"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible." ~ T. E. Lawrence
Over the weekend, J and I finally got some more hiking in. This was on our summer to do list but between weddings, camping trips, and weekend excursions it just didn’t materialize (not that I’m complaining because we had a great summer). Winchester Mountain is probably one of my favorite hikes. It’s short, just over two miles one way. But the views are truly breathtaking! And the drive is pretty fun too.
We start by heading down State Route 542, or Mount Baker Highway. About 40 miles in and the Nooksack River is rushing past on the right, stately trees tower overhead and we’re nestling further into the Cascade Range. The DOT keeps a plow station out here to maintain the roads during winter so the Ski Lodge can be accessed. This is our turn off. Just past the plow station is a gravel road, heavily marked with potholes, tractor treads, and so much dirty. Dusty flies up behind the tires of my Jeep Wrangler. Now it’s the fun part of the drive. We’ve got 7 miles of this road to go; first winding through a thick forest until we emerge in a verdant meadow where a series of switchbacks will lead us up the mountain. It’s technical driving at it’s best: a combination of road awareness, spacial forethought, and vehicle capability. We lurch over streambeds, kick up dust rounding each switchback, and before long the top of the mountain greets us with a view of a pristine glacier-fed lake. It’s that same shade of blue that I see in the Caribbean – deep turquoise. And yet it’s crystal clear, we can see all the way to the bottom of the lake. Another lake lies just beyond, of about the same size – the reason these are known as the Twin Lakes. The lakes are hemmed in on their north side by stately Winchester Mountain, rising above this alpine valley.
We park and now it’s time to gear up. Water aplenty, some snacks for a summit picnic, and a few cold drinks to celebrate at the top of the mountain. It’s cooler up here, at 5200 feet above sea level. But the sun is shining brightly and there’s hardly a cloud in the sky. Our trail starts right between the Twin Lakes on the south face of Winchester Mountain. A sign at the trailhead warns of black and grizzly bears but there are enough hikers in the area that I doubt we’ll see one. In a matter of minutes we can already feel the incline of the trail and try not to count the switchbacks. Calves start to burn and beads of sweat glisten on our foreheads. It feels warm now and the scent of pine is heavy in the air. Wild blueberry bushes are scattered everywhere, their leaves blushing red with the onset of autumn, as the forest thins and gives way to mountain meadows. We’re at the half way mark and it’s the hardest part. Soon our bodies get used to the pace and the incline.
Beyond the meadow we ascend to the rocky mountain face. There’s still an ice field covering the trail so we carefully make our way around it and continue on. These icefields seem to remain for the whole year and soon they will grow again with the coming snows. Now our trail veers to the right and we start another series of switchbacks, this time up the west side of Winchester. Above us I can see the summit, marked by Old Glory flapping in the breeze. It seems just out of reach. Ahead when our switchbacks face North we catch a glimpse of Tomahawk Lake and beyond it, the wilds of the British Columbia Cascades. J and I talk about how this could be a popular route for drug runners who want to cross the northern border just as we hear the whir of helicopter blades. A Border Patrol heli zooms overhead with just enough clearance over the mountain summit. The area is definitely well-patrolled. Onward and upward our trail continues and grows more steep as we near the end. The air is definitely thinner up here. One more scramble up a rocky face and we’re at the summit.
We hear the crisp snap of the American flag against it’s pole. And just in front of us is the Winchester Fire Lookout, built in 1935 to serve as a lookout point for wildfires in the Cascade Range, there are at least a dozen of these lookouts still remaining in Washington. We find a rocky outcrop with a fantastic view and sit to enjoy our picnic. I end up snapping photos every few minutes, trying futily to capture the beauty of this place. Nestled high in the Cascades with Mount Baker to the southwest, the Pickets to the east, B.C. wilderness in the north, and the sapphire brilliance of the Twin Lakes 1300 feet below us to the south.
A half hour later with our food consumed, feeling refreshed, and getting chilly from the mountain breeze, we head back to the lookout. It’s been beautifully restored and we go inside to catch a glimpse of what it might have been like to man such a lookout in the last century. Hikers are invited to overnight in the lookout on a first-come-first-served basis and there’s even a guest book for them to sign. I stayed here once before and would love to do it again.
Our descent goes quickly and I stop periodically, still trying to catch a hint of this beautiful place to take back, share, and remember. Feeling only a little footsore, we’re back to the Jeep in no time and have again worked up quite an appetite. So it’s down the bumpy dirty road and to the first place we can find with food.
And that was our weekend adventure. What did you do last weekend?