain and Greenleaf Mountain
We walked past the huge stump snag where we’d cut out a surprisingly tough piece blocking the trail last year. We’d cut it, beat it with axes, and finally broke it by jumping up and down on it.
Helgi, cutting the base in April 2018
What a crew. Hiked 4,000 feet, 12 miles, and worked ten hours in one day. I’m on the upper right with my trademark dirty face. Working in the burn is so messy. 😀
Empressing hard, May 2019 on the same stump
Up we went, past memories, root burn holes long filled with stones and soil, to the Red Cinder Rock viewpoint. I noticed looking over at Nick Eaton ridge, the spaces between the burned trees look so much greener this year than last. Nature knows how to recover, she doesn’t need our help.
We had already climbed most of the elevation to be gained, so we took a break and took in the views.
May 2019 – Mount Adams capping my Warrior II. Nick Eaton ridge to the right, so much more green this year!
June 2018 – yeah I wear the same clothes a lot – I’m actually considering a new system of hike-specific outfits, totally beside the point – look at NE ridge, so brown last year.
Heading up past Teakettle Springs, we stopped to check the water flow, which is still really good. It’s spring water.
COLD water, felt so good on my face
The fingers of fire reached up from Eagle Creek in spots here, severely burning some areas but not most of Benson Plateau. When we first came in, it was hard to find the trail in spots. We scraped half a foot of needle-cast off the trail last year one day, later took one hundred logs off it over two days. It was really a mess.
Close to Benson Way side trail, on the PCT, looking South
Lovely trillium on upper Teakettle section
Branch swirl did not burn, go figure
Once you gain the plateau, you’re in for a treat of ridge walking in deep forest. The trail only rises about 600′ more between Benson Way and Wahtum Lake, so you can really make some time up there on a long day hike. Or stroll, saunter, it’s perfect for everything.
Stubborn snow patch hanging on up on Benson Plateau, in the beargrass. North and west-facing slopes still holding onto a bit as of 5/11/2019
NOAA maps were spot-on in predicting the snow amounts
Near our turn-around for the day at Eagle-Benson Junction
We hiked out to junction with the PCT and Eagle-Benson Trail, still closed as it descends from the PCT into Eagle Creek below Tunnel Falls. The area near Smokey Camp is still the worst burn I’ve seen in the Eagle Creek fire area. It burned before maybe fifteen years ago, so twice-burned now, it’s pretty crisp.
We stopped for some late afternoon snacks, thought briefly about heading to Wahtum Lake over the remaining snow patches, but the thought of late afternoon wandering down upper Herman Creek with my GPS in hand, fading light, eleven miles left to go, wasn’t attractive. As a rule, we’re packed with all the essentials and ready to spend the night if needed, but I try avoid walking eyes-wide-open into situations that land us there. No tracks, one hundred percent snow-covered, it will wait a few weeks.
If you look closely, you can just see Mt. Defiance poking its dome up over the ridge on the right, in the distance
We stopped at a side viewpoint and looked South, toward Mt. Tomlike, Chindere Mtn, and Mt. Hood. It’s one of my favorite viewpoints, it really ties together what it means to hike from Hood to the Gorge. It’s quite an adventure, and though I’ve hiked about every piece of the PCT from Timberline Lodge to the river, I’ve never done it all at once. Maybe this is the year.
Tomlike from the PCT. Besides the usual path from Wahtum Lake, there’s a user/offtrail route from the North, off Herman Creek Trail. It’s a spectacular ridge walk.
Trail work habits die hard. Besides tossing branches and rocks as we hiked, on the way back, I removed over two dozen small logs from the trail with my trusty small Silky hand saw. I cut a few that pushed the capabilities of my little saw, but using techniques I’ve learned with my Katana-boy saw on bigger logs, I was able to remove some really annoying blowdown.
Being a good steward of the trails
We skipped down the trail (literally, at times) in the beautiful light of the afternoon. The lighting all day was just magical, such contrasts and beautiful sunshine.
Cleared a big stack o’logs off here in 2018, you’d hardly know it now
Crossing the scree fields in the late afternoon sunshine. Cascade Locks below.
Looking up, near same location. Sometimes we hear Pikas here
You really have to love a two-hour downhill. Well, mostly. 😀
I can’t resist a good bridge 😀
Looking back across from HCT to the PCT. The latter runs diagonally across the far ridge.
HCT below the bridge trail junction gets a lot of traffic. Good thing we reworked all the lower tread last year, it’s getting hammered now.
We crossed Herman Creek again, the sun setting now, almost ten hours since we passed the same spot in the morning. It’s such a magical spot. I’ve cleaned a lot of tools down in the creek after a long day of trail work. Hiking through here for fun seems almost like cheating.
We ambled back to the jeep, our first pass through here complete for this year. We’ll go back again soon and do the entire loop, once the snow finishes melting out.
We’ve also been intrigued with making some new loops heading up Nick Eaton/Gorton Creek trails, checking out Greenpoint Mtn on the way up to Wahtum Lake, return on the PCT. It’s a bit more climbing (5800′ vs. 5600′ e.g.) but a little shorter at 22-23 miles than the full loop, which usually runs around 25-ish.
The roaming season has just started, so we’ve got time before the snow flies again. Now, someday, backpacking this on snowshoes, that’s another adventure!