Hiking Koko Crater Trail in Honolulu, Hawaii: 1,048 Stairs of Doom

As with all enduring love affairs, my relationship with Koko Crater Trail is both simple and complicated.

It all started back in 2012 with my first Koko Crater summit foray (All tongue-in-cheek, of course; a volcanic tuff cone hardly counts as summit bid fare, I know!). I’d heard veteran hikers’ whispered war stories for years, but the trail was only a mile long. How bad could it be? I thought.

Oh, humble pie!

I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say I came dangerously close to tossing my cookies over the better part of East Oahu that summer afternoon. They don’t dub Koko Crater “The Stairmaster from Hell” for nothing. With a whopping 1,048 Stairs of Doom scaling 1,200 vertical feet in half a mile, this Honolulu trail certainly lives up to its devilish moniker of pain.

Attempt #2 ended just as poorly as Attempt #1, save for some small measure of consolation in having stopped before gastric distress induced Code Red status a second time around. Dreaded stair #750 had foiled me again! Third time’s the charm, or at least that’s what I told myself as I headed down the mountain (er, cone?)-side, licking my wounds.

Koko Crater had proven a worthy nemesis; I would never make the mistake of underestimating her again. I trained hard. Did Insanity for a month. Hiked with a vengeance. And the next time I returned, I knew the sweet triumph of reaching the top. I must have been grinning like an idiot that final, fateful step because a fellow hiker greeted me with an enthusiastic high-five and prophetic words.

“First time?” he asked.

I nodded, mostly because I was too busy trying to remember how to breathe to actually answer.

He gave me a knowing smile. “Won’t be your last. Koko Head’s addictive.”

I couldn’t have imagined the truth to his statement then, busy as I was trying not to die, but the kind stranger had foreseen my future with Yoda-like sagacity. In the years since, Koko Crater has become my favorite, most-despised workout regime. 1,048 stairs up, 1,048 stairs down. It’s never easy. It’s always hard. I love it. I hate it. And I am hopelessly and utterly addicted.

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View of Koko Crater from the Koko Head Regional Park parking lot. The faint brown line tracing the left side of the “mountain” is the trail.
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Stair 1–it’s a big one! Erosion has washed away the underside of the first step, so it’s a bit of a climb but a very fitting beginning. 😀

Koko Crater’s “stairs” are wooden railroad ties, vestiges of an old military railway used to transport cargo to pillbox bunkers during WWII. Over the years, the railroad ties have fallen into despair, and though the stairs are neither sanctioned nor maintained by the state, the trail remains popular with both fitness buffs and visitors alike.

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You can see the disrepair here; trail angels have added wooden planks and cement blocks for support to many sections to aid hikers on their climb

When hiking, it’s helpful to consider the trail in three sections: 1) pre-bridge, or the first 500 stairs, 2) the bridge itself, comprising 100 stairs, and 3) post-bridge, the final 400 stairs.

Pre-Bridge, the First 500 Stairs

Stair height varies throughout the pre-bridge section, with most stairs measuring a fairly comfortable foot and a half tall. Hikers tend to fall into two distinct camps here: Team Push and Team Pace. Personal experience lands me firmly on the side of the latter (Summit attempts #1 and #2, I’m looking at you), but others prefer to push early-on to compensate for slower post-bridge times. Both strategies yield success, but it’s important to note that the final 400 stairs are significantly harder than the first 600. Post-bridge, the trail steepens dramatically, and railroad ties are fixed at a near 90 degree angle to the mountain. Slow and steady might mean a little ego bruising while other hikers overtake me here, but anything that keeps puking at bay is golden in my book. I’ve watched enough people get sick after the bridge to remember how close I came to doing the same!

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And…we’re off! Koko Crater Trail, May 2017. Many thanks to my dear friend for humoring me once again with blog photos!
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Stair height and distance between railroad ties varies with each step. Hard on the lungs and legs, but perfect for conditioning
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The trail gets busy with the early-morning and after-work rush. It’s quite narrow, too, so stepping off the tracks is the best way to pass or let others pass

Seeking out the 100-stair “markers” that fellow hikers have inked on the railroad rails keeps me motivated…and ever mindful that Stair 300 is where things start getting real. Luckily, there’s quite a view to be had already, equal parts reward and incentive to spur the weary (ie: me) on.

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Stair 300. Hikers have inked in stair markers in increments of 100 along the railroad ties.

 

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View from Stair 300, taken in 2012 summer. With winter and spring rains, Koko Crater is lush and green. Summertime views are more brown and parched like this.

Stair 500: The Bridge (a.k.a. You’re Halfway There!)

Stair 500 brings us to the halfway point: The Bridge. The railroad ties continue here without discernible break, but unlike in the previous section, this portion of rail free-floats 15-20 feet above the ground. While the slats aren’t wide apart enough to fall through, they’re large enough to warrant a broken ankle or leg should you slip. Unfortunately, EMS rescues are not uncommon in this area, and though I’d love to cite that as my reason for skirting the bridge and taking a land detour, who am I kidding? I’m the biggest ‘fraidy cat around when it comes to exposed heights. EMS incidents or no, there’ll be no crossing that rickety bridge for me! Luckily, there’s a side path that skirts the bridge’s entirety, rejoining the main trail just past Stair 600. Here, the railroad ties are firmly rooted to the mountainside again. If you look to the right of the bridge, you will see a well-worn dirt path that wusses like me cling to with gratitude. 😀

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The rickety bridge–no, thank you! I considered climbing a stair or two to get a better picture, but decided I liked living better. 😀
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Looking back from the bridge, Hanauma Bay and Hawaii Kai in the distance
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Looking back towards Hanauma Bay from the Bridge. The view is already pretty great from here, and it only gets better!

Post-Bridge: the Final 400 Stairs of Doom

The post-bridge finale is truly a test of mental and physical fortitude. No matter how many times I complete Koko Crater, Stair 750 always, always vexes me. It’s where I consider throwing in the towel, every single time. Here, the stairs steepen from a 45 degree incline to a daunting near-90 vertical climb. Stair height increases dramatically as well. At 5’3”, I often have to lift my legs 2-3 feet between steps, reverting to all fours to hoist myself up. Time and weather have eroded the gravelly dirt between stairs to well below stair-line, and many of the wooden railroad ties are narrow and broken as well, making for sketchy footing. How’s a girl to get to the top? “Eyes on the prize” is a mantra that serves many well, but I prefer to keep my eyes fixed upon the ground–one stair at a time, one foot at a time–until I’m past Stair 900 and safely past my mental quitting zone.

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Stair 750 is no joke, and it only gets steeper from here! Take heart, though–you’re almost there!
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So close and still so far…climbing toward Stair 800. It’s hard to see it here, but the distance between stairs is sometimes 2-3 feet.

But oh, to stand–or collapse, as it were–on the summit! There is nothing more glorious. To experience the beautiful camaraderie found at the top of Koko Crater is to understand the Aloha Spirit indeed. Strangers evolve into friends over fist bumps and high-fives. War stories are shared and commiserated. And always, Koko Crater veterans pay it forward, shouting encouragement to first-timers hundreds of feet below. “Don’t quit now! You’re almost there–push!” is a happy onus to bear.

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The view from the top, Koko Crater Trail May 2017. That mountain on the distant right is the backside of Diamond Head.
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The view from the top, Summer 2012. You can see how different the trail and surrounding hills look during the summer.
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What goes up must come down, and in some ways, going down can be even trickier than climbing up.
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Side-stepping works well for heading down safely. No shame in my game: I have no pride and will frequently use my hands to keep 3 points of contact on the way down.
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Heading down Koko Crater Trail with views of Hanauma Bay and Hawaii Kai in the distance.

True, Koko Crater’s beautiful views of Hanauma Bay, Diamond Head, and the Ko’olaus are without rival, but I’d venture that the hike’s appeal lies less in its views (delightful though they may be) and more in the singular opportunity to challenge oneself. The stairs demand a unique skillset, delivering circuit training, strength training, and interval training in one convenient and grueling package–gorgeous views simply sweeten the deal. Koko Head’s short mile-long length also lends itself to weekly repetition, a boon to goal-oriented junkies who enjoy quantifying fitness gains. Given our hurts-so-good masochistic tendencies, this quad and glute (and lung!) burner has earned a weekly spot in our training regime. There’s nothing more gratifying than watching recovery times between spurts improve or seeing your time to the summit drop to thirty minutes or less! No matter how many times you claw your way to the top, Koko Crater never gets old. Fitness goals may change and evolve, but the challenge itself? Always there.

1,048 stairs up. 1,048 stairs down. It’s never easy. It’s always hard. Love it and hate it–Koko Crater Trail is the stuff of maddeningly sweet addiction.

Olympic NP: Backpacking the Southern Coast, Part II (a.k.a. In Which It Hits the Fan)

Have you ever had the feeling? The one that niggles at the back of your mind and warns you that things are too good to be true? That every event in life is connected and the butterfly effect isn’t just some bad Ashton Kutcher movie?

Suffice it to say that day two of our Olympic coast backpacking trek lives on in our collective memory with the kind of infamy usually reserved for do you remember the time Kid B pooped in his car seat and we had no wipes? type incidents.

So bad. And I’m only partially referring to the coast hike.

When last we left off, our unsuspecting family had fallen hard for the rugged coast, excited to set up camp along Third Beach. Freshly showered, spirits high, we hardly gave a second thought to the creek crossing next to our campsite. It was high tide, and getting wet just went part and parcel with the territory. For the record, let me just say: for a bunch of Hawaii folk who practically live at the beach all summer, I will never, for the love of all that’s holy, understand why it didn’t occur to us to remove our shoes before crossing the creek, but it didn’t.

(Cue Butterfly Effect theme music)

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The cursed creek…it looks so innocuous, doesn’t it?

And so we crossed the creek, shoes, pants, and all. Sure, our wool socks and waterproof shoes were completely soaked, but no matter. We would leave them outside to dry overnight. And true, our perfect ocean-view campsite was marred by wads of used toilet paper strewn across the sand (so gross!), but so what? We were hiking to Toleak Point tomorrow, a destination Ranger Eddie had assured us was nothing short of phenomenal: bald eagles taking flight from the sand by the dozen, otters and seals playing just beyond the shore, tidepools teeming with spiny sea stars and giant green anemones–the likes of which could be found nowhere else on earth. We dined al fresco along driftwood logs just steps away from the roaring ocean, warming ourselves beside the crackling fire. Yes, the blanket of starless gray above seemed ominous, but our happy stint at Third Beach left us convinced it was more bogeyman than real. All bark, no bite.

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Home for the night, Third Beach, Olympic NP
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Fastening that rain fly, juuuust in case…..
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Campfire just past our tent on the beach
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This was the view from our tent. It was amazing!
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Waking up to this view was incredible
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Cooking dinner, Third Beach
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Those bear canisters were just the right height for makeshift chairs!
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Dinner on a driftwood log–it doesn’t get much better than this

You see where this is going, don’t you?

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Lord almighty, please don’t let her wax poetic about the rain again. It’s the Pacific Northwest. It rains a lot. We get it. But indulge me for a second, please, because this was truly Next-Level Stuff. See, we awoke to the gentlest of drizzles. Just a whisper of spray, barely even noticeable. Certainly not enough to deter us from venturing to the creek to refill water. Our shoes and socks were still uncomfortably damp, but my brother and his partner were arriving soon, and we needed water for oatmeal. We’d just have to dry our footwear fireside while we prepared breakfast, we figured.

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Morning low tide, the calm before the storm (literally!)
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Ignorance is bliss…if we only knew what was about to come

 But by the time we’d crossed the driftwood logjam en route to the creek, the drizzle had progressed to a steady trickle–with breakfast still to prepare and no awning to prepare it under. The beach didn’t offer much in the way of natural shelter, but it wasn’t cold (yet!), just windy, and surely, hot oatmeal and a blazing fire would warm our wet feet right up, right? Only, starting a fire in the rain proved impossible, or at least, beyond our skill set. We huddled around the simmering oatmeal while rain streamed down our already-damp pants and socks.

And then the wind picked up, and the kids abandoned ship to take cover in our heretofore warm and dry tent. Unbeknownst to us, they shed their wet clothes in favor of dry sleep clothes, leaving puddles of water and sodden long underwear strewn about the tent. Meanwhile, the husband and I braved the elements, hoping to warm our bodies with food. Rain streamed down our faces in earnest; each bite of oatmeal was accompanied by a mouthful of rainwater and sand, courtesy of the whipping winds. We began to shiver, and I remembered this quote I’d read once about backpacking, something to the effect of “there’s always some degree of misery to every backpacking trip, but it’s the misery that makes the highs all the more glorious.”

I was pretty sure we were due some serious glory.

As if on cue, we glanced up to see my brother and his partner walking toward us. They’d made the three and a half hour drive from Seattle at dawn to backpack to Toleak with us! In true Seattle-ite form, they arrived clad only in T-shirts, shorts, and rain jackets, unfazed by the heavy downpour. The kids ran out of the tent to hug them. With such a happy reunion, the rain didn’t seem nearly as miserable anymore. The turn in weather, however, prompted concerns over trail conditions (which included muddy rope climbs/descents and steep, broken ladders), and we voted to dayhike to Toleak instead of backpacking there, returning by afternoon to camp again on Third Beach. The guys pitched their tent next to ours in the rain, an almost cheerful affair now that we were all together. And then the sky split open and the ensuing deluge rendered the shoreline nearly invisible.

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Even with all the rain, she was so thrilled to find these smooth stones
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Happy find, Olympic NP

We made a beeline for our tent, the first in a series of increasingly Bad Decisions. In our haste, we’d plopped ourselves onto the water puddles and wet clothes left inside the tent. Which wasn’t such a big deal for the husband and I, who were already wet, but a little more dire for the kids and the guys, whose only dry change of clothes was now as soaked as ours. It was about this time that the creek-crossing incident began to haunt us. Our warm and dry tent was no longer warm nor dry, and it wasn’t long before cold entered the scene. Our phones indicated a temperature of 40 degrees with no chance of sun until noon the next day. Wet? Check. Cold? Check. Dry clothes? None. Chance of sun? Zero, nada, none.

So naturally, we decided to press on. With only four days of vacation left, we wouldn’t be able to try for Toleak another day. Besides, my brother and his partner had driven all the way here for this. It was just rain. We’d be all right. Increasingly bad decisions, remember?

Thing is, we’d spent so much time huddling in our tent that we’d missed low tide. The shoreline portions of the trail were no longer viable, forcing us to take the muddy headlands almost exclusively. With ladders and ropes involved, we decided it was best that the kids not shoulder a backpack load. The guys didn’t have daypacks and wanted their hands free as well, so they decided to leave their packs (and water bottles) back at camp. Which is how the seven of us set out for Toleak with a grand total of three liters of water. With no rain pants. Sopping wet socks. In 40 degree weather. With a crap-ton of rain.

Is it sick to say that the trail was actually really fun? That the hanging wooden ladders with missing rungs and rope-assisted muddy climbs were kind of a blast? We were less fond of the ankle-deep rainforest mud bog that seemed to go on for miles. We couldn’t be sure of the distance though, what with two topo maps between us, both completely useless. My brother’s partner’s map was an unreadable, soggy mess in his pocket, and mine was equally unreadable, folded up in a Ziploc bag. All I know is that mud-slogging is sweaty, thirst-inducing business, and it was maybe two miles in before we found ourselves down to our last half liter of water. With our water filter back at camp. And two miles left to Toleak.

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This rope section was steeper and muddier than it appears
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En route to Giant’s Graveyard
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Navigating the mud, Olympic NP
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Headland trail marker and evidence of yet another Very Bad Decision: abandoning our trekking poles (!!)
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What may possibly be the worst pic ever taken from the headland trail. Photos weren’t really at the top of my mind at the moment, funny enough. 😉
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Okay, I lied: this is the worst pic ever. Storm blowing in…

It was then, somewhere between Giant’s Graveyard and Strawberry Point, that we got lashed by yet another torrent from the sky. With rain sheeting in from all directions, we could barely open our eyes. And here is where we finally, FINALLY, started making smart decisions. Teeth chattering, our youngest’s lips were downright blue. Even my brother, who hadn’t batted an eye when he arrived now only half-joked to me, “I think I might have hypothermia.” I laughed, and he leaned in, shivering. “I’m kind of not kidding,” he said.

It makes me sad (now) to see beautiful pictures of Toleak online, but at the moment, none of that mattered. We were freezing and getting wetter by the minute. In a unanimous ten-second decision, we voted to book it two miles back to Third Beach. Along the way, several of us slipped and fell in the mud. When we got back to camp, everyone piled into the tent–mud, rain, and all. In a second unanimous decision, we voted to leave–stat! Easier said than done, what with frozen fingers and rain pelting us as we made haste to pack. We trekked another mile and a half to the car, teeth chattering and miserably cold. No spinning the truth here–there absolutely were tears of misery for our youngest on the way back. The older two were sullen and quiet. It was the lowest point we’ve experienced on any vacation. As a parent, I’d made some pretty crappy decisions that brought us here, and the hike back gave me plenty of time to reflect on that guilt.

When we finally got back to the trailhead, our cramped little Lancer rental was as beautiful a sight as I’ve ever seen. With a brief, “Meet you at the Wilderness Information Center!” we piled in and blasted the heater. We stripped off our socks and shoes, unwilling to brave the rain even a second longer to retrieve dry clothes from the trunk. It was an hour’s drive back to the WIC, one filled with profuse apologies, relieved laughter, and gratitude that we hadn’t gotten into serious trouble in spite of my bad decisions. We were still shivering (though much less so) by the time we returned our bear canisters, and thankfully, Port Angeles was overcast but not raining, so we all changed into dry clothes. Bliss!

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This pic is so blurry, but I love it–partly because it’s one of the only photos I have of that day, but also because it captures a moment of humor in the middle of all the misery. We couldn’t stop laughing when my brother’s partner held his camera up and said, “Cheese!” 

Without a campsite for the night, we had some decisions to make. This time, I listened to reason (i.e. the kids) when they said they didn’t want to camp that night. I listened to my brother, who gave a big thumbs-down when we arrived at the only motel with available rooms in Port Angeles, only to find it resembled Bates Motel, complete with chain-smoking sketchy characters out front. And even though I really, really wanted to save the Dungeness Spit camp reservation we’d booked for the following night, I listened to the inner voice that said no campsite, no matter how beautiful or coveted, was worth sacrificing safety or happiness.

Instead, warm and happy, we drove three hours back to Seattle and feasted on carne asada enchiladas, chips, and fresh pico de gallo. Hot showers and quilted comforters awaited us at my brother’s home. Sometimes I think back to that afternoon and wonder what might’ve happened had we pressed on to Toleak. It might’ve turned out amazing, who knows? But regret was the last thing on my mind as I drifted to sleep that night, grateful for a warm, dry bed and safe, happy kids. Six miles and one very muddy trail wiser, I knew for certain that the bird in my hand was worth worlds more than two in the Toleak bush.

Coming soon: Seattle and Bainbridge Island; World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument

Olympic NP: Backpacking the Southern Coast, Part I

In a world where nothing seems certain, it’s nice to know there are absolutes you can bank on. The sun will rise. The birds will sing. And in Forks, Washington? Sparkly vampires and hunky werewolves are as real as real can be.

Also, you can bet your bottom dollar that it rains in Hoh Rain Forest. A lot.

Our initial plan was to forge ahead to 5 Mile Island along Hoh River Trail before retracing our steps back to the Visitor Center. After a cold and wet night spent in the rain forest, however, we ready to be done with the elements. Inclement weather had followed us for the better part of a week now–in mid-July, no less–and our spirits (and patience) were worse for wear.

Forget the herd of elk grazing along river’s edge. To heck with boiling water for coffee and hot chocolate. We were bailing, and in a hurry. We broke camp in record time, hitting the trail just after 7 am. The trickle of a waterfall we’d passed yesterday more closely resembled a flood after last night’s heavy rains. Fresh moss carpeted the forest floor in a layer of slick green; speckled fungi sprawled skyward like mythical beanstalks. It was as if every living thing in the forest had vied overnight for the title of Most Alive.

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Making our way out of the Hoh
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Beautiful Hoh River
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Ten minutes to the parking lot…happy campers

Still, nothing could match the lure of our warm, dry car. Come mud or high water–or both, as it were–we were a family on an escape mission. What had taken almost two hours to hike yesterday took less than one this morning. No stops for ceremony or high-fives in the parking lot; we slammed our packs in the car trunk and piled in.

With fresh socks and heat came relief and then excited chatter, namely: how Adam Richman had nothing on our appetites and what was for breakfast? The soggy granola bars stashed in our bear canisters had lost all appeal. Conversation fixated on a restaurant we remembered passing on our way into the forest, the one with the clever name–Hard Rain Cafe.

Equal parts quaint eatery and mercantile, Hard Rain Cafe boasts a range of eclectic offerings from espresso and burgers to kitschy trinkets and backpacking essentials. As tempting as the souvenir racks were, every hungry hiker knows there’s nothing more enticing than a juicy burger post-hike–nine in the morning or otherwise. Hard Rain Cafe’s bacon cheeseburgers delivered the savory oomph we craved. Portions were small-ish and pricey, but thick-sliced bacon has a way of mitigating all ills.

The hour-long drive out of the rainforest took us past the coast and into the heart of Forks, the sleepy Olympic town immortalized in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying Twilight paved the way for many of us who’ve since landed agents and contracts in the young adult publishing industry. And the city of Forks? Consider it a living homage to all things Twilight. From billboards proclaiming the city’s current vampire threat level (red, of course) to the Team Jacob/Team Edward posters plastered across every shop window, it’s all great fun.

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The infamous sign featured in the movie Twilight
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When in Forks, you pilgrimage to Forks High School and scan for the Cullen family

Twilight fever aside, there were still chores that needed tending to before our afternoon coastal trek. Chief among these were showers and laundry. God, but we needed a shower! In the interest of keeping it real, I have to admit that we hadn’t showered since Glacier, five nights ago. Seriously gross, I know. We stopped at Forks 101 Laundromat (our clothes were so filthy, they practically stood on their own!) and Forks Outfitters Thriftway, where we stocked up on backpacking food for the next two nights. Our last stop was Three Rivers Resort, a rustic lodge and campground in La Push, for coin-op showers ($1 for the first three minutes, one quarter every minute thereafter). I literally could not pump those quarters in fast enough. It was the hottest, most glorious shower of my life. Slipping into clean clothes, I felt like a new woman, excited and eager for our final trek: the southern Olympic coast.

It was a short drive to Third Beach Trailhead parking lot. Even with bear canisters and packs strapped to our backs, everyone was in good spirits. We were headed to the beach, after all–what wasn’t to love? Having hiked earlier in the day, our planned mileage was minimal–just a mile and a half to Third Beach, where we would camp overnight and meet my brother and his partner in the morning to backpack to Toleak Point. More importantly, the rain had stopped, and though it wasn’t exactly sunny, it wasn’t pouring either–a win in our book.

The short hike to Third Beach took us through coastal forest reminiscent of the Hoh, albeit flatter and less lush. There were moments where I wondered if we were on the right trail–Isn’t this supposed to lead to the beach…?–but it wasn’t long before we heard the telltale roar of the ocean. We stopped at a bluff overlooking Third Beach and marveled at the the juxtaposition of forest and coast–behind us, only trees; ahead of us, nothing but ocean and salt air. Here, sand and soil gave rise to ferns and wildflowers that thrived in the unique coastal mix of mud and grit.

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Familiar but different. Coastal forest en route to Third Beach
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Third Beach Trail, Olympic National Park
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Our first glimpse of the beach

The descent from the bluff was steep, but we barely noticed, so mesmerized were we by the ocean. When our feet finally hit the sand, it took every ounce of self-restraint not to make a beeline straight for the water. Instead, we made note of the creek before us for water resupply and took stock of the massive driftwood pile blocking our path. Climbing over individual logs wasn’t overly difficult; scaling stacks of driftwood piled 8-10 feet high proved more of a challenge. Backpacks made balance tricky, but we all made it safely over to our first unobstructed view of the Olympic coast. 

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Driftwood logjam
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We didn’t realize how high the logjam was until we got there
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Balancing was tricky…
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…but the rewards were immense.
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Admiring the coast, Olympic National Park

The Pacific isn’t unfamiliar to us–it surrounds our tropical island home, informing our culture and way of life. But this Pacific was something else entirely, tempestuous and untamed. Here, horizon and water melded into an impermeable wall of gray. Wind-sheared trees clung to lonely cliffsides and sea stacks. And the thunder of crashing waves reminded us that we were but powerless spectators to Nature’s formidable display. The Olympic coast was every bit as wild as we’d hoped for and then some.  

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Giant’s Graveyard in the distance
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Watching eagles swoop across the headland
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Stark beauty, Third Beach
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The Olympic Coast
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Entranced by the ocean
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Solitude and wilderness along the Olympic Coast, Third Beach

From a driftwood perch, we watched an eagle swoop across the headland. We surveyed the tide–high at the moment–taking note of the tide’s reach and all it had veiled. Soon, all that was gray would darken to evening black, and we would retreat to the warmth of our tent. But for the moment, at least, finding a campsite could wait. For now, we would admire the forlorn beauty of the coast. We would memorize the wind and salt and sand in our hair. And though it would be impossible to hear each other over the roar of the ocean and the whipping wind, our contented smiles would need no translation.      

Olympic NP: Backpacking Hoh River Trail

Camp mornings have settled into a familiar routine. Rise with the sun. Deflate sleeping pads. Sleeping bags in compression sacks. Disassemble the tent: boys on poles, girls on body and fly. And always, hot coffee. Coffee for bleary-eyed parents, cocoa for the littles.

It’s cold and gray again in the North Cascades. Yesterday’s beautiful weather was an anomaly; thunderstorms and 40 degree temps are forecast for the rest of the week. We zip our fleece pullovers and don rain jackets. Bid goodbye to Gorge Lake and snow-capped peaks no longer visible beneath the gathering gray. Today is a road day: 4.5 hours to Mount Angeles Wilderness Information Center, another 2 hours to Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center.

Our first order of business? Fuel–for the car, yes, but mostly for the hungry humans within. There’s a gas station with a lone fuel pump just outside the park boundary in Marblemount. I step outside to stretch my legs and am immediately hit by a heavenly aroma: coffee. Good, strong coffee–the kind that immediately recalls past Seattle and Portland trips. I look at my husband and then at the coffee shack. “Please?” my raised eyebrows plead. He smiles his consent.

I wander across the parking lot and look back to see the kids’ eager faces glued to the rear window. Crown’d Coffee is eclectic, eccentric. There are plush blue couches and wind chimes that ring brilliantly in the blustery Skagit wind. Statues of Quan Yin and miniature glass-blown bird figurines. Organic, fair trade coffee. Soy, almond milk everything, but also real heavy cream, whipped into rich, buttery pillows for hot chocolate. I walk back with a heavy cardboard tray laden with Everything bagels, cream cheese, coffee laced with organic cream, too much hot chocolate.

The drive to Seattle is quiet. It’s the middle of rush hour traffic, but mentally, we are deep in vacation zone–not quite ready to head home, but physically fatigued. Conversation lulls, though there is an ease to the silence. We’ve spent 10 full days talking to each other. Now is a time to just be.

Seattle finds us halfway to Port Angeles and en route to Krispy Kreme. We indulge in glazed doughnuts, savoring the taste and hoping it will hold us till next year. Our youngest watches the assembly conveyor belt in amazement, waving to the baker who humors him with a wink and a thumbs-up. Soon enough, it’s back to the cramped Mitsubishi and another two hours on the road that takes us past Tacoma and Bellingham and eventually brings us to Mount Angeles Wilderness Information Center.

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Krispy Kreme pit stop, Seattle

It’s late–1:30 pm–and the line at the Information Center is a mile long. It’s another 2 hours to Hoh Rain Forest and a 5 mile hike to our campsite for the night. Packing bear canisters will take longer than we anticipate–we’ve learned this the hard way. Ranger Eddie advises us to stop short of 5 Mile Island and set up camp instead at Mt. Tom Creek, a little over 3 miles in. He issues us backcountry permits for tonight, as well as permits for our next two nights along the coast. Ranger Eddie shares my demented Far Side/Gary Larson sense of humor and scares the kids with cautionary tales of tiny raccoon paws unzipping tents in the middle of the night in search of stashed gum and granola bar wrappers. I laugh more than is appropriate, but he’s twisted, and I am tired and amused.

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Ranger Eddie, Mount Angeles WIC

The drive to Hoh Rain Forest takes us far past civilization. The car radio gives way to static, then silence as we rush past the coast and deep into the forest. At first, the scenery evokes memories of Thunder Creek Trail in North Cascades–old cedars and firs lined with patches of slick moss–but then the forest gives way to something else entirely. Hanging moss in browns and greens draped in floor-length curtains from tree to tree. Giant ferns that bed the forest floor in a wild carpet of green. And everywhere, the rain. Pelting. Sheeting. Drizzling. Pouring. We would experience it all before the end of our trip

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Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park

By the time we get our bear canisters locked and loaded, it’s 4:45 pm, and the rain is incessant. Walking through the parking lot means wading through streams, not puddles. Though not as cold as the Cascades, temps are in the lower 50s and dropping fast. We have rain jackets but no rain pants, and already, I can feel water running down the insides of my legs. I’m fairly certain my kids hate me. To be honest, I kind of hate me at the moment.

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Keeping it real: glum faces pre-hike
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Trying to find our happy faces…
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Hoh River Trail, Olympic National Park
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Hiking Hoh River Trail

“I’m sorry. This really sucks,” I tell my husband, as each step through calf-high puddles splashes mud up onto our arms and faces.

He shakes his head. “Don’t think of it that way. This’ll be an adventure we’ll always remember,” he says.

My oldest chimes in. “When will we ever get to camp in a rain forest again?” he says. Undeterred, he whips out his camera and waterproof casing and snaps a few photos. It’s enough to snap me out of my misery. True, it’s not my romanticized version of the rain forest, the “atmospheric” one I’d imagined at home. This is the real rain forest, complete with real rain and mud and cold for those who dare.

There’s a gritty beauty to Hoh River Trail. All is lush and green as one would expect, but there is also an untouched, almost mystical quality to the landscape. From the gray mist that cloaks the mountains to the pristine riverbed marred only by wind and time, there is a deep silence in the forest that speaks of past ages and our fleeting tenure here. We tread through the mud, voices hushed, listening to the sloshing of our shoes, the call of birds, rain dripping from moss to ferns.

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Hoh River pops in and out of view along the trail; mist clings to the mountainside
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Trekking Hoh River Trail
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Trekking poles help with the mud
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Brown and green as far as the eye can see; Hoh River Trail

When the rain slows, soft light filters through the trees, but these occasions become less frequent as darkness falls. Doubt fills my head–2 hours had seemed a reasonable time to hike a little over 3 miles, but what if I’d miscalculated? I knew hiking through rain in headlamps would be the straw that’d break this family’s back.

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Waterfall just before our campsite

We pass a waterfall and then a stake carved with a tent image, marking our campsite. There is an audible whoop from our younger two, who feared we’d wind up lost, on the news. We nestle our tent against a wall of ferns and quickly boil water for dinner.

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We made it! Home sweet home for the night
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Starting a fire to dry ourselves out
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It was tough building a fire with all of the recent rain

Couscous and chicken are on the menu tonight, but in our rush, we’d forgotten to empty the canned chicken into a Ziploc bag. Luckily, we have welcoming neighbors–a jovial group of college teens from the East Coast who are backpacking a week in the Hoh–who share their can-opener. We cut through swampy grass to dine along river’s edge, where our other neighbors–kindly newlyweds–share their driftwood bench with the kids.

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Parmesan couscous and lemon chicken for dinner
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Gathering water from the river
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Camp chores after dinner

There is no latrine at our site, so our oldest digs “pre-need” catholes for the family. The forest is saturated, but he builds a good fire. We sit outside until mosquitoes and darkness drive us inside. We play a rowdy round of Liar/BS by headlamp. Not one, but two decks of cards–we’re emboldened by the earlier deluge and the thrill of camping in the wild. Later, we switch off our headlamps and whisper in the dark.

“You know what? Today kind of sucked, but it was kind of awesome,” my daughter says.

Our youngest nods, hair rustling against his inflatable pillow. “Yeah. In a way, part of me sort of hates backpacking, but it’s kind of awesome, too,” he says.

I reflect on the events of the day–the suck-y parts and the awesome parts–and smile. There is no truer wisdom to be found than from the mouths of babes.

 

Closer to Home: 3 Unforgettable Stops in East Oahu

So often, I find myself wistful whenever I browse through travel magazines and social media sites. Summit selfies and lakeside camp photos stir a longing in me that makes me wish I was anywhere but here. Thing is, here is a pretty darned great place to be–a fact I too often forget. More importantly, now is the moment I want to be in–and the only one we’re guaranteed. I’ll get back to the Olympic National Park and Seattle portions of our trip soon, but I wanted to pause for a bit to pay tribute to the humble backyard adventure.

To be honest, I guess I’ve been feeling a little burned out. Kids, work, activities–nothing new or out of the ordinary, but lately, it’s all been feeling like a bit much. I thought a little extra sleep might help. Or that maybe I needed to cut back on a weekend activity or two. Still, the feeling persisted. Then I walked past a Crayola-colored worksheet hanging on my son’s door–I am a Bucket Filler!–and it hit me.

I haven’t been filling my bucket.

Oh, I had a million excuses–kids, work, money…life–but the truth was, I’d let my bucket run dry. I count my blessings that we’re able to vacation most years (and these fill my bucket in a big way), but vacations can’t be expected to sustain you indefinitely. In neglecting to tend to my personal happiness, I’d lost sight of the everyday wonder in the here and now. I knew I needed to remedy the situation and was lucky enough to have 4 days off from work this week to do just that.

It didn’t take a lot of money–less than $20 for the entire week–and time was limited, with kids and activities to tend to. But it’s amazing how far you can stretch $20 and a few hours a day with simple pleasures. I sipped coffee and people-watched in a coffeehouse. Lay on the sand and watched the sun rise. Hiked in meditative solitude. Watched a movie (Queen of Katwe, which was excellent!) and shoveled a ridiculous amount of buttered popcorn. Slurped pho on a lunch date with my husband. Most of all, I watched waves crash over and over and released a breath I’d forgotten I’d been holding for months.

My favorite bucket-filling backyard adventure of the week was an excursion along the eastern coast of the island. Should you ever find yourself on Oahu, I highly recommend escaping the hustle and bustle of Waikiki and planning a day trip out east.

Stop 1: Sandy Beach and Makapu’u

Begin the day with sunrise at Sandy Beach, and prepare to be dazzled by early-morning surfers as they put on an electrifying show. img_20130910_132552

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Sunrise at Sandy’s–an unforgettable experience

Drive up the coast a mile or two and hike out to Makapu’u Lighthouse. More of a gentle stroll than a hike, there’s no better view to be had for less effort. Crowds are minimal on weekdays, allowing you to connect with your surroundings. I walked Makapu’u twice this week, meandering down a path toward lava tidepools and taking a spur trail near the entrance toward Ka Iwi Scenic Shoreline. I considered hiking Koko Head instead (a monstrosity of 1,000+ railroad track “stairs” that I will post about another time), but there is a time for challenge and a time for being gentle with yourself, and this trip was definitely the latter. Near the top, I scanned the horizon–no whales today, though they will return soon enough–and savored the views of Rabbit Island and Molokai in the distance. At less than two miles, you can easily walk this paved path in under half an hour, but lingering is what truly makes this trail memorable.

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Backside of Koko Crater and the Ka Iwi Coast
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Looking back toward Koko Head
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Makapu’u Lighthouse
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View of Rabbit Island from Makapu’u Lighthouse overlook
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Views of Waimanalo and beyond

Stop 2: Halona Beach Cove

After Makapu’u, I headed back along scenic Kalanianaole Highway toward Halona Blowhole. This lava tube-meets-ocean attraction is on the radar of every tourist and guidebook on the planet, and for good reason: it’s spectacular. I jockeyed for parking with the endless parade of tour buses streaming into the parking lot and then escaped the crowds via a rock “staircase” that leads to the secret beach cove featured in From Here to Eternity and Fifty First Dates. To be sure, this “secret” is not much of a secret at all, as you can certainly see the beach from the overlook. However, in comparison to the number of people at the overlook, relatively few people venture down because of posted danger signs. The danger signs are no joke–the current is powerful here, and diving from lava rocks into rough ocean is not something I would advise. However, from a lone perch high atop the black lava rock, there is no better spot to admire Halona Blowhole as it hurls churning ocean water 30 feet into the air. I sat here for close to an hour, watching green sea turtles drift in and out of the cove. I wandered into a cave tunnel at the foot of the lava wall and felt my bucket overflow with the incoming tide.

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The steps down to Halona Beach Cove
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Beautiful blue-green water…be sure to admire from a distance
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There she blows! Halona Blowhole
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From inside the cave tunnel

Stop 3: Lanai Lookout

From Halona, I drove less than a mile to Lanai Lookout. A favorite of fishermen and tourists alike, Lanai Lookout doesn’t draw quite the same crowds as Blowhole, or maybe it’s that it draws a different type of crowd–quieter, more contemplative. Whenever I’ve found myself in need of quiet reflection, Lanai Lookout has always delivered. This trip was no different. I sat alone along the sea cliff and listened to the roaring surf pummel the coast. Tracked not one, but two ‘iwa (great frigatebirds) overhead, giant wings splayed a magnificent seven feet wide. Soon enough, it would be Monday. Soon enough, it’d be back to work and the familiar grind. But for now, I’ll savor the sun on my shoulders and the hot Kona coffee in my belly. Breathe in the salty ocean air and trace the smooth lava rock beneath my feet. Refill my bucket with the thunder of every crashing wave. Because this moment–the one before me right now? This moment is everything.

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The ocean is mesmerizing here
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My favorite view of Koko Head and Kalanianaole Highway
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Pounding surf at Lanai Lookout
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Oahu’s eastern shore, as seen from Lanai Lookout

North Cascades: Ross Dam/Big Beaver Trail & Ladder Creek Falls

We fell asleep to the darkness of rain (read part one of our North Cascades adventure here) and awoke to the most glorious sight: light! Not sunlight, exactly, but something mercifully close. It illuminated the tent walls and warmed the ground beneath us. We clambered out of our tent, hoping to glimpse the sun, but in the thick of the forest, all we could see was canopy.

Correction: canopy and the tiniest speck of blue.

We were torn: our backcountry permit guaranteed us a second night along Thunder Creek Trail–a permit so coveted in rainy conditions for its natural protection from the elements that we were lucky to have snagged the last one. It was foolish to abandon a sure thing…and yet. The forest had been good to us, yes, but there was a promising patch of blue sky and a whole lot of National Park we had yet to explore.

Put to a family vote, the decision was unanimous: chase that sun!

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Thunder Creek Trail: a whole different animal in the sun!

We quickly broke camp and headed back, relieved to see the distant blue growing ever larger the farther we hiked. Light filtered through the trees and danced across the water, casting the forest anew; all that was wild and untamed yesterday was now docile and aglow. By the time we reached the trailhead, it was clear the sliver of blue we’d seen from camp was a mighty swath that stretched across the sky. We were in for a beautiful day!

We unloaded our packs and drove to Newhalem Visitor Center to return our bear canisters and Junior Ranger booklets. Not all Junior Ranger programs are created equal, and North Cascades’ was among the best we’ve ever participated in. From a kids’ corner with educational books, puppets, and board games to a swearing-in ceremony complete with special ranger hats and a stuffed grizzly, the park does an excellent job of fostering conservation ideals and a love of the outdoors in children.

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Turning in Junior Ranger booklets at Newhalem Visitor Center

With equal parts trepidation and exhilaration, we surrendered our Thunder Creek permit and left Newhalem without a backup itinerary. We were officially winging it: no plan for the day–and no campsite for the night. Whatever adventure North Cascades had to throw our way, we were eager and ready!

Diablo Lake

Our first stop after the Visitor Center was Diablo Lake Overlook, located just past Colonial Creek Campground on Highway 20. I’m certain we must have passed this turnoff on our way into the park, but with all of the fog and rain shrouding the road that day, we had no inkling that the lake even existed. Ironic, seeing as “missable” is the last word I’d use to describe Diablo Lake. Unparalleled. Sublime. These are the words that come to mind. From its exquisite aquamarine hue to the majestic glaciated peaks gracing its backdrop, this lake absolutely mesmerized us.

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Diablo Lake, North Cascades National Park
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Quite possibly my favorite lake ever
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We had no idea that the rain and fog were hiding those glorious peaks!
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Panorama, Diablo Lake Overlook
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Glacial silt gives the lake its amazing hue
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After all the rain, we felt blessed to have such beautiful weather our last day in the Cascades

The best part about Diablo Lake is that it’s accessible to all. There’s no need to backpack or dayhike dozens of miles to see this extraordinary beauty; honestly, you barely even need to park your car! With visitation to North Cascades National Park topping out at less than 30,000 people a year, the overlook never feels crowded, even at the height of summer. Diablo Lake boasts backcountry beauty with frontcountry access–a rare and wonderful mix. I could have gladly lingered here all day, but the sun beckoned us on to Ross Lake and the unfinished business we had left to settle.

Ross Dam/Big Beaver Trail

Our backpacking excursion along Ross Lake was not to be, but we had time and sunshine to spare–the perfect excuse to explore Ross Dam and Big Beaver Trail, if only for the day. We parked at milepost 134 on Highway 20 and set off along a dusty gravel trail that wove through dense forest before dropping a steep mile toward Ross Dam. Charming creeks and magnificent peaks were the order of the day, and we were able to experience plenty of both in blissful solitude. With the sun beating down our backs, we even found ourselves stripping off our fleece pullovers, and dare I say it–perspiring!–for the first time since we’d arrived in Washington. Teaser glimpses of Ross Lake enticed us on.

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Ross Lake Trail, Take Two!
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This steep drop was not quite as fun on the return trip 😀

Standing 540 feet high and 1,300 feet long, Ross Dam spans the Skagit River in an impressive display of concrete and engineering. The views from the top are dizzying: on one side, the Skagit River–wild and green; on the other, Ross Lake–a well of vivid blue rivaling only the sky. We continued another mile and a half along Big Beaver Trail, contouring Ross Lake and daydreaming about the backpacking trip that wasn’t. Like all good dreams, coming so close only to miss was bittersweet. Still. When the Cascades hand you sunshine, you don’t squander it on regret–you take it it and hike like there’s no tomorrow! We savored those last two miles back and were even lucky enough to spot a pine marten on our return trip.

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The dusty gravel trail to the dam
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Walking across Ross Dam
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Ross Dam–540 feet high. The view from the top was mind-boggling!
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Skagit River, Ross Dam
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Ross Lake, North Cascades National Park
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Ross Lake was impossibly blue
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How amazing would it be to wake up to this view?
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Still can’t decide whether this little guy is cute or scary. A little bit of both, maybe?

Gorge Lake Campground

In spite of our newfound “embracing the moment” credo, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that we experienced a moment of panic when we realized that our beloved site 82 in Colonial Creek was unavailable for the night. There were other sites to be had at Colonial Creek, but nothing compared to #82. Looking back, I’m so grateful for the way things worked out. Because if #82 hadn’t been occupied, we might never have discovered Gorge Lake Campground–and what may very well be my favorite campsite in any park, ever!

Gorge Lake is a primitive campground with a vault toilet and no potable water. Don’t let that deter you, though; it’s easy to stock up on water in Newhalem. (Tip: it’s a good idea to stock up on firewood, too; North Cascades doesn’t permit the collection of dead and downed trees except in the backcountry) There are only six sites, first come, first served at $10 each, but if you’re lucky enough to score one of three sites directly on the water, you are in for a treat. Quiet and spacious with unrivaled views of glassy Gorge Lake and distant peaks, these shaded sites are sure to set the gold standard for all future car camping trips.

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Gorge Lake, my favorite campground ever–the lake view from our tent was incredible
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Taking a break to sketch the scene

After pitching our tent, we sketched in our journals and enjoyed some late afternoon hot chocolate and ramen around the roaring fire. It was still broad daylight, but we had plans for the evening and knew we wouldn’t get back in time to build a fire later. We were drunk on sunshine and giddy with laughter. Those precious hours spent around our early evening campfire are among my favorite family memories ever.

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Coming from Hawaii, we’re probably unduly obsessed with campfires…this one borders on obnoxious, I know. 😀

Ladder Creek Falls Light Show

We capped off our time at North Cascades National Park with a short trek to Ladder Creek Falls to experience Seattle City Light’s nightly light show. Located behind Gorge Powerhouse in Newhalem, the half mile trail to Ladder Creek Falls led us over a bridge and through several impeccably groomed flower gardens at sunset.

From there, we climbed to the top of the falls and waited patiently for what seemed like hours for the sky to darken. When at last the cotton candy hues of sunset had faded to dusk, all was awash in light–brilliant pinks and purples and blues. It felt like a nod from the Cascades, a proverbial wink. Because sunshine may be fickle around these parts, but if you’re willing and patient enough to wait, North Cascades National Park might just dazzle you with the most brilliant show of them all.

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Traversing the footbridge at dusk, Ladder Creek Falls
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Ladder Creek Falls, Seattle City Lights

 

North Cascades: Backpacking Thunder Creek Trail

Closed.

Definitely not the sign I wanted to see hanging in the Methow Valley Ranger Station window. It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise; after all, it was July 4th, a federal holiday, and Methow Station operates as an outpost of the US Forest Service, a federal agency.

Only, it was a surprise. After 500 miles and 10 hours of driving in a cramped Mitsubishi Lancer, we didn’t expect to find ourselves an hour away from North Cascades National Park with no way to secure a permit to backpack Ross Dam Trail–and no backup plan.

Fortunately, the scrapping-the-itinerary routine had become old hat by now.

Let the chips fall where they may–we were going to roll the dice and hope for a walk-in campsite. It was a gamble, especially for a three-day holiday weekend that normally saw North Cascades campgrounds at max capacity, but we had faith. So maybe we wouldn’t be waking up dockside along Big Beaver Creek in the backcountry as previously planned. That was okay. After all, we still had the best part of our long drive from Glacier ahead of us: North Cascades Highway, aka Highway 20, dubbed “one of the most memorable drives in the United States” by Fodor’s. After Googling images of North Cascades online, we couldn’t wait to take this beautiful and scenic route into the park!

Then down came the rain.

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This was our view of North Cascades NP for over 48 hours

And not the pitter-patter, warm-the-cockles-of-your-heart kind of rain, either. Torrential, holy-crow-the-dashboard-is-registering-40-degrees kind of rain. At 12 noon. In July!

I flipped the windshield wipers to high and slowed the car to a crawl. I could barely make out the winding road, much less the picturesque alpine scenery North Cascades is famed for. Fog shrouded the road and clung to the mountainside like some physical thing. Sitting here in my warm and dry kitchen, I’m tempted to label the drive as atmospheric–moody, even. My trusty travel journal, however, reminds me that in fact (and I quote), it SUCKED. No revisionist history here!

Thankfully, we pulled into Colonial Creek campground safe and sound, albeit a little cold. Here is where our luck started to turn: the ranger at the campground office mentioned that the campground had been full just two hours ago, but that the turn in weather and end of the holiday weekend had heralded a mass exodus. Only 13 of the 142 sites were left occupied. Not only were we now guaranteed a campsite, we had our pick of whatever site we wanted! It was the figurative break in the clouds we needed. Straightaway, we snagged Site 82. Whereas other drive-up spots housed three to four smaller sites each, Site 82 was a single drive-up site, providing maximum privacy and quadruple the space of other sites. Situated directly on the lake with a potable water spigot, we couldn’t have asked for a better spot. We set up camp in record time, relieved to take shelter from the cold and rain.

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Site 82, Colonial Creek campground. Secluded and just steps from the water, this site was beautiful even in the rain. I can only imagine how gorgeous it would be on a sunny day!
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The best site in Colonial Creek and our shelter from the storm

An hour later, the world beyond our tent was still a wall of gray, but it had stopped raining, if only for a second, and we had three hungry kids to feed. We rifled through our bear box for the packaged food we’d intended to take backpacking with us that night: mashed potatoes, stuffing, and sliced deli turkey with dried cranberries. It might have been the 4th of July everywhere else, but it seemed fitting to celebrate Thanksgiving after the events of the day. Something about the cold made us savor that hearty meal like no other.

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Processed Thanksgiving food never tasted so delicious
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Admiring the view from the edge of our campsite
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Colonial Creek, North Cascades National Park
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4th of July sparklers
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Celebrating a quiet but happy 4th

It’s amazing how a little perspective makes you grateful for the simplest of pleasures. A hot meal. Not being rained on during dinner. Cookware washed and returned to the bear box before a downpour. A peaceful after-dinner stroll along Colonial Creek and its vibrant pop of turquoise beyond the brown from the heavy rain. We watched a family of geese drift by, content to ride out the pocket of good weather they’d come by–no expectations, no disappointment. We’d seen nothing of the park and likely wouldn’t for at least another day, but something about that moment stands out as being one of my North Cascades favorites. We curled up beside the fire, alternately toasting our frozen fingers and wool-clad feet and laughing at our youngest’s antics as he burned and waved sticks, calling them homemade sparklers. Happiness truly is a thousand little things.

North Cascades, Day 2

The next morning dawned grayer and colder than the one before, but waking up without an alarm for the first time in almost a week felt more luxurious than any electric blanket (though one of those would’ve been nice, too :-D). We cooked up a hot trail breakfast of freezer bag omelettes and pan-fried dehydrated hash browns. With coffee and hot chocolate coursing through our system, we felt energized to explore the park come rain or come shine.

Mostly, come rain.

Still, we were excited to finally pull into the Newhalem Visitor Center, a surprisingly spacious and modern facility given that North Cascades is the third least visited National Park in the US.

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Newhalem Visitor Center, completing Junior Ranger assignment to interview a ranger

We picked up Junior Ranger booklets and spoke with a wonderful ranger (thank you, Tyler!) about our backpacking options. With the weather slated to remain unstable for the next 24 hours, she advised us to avoid Ross Lake altogether and opt for a forest route that would offer better protection from the elements. Since we still wanted to be on the water, she suggested we backpack Thunder Creek towards Fourth of July Pass and camp along the creek. We left the Visitor Center with a two-night backcountry permit and bear canisters, which the NPS loans out for free.

Packing food and all scented items for five people for two nights into two bear canisters proved something of an impossible Tetris challenge, but somehow, we managed to snap those tricky lids shut. We pack fairly minimally, though we’re not ultralighters by any means, and darn it, those packs were heavy! My husband and I opted to split the majority of the weight between ourselves to prevent the kids from having to shoulder too heavy a load. Thankfully, the rain had slowed to a drizzle by the time we left Thunder Creek trailhead.

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At Thunder Creek Trailhead
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Our next Christmas card photo, maybe? 😀
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Clear eyes, full packs, can’t lose (any other FNL fans out there?) 

Ranger Tyler did not steer us wrong–Thunder Creek Trail was every bit as dry as could be reasonably hoped for in such wet conditions. A soft dirt path led us through a forest of old cedars and Douglas firs; the dense canopy above us heavy-laden with hanging moss and seaweed-like lichen. Waist-high ferns glistened with rain, and everywhere we turned, the forest teemed with life–slick green moss, fungi in warm golds and reds. If we were under the delusion that the forest was quiet and tame, we had only to look toward the upturned giant tree roots and roped-off rockfall areas to know that the Pacific Northwest was alive and wild indeed.

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Thunder Creek Trail, North Cascades National Park
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Every shade of green, Thunder Creek Trail
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Huckleberry patch just past our campsite…a little unsettling given all the bear scat we’d passed earlier!
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No grizzlies, but we saw signs of recent black bear activity along the trail.

Though the trail paralleled Thunder Creek, it wasn’t until two miles in that we got a clear view of the creek. Swollen with rain, the creek echoed the forest’s wild sentiment. Less turquoise and more green/aquamarine than Glacier’s streams, North Cascades’ waters are also colored by glacial silt. In fact, a display at the Visitor Center informed us that North Cascades Park boasts over 300 glaciers!

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Thunder Creek as seen from the bridge
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Break time under the bridge

We’d hoped to break for lunch at the bridge here, but a heavy downpour dictated we press on and set up camp sooner than later. We pitched our tent and hunkered down to ride out the weather, passing the time with Crazy Eights and Liar (our PG version of BS) card games.

Hunger eventually drove us out of our cozy tent and down to the creek, where we filtered water and dined on cold, soggy trail mix, which was actually far more appetizing than it probably sounds.

We wandered back to our tent in search of a campfire to warm our frozen limbs. Our resident Boy Scout had his work cut out for him with the forest so damp, but he succeeded in building a blazing fire. We must have sat there for hours, toasting our fingers and talking about anything and everything under the sun–or rain clouds, as it were. Before long, dinner beckoned, and we devoured pita pizza pockets of tomato paste, pepperoni, and mini Babybels (two thumbs-up from the kids on this one!) by the creek. With no itinerary or sunshine to goad us further, our time at camp felt more relaxing than any other I can remember. Quiet joy. Simple pleasures. Heartfelt connection. That day in the North Cascades, happiness looked an awful lot to me like thunder clouds and heavy backpacks worth their weight in gold.

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Just before the rain; enjoying lunch by the creek
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The greenest latrine we’ve ever seen! So grateful we didn’t have to dig catholes in the rain.
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Our cozy campfire; I think our oldest felt as triumphant as Tom Hanks in ‘Castaway’ when he finally got that fire going!
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Fireside with loved ones–no place better in the world