Saturday, January 1, 2011

Heather Lake on New Year's Eve


Met up with Kris and Kevin in Mount Vernon on Friday morning to attempt a snowshoe trek from the Mountain Loop Highway up to Heather Lake at the base of Mount Pilchuck.

The weather proved to be perfectly glorious. Blue skies. No wind. Cold temps... kept the fresh snow on the trees instead of forcing us to dodge snow bombs all day.

The trail to Heather Lake is a popular route in all four seasons and today was no different. The icy conditions between Granite Falls and Verlot didn't keep the diehards away.

Upon our arrival at the trail head, it was surprising to see the gate for the Pilchuck road was wide open. Generally it's closed by this point in the year. More on that topic later.

After figuring out how to attach three pairs of snowshoes to two backpacks (yippee for zip ties) we began our 1.5 mile ascent toward the lake.

There was only a small amount of snow on the ground at the trail head - no need for snowshoes, yet. We brought them anyway because we weren't sure if they would be needed as we reached the lake. Rumor has it that they are necessary to circumnavigate the lake.

We made slow progress on the trail. While the route isn't steep, there tends to be a lot of water flowing over the trail and down the trail throughout most of the year. In winter, the water turns to ice but is generally covered by snowfall - protecting you from the slick ice lurking beneath.

At the time of our visit we found most of the trail to be covered with a solid sheet of ice. These were perfect conditions for your MICROspikes, Yak Trax or Stabilicers but unfortunately we didn't have either of those with us. Hiking poles and a good sense of humor were our preferred methods of defense against a fall or an injury.

Here is a sample of the trail ice we encountered. Water has frozen in waves as it tried to continue flowing down this rock. Very slick indeed.

The snow finally deepened as we approached the lake. A boot path has been created by all the previous visitors so snowshoes are not currently required - as long as you remain on the established route.

View across the Lake:

There were huge icicles hanging from the cliffs across the lake. Here I've circled such a cliff section... and then zoomed in to 10x to get some detail:

Once at the lake we took a break for some pictures and lunch. Crackers and cheese seemed to be the topic of interest.

Tree branches near the lake were covered with ice crystals resembling rock candy:

The sheer size of the cliffs and the size of the lake make it almost impossible to capture the whole dramatic scene with a regular camera. You really need a good wide angle lens to get all of it. I don't have one of those. There is a 'panorama' mode on the camera, so I gave it a shot. Next time it would be wise to actually use the tripod that was in my backpack. Maybe this is what you would see if you lived in a bubble and hiked to Heather Lake:

We agreed that we'd leave a circumnavigation of the lake for a future date. Really, we just didn't want to deal with having to zip-tie the snowshoes back onto the pack and wanted to save some energy to carefully navigate the ice during the descent.

As we descended back toward the parking lot we came across a couple unique scenes that we missed during the ascent (too busy trying to watch our footing I guess).

Here is a creek that we crossed. There is a small waterfall with ice at the top and the bottom but water flowing through the middle. A fast blink at the picture might look a little like some kind of one-eyed ice monster with an open mouth... with a severe drooling problem. Or maybe I read too many Stephen King novels in the last two weeks.


Next up: The towering wall of icicles. You probably wouldn't want to venture into these trees when the temperature starts to rise!

Trail route as per GPS:

Upon our return to the trail head, we observed that the gate on the Mt. Pilchuck road was now closed -- with four vehicles parked on the locked side of the gate. Whoops!

Reminder to everyone that a NW Forest Pass is required for parking at the Heather Lake trail head. Even in winter.

Thank you, Kevin and Kris, for putting up with the terrible trail ice. It's not normal - I promise. Next time we head out we'll be sure the snowshoes are actually necessary.

My next outing is scheduled for January 8, 2011.
Here is a link to the (always tentative and subject to change) 2011 Hiking Calendar.

Happy Trails!


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