In spite of Autumn’s best efforts, it seems like Summer-like weather hasn’t quite given up for the year just yet. The streak of dry weather that we’ve had here since the middle of July has managed to persist well into October (although an end appears to be in sight later this week) and the temperatures have also remained quite pleasant. Naturally, this being the Pacific Northwest, there’s always the nagging sense that this can’t possibly last, and that eventually we’re going to end up paying for this with six straight months of rain or something ridiculous like that, so me and my friends have been taking advantage of this weather while it lasts. We have spent the last couple of weekends going out on hikes. This is a bit unusual for me, since I’ve never exactly been the type to do much hiking, but with five or six months of annoyingly gloomy weather penciled into the schedule soon, hiking sounds like as a good a way as any to get out and enjoy the weather. It’s exercise, the scenery is nice, and contrary to popular belief, there usually isn’t much trying to kill you out in the woods around here.
Granted, these hikes aren’t exactly roughing it out in the middle of nowhere and hauling forty pounds of supplies up a mountain in a frame backpack. Sure, there are some people who actually enjoy that kind of thing, but I’m pretty sure I’m not one of them (which is probably one of the main reasons I managed to flunk out of Boy Scouts back when I was growing up, but that’s a long story.) For the time being, we’ve been sticking to well established trails and in relatively popular areas, but haven’t exactly been doing the walk-in-the-park stuff. A couple of weekends ago, we took a trip out to North Bend, where did the Rattlesnake Ridge trail. This one is a relatively easy (but still fairly physically demanding) trail of about 2 miles with 1,200 vertical feet of elevation gain, and judging by the number of people we encountered on the trail and at the ledge on top, it’s a pretty popular one as well.
Given the hike that it takes to get to the ledge, it certainly isn’t unreasonable to expect a nice scenic view for your troubles, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Looking to the North from the ledge you can see (sort of) the town of North Bend off in the distance, and to the east you can a virtually limitless supply of trees stretching as far as the eye can see, as well as a lake or two (in this case, Chester Morse lake) off in the distance for good measure.
If you look straight down from the ridge you can see the parking lot you came from as well as Rattlesnake Lake, from which the name of this mountain was derived. I’m not quite sure exactly where the rattlesnakes figure into the whole deal, but since I try not to make a habit of getting bitten by poisonous snakes on a regular basis, I couldn’t be bothered to inquire further into this matter. Either way, this one makes for a nice little day hike than can be done in about 2-3 hours, although you’ll definitely get a workout on this one. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something a little (or a lot) more challenging, there’s the hike we did this past weekend.
To the south of Mount St. Helens is located a lava tube of over 2 miles in length known as the Ape Cave which my friends have been wanting to do for a while now, and once again I accompanied them for the trip. Given the fact that this trip was roughly 160 miles in each direction, this wasn’t exactly next door, and from here it turns into fairly long day-trip as a result. There are several options for hiking the Ape Cave: The lower cave, which is a 1 1/2 mile round trip on relatively flat ground descending from the main entrance, or the 1 1/2 mile Upper Cave, which is considerably more challenging which leads to or from an upper entrance. The typical route seems to be to enter the cave from the lower entrance and go up, but we did this one in the opposite direction. Naturally since you’re in a cave you’re going to be in the dark, and you’re going to need to bring your own light sources (the recommendations suggest having at least two sources of light, and preferably at least three.) You’re also going to want to wear good shoes, as the terrain is far from hospitable I wore my usual Vans sneakers, and although they proved mostly adequate for the job, I think I’d prefer something a little more substantial and with more tread next time. Note that I didn’t bother bringing any sort of camera with me on this one, since I didn’t figure I would be able to make much use of one in the pitch blackness of the cave. Flickr has quite a few photos of the cave and its most notable features, although even there it’s hard to see a whole lot.
Based on reading prior to the trip I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect inside the caves, but once I actually got there I found it to be quite a bit more challenging than I had expected. There are a significant number of large rockpiles within the lava tube that you need to climb over. And by climb, they mean you’re going to need to quite physically climb over quite a few large, slippery and occasionally jagged rocks. Perhaps the trickiest parts of the cave would be several lava falls, one of which I discovered just about the worst possible way to deal with during this particular trip. The most notable lava fall is a sheer 8-foot drop with a relatively smooth rock face, a dangerously uneven landing below it and no obvious way to get down easily. After surveying the situation and trying to determine the best way to deal with it, I made something of a leap of faith trying to slide down it, but ended up landing on a bad spot, which ultimately left me flat on my back and facing in the wrong direction.
Fortunately, the fall could have been a lot worse than it actually was, and I managed to get away with a few scrapes on my arm and knee, and a painful lesson of some sort. I also gave my friends a bit of a scare in the process, but ultimately I’m grateful I didn’t do worse than that (because if I did injure myself much worse than that, it was going to be a really tough place to get much help.) Fortunately, some other hikers came along and provided my friends with some assistance getting down the lava fall, and from there we managed to make it through the remainder of the cave with no major incidents. All in all, I think it took us about 4 1/2 hours to complete the hike up to the upper entrance and back down through the cave. and even though it was a shorter hike overall than Rattlesnake Ridge, it was also a far more challenging one. Eventually it just starts to seem like the whole thing is just one gigantic boulder field after another, and it starts wearing thin, especially when you have to firmly grasp sharp pointy rocks that hurt your hands to get anywhere (Note: gloves are highly recommended, and if I ever do this one again I’ll definitely be bringing some.) In spite of the difficulty of this one, it seems to be a rather popular place, and we encountered quite a few hikers going in both directions as we made our descent through the cave. You’ll also want to make sure you have a good light source or two. I actually bought a new headlamp from REI for this trip (this one) and found it worked quite well, although I found that anything less than the brightest setting wasn’t a whole lot of light in the pitch black of the cave.)
All in all, this seems like the type of place you bring a Boy Scout troop when you’re looking for one of those good solid character-building exercises that managed to go completely over my head during that time. I suppose it isn’t too late to build character just yet, right?