Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Hiking/Backpacking the Meander Meadow-Dishpan Gap-Cady Ridge Loop

It looks and sounds perfect. For a novice-backpacker-yet-seasoned-hiker like me, it seemed like the perfect place to not only stretch my own abilities, but also take a first time backpacker who wanted to touch the Pacific Crest Trail.

Then, I started to read the trip reports: overgrown trails, a bad road in... all with the spectre of mountain thunderstorms. What was I getting into here?

It started innocently enough in January. A friend from Tennessee (not the mountain-y part) expressed an interested in trying out camping and hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail. Since the book and movie Wild came out, I can imagine more than a few folks visualized themselves surrounded by scenery among some of the most rugged mountains on the continent.

Being the instigator that I am, I told her she should feel free to come on out. I had done a late summer trek last year, my first time with a heavy overnight pack, and was up for trying another trip. Conversation ensued... and then life did. The first five months of this year were some of the most insane I've ever had (yay adulting!) and I could barely plan my own hiking trips. Credit to my friend who does not let her wanderlust go unsated.

It was May when she got back in touch, basically saying "where are we going?" Some internet sleuthing and email exchanges later, plane tickets were acquired and the Meander Meadow-Dishpan Gap-Cady Ridge Loop had been selected.

I had been gearing up. Camp stove. Water filtration (real water filtration, not the filter bottle I'd use in day hike emergencies.) Tent. Sleeping Pad. Etc. But it wasn't until loading up my pack and weighing myself that I took pause: a 57-pound bag when loaded with water. Wowza. Granted, my tent and sleeping bag are probably better suited for car camping, but when you go out in the woods once a year, a cheaper-but-heavier tent sounds real good. I comforted myself by saying this was still less than 1/3 of my body weight (barely), a figure someone once quoted to me as the max you could realistically carry.

So, out we went on a bright Saturday morning, loaded up on pancakes and sausage and eagerness. Over Stevens Pass we went, past Lake Wenatchee, on to Forest Service Road 65 and, gee the trail guide said this was rough gravel not "rocky obstacle course." I drive a pretty low-clearance car and, some day, for my hiking desires, this is going to need to change. I'm about this close to thinking the best solution is to find someone selling a beat up truck for a low price, splitting the cost of the thing with 3-4 folks (preferably one with a parking spot for it) and only drive that to hike. Took 20 minutes just to do 3 miles of this mess.Ugh.

Now, the trip reports said the first trail we would take, the Little Wenatchee River Trail, was badly overgrown. Before signing the trip register, we encountered a father and son who had just completed this trail. It went like this:

"How is it?"

"Lots and lots of wet brush. Maybe now that the sun is up it will be dry."

"How bad?"

"Pretty bad."

That feeling when you've dragged your really eager friend out to the woods and someone says the first part is going to suck.

Luckily, since I do read trip reports, this was confirmation, not a surprise. I had warned my friend that day one was likely going to be the hardest part: a long hike, with a big climb, through all kinds of mess.

And the mess starts right away. Less than a 1/4 mile in, you reach the junction where the Cady Creek Trail breaks from the Little Wenatchee River Trail. You turn that corner and into the brush.

Reader, I hate brush when I'm hiking. An overgrown trail might even be my least favorite way to hike. Add in the heavy pack, mostly full exposure to the sun (save for a few lovely forest groves) and it was a slog. Some areas of the trail have brush as tall as my six-foot frame. The trail is easy to follow as it's where the gap in the brush appears to be. You can't always see the trail, though, which means you cannot see the rocks, holes, mudholes, roots and more. It is not fast hiking. And that's before the climb up the dang hill. Apparently, it's a 1,400' climb in two miles. It most certainly felt like it.

Did I mention the bugs? No? OK, here goes: thousands of bugs and all of them flying around me. Even the DEET I had on hand wasn't enough to ward them all away. I can't imagine we did those two miles in less than 90 minutes. That said, the views were stunning. At one point, we turned a corner and what was either a blue or spruce grouse was sitting in the middle of the trail. Little things on a slog hike keep you going. Here, we were lucky to have several.

All the steps counted, though. The brush yielded to grass and wildflowers and a small wooden sign said "Meander Meadows." The Meadow has several fantastic campsites with existing fire rings. Even a privy, which, I am told, "has a great view, at least."

After setting camp, we hiked up the the trail junction with the Pacific Crest Trail taking only water and a camera. The reward was a view of Glacier Peak in the late day sun. A tough day was ending well. We slept like crazy.

The next morning, we woke to full sun and had chosen a leisurely day. Most days when I hike, I still feel the tick of the clock. The need to press on as to not get home so late. This day, no such obligation existed. Our goal was to hike back up to the PCT, walk it only to Lake Sally Ann, take a ton of pictures along the way and just enjoy being out in the woods. To say it was a success doesn't quite capture.

The views were sublime. Often, on a day hike, I see some really gorgeous things, but always feel I am on the periphery of the mountains. Getting deep inside the Cascades requires more of a day to drive and hike. Here, I felt in the middle of it all. Aside from nearby Glacier Peak to the north, the Monte Cristos were to the west. Mt. Hinman and Mt. Daniel to the south, with Mt. Stuart making a cameo. Layer upon layer of mountains that show why they're called the Cascades in the first place.

We ran into a forest ranger along the way. When informing her of our destination, she noted that it was likely to get very crowded there. In fact, another hiker had told us it had basically been a party atmosphere at Lake Sally Ann the previous night. The ranger also noted that we would be wise to avoid the privy at the lake as, not only was it full (gross), but when she went to do something about it, a wasp attacked her, causing her hand to swell. This poor ranger was walking through the woods with a spade and a swollen hand and had 15 miles left on her duty. We need to fund the Forest Service better.

Lake Sally Ann is also a sight. I love an alpine lake and this one, though small, is tremendously gorgeous, with a rock face to one side, meadows on other flanks and a nearly sheer drop to the east. Indeed, a lot of folks did end up making camp there. We rinsed our sweaty/sunscreeny/DEETy limbs in the lake and indulged. I took a side trip to ridge with a view of Rainier. We both sat and read our books and drank the whiskey I refuse to camp without. With no cell service to speak of, it was a complete relaxation. Once you can't do anything about your phone not having signal, and knowing it won't change for more than a day, you deal. I need to do this more.

Day three involved the roughly seven mile walk back to the trailhead. The Cady Ridge trail was just fantastic with wildflowers and views. Just perfect scenery to end the day with. That said, the descent is the real deal.Two miles of the descent are extremely steep. Th whole trail involved a 2,700' elevation change and a big chunk of it is contained in this climb. With no real water source, it would be a poor alternative to the brushy madness of the Little Wenatchee Trail. You get to pick your poison to start this hike; pick the one where your water supply will survive.

Sore and tired - but also elated - we ended back at the trailhead. I'll admit that I didn't really relax until driving back over the rough forest road safely. But, by the time I had a burger and milkshake in hand at the Alpen Drive In in Startup, WA, I was still smiling remembering all of the moments.

The one that I think will stick with me? Moon shadows. The moon is bright and all, but I don't think I'd ever been anywhere where the moon was the only light for miles. With our eyes adjusted to darkness, the moon lit up the valley the first night of camping, cast clear shadows on the ground. It was incredible.

I also have to call out my hiking buddy who not only gets the backpacking rookie of the year award, but really handled the whole trip better than many novices might. The bugs were an annoyance, but they did not shatter the mood. As much as I took steps to enjoy my own hike, I wanted to make sure my friend left wanting more, like she would after a good concert where the band left it all on stage with no encore. That said, the scenery on this trail makes that easy.

This hike is a challenge, but like so many hikes in the Evergreen State, you are richly rewarded for your efforts.