Thunder Creek, 05/23/09-05/25/09

This Memorial Day Weekend marked our one-year backpacking anniversary. Last year, we spent two nights on the Olympic coast. This year, while we were tempted to try something similar, a quick filter of our newly created and creatively named “Hikes We Want To Do” spreadsheet sent the Thunder Creek trail in North Cascades National Park to the top of our list. Early season accessibility and the meager elevation gain and distance conducive to a first-of-the-season backpack will tend to do that. I penciled it in my calendar several weeks ago, and there it stayed.

Tricouni Peak as viewed from Junction Camp.

Tricouni Peak as viewed from Junction Camp.

We left the house at 05:20, after oversleeping fifteen minutes and scrambling some eggs. Since we’d be spending the night–two, actually–within the National Park, we had to stop at the ranger station in Marblemount to pick up our permits. At 07:15 we pulled up to the ranger station and got in line behind the several parties that had arrived before us. (The ranger station opened at 07:00.) Their destinations were varied, but there was a common answer to one of the ranger’s questions: Subaru. The repetition became quite comical by the end of the line. We were the end of the line.

I’d read somewhere on NWHikers that Tricouni Camp was nice, and when the ranger said there were only two sites at that camp, I was sold. It also helped that the camp is ~7.7 miles in (according to Green Trails Map #48) and just before the most significant elevation gain of the entire trail. The ranger warned us of pesky deer, issued our permit, and we were back on the road.

At 08:10, we pulled into the trailhead at the south end of Colonial Creek Campground and hit the trail fifteen minutes later. Last year, we spent the night at the campground and went for an ill-fated day hike up to Fourth of July Pass. The first ~1.5 miles of that hike and this backpack are both along the Thunder Creek trail, so we had an idea what to expect, and I won’t elaborate on what I’ve basically written before.

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Just across the bridge that takes you to the east side of Thunder Creek, we saw a cute little red-headed woodpecker, but much of the beginning of the hike was uneventful. At 09:14 we reached the Fourth of July trail intersection, at 09:43 we crossed a small bridge over a stream, and at 10:20 we stopped and sat on a small rock with views across the valley to Snowfield Peak. At 4.3 miles long, the section of the trail from Neve Camp to McAllister Camp doesn’t offer much variety, but does offer plenty of gentle ups-and-downs, small stream crossings, time for introspection, and small glimpses up-valley.

Sporadic views uptrail toward Tricouni and Primus Peaks

Sporadic views uptrail toward Tricouni and Primus Peaks.

At 11:45 we reached McAllister Horse Camp, ~6.4 miles from the trailhead. We stopped off to make use of the facilities, and sat down for another snack. Thunder Creek here makes a big bend, and much of the eastern bank has been washed away into a large bluff.

In between McAllister Horse Camp and the trail to McAllister Camp proper, there is a small stream crossing that offers no rocks to hop. There’s a large log to cross, but it’s far from level and does splinter off at one end, making it notable, at least. On the way back, Nicole elected to take off her boots and socks and get wet.

In just a few minutes more, the trail leaves the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and crosses into the North Cascades National Park. I always just refer to the entire area as the North Cascades National Park, but there is a difference, I suppose. Anyway, it was shortly after this marker that we came around a corner and I saw a bear ahead and off to the left of the trail. “Bear!” I said, instinctively. “What?” Nicole asked from behind me. “Bear; come here!” I just wanted her to see the bear before, I assumed, it would run off. This was our first bear-while-hiking sighting. OK, what do we do now? Let it know we’re here. “HEY BEAR!” I yelled. “GET OUT OF HERE!” The bear looked over at us, dropped off the log it was on, and went back to eating the undergrowth. Hm. What happened to the bear being afraid of us and running away immediately? We stepped back out of sight to wait a few minutes. I changed camera lenses. We walked back up the trail. The bear was still there. I snapped a few quick photos. The bear seemed pretty chill. “ALRIGHT BEAR, WE’RE JUST GOING TO WALK OVER HERE NOW.” We walked on eggshells, but talked big. The bear watched us, but only seemed partially interested in us. The bear was cute.

Bear!  No, I will not set up my tripod.  No, I will not approach.

Bear! No, I will not set up my tripod. No, I will not approach.

Up the trail, I looked over my shoulder, and saw nothing. Just before 13:00, only a few minutes after meeting Mr. Bear, we crossed Fisher Creek and arrived at Tricouni Camp, elevation 2000’. We were still excited from seeing the bear, and we made ourselves busy by setting up camp, getting water, and napping in the warmth of the afternoon. The two sites at Tricouni Camp are set well away from one another, and the Camp itself is quite a ways off the main trail. There was a tent at the far site, but in the two nights there, we never saw anyone else in camp.

Lower Tricouni and waterfall as viewed from Tricouni Camp.

Lower Tricouni and waterfall as viewed from Tricouni Camp.

In fact, we didn’t see anyone that entire morning. It was only after we’d returned to Fisher Creek for water that we saw several people, crossing over the bridge above us. We soaked our feet in the freezing water for as long as we could stand it. Since we had no real plans for the afternoon, we were able to enjoy just resting. I took a few pictures of the vicinity–Tricouni Peak towers above, partially obscured by trees; we made dinner early; and were in the tent when dusk drew the mosquitoes out of their hiding places. It should be noted, though, that in general there were no really bothersome bugs. We drifted off to sleep before the stars came out…

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Sunday morning we were awake early but stayed within our sleeping bags until ~06:45. The weather was so nice that we left of the rainfly, so when the temps dropped during the night, we did get a little chilly. So did the mosquitoes, though. After breakfast, I loaded up my pack with camera gear, etc., and Nicole took off with just her trekking poles. My plan was to hike up to Junction Camp, ~2.2 miles away and 1100’ higher, and perhaps further, just to see what kind of views we could get up the valley toward Boston Peak, its glacier, and the like.

We left camp at 08:20, and were immediately and unceremoniously introduced to switchbacks, which we hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting the day before. We were quite happy that we hadn’t tried to backpack all the way up to Junction Camp, as this section would’ve been pretty tough on us at the end of the day. The switchbacks did give us the views that we’d been teased with from below. Tricouni Peak is right there. Looking back to the north, you can see Snowfield Peak from time to time.

The elevation gain eases up, and the rush of Fisher Creek is loud off to the left. It looks like there’s a pretty large waterfall down there–I could only make out part of it. The trail through here is beautiful–Nicole’s favorite part of the trip, aside from the bear, of course. The ground is entirely covered by bright green mosses, the trees were allowing in filtered sunlight from the sun rising in the East over Red Mountain, and Nicole was traveling fast and light.

Nicole, stoic as the trees, cool as a cucumber.

Nicole, stoic as the trees, cool as a cucumber.

Moss in shadow.

Moss in shadow.

By 09:45 we were at Junction Camp, where the views were nice but there were more bugs. The campsites up there weren’t nearly as private as those at Tricouni, and we had to walk between two to use the pit toilet. We continued on for perhaps another quarter of a mile, to where there were views of something up the valley through the branches and the trail dropped away sharply. I didn’t feel like losing 500-1000’ of elevation when I didn’t know if it’d be worth it, so we sat down just after the unmarked junction to the Meadow Cabins, ate some food, and headed back to Junction Camp to snap a few more photos, where we met a couple guys who were camped up there. They were the first people we’d spoken with.

Boston Glacier, maybe?  What is that upvalley?  Forbidden?

Boston Glacier, maybe? What is that upvalley? Forbidden?

At 11:00, we headed back down to Tricouni, which we arrived at at 12:15. The weather remained perfect, and we took our time tending to things around the camp, as we did the day before.

Again we were in bed early, talking, listening to podcasts aloud because Nicole forgot her book, and enjoying the peace and quiet. We had so much time, but didn’t feel it necessary to do more, which was nice. Again, asleep early.

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We broke camp at 06:15 Monday morning; I did so with a slight limp, as the descent the day before with pack and sans trekking poles did a number on my right knee. Such pain at the beginning of the season! At 9:50, we dragged our boots out onto the blacktop of the trailhead parking lot.

On the way home, we stopped off at the Marblemount Diner. We were too early for hamburgers; there was an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, which we over-indulged in while watching hummingbirds hover on the other side of the window.

All-in-all, a great trip. It surprised me with the amount of solitude–I assumed it’d be busy. It surprised me with views–I expected none. The trail was in perfect shape. And the weather could not be beat. It was a great way to start the summer.

Thunderous moss.

Thunderous moss.

Stats: ~20.4 miles from Colonial Creek Campground to Tricouni Camp to Junction Camp and back, spread over 3 days, with at least 1900’ of elevation gain. This trip made me want a GPS.
Day 1: ~7.7 miles to Tricouni Camp, ~4:30 hiking time, ~800’ gain–plus: ups-and-downs.
Day 2: ~5.0 miles round-trip to past Junction Camp, ~4:00 hiking time, ~1100’ gain/loss.
Day 3: ~7.7 miles out, ~3:35 hiking time, ~800’ loss–plus: ups-and-downs.

As always, more photos at Flickr.

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One Response to Thunder Creek, 05/23/09-05/25/09

  1. Pingback: The Year in Review, 2009 Edition « Don’t Look Down

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