The Journal Vol.4
After a quick trip home to Australia to see our family, Madison and I got back to the States refreshed and ready for our next adventures. We left California at the end of September ready to see another new area of the country: the Pacific North West (PNW). From wild unexpected snowy weather to clear skies and warm days, this month in the PNW has had it all and forced us into making very last-minute calls on locations and hikes. We spent the majority of our time in Washington with a couple of side trips down to Oregon here and there (which I'll cover in Volume 5). We have clocked another 5,000 miles on the odometer, but our trusty van is going as strong as ever. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to visit Washington, mostly for the incredible mountains it's home to. And let me tell you, it did not disappoint. We had a lot of snow and ice to compete with but we still managed to see a good chunk of the state. Enough to make me think I'd love to live here one day. It's literally an outdoor lover’s paradise. We hope that you enjoy reading through these recent adventures of ours, and that it inspires you to get out there and see new things (no matter what kind of weather is thrown at you).
Mt Rainier National Park on a rainy Autumn day.
When living on the road you can only plan and control so many aspects. You can plan where you will be and what you can do, but it is always dependent on the weather and you can never be sure what to expect – even when you look at the forecasts. We have learned to expect the unexpected and that you can never be TOO prepared. Luckily, we have the Mountain Designs gear to help us through.
In mid-September we left California and hit the road with a plan to head north to Washington State. The goal was to make it there when the larch trees turned golden for Fall and before the snow hit so we could still hike a few trails with no snow or ice. Of course, the weather had different ideas. We hadn't even left California before the snow hit. Like we had never seen it before, we couldn't help pulling over and just watching the snow fall and settle all around us. While we appreciated the beauty, it was definitely an inconvenience. And the unseasonal snow seemed to follow us around all the way through Oregon and into Washington. It really wasn't what we were expecting or wanting but we just had to work with it. We unpacked our winter gear (a lot earlier than expected) and hiking poles, bought some micro spikes for the ice and hit the trails. Instead of dried fallen leaves beneath the colourful trees, we got snow covered ground, with pops of golden larches throughout. Instead of alpine lake reflections, we had lakes that were frozen so thick you could walk on them. While it made a lot of things harder, there is something special about seeing a place in different, uncommon conditions. All throughout this volume, we think that you'll notice a common theme of 'unexpected challenges' in regard to hikes, weather and planning. Despite all the obstacles, one thing is certain – we were so grateful to have all the right gear to deal with the unseasonal snow and cold temperatures. Our thermals, down jackets and sleeping bags were life savers.
One of the many free campsites we found; this was one of our favourites just outside of the North Cascades National Park.
Arriving in Washington on a wet Autumn day was a classic way to enter the PNW in October. I have to say it took some getting used to, coming from Cali. The days were colder, shorter and more miserable, but we learnt to embrace it. We needed to. After getting some recommendations from locals, we hit the Snow Lake trail near Snoqualmie Pass. Such a lovely short trail with views down to Snow Lake at the end. The trail meanders through valleys filled with Fall colour, it was so beautiful. This was a great opportunity to test the waterproof cover of the Escape Hike 30L day pack, which worked really well, especially how fast it dried when we got back into the car. All in all, a beautiful day out on the trail and a great way to start our Washington experience.
Wet weather greeted us on the Snow Lake trail but our waterproof Mountain Designs gear meant our first hike in Washington was still amazing.
Throughout the first weeks of October in the higher elevation mountains of the North Cascades and Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the larch trees turn a bright orange and yellow before shedding their needles. It's a sight I've been inspired to see from other people's shots over the years and was the main reason I wanted to be up there in October. We did four larch hikes in the space of two weeks and were hit with some wild weather – gusty winds, snow, ice and extremely cold temperatures. The weather was a bit out of the ordinary for that time of year but you have to expect the unexpected in the shoulder season. Here's exactly what went down over the next two weeks, plus a glimpse of the spectacular colouring of these larch trees.
As Australians, we don't have these epic larch trees – I tried to capture their spectacular bright orange and yellow colouring against the white snow backdrop.
A few kilometres up the road from Cutthroat and Maple Pass is a gorgeous little alpine lake nestled between the Liberty Bell group of mountains. We were lucky to get here before the lakes started to freeze, despite temperatures suggesting otherwise. The previous night was forecast for a fresh dusting so we took off from the eastern end of highway 20 and soon hit snow on the highway. The trailhead was covered in the white stuff as was the entire trail, spanning about 3.5km each way. Halfway along the trail we got a glimpse of sun and the sky appeared to be clearing so we picked up the pace, hoping to see the lake with some beautiful light. But by the time we got there, the sky clouded over again and the snow came down hard! It was still so beautiful to see and explore. Plus, it was our first hike walking in the heavy snow, and we came back to the car to see it was completely covered.
Hiking up to Blue Lake as the snow gets thicker, temperature around 1°C.
My Cumulus GORE-TEX rain jacket keeping me warm and dry amidst the snowfall.
Scenes looking down into the Blue Lake basin: the orange and yellow larch trees were such a beautiful contrast to the electric blue water and fresh white snow.
A PNW larch classic hike is the Lake Ingalls trail in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. We met up with our mate, Lee and slept at the trailhead ready for an early start the next morning. 7am came around before we knew it, we got up quickly and started the 10-mile return trail with around 800m of elevation gain. There was a forecast of snow and wind so we had the appropriate gear on and packed in our bags. We hit snow in the last 0.5 miles from the pass which made it difficult in the icy parts (crampons would have made this easier but we hadn't been expecting these conditions this early in the season). Soon enough we had our first glimpse of a larch tree, actually hundreds of them all scattered around the valley. It was windier as we crossed the pass and the depth of the snow increased a lot, however we were prepared with the best gear for this situation. Reliable and lightweight, what else do you need when in the mountains? I was stoked to finally see a larch in person. It was like a dream come true, and such a different experience seeing them amongst all the snow. We spent two hours up near the pass, admiring the larches and getting a few brief views of distant Mount Stuart, wandering around back and forth shooting the larches in the few glimpses of sun we got.
Hiking in the sun can get hot especially when hiking uphill regardless of the air temp. It's nice to have layers to either add or subtract depending on the weather. We choose to use the Perisher and Alta softshell jackets as a way to have wind and snow protection with additional warmth, without having to wear down jackets underneath (this can get sweaty). From our experience in cold weather, starting with a thermal base layer, adding a good quality fleece like the Women's Kodiak or the Men's Pro-Elite Climber then either a softshell or rain shell on top should be ample as your body warms up incredibly fast when hiking. We wear thermal pants and softshell pants for snowy hikes too.
Lake Ingalls trail in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a classic PNW larch hike.
In the month of October, everyone flocks to highway 120 in search of larches. It’s utter trail madness with the number of people hiking. It's for good reason though, some of the finest North Cascades views can be found within an hour or two hike off the highway. First up on our list was Cutthroat Pass. Madison slept in for this hike so it was just myself and Nathanael (@nathanaelbillings) tackling this one. This one was roughly eight miles (11km) return with around 600m of gain so it wasn't too bad! The temperature was hovering around -5°C which made us feel alive and kept us continually moving to keep warm. Before this hike, I had only been using my Pro Elite fleece jacket for warmth, sometimes combined with a merino thermal layer, but this time I had to use the Forge 600 down jacket for maximum warmth, especially when we got to the top and stopped moving.
As the sun rose, first light hit the mountains in a beautiful red and orange hue, lighting up the larches too, creating a beautiful Autumn sunrise scene. I was lost for words. Moving higher up to the pass itself, we could see further down into the valley and onto higher North Cascades peaks. This was one of the finest views I could remember. Such a blissful moment in the mountains. One that reminds me why I do this in the first place. We lazed around the pass for an hour, just chatting and enjoying the sun. Here's what we saw.
The majestic scenery we enjoyed at Cutthroat Pass was some of the best I’ve ever witnessed.
Just across the highway, quite literally is the trailhead for Maple Pass. This is possibly the most popular hike along the highway as it isn't too long and has amazing views that you don't even have to hike the whole trail to see. We hiked this one for sunset, but the sunset never eventuated. Can't win them all. The temperature was considerably milder at the end of the day so we both hiked up with our fleeces and a thermal layer underneath. The hike up the ridgeline honestly blew us away – it was so incredible with the peak Autumn colours as well as a hint of Winter. There were golden larches in the distance and blueberry bushes everywhere we looked. Combined with the snow, it was the most brilliant clash of seasons I've seen.
A brilliant clash of seasons on Maple Pass.
Words by Madison
Yesterday everything felt like we failed. After a week of rain, snow and too much cloud, we finally had a forecast of sun so we were keen to get on the road and do a hike. We didn't want to let the snow stop us so we had our snow spikes and other gear ready. We drove a few hours toward a trailhead until we had about five miles of steep unpaved road to go. This is where we turned the corner to find that this side of the mountain was in the shadows and none of the snow on the road had melted (at least 30cm). Due to the early snow, we didn't have our winter tires or chains yet so we knew there was no way we would make it to the top. By this time it was about 2pm so we still had time to try a different trail. We frantically did some research to find out what was nearby and tried getting to another three trails but the same thing happened every time. Eventually it got too late and we had to give up for the day. The weather just wouldn't allow us to do anything. We drove all the way back into town feeling deflated and annoyed. All we could do was try to plan for the next day and hope we would have some better luck.
We made a plan to do Hidden Lake lookout for a sunset hike. And we were lucky that this time we made it to the trailhead! We knew there was a long and steep hike ahead of us and plenty of mud, snow and ice was bound to be on the ground. We packed all our layers: thermals, fleece, down jackets, GORE-TEX® jackets, gloves, beanies and neck gaiters.
The trail reviews were right, it was a really challenging hike and the ice made it even harder. It was close to 1,000m of elevation and we planned to get to the top and back in one afternoon! You warm up quickly when hiking so both Harrison and I wore just our thermals on the hike up, but as soon as we stopped for a break the cold would catch up to us and by the time we got to the top we had put on all the layers we packed. We were so exhausted when we got to the top but had enough time to relax and make a coffee before sunset. It's always such a reward to get to a hike and have incredible 360-degree views, with different peaks and lakes to admire every direction you turn. I think this was one of our favourite views so far. We enjoyed it while the light lasted and started the journey down soon after. An all-round successful day to make up for our not-so-great day yesterday.
Madison wearing her Kodiak Fleece as an extra layer once the sun set and the temp dropped.
Another snow-filled day.
Moon rising over the Cascades.
Mount Rainier really stands out in the north west. You can see it from almost anywhere, towering above everything. Locals refer to it as 'The Mountain' or 'Tahoma' but regardless of name preference, this beast is gigantic and insanely epic. Over 4,300m high it's the highest peak in the Cascade Range and the most prominent in the lower 48 states of the US. We didn't get to spend as much time there as I would have liked due to road and trail conditions, but I'm so grateful for our short but sweet overnight trip to Summit Lake, an exposed viewpoint above Summit Lake itself and directly positioned underneath Rainier.
This view is probably one of the best 360-degree views around, with scenes onto Rainier, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, North Cascades, Mount Baker, Seattle and even the Olympics. It was a beautiful sight as the sun went down, with the light of Tacoma and Seattle lighting up the area. We made some mac and cheese at sundown and I brewed coffee to enjoy the view. Such a phenomenal perch – I felt so lucky to be up there by ourselves with such pristine weather. Not a breath of wind and bearable temperatures made this camp such a gem.
Our Mountain Designs Expedition 2P tent in action as our home for the night.
Views looking west, east and directly onto the glaciated textures of Mount Rainier's icefields.
Morning views and our packed-up sleeping equipment of choice – the Airlite 9 mat and the Travelite 500 sleeping bag.