Since I seemed to be stable and capable of activity on the elemental diet, we decided to get out and explore the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which surrounded us at Elk Meadows RV Park. Our first day out, we attempted to find trailheads in the Mt. Adams Wilderness with the maps and information provided at the Mt. Adams Ranger Station. We tried to chase down trails for a couple of hours and only found ourselves lost in the wilderness and sometimes heading down roads that became too narrow for our truck. We couldn’t even find a place to park the truck and get out to explore by foot. We were incredibly frustrated and tired of being cooped up in the truck. I will admit that we were a bit annoyed that we were unable to easily find a trailhead and park the truck like in the National Parks. On the other hand, we realized that we were grateful that a place like this, where we could get lost on dirt roads in the wilderness, actually existed. The afternoon hours waned, and the temperature continued to drop into the low fifties. We gave up, returned to camp, and walked the trail to Trout Lake as the sun was setting.
Over the next few days, we did manage to find some special places in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest where we could get out of our vehicle and explore by foot, but most of these places took time and patience to access. If you ever want to explore this forest, be aware that your trip to a trailhead just 10-15 miles away may take an hour or more and require careful driving over narrow, washboard, gravel roads around potholes, and you might even need to back up and pull over a few times to let another vehicle through. If you plan to explore the forest on four wheels, a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle would be best, and a narrower vehicle would be preferred.
On Labor Day, after an hour-long drive on a narrow, gravel road, where we had to back up twice in areas that were only wide enough for one vehicle between the roadside shrubs, we nearly gave up but then finally found the Sleeping Beauty trailhead. We had no idea what feature on the landscape was given the name Sleeping Beauty. We simply picked a trail on the map and drove to it. The smaller road up to the trailhead was full of ruts and potholes, and I was glad we had a high clearance vehicle. We put on our backpacks and walked past the trailhead sign to discover that Sleeping Beauty was a mountain. The trail immediately became a series of steep switchbacks, so steep that my feet could barely make the angle required to stay on the trail in my minimalist shoes. The trail turned out to be 1.2 miles to the top with 1,400 feet of elevation gain in that short distance. In my current state of health, I don’t seem to get stronger with each hike, so it doesn’t get any easier for me. I just put one foot in front of the other, stop a lot to catch my breath, and appreciate the fact that I am still alive to experience all of this. The cool air of the Cascades in September certainly helped.
There were lots of other reasons to stop along this trail besides just catching our breath. In the middle of one steep hill, we stopped to find the source of a lone, but loud squeaking animal. The culprit was a Douglas’ squirrel, gray-brown on top with a rusty orange belly, feet, and eye-ring. These squirrels climb around on the trunks of trees, especially Douglas firs, moving a bit and then freezing in place, making loud squeaks and barks each time they move. It’s quite a comical sight!
Then, about two-thirds of the way up, we spooked a flock of large and awkward birds that somehow flew through the forest without knocking themselves out on tree trunks! Luckily, they landed on branches of the firs immediately around us, and we saw through our binoculars that they were sooty grouse!
The forest around us was gorgeous, filled with every shade of green imaginable and dripping with lichens. Rain the day before had freshened the forest, and the firs were releasing their sweet scent that I can’t help but associate with Christmas. The final ascent was a series of narrow switchbacks on the rocky outcrop at the top of Sleeping Beauty. As we climbed up out of the dense forest, we were confronted with a cold, fierce wind, but the 360-degree views were spectacular. From the top of Sleeping Beauty, we could see the snow-capped volcanoes of the Cascades all around us. Mount Adams was in plain view just across the valley, and Mount Saint Helens was peaking over the top of another mountain to the northwest, and Mount Hood was in full view in the southern distance. We were quite pleased with the results of our random pick of trail for the day. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest has definitely made it onto my list of favorite forests!
One afternoon we went on a quick outing on fully paved roads to a parking lot and short trail (0.5 mile round trip) to Langfield Falls. If you are unable to explore the back roads of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest or hike very far, you can still have the full experience of this forest’s beauty by stopping at Langfield Falls. I won’t attempt to describe with words the beauty found here. You can see for yourself in the photos.
On September 8th, we traveled down yet another long, washboard, gravel road to the Cultus Creek Trail in the Indian Heaven Wilderness. There is a reason this wilderness has the word heaven in its title. The forest is diverse and colorful, loaded with wild huckleberries, and hidden meadows and lakes dot the wilderness. The Cultus Creek Trail slowly climbs up and around Bird Mountain and meets up with the Pacific Crest Trail on the cold, wet, north side of the mountain. From there, we took the 0.5-mile trail out to Wood Lake.
Flocks of golden-crowned kinglets were everywhere taunting us with their high-pitched cheeps. These little birds move speedily through the tree tops, and we were finally lucky enough to get one in view with our binoculars to see the bright yellow crowns contrasted by the black and white bands above their eyes.
As we ascended the mountain, the huckleberry bushes on the sides of the trail were loaded with berries. Being on the elemental diet, I couldn’t try any, but I convinced Michael to taste a few (I did get to try some later in the Olympic National Forest). The purple juice stained his fingers, and he said they were sweet tart, a bit tarter than cultivated blueberries.
Near the top of the mountain as the trail got steeper, we heard the high-pitched squeaks of pikas. We came upon a rocky hillside, and we were startled when we realized there was a pika sitting on top of a boulder not far off the trail making all the noise. This was the closest we had ever gotten to a pika, and Michael got a pretty good photo through his binoculars.
There were fantastic views of Mount Adams on the way up the mountain, and when we reached the other side of the mountain, the air suddenly became cold and damp, and lots more moss and mushrooms appeared. We crossed the Pacific Crest Trail, headed across a couple of meadows and ended at little Wood Lake. We returned on the same trail and didn’t see a single other person the entire hike. We felt as if the wilderness was ours alone to enjoy.
On our last day at Elk Meadows, we tried something a little different. Back in north-central Oregon, alpaca ranches started popping up on our route, and there was a local alpaca ranch on Mt. Adams Road in Trout Lake. We couldn’t help but be curious about the alpaca, and many of the ranches offered tours, so we took a tour of Meadowrock Alpacas Farm. The alpaca ranch is owned by a retired couple: Jim and Barbara. The idea and passion for breeding and raising alpacas originated with Barbara, and she studied the subject extensively before purchasing the property and designing and building the barn. Jim gave us a tour and taught us all sorts of interesting facts about the alpaca. Their fur is incredibly thick and soft, and they have long, glossy eyelashes and fur around their ears. Alpacas are also very neat: they use a communal latrine to do their business! We, and our friends Michael and Stephanie Tiffany, who were visiting from Ventura, were surprised by how much we liked these creatures. I can see why alpaca ranches are popping up on the landscape. We later enjoyed chatting with Barbara in their shop, and I purchased an alpaca hat to keep me warm on our travels through the winter.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time spent relaxing at Elk Meadows and exploring the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, even while I was working through a difficult treatment for my health problems. Trout Lake, Washington made it onto our list of places to revisit if we are lucky enough to have the time in our future. It wasn’t easy to leave our temporary backyard at Elk Meadows, and on our way out, we passed by a sign that said “neener, neener, we get to live here all year long!” Just rub it in, why don’t you!