February 28, 2012

The British are Coming!

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades — geezerwriter @ 8:08 pm

PNT sign

On a cold, sunny Monday morning I set out to explore the so-called British Army Trail on Blanchard Mountain, part of the Pacific Northwest Trail system or PNT. We have poked around the upper end of the trail near Lizard Lake on past hikes but had never investigated it further. The trail is marked on the PNT map of the Blanchard area and I attempted to trace it onto my Garmin mapping software BaseCamp so that I could transfer  it to my handheld GPS unit. That trace told me to expect about 3.2 miles of hiking to get to Lizard Lake from the trailhead near Lake Samish, although that would probably be a low estimate since the map can’t show all the squiggles of a mountain trail.

The drainage is poor at times.

From the trailhead on Summerland Road, where there is room for several cars, I started hiking on an old logging road. In about a mile, after crossing a bridge over Bear Creek, it quickly deteriorated (i.e., improved) into something that was more like a trail. The drainage in spots was less than perfect (see photo on the right) but it was always manageable. In one steep section, water was pouring right down the center of the path and had cut through the soil to the bedrock.

I could see the occasional PNT blaze marking (a vertical white paint stripe about 3″ wide and 6″long) on a tree but they were few and far between and turning rather grey and tree-colored – this is not one of the best-maintained elements of the PNT. (I talked to Pat this morning and he said that there is some work going on, but there are some landowner relationship issues in places where the trail crosses private land.)

When this trail segment popped out onto a road after about a mile I saw the two vertically stacked blazes that signify a turn but was reminded that the PNT system does not tell you which way to turn. (Pat also tells me that they are working on this, too.) I think the idea is that when you get to such a place you are supposed to look both ways and you will see a blaze and can head toward it. This has a predictable shortcoming on a poorly maintained trail – no blaze in sight. I went left for a bit and then back to the right and ultimately spied some faded old blazes which led me for about a quarter mile up the road and to a short section of trail.

rabbit tracks on a tree

The next road segment was longer and was well blazed – too well, as it turns out. I had traced the printed PNT map, rather roughly, onto my GPS and had stayed reasonably close to the trace, so I knew I had to start moving to my left soon for the climb to Lizard Lake. Then, sure enough, on my left I see a tree next to a road going off to the left with four, count ’em, four prominent blazes in a pattern that looked like a rabbit’s tracks in the snow. All in all, it seemed like a good idea to turn, and there was only one way to turn (and that red mark at the bottom of the picture is part of an arrow pointing in the same direction), so I turned.

Oh, there it is!

Oh, there it is!

In a short distance, maybe 100 yards, there was a very rough hint of a trail headed uphill on the right. It was tempting but it had no markings at all to suggest PNT or that it went anywhere, so I gave it a miss and headed on up the road. Pretty soon I started stepping on some snow (about 1200′ elevation) and the road kept on to east with no signs or blazes. From the good condition and direction of travel, I began to suspect that I was on road B-1000 which wraps way around the east side of the mountain and leads to the trailheads we usually use near Barrel Springs Road. That was not at all where I wanted to be, so I decided to go back and try something else.

At about the point where I passed the scratch trail I could suddenly see gleaming, clear as day, a fresh white stripe on a tree along the road where I would have gone if I had just ignored the “rabbit tracks” altogether! (In the picture, we are looking back at the “rabbit tracks” tree on the right and the blaze is just left of center in the distance.) I am not exactly the Most Observant Person in the world (actually I am in the running for “Least”) but I might have been able to see that blaze the first time if the “rabbit tracks” hadn’t distracted me. (BTW Pat tells me that that scratch trail was for real – it was roughed in a couple of years ago but never to full PNT standards. Next time…)

British Army Trail

British Army Trail

Anyways, none the worse for wear, I headed on up the road, still hoping for a turn to the left. When the road took a distinct curve to the right and started going downhill, and my GPS again showed divergence from my tracery, I turned around and marched back once more. As I came around the curve there was a perfectly obvious and excellent trail taking off across its own little culvert! I had walked blithely past it five minutes before and it is hard to imagine how I missed it – there were even some blazes on a tree across from the trail. Now the trail was angled back a little and the blazes were small and faded, but I still got a good number of points in the Least Observant Person standings.

Well it is way too late to make a long story short, but suffice it to say that this was indeed the vaunted British Army Trail, well blazed and marked by the sign at the start of this post. It is a bit steep in spots but is in great condition; it curves up to the south and east and joins the rest of the Blanchard Mountain trail system along the shore of Lizard Lake.

After a short lunch break, I was surprised when my GPS let me know that I had gone 4.8 miles and gained nearly 2000 feet of elevation – my map tracing was only 3.2 miles and I had only been hiking for 2½ hours. On the way back I somehow managed to avoid my earlier missteps and logged 4.2 miles, making this a reasonable hike for the Senior Trailblazers. It reminded me a little of the Anderson Mountain hike, since almost half of the trip is on roads, but some of the roads are pretty old and shaded. And all in all it was a pleasant walk. On a blustery day we could hunker down for lunch (as I did) at Lizard Lake; or take the short trip up to North Butte for a nice view if the weather was good.

For all you map lovers out there, here’s a copy of my tracks (using Garmin BaseCamp software)

British Army Trail Map

British Army Trail Map

Legend: The red tracks are trails and the blue are roads. The drab green, angular line is my tracing from the PNT map. And the pinkish pigtails are places where I went off in the wrong direction.



  1. This makes me think we will actually do this trail in mid-March. I look forward to it, and I do hope for some decent weather. Tomorrow (Thursday) was rain free in the forecast until yesterday. Now, well… I’ll be bringing my raincoat.

    Comment by DJan — February 29, 2012 @ 5:57 am

  2. Wow, I’ve never connected it with the bottom part. Looks like it’s not so bad. Can’t wait to get on this one from the bottom:)

    Comment by Justin — March 2, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

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