April 28, 2010

Another Stewart Mountain HIke?

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 12:19 pm

Yesterday I went exploring on the south side of Olsen Creek to see if there was any potential for a new “shoulder season” hike. The hike we do most often is on the north side of the creek and goes to a point near the northern summit of Stewart, but on the western side of the ridge where there is no view of the big mountains. We hike for a couple of miles on a logging road and then another couple of miles on a decommissioned road/trail that is steep in places and can be very muddy, or even submerged, especially in the spring.

It had been a number of years since I’d ventured over to the south side. We had planned to go over there once last year, but when we got to the decisive fork on the road we could hear and see that there was some heavy logging activity that was best avoided. About a half mile from the trailhead there is a woodland trail that bypasses some of the road, but it is accessed by fording the creek and the water was just a bit high for me – I was wearing new boots that were advertised to be waterproof but I didn’t want to jeopardize the whole day. Maybe I would come that way on the way back.

View from the end of the new road

So I headed on up the road, taking the fork over the steel bridge and up fairly steeply for a couple of miles and 1000′ of elevation. The recent clear-cutting had opened up some nice views of the north end of Lake Whatcom and the San Juan Islands, the only benefit anyone without a logging truck gains from this scabrous “forestry” practice. Someone once told me that there was a trail somewhere here on the south side of the creek that went north, crossed the creek and joined up with our familiar trail on the north side; one time Jerry had pointed out the junction to me. I didn’t have a lot of hope of finding those old trails, but there was a small, new track leading leading on from the end of the road toward the woods, where a couple of bits of flagging tape were visible. When I got there I found a fairly well established trail. Just a few yards further the trail broadened out into what had to be a very old roadway.

While I was studying my GPS and deciding whether to continue, I happened to look up and see tacked to a tree a small wooden sign with an arrow pointing east: “Ogallala 1,450 miles”. Aside from the obvious indication that somewhere in Whatcom County there is an expatriate Nebraskan with a wood burning kit, this meant that I was back on the old trail: I remembered seeing this sign years ago. (I didn’t remember the details, but I did remember finding a strange “Wall Drug” sort of sign out in the middle of the woods.) Thus I knew I was on some sort of trail, and one that had a chance of looping back to the north across the creek. So I decided to forge on until the trail became hard to follow or until noon or until I’d gone 5 miles, whichever came first.

For quite a while the trail was more or less level, staying between 1550′ and 1650′, rather muddy and a bit overgrown in low spots (there are horse trails, after all), but easy to follow. Sometimes the trail seemed to be on an old roadbed – there is even a quaint wooden footbridge over a stream where there may have been a vehicle bridge once. The only problem was that the track was heading relentlessly to the southeast, getting further and further from the destination I was hoping for. And just past that bridge the trail started climbing. Since the place where the trail would cross the creek would have to be at about 1600′, the climbing wasn’t a good sign either.

But soon the trail turned back toward the north for a good distance, bringing me within about of mile of the north side trail. But then it turned back to the southeast again, and climbed, and back to the north, and back, and up, and I was giving up. At a couple of these turns it looked as if there might be a track to the north, but I was getting tired and certainly not interested in getting into any bushwhacking.

By this time the trail was clearly on an old roadbed with the occasional grove of alders, very easy walking and very bright and sunny. I was nowhere near my five mile limit, but I noticed that it was after 12:30. I found a friendly log and stopped to eat, a bit puzzled that I was so tired and that four hours had gone by. (I didn’t realize until much later that the odometer of my Garmin GPSmap 60CSx was back to its old tricks – after I got home I found that I had gone well over 5 miles.) As I sat there and puzzled things out I realized that I had gone quite a bit further east than expected, and the sunniness probably meant that I was right up on top of the mountain, near the ridgeline.

The Sisters Range

This, and the food, pepped me up a bit; I hustled a few hundred feet up the trail and, sure enough, I was looking over the east side of the ridge at the Twin Sisters, or as much of them as the clouds would let me see. Just a bit to the north was what looked like the stump of Mount Baker and off to the south was Lake Whatcom and the Samish flats (and probably the Olympics)

South Lake Whatcom and the Samish flats

North to the Strait of Georgia

Since I was still paying more attention to my GPS than to my body, I headed on along the roadbed toward the north. My topo maps showed a lot of old roads up here near the ridge, even connecting back to the summit of our usual hike. The track was nearly level and very open so maybe I could make it all the way back there and come down the new trails on the north side of the creek.

But I had gone just a short way when all at once the roadway was covered with fresh greenery, and rounding a curve, there was a set of big excavators and the sound of engines. I chatted up the drivers, who said that they were doing a lot of road building, but that it was too wet to work, so I would have no problem if I went further up the road. But, being of the petroleum-based sort, they couldn’t tell me much about trails, except that there was something called “Trail #5” somewhere near.

Tonka Toys at work on the ridge

Any sensible person would have turned back at this point. Heaven only knows what sort of nastiness a hiker can get into in an active logging operation, and I was probably less than a quarter mile from that viewpoint and from there could follow a nice, safe trail back to the car. But I still was thinking about making a loop, so I decided to go on for a bit on the new road. It was indeed muddy in places, and not a lot of fun, when a I came to a tee in the road. The left branch was newly graded, unsurfaced and headed downhill, in roughly the direction I wanted to go. To the right was an older road, also being rebuilt, probably the old road system I’d seen on my maps. I studied the GPS for awhile and decided that the latter way might be a fairly easy walk, but would be just too darn long, probably 6.5 or 7 miles. It would still make sense to head back the way I’d come (5 miles, or so I thought), but I decided to head down the new road, at least as far as a rock pile that might be the end of it. Or not.

I clambered over the rock pile, which appeared to have been recently blasted, and the road continued. It looked like it deteriorated pretty soon, but there were bits of flagging tape going quite a way into the distance. Hoping that this was an old roadbed that connected with the system I’d left hours before, but fully aware that it might come to a sudden end at any moment, I barreled on down.

This was pretty stupid. Even allowing for the built-in stupidity of the whole idea of an old fart going off in the woods by himself, much less bushwhacking, this counts as major stupidity. I could still find my way back out the way I came, no matter what, and there was plenty of daylight left, but I was tired. And now reversing course would involve a fair amount of climbing. So this was really stupid.

And lucky. The old roadway was soon no wider than a foot trail in spots. Then the roadway was no more, but the flagging continued, down a steep trail. And then there was a fork in the trail and a pair of small signs advertising trails number 5 and 8. I had apparently been on Trail #5 for some time, and it seemed to be heading north and steeply downhill. Trial #8 headed south and uphill – possibly it was the link back to the trail I’s come up on. But I still had a bias toward the north, and my body was shouting “Downhill! Go downhill!”, so #5 it would be.

Trillium by the Olsen Creek crossing

The trail dropped very steeply and soon the roar of the creek was unmistakable, and then an easy creek crossing. I was back down to the 1600′ level now and very optimistic that I would soon find the “standard” Olsen Creek trail. It took almost another mile of easy walking, mostly level, until I came to the spot that Jerry had pointed out. I was surprised to see another trail coming into the picture at this point, but I was not about to do any more exploring. It was at this point that I saved a “track log” on my GPS  and discovered that I had gone 9.5 miles, rather than the 7.5 on the odometer. [Fair warning to all owners of Garmin high sensitivity GPS receivers: don’t put any trust in the odometer (or the elevation log, or even the “moving time” clock) unless you are traveling at speeds above 2 miles per hour in clear weather without trees or hills. Even if the unit says that it has a good signal. Garmin does not acknowledge this problem; I couldn’t even get REI to take an interest, even though they gave me two free receivers before I gave up on the whole thing.]

I ended up going about 11.5 miles with 3500′ feet of elevation gain and didn’t get back to the car until almost 4:00, so I’m not about to put this on schedule for the Senior Trailblazers, even though it suits our name better than most hikes. But a fair amount of my time was spent trying out dead ends and being very cautious and watchful, so just going out-and-back to that viewpoint might be manageable on a lovely day. And even if you didn’t get to the viewpoint it is still a nice walk on the woods.

And then there is the seductive mystery of Trail #8…


  1. Well! I think this sounds like it was an adventure that paid off. If you hadn’t gone on any of the backtracking and all, it sounds like it would have been pretty close to 11 miles, it’s just that 3,500 feet of elevation that is a little daunting. Nice trillium picture, BTW. All the ones I saw to take pictures of last week were sad and drenched looking. Maybe tomorrow! I look forward to our hard 10-mile hike you promised. 🙂

    Comment by DJan — April 28, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

  2. I have been out on the trail to the bridge before and I had been a short way up #5 before. I decided last Saturday to try to duplicate your loop recorded here. I know some locals and they confirmed what you did so I had full confidence that this would be FUN! Went up the road over the steel bridge and found that that road now goes 1.7 miles further than last time I was up here. The trailhead at the top is obvious however because the tree with the signage for Ogallala is now road side. Started up there, got to the wooden bridge and continued on up. The trail did exactly as you described and I must say, I like this trail. I hit snow shortly before you pop out of the woods onto the old alder-lined spur road and on this road itself, the snow was substantial. I continued on though really wanting to access the main road encouraged by the fact that I was following in someones recent snowshoe prints. But wow, without snowshoes, this plunge stepping up to my knees quickly got tiring and I turned around about 0.3 miles from the main road (according to GE views). I will have to come back up soon and try this loop again, thanks for the inspiration!

    Comment by Monique Brewer — January 7, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

  3. If you are interested, I went up old # 8 yesterday and it is in pretty good shape all the way up to where it joins #5 for the last 0.25 miles to the logging road. From there it is an easy road walk over to Ogallala and out. I tried walking out on old #5 but the creek is running dangerously high so I had to go back up the hillside to the old #8 intersection to go out.

    Comment by brewermd — February 17, 2016 @ 2:52 pm

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