Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Sauk Mountain of Eden

Date: July 6, 2019
Place: Sauk Mountain, Snoqualmie National Forest, Concrete, Washington
Coordinates: 48.521581, -121.607271
Length: 5.6 miles round trip
Level: strenuous

Sometimes I go hiking outside of California. This post is about an awesome hike I did with my family in Washington State.

It was almost on an impulse that we decided to go to Washington for our 4th of July family vacation. We did very little homework and relied heavily on information given to us at the North Cascades National Park visitor centers, both in Sedro-Woolley and in Newhalem. We hiked many beautiful trails that week, many of which I'll post here at some point. But it was this trail I write about here - climbing up (and down) Sauk Mountain, that was the big wow for me.
Our hike as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS
The trailhead is at the end of a narrow, winding, and steep 8 miles of dirt road. We parked about a quarter of a mile from the actual trailhead because we were driving a rented sedan which we didn't want to risk going through the rugged last bit of road. It was fortunate that we had parked there because the first thing I noticed when I got out of the car was a lovely patch of slender bog orchids, which I didn't see any of along the actual trail.
Slender Bog Orchid, Platanthera stricta
Before setting a single foot on the trail I knew this was going to be a spectacular hike. There were wildflowers everywhere! A few were familiar to me from California, but many where of species I have never seen before.
Bracted Lousewort, Pedicularis bracteosa 
At the visitor center they told us that this would be the trail for seeing wildflowers and seeing all the splendor around me I knew this was the right place to be.
White Marshmarigold, Caltha leptosepala 
Pappa Quail, who is generally more interested in birds and other animals, was also taken by the beauty around us, and snapped a few wildflowers photos too.
Nature's Bouquet
The rangers at the visitor center had told us that wildflowers season was only beginning at Sauk Mountain. Seeing how splendid it was when we were there, I could only wish I could see what peak bloom looks like there.
Tiger Lily, Lilium columbianum 
As we gathered our stuff and got ready to head up to the trailhead which was just around the curve, I looked up at the mountain side and detected the fine switchbacking line. I pointed it to Pappa Quail. He looked at it with disbelief. I decided to not show it to the chikas at that moment.
The trail up Sauk Mountain
We hiked up the dirt road to the little parking area near the trailhead and found it nearly full. Most of the parked vehicles were SUVs but there were also a couple of sedans resting triumphantly between the big SUVs. Pappa Quail and I exchanged glances. One of our take home lessons from this trip would be that next time we would rent an SUV.
At the Trailhead
Pappa Quail wasn't sure about hiking all the way up to the summit. His point was that there would be no view visible from there because the mountain top was covered with clouds. The young chika however, got excited about the possibility of walking inside a cloud and was eager to go up there.
So, led by our younger chika, we started uphill. Up the mountain, that is.
Sauk Mountain shrouded in fog

And as expected with such a wildflowers show, I was bringing up the rear, stopping nearly every step to appreciate the spectacular display.
Sitka Valerian, Valeriana sitchensis 
The first and longest part of the trail was going up a very steep slope. The trail itself wasn't all that steep - the many switchbacks rendered it moderate in steepness. Still, we quickly gained altitude. Far below us the clouds separated enough to reveal the valley and the silvery ribbon of the Skagit River.
View of the Skagit River
Pappa Quail was very impressed with the wildflowers and even photographed some without prompts from me. Still, his primary interest was the birds that chirped around, and even posed occasionally on low shrubs or exposed rocks.
Pine Siskin
The elder chika who trotted uphill like a mountain goat, carried her new, long-lens camera, her quick eyes spotting any movement off trail. I share here some of her nicer shots.
Yellowpine Chipmunk 
Up and up and up we went. The long, thin trail snaking both above and below us. Mostly above us still. I could hear voices below us, emanating from a large group of families that lined up along the thin trail below. I tried picking up my pace, trying to get away from the noise.

It was impossible for me however, to keep a steady pace upwards. Not with all the lovely wildflowers in bloom. I saw new species as we got higher in elevation. And that's on top of all the new species I was seeing for the first time simply because we were not in California.
Nootka Rose, Rosa nutkana
Going faster didn't help much because the group below was gaining on us. There were numerous youth in that group but two of them were particularly loud, shouting repeatedly, "Look at all those chickens!" There voice carried all the way up the mountainside.
Orange agoseris, Agoseris aurantiaca 
The elder chika recognized that phrase from an apparently viral clip that was circulating the web. She tried yelling back to them but I stifled her quickly. The noise was annoying enough coming from others, I didn't want to have it echoed by my own offspring.
Cow Parsnip
Anyway, nearly half way up Pappa Quail and the chikas decided to have a break. We stopped before the first group of trees that the trail was leading to and sat down for a breather. The elder chika and Pappa Quail didn't sit for long though. They spotted a movement in the branches and went off to check it out. It was a small and beautiful golden-crowned kinglet.
Golden-crowned Kinglet
I looked up. The trail continued snaking up the very steep slope. People walking up there looked tiny and out of reach. Pappa Quail doubted once more if we should go all the way up. Once again we agreed to go until we felt that was enough, then turn back.

When would it be enough? Were not even half way uphill, but we got up and continued on, and I kept at the rear, giving attention to the wildflowers.
Red Columbine, Aquilegia formosa 
We passed through small groups of trees. The shade was deep among the trees, and the vegetation somewhat different.  Some of these bushes I was seeing for the first time.
Solomon Seal
Others were familiar to me from California.
Prickly Currant, Ribes lacustre 
And then there were the lupines, which always make me happy to see in bloom.
Lupine, Lupinus sp.
Looking down I could see far below (to the right) the parking lot, and the thin brown line of the trail we had walked so far. We had gained much altitude in such a short time. I could also see the tiny figures of the people below walking briskly up the trail. I mostly heard them, they were loud.

We kept walking up the trail turning corners at the tight switchbacks, and none of us mentioned again stopping and turning around. I certainly didn't want to turn around. The switchbacks mellowed the slope enough to render it moderate and I enjoyed the new colors I saw in every step.
Subalpine Fleabane, Erigeron peregrinus 
The loud youth from below were gaining on us. To my chagrin I heard people above us answering their shouts. Apparently, they were connected to one another and as the gap between them shrunk the youth of both groups continued communicating in loud shouts. We were stuck in the middle and I regretted leaving my earplugs in the car. I'm sad to say that none of the adults in those group had done anything to stifle this booming acoustic pollution.

Once again I focused my attention on the wildflowers around. The people at the visitor center we checked with the day before had told us that the wildflowers season was still at its beginning and that within a month it would peak. It was hard to believe, seeing all the splendor displayed pin the mountainside.
Harch Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja hispida 
Even flowers with common appearance seemed more colorful and attractive that day.

We were getting close to the cloud that rested on the mountain top. My younger chika got excited about touching the cloud and pushed forward with renewed energy.

The vegetation kept changing as we gained altitude. Different wildflowers adorned the higher stories of Sauk Mountain, and we were still on the rise.
Lomatium sp. 
Above me I saw Pappa Quail and my elder chika pointing their cameras at something dark just off the trail at a switchback corner. I approached to get a better look: it was a marmot! The marmot didn't seem at all bothered by the attention it got from us, and from others who came up the trail and gathered to a small and curious group. It was still there, chewing nonchalantly after we were done appreciating it and moved on. 
It was still there when we were going downhill later that day. 
Hoary Marmot

It didn't take much longer before we were truly walking in the clouds. As long as we walked, we were fine in T shirts but if we paused for whatever reason, we chilled quickly. So we had fewer pauses.
Trail in the clouds
The shrubs got smaller and flatter. Still colorful, though. Seeing the phlox cushions told more of the altitude than the fog.

Between the phlox I detected a different kind of purple - violets! I'm not used to seeing them so purple. Most violets I see are yellow.
Hookedspur Violet, Viola adunca
I'm also not used to seeing orange cinquefoil, and I was very excited to see this one up the mountain. Later that summer I met these in California too, in the heights of the Sierra Nevada.
Fan-leaf Cinquefoil, Potentilla flabellifolia
My progress slowed down to a crawl. I didn't care anymore that the shouting youth were right near me. They kept shouting as they passed us and I let the distance grow between me and them and focused on the pretty wildflowers as the noise receded up up the trail.
Partridgefoot, Luetkea pectinata
A ranger at the North Cascades National Park told us a couple of days later that the mountain heath was in danger of being trampled too much within the park high areas but here at the heights of Sauk Mountain the mats of heath looked all healthy and undamaged.
Mountain Heath, Phyllodoce empetriformis 
We made it to a trail fork and paused for a breather. The cloud lay heavily down below the pass where the trail to Sauk Lake was leading. To the left, where we expected to go to the summit were several snow patches in various states of melt. Pappa Quail looked doubtful but everyone else that was coming up the trail (and by that time there were many) had gone right ahead and walked across the snow.

We peered over the edge. The cloud obscured the lake but higher up a big rock was protruding from the slope side. The elder chika noticed a marmot sitting on top of that rock, looking a bit bored.
Hoary Marmot
We continued along the ridge toward the summit. Before Pappa Quail forgot his doubts: there were birds up on the ridge.
Townsend's Solitaire
Some of these birds were new to him. 'Lifers' there call it in the birder's jargon.

Pappa Quail reminded us that we were also to keep our eyes open for pika - a small rodent that lives in the alpine zone up the mountain. Pika live in California too but we've never seen them there before.
Pappa Quail described the pika to the chikas and sure enough, a few moments later the younger chika who was in the lead at the time had indeed spotted one. We all got very excited abut it. The pika, well aware of us looking at it, was posing perfectly on a rock just above the trail.
American Pika

It was hard to match the excitement of seeing the pika but crossing the snow patches provided enough excitement of its own. The young chika was now reassured that she was inside a cloud. She admitted that it felt different than what she had imagined - instead of being a soft fluffy thing she could hold it was cold and damp and blocked the view. Nonetheless, she was happy to have come up there to experience it.

In between the snow patches we crossed bloomed many small wildflowers. I tried giving each its due attention.
Buttercup, Ranunculus sp. 
It seemed that as soon as the snow receded the plants were all ready to bud and burst into bloom. These wildflowers were blooming right at the edge of the snow patches.
Western Moss Heather, Cassiope mertensiana
A very short summer, and very little time to complete a life cycle. Maybe it's easier for perennial shrubs but the annuals who go from seed to seeds must be quick.
Elmera racem
Yellow Coralbells, Elmera racemosa
We made our way slowly across the snow patches and through fields of scree. Many other people were hiking this trail that day and crossed paths with us. Some times we had to stop and wait for someone less sure footed to cross an obstacle. Other times it was one of us that slowed down the traffic, if only to look closer at one plant or another ...
Fleabane, Erigeron sp.
If in the beginning of the hike we hoped for the sun to break through the clouds, by the time we were up on the ridge it was clear that it won't happen today. If anything, the clouds got thicker, the air colder, and the visibility lower.

The last bit to the summit involved some hands-on rock scrambling. When we got to the top the main challenge was to find an empty square foot to sit on, that wasn't already populated by fellow hikers. The large group with the noisy youth had all gathered by the top rocks and people kept leaping around from rock to rock and over stayed backpacks and sitting people's legs, stretched or not. We huddled in a small corner we found and sat down to rest and eat our lunch. We had reached the summit in our T shirts but sitting still we now got cold and had to don our sweaters.

Sauk Lake
Eventually some of the people who conquered the summit before us had departed on their way down and we could move about a bit more and look around. The clouds had lifted a bit and we had a nice view of Sauk Lake below. Pappa Quail and the elder chika found another marmot not far down the slope and we all observed it for a while. Then I saw that the big noisy group was getting ready to head back down and I rushed my family to get on the trail quicker, so not to get stuck right behind them.
The Sauk Ridge, view from the summit
My plan didn't work. We walked considerably slower and had to pull over again and again to let faster hikers pass us on their way downhill.

Soon, the entire big group moved ahead and we were left behind to hike at our slow, wildflower-spotting pace, down the rocky trail to the ridge line and the snow patches.
Fleabane, Erigeron sp.
Not all of us were slow, however. The elder chika had run ahead and had managed to join the noisy youth for a few minutes of a snowball fight at the large snow patch just before taking the turn onto the trail down the mountain.

Usually when it's possible I prefer to hike a loop trail over an in-and-out one. But heading down the same path we had hiked up on gave me a second opportunity to look at flowers I couldn't give enough attention to on our way up.
Yellow Fawn Lily, Erythronium grandiflorum
Looking down I couldn't see the trailhead - it was now completely obscured by the cloud. We begun our long way down.

We were going down the same path we came up on, but the view point was now different. Not only the weather and lighting had changed but, looking down the path I could see things I had missed before.

Some of the wildflowers, for example, were still closed when we were going up and were now open and pretty as the afternoon hours progressed.
Rock Cress 
More and more people were going up the trail now, but the cloud had obscured their forms, allowing only their voices to come through. AT least the noisy group was further down now, and their shouts more muffled.

We came down to where we spotted the marmot and to my surprise it was still there, and still chewing nonchalantly at some vegetation. We didn't stop there again, just pointed it out to other hikers who were turning that corner as we walked by. I did stop however, to look closer at a pretty moth that was perched in on a cow parsnip leaf.

Down, down, down we go. And there's a lot of down to go. My knees are already complaining but we're not even half way down the mountain. I slow down (yes, I used that word again) once more, taking photos as an excuse to ease my knees.
Fendler's Waterleaf, Hydrophyllum fendleri 
But in truth, I didn't need any special excuse to enjoy the wildflowers on the way down. The same wildflowers I saw on my way up, but from a different angle.
Broadleaf Lupine, Lupinus latifolius 
Most of the mountainside vegetation was herbaceous or very low shrubs and vines but there were also small patches of bigger bushes here and there and they too were in bloom.
Western Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia 
About half way down the mountain we were once again shrouded in the cloud. Visibility dropped to a few yards and I had to put on my sweater which I had taken off when we begun our descend.

For a good distance it was impossible to see any wide view nor the trail ahead. I could barely see the rest of my family as they glided away on the switchbacks below me.
The cloud, thankfully, didn't obscure the blossoms near me.
Western Meadow-rue (male), Thalictrum occidentale
In some cases I regretted that the season wasn't more advanced. There were several berry species growing along this trail, and all were in full bloom.
Dwarf Bramble, Bubus lasiococcus
Little by little the cloud lifted a bit (or perhaps it was us who descended below it) and more light penetrated through.
Small-flowered Penstemon, Penstemon procerus
Eventually we could also ave a view of the Skagit River below the mountain, the road along which leads to the North Cascades National Park where we were headed on the morrow.
Skagit River
ow we could also see the end of the trail. The stretches between the switchbacks were longer and somewhat less steep. I run along to catch up with my family.
Spreading Stonecrop
If this post looks more like a gallery of wildflowers and the text in between photos an excuse to incorporate more photos in this post, this is spot on. And believe me, I left many, many other photos out.

We reached the little trailhead parking lot that was now completely full. Our rented sedan wasn't there - we had parked it further down the dirt road past a ditch we didn't want to risk crossing. It was a short distance to walk but as we walked down we had to squeeze to the side of the road because more cars were going up or down to the trailhead.
Carex sp.
I took some more time by the car to look closer at the petty wildflowers display as Pappa Quail busied himself with dismantling his and the elder chika's photographing equipment and putting everything away securely.
Castilleja hispida
When everything was ready I snapped a last shot of the cloud-like bushes blooming near the road and squeezed myself into the car with my camera still in hand, just in case we'd see something worth stopping for on the way down to the main road.
Sylvan's Goat's Beard

Pappa Quail pointed the car down and we rolled down the 8 mikes of rough dirt road, where we would turn east to the North Cascades National Park. 


  1. This is a big wow indeed :-) All the variety of the flowers and animals is very impressive.
    But the noise is upsetting...

    1. When humans don't d their best to blend in Nature ... But the views and the wildflowers more than compensated. It was an amazing hike!