Washington state hiking: A walk up Mica Peak

There are some states where if you don’t find a way to get outside and step on a trail, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Washington is one of those states. Three mountain ranges cross the state from north to south: The Olympics, the Cascades, and to the east, the Selkirk Range.

The Selkirks won’t garner the love that the Olympics or the Cascades get, but if you’re in Spokane or the Idaho towns to the east, there’s plenty to do and see.

One of the simple pleasures for the outdoorist is a long mountain hike. And just east of Spokane Valley, you have one in Mica Peak.

The mountain is easy to distinguish: There’s a white, globe-like structure perched at its summit, like some giant golf ball awaiting God’s tee time (in reality, it’s an FAA radar station).

My hiking buddy on this one, Doug, lives in Spokane Valley and he sees the mountain every time he walks out his front door. He’s been eyeballing this ever since moving here with his family about a year ago. I needed a good training hike, so up we went.

There are a lot of trails on this mountain, and the paths themselves are a mix of jeep roads, singletrack and, close to the top, a wide gravel road. There are a lot of side trails, too, so it’s a good idea to study a map before you go. Otherwise, it’s easy to get off course (we did that a few times and turned an 11-mile out-and-back summit hike into some just over 13 miles. Oops.).

The basic route we followed was looking for markers that pointed toward “Moonshine.”

That path has you choose between what look like a fork in the road (really, two jeep trails) early on. The more established one to the left is the way to go. The route will mostly stay on a path like this following the ridgeline for a few miles. Some might balk at the idea of hiking on a jeep trail, but the scenery is just as good from it as it would be any singletrack. Sweeping overlooks into the valley to the west as well as nearby wooded ridges abound as you ascend, though we had a hard time seeing many of them because of the weather: Clouds, light rain and even some fog obscured most of the views on the way up, though there is an appeal to the look of a misty forest, where stands of trees disappear into the gloom of the fog. A whole different feel for sure.

Not far from the top, the route changes its spots: Double-track jeep trails give way to an abrupt right turn up a steep singletrack path that ascends sharply for about a quarter mile. Most of the route to this point is a gentle but steady incline, but now at about 5,000 feet, you give your legs and lungs more of a test. Once we topped out there, we were greeted by two things: a sweeping view of the valley below, and that gravel road I mentioned that continued up. The slope eased some here, and before we knew it, the FAA’s giant golf ball appeared through the mists. We’d topped out.

As I said before, the weather gave us light rain and drizzle most of the day. But by the time we were at the summit (and lunch!) it was 38 degrees and snowing. Yup, late May in the mountains – even mountains that don’t quite reach a mile above sea level – can bring snow. It was a tasty but chilly lunch, and we didn’t waste too much time getting a move-on.

On the way down, the clouds lifted a little, and we were treated to better views. There was plenty of evidence of wildlife (Spokane County maintains much of the mountain for recreation and as a nature preserve), be it droppings from deer or, we suspected, large predators. One paw print looked like it very well could have been from a decent sized cat. Mountain lions, black bear, moose, elk, deer and more call these woods home.

In the middle of all this was conversation. You know you’ve found a good hiking buddy when you don’t run out of words (though I’ll admit to clamming up on higher altitude peaks). Discussions included cars, family, sports, jobs and more. It definitely makes those miles tick by faster.

By the time we got back to the trailhead, the sun was poking through the clouds, which were busy trying to clear out. Mica Peak’s summit was still hidden in clouds, but somewhere up there was that giant golf ball in the sky, something Doug will be able to show his kids and say, “I’ve been up there.”

About the route: If you do it right (and not get off track like we did), the round-trip hike is about 11 miles with somewhere near 2,500 feet of vertical gain. All Class 1 hiking, with a short stretch of steeper Class 2 close to the top just before you reach the gravel road. The true summit is a fenced-off FAA site that does not have public access.

Bob Doucette

Barnstorming the Pacific Northwest

Mount St. Helens as seen in the summer. Bummer that I wasn’t afforded this view. More on that later.

In the days following the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens, I learned that ash from the volcano would eventually circle the globe. As a grade school kid living in the shadow of a bunch of other high mountains, the saga that unfolded in the Pacific Northwest fascinated me.

Years later, it still does. Maybe more than any single location in that part of the country, a visit to this scene of volcanic violence has been on my mind for some time.

I got a chance to head that direction last week, but with just two days to explore the area, this leg of the trip turned out to be a barnstorming tour, hitting the highlights of one locale briefly before moving on to the next.

It wasn’t enough, but at the same time, was plenty good. The drive west from Spokane to the Cascades stoked my appetite to see more.

Spokane reminds me a lot of Denver. It’s relatively dry, but gets enough snow and rain to support large stands of pine and spruce forests, which grow thicker as you move east. But 20 minutes west of the city, Washington state flattens and dries out, leaving a rolling landscape that supports mostly scrub brush, irrigated farms and sporadic vineyards.

But I noticed something else. Rocky outcrops occasionally jutted out the hillsides, revealing blackened stone. In the fields, rocks of similar composition littered open rangeland. It reminded me of the vast grazing lands of northeastern New Mexico, territory no good for farming because underneath thin topsoil were the hardened remains of ancient lava flows.

Washington, like the rest of the West Coast, is known for its seismic activity. The great Cascade peaks are all volcanoes, powered by an offshore subduction zone where one tectonic plate reluctantly slides under another. Once these fault lines slip, massive earthquakes and tsunamis can result. Pressure deep underground also pushes magma to the surface, which in turn erupts to form the enormous piles of ash and rock that, on most days, look like grand mountain scenes.

But here I was, hundreds of miles from that fault line, and evidence of volcanic activity was all around.

The mighty Columbia River, seen from an overlook east of Yakima, Wash.

It became more stark once Interstate 90 crossed the Columbia River. A deep gorge has been carved into the landscape, with layers of volcanic rock exposed by the gash in the earth carved by the river. It’s worth a stop to take it in.

Across the bridge, the landscape begins to change. The gentle hills of the middle of the state give way to bigger, steeper slopes. In the distance, barren mountains appear. And beyond them, you can see the snowy peaks of the Cascades.

I knew that once we entered the range, it would become much greener. But out here, the rain shadow of the Cascades leaves behind a desert that extends south into Oregon. Most great mountain ranges do this: On one side of the range, atmospheric moisture is hemmed in, dropping rain and snow in abundance, creating lush forests and grasslands. The other side is left with thirsty scrublands and deserts.

West of Yakima, there are a number of roads that lead to Mount Rainier National Park, the first stop on this jaunt. Mount Rainier is a bucket list climb for me, so seeing it was high on my list. As it turns out, even in mid-May a number of passes and roads leading to the park are closed, still buried under snow. But we got there, only to be greeted by thick clouds and occasional rain.

Mount Rainier, with its upper reaches obscured by clouds. This would be a theme.

I knew the mountain was huge – much bigger in mass than anything in the Rockies, and at 14,410 feet above sea level, one of the highest peaks in the contiguous United States. We got to see the peak up to about 10,000 feet, and it is indeed enormous. This much I would tell, even with the top 4,000 feet or so socked in by clouds. Funny thing about the Cascades – they don’t always avail themselves to the views craved by tourists. We saw what we could see, then beat a path toward Mount St. Helens.

The hope was that the weather that cloaked Rainier would clear out by the time we got to Mount St. Helens. But all the way up the road leading to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, it was clouds, rain and fog. There was a good chance there’s be nothing to see at all.

Once we got there, we got what I’d call “a true mountain experience.” Winds were hitting us at 20-30 mph, laden with rain and sleet. Once at the observatory, most of the mountain was shrouded in swirling gray mists.

Oy. What to do. I could see right up to the bottom of the crater, but no further. Socked in again. But with the winds blowing hard, I thought there might be a chance it would blow enough of the cloud cover away to reveal more of the mountain.

Mount St. Helens, mostly hidden by clouds and fog. Still pretty impressive.

So I hiked out on the ridge, my attempt to wait it out. Clouds whipped by, and high whistling sounds whipped through the tree limbs of the few evergreens that were growing out here. Once lush with old growth forest, Mount  St. Helens erupted with such violence that it wiped out thousands of acres of woodland, buried Spirit Lake, and caused a collapse of the mountain that caused its summit elevation to drop by more than 1,300 feet. Pre-eruption, its near-perfect conical form earned it the nickname “America’s Mount Fuji,” but now it’s shaped like an amphitheater, with a small but growing lava dome at the bottom of the bowl of the now hollowed-out mountain.

Even with so much hidden from view, seeing the landscape around the mountain was fascinating. Grasses and willows now carpeted the scarred land, the area a mix of browns and light greens surrounded by forest covered ridges. I imagine from the air, it looks like a giant scar (which it is), with Mount St. Helens at the epicenter.

Hiking out on the ridge, I fought the winds, the cold and the rain. One day I’d like to hike the munros of Scotland, and I imagined the weather was a lot like this. I confess to having the wrong clothes to be out there in those conditions, so it didn’t take long to get a bit soaked. Hiking back to the car, I gave up waiting out the mountain, snapped the best pics I could and called it a win. It’s a marvelous place, and I hope to come back on a day when the weather is more forgiving.

Multnomah Falls, Ore. Highly recommend this accessible stop along the Columbia River Gorge.

A night’s sleep means turning back east, but not before making one last stop, this one requiring far less effort. On the Oregon side of the Columbia River, east of Portland, tall waterfalls drop from steep cliffs. Of these, Multnomah Falls is the most dramatic. A thin, silvery band of water drops 611 feet from the cliffs above, falling into thickly wooded, moss-covered basins below. The drive to the falls is pretty, and you can pull over to see other handsome waterfalls as well. But Multnomah is the monarch of the Columbia River Gorge falls, made more majestic by a bridge centered about a third of the way up that makes for an excellent viewing deck. Scores of camera-laden tourists happily made their way up to the falls, looking for that perfect pic. Honestly, you’d have to have terrible photo skills to not get something gorgeous.

Driving back east toward Spokane became a review of what was seen on the way out west. It’s easy to looks at landscapes and see “mountains,” “deserts,” “hills,” “rivers” and whatnot. But what struck me is that all these landscapes were related, made the way they are because huge pieces of the earth are in a slow-motion collision eons in the making. Everything is connected here, born from the same ongoing geologic trauma. Sometimes that brings on cataclysmic eruptions or earthquakes. But on nearly every other day, we’re given natural spectacles that stick in our memories for years to come.

Pastoral scene, with Mount Hood in the background.

Bob Doucette