Monday, August 10, 2015

Hiking (and Camping) the Waucoma Lakes Loop

I got out of the car and took a deep breath. It was a breath of relief, but also one of trepidation. We -- my brother-in-law and our friend -- had just arrived at the Black Lake Campground in the Mt. Hood National Forest, though getting to this point had been... dicey? I wondered what we might have gotten ourselves into, and if we could get ourselves out of it without incident.

Fortunately, we did. And it was a nearly perfect weekend getaway.

A little background: our crew had been planning a three-night backpacking trek for several months. This included several day hikes of varying difficulty to make sure we were aligned on everything from socializing to how we prefer to hike. It also included some research on our planned route: a trip down the West Fork Foss trail and then off-trail to Chetwoot Lake. Dates were selected for the trip: an early August weekend, one of the statistically driest times of the year in the Pacific Northwest. It also happens to be one of the driest summers we've had. Seemed like the kind of odds no casino would ever offer.

Except! As launch day approached, so did... a storm? Really? Of course, the region being what it is, it wouldn't be the weather if the forecast didn't change in the hours leading up to when we were leaving. The morning before, it looked like we might dodge the rain entirely. By evening, the National Weather Service was calling for a classic Puget Sound Convergence Zone (learn here) and, bottom line, we were scrambling to find a new trip that looked dry. The best place to find this appeared to be to the south.

We ended up settling on the Waucoma Lakes Loop Hike. This looked gorgeous, the trail description was thorough and, via some hastily printed maps from the National Park Service web site (for instance, the PDF found on this page), we felt good to go, especially with a much sunnier weather forecast.

In my haste, I missed a key page. This one. There's an interesting phrase on that page, right near the top: "High clearence (sic) vehicle required due to poor road conditions."

I don't have one of those. I have a normal sedan with about eight inches of clearance. I am no stranger to National Forest Roads. I am also used to researching my hikes on sites like WTA.org, which lists road conditions on the front page. Oregonhikers.org isn't as clear. Is that little car icon next to the trailhead name on the Waucoma home page an indication of what kind of vehicle you need? These were questions I only got to after our hike.

Reader, do not take a sedan to Rainy Lake Campground/Trailhead. We did. The car managed to survive. We did not bottom out even once, though this comes with some notes:
  • Big, jagged rocks. Impossible to avoid on many sections of the road. My hiking buddies turned into a rock-clearing crew on three occasions as we drove in.
  • Many areas of single lane driving with shrubs scraping the side of the car to avoid the huge pothole on either side.
  • One absolutely impossible spot that I am still amazed we cleared. Heading in, it was just short of the fork between the roads to the Black Lake and Rainy Lake Campgrounds. It's hard to describe, but, from the driver's seat, it appeared to be about an 8-inch face of rock buried in the road and behind it about a 12-inch deep pothole. Have you ever moved a bulky object into a too-small apartment? You know, when you have spotters making sure you don't scrape walls and so forth? That is what we did. My companions who weren't driving claimed it was scary enough and they weren't holding the wheel. Bear in mind, you have to do this twice because what goes into the dead end trailhead must come back out.
Anyhow, it took us a very long time to get from Hood River, OR to the trailhead, mainly because of road conditions. In fact, we even went to the wrong trailhead. We wanted to go to Rainy Lake, but ended up at Black Lake. At first this seemed OK; our maps indicated a trail we could hike up to Rainy. But, after 20 minutes of initial hiking, each of us with packs heavy for up to three nights in the woods, we could not find the trail.

It was quite a feeling: you've driven a long way into a trail area you aren't sure you can drive out of without the very real possibility of becoming stranded with a damaged car in an area with no cell phone reception. Hoo boy.

Suffice it to say, we weren't off to a good start.

We agreed that instead of bogging around looking for the trail, we'd drive back and find the Rainy Lake trailhead. Fortunately, doubling back was on passable portion of road. We arrived at the proper spot and, lo-and-behold, there was the Rainy Lake Trail, even nicely signed. Our trip was under way.

The hike description details what amounts to a bow tie with one spur off to North Lake. It was mid-afternoon and we figured we could go there and see about a campsite, knowing that with a lake there, we would have a for-sure source of water.

The walk was wonderful. Only about 1.25 miles to start with. We hiked through an incredibly diverse forest. It's neat being right on the border of the western Cascades and the nearby high desert. We got a mix of forest types that seemed to change by the quarter mile: impossibly tall Douglas Firs  and ferns here and then, suddenly, other types of conifers and bear grass.

We got to North Lake and found a tremendous camp site. There are a handful of others in the area, too. We made camp and then, shortly after 5 p.m., decided to hike up to Green Point Mountain, based on the trail guide's description of the view. It was absolutely worth the walk and, since we had set up camp, we were able to do it without the heavy packs. At the top, one of the best views of Mt. Hood I can imagine came into view, along with Mt. Adams to the north and a view straight west that showed an evergreen ridge first, then a ridge that only had evergreens on north-facing spurs and then high desert ridges beyond. The transition zone never looked so wonderful.
Mt. Hood from Green Point Ridge.
We headed back to camp and got our lanterns going. No campfires are permitted as of this writing due to how dry things are and be advised that rangers are patrolling for this. I spoke with one the final day of our trip and she said it's their primary focus at the moment.

Night fell and the calls of who knows how many kinds of birds gave way to the night sounds of the forest. It was a completely clear night and, from the lake shore, we could see the Milky Way and shooting stars. A day that started out rough ended in bliss.

Day 2 saw us hike in earnest. We deviated from the trail description route since we had already climbed Green Point Ridge. Instead, we went back to the Rainy Lake Campground, which allowed us to empty trash to lighten our loads even a little and use something of a proper toilet. Then, we hiked the Rainy-Wahtum Trail up. Up a lot actually. We reached the junction with the Herman Creek Cutoff Trail and began a significant descent... about 1,600'. Welcoming us to this gorge were several small creeks and, as the name might suggest, the more significant stream that is Herman Creek. We found a campground (the trail description calls it Seven Mile Camp, but our maps called it Noble Camp) and staked our spot. We could filter water from the stream a tenth of a mile away. And we were surrounded by some of the largest trees you can imagine, towering Douglas Firs.
Trees dwarf our tents on Night 2.

This area was buggier than our Lake campsite, but the trees did provide some shelter from a bit of light overnight rain. Nothing like what was forecast up north, at least. We played cards, read our books and reveled in the solitary conditions. The whole trip, we saw, perhaps, six or seven other people. Deep in a gorge in a Wilderness Area that is difficult to access? Now that's my kind of party.

I should note that while both areas had places to put a bear hang, the tall trees made this a harder task at Noble Camp. There just aren't a ton of just-high-enough-just-low-enough branches. Some of these trees don't have a branch until you're up 100'.

Day 3 began with a hike up the Herman Creek Trail to get to the Anthill Trail and then to complete our loop on the Rainy-Wahtum Trail. As advertised, there was a major thicket of Devil's Club and nettle. I highly recommend pants and sleeves on that portion of the hike (or a machete!). In fact, there are overgrown sections throughout the hike and, sadly, many of them overgrown with Devil's Club. If there is a downside to this hike, that might be it, so come prepared.

We stopped at Mud Lake on the way, walking right through a campsite to get there. As of this month, Mud Lake is basically an insectarium. There may have been a hive of wasps there as well, judging by the buzzing I got after taking a step on my way up from the lake. As my brother-in-law said of the spur to Mud Lake, "It's a long 0.2 miles." Not sure it's worth the trip.

Also, we chose to skip Wahtum Lake as trail guides indicated it is one spot in this area where there are frequently a lot of people. We weren't interested in the company of others.

The walk along the Rainy-Wahtum Trail was rocky at times, but it made up for it with views. Tomlike Mountain is in close view with Mt. St. Helens behind. Mt. Hood plays a starring role.

We had been considering a third night in the woods, right at the campsites along Rainy Lake, but since we had an early start, we opted to get out early, enjoy some non-camping food and the comforts of home. After the tough navigation out (again, with the car essentially being spotted through danger), we pulled into Full Sail Brewing for celebratory vittles and beers.

This was a great hike. In total, my FitBit says we logged about 25 miles over three days. That's with destination hiking, side trips and general running around. Not a pace a Pacific Crest Trail through-hiker would envy, but perfect for leaving time for enjoyment. Getting to this spot is not half the fun, but once you're into the wilderness, it's one of the prettier mountain-and-forest spots I've seen in the PNW.

2 comments:

Julia said...

Yay! Don't those trees just blow you away?

Jay said...

For sure. The trees are just.. no words. Just amazing.