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Fall Trail Running in Washington

By Mike McQuaide - October 8th, 2001

Come the fall, Washington trail runners face some mighty tough decisions.

Should they climb through wildflower meadows to run at the toes of glaciers seeping from volcanoes more than two miles high? Or perhaps run for the hills closer to Puget Sound? Should they bounce their way across trail-running meccas such as the Cougar and Blanchard mountains - big bumps crisscrossed with roller coaster routes that wind through lush, moss-draped forests? Or how about a beach run along the Pacific where there's not a hill to be had anywhere? (Just enjoying wave upon wave crashing on jagged sea stacks, and otherworldly rainforests so misty and dark they make one feel as if they've stepped back in time.) Decisions, decisions.

Fall makes choosing a trail run tough. Why? Because there is too much to choose from. Mountain trails are as free of snow as they'll get all year, and the lower level routes haven't yet turned to mud. Throw in the kaleidoscope colors of the changing seasons, the dearth of crowds on the trails once Labor Day has passed, the tasty temptation of mountain blueberries, and it's easy to see that Washington trail runners are faced with enough choices to keep them exploring for years. To help you make up your mind, here are 10 routes that offer the very best that Washington trail running has - views, varying terrain, challenges galore and a lot more. So relax, fill the hydration pack, lace up the shoes, and leave the decisions to us.

SCOTT PAUL TRAIL

Route location: Mount Baker National Recreation Area, east of Bellingham
Route: soft forest trail to rough moraine; creek and snow crossings
Distance: 8-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1,800 feet
Run time: 1 to 1-3/4 hours
Difficulty: challenging

NOTE: Because of the possibility of early season snow, call the Forest Service at 360-856-5700 for the latest conditions.

Here's a loop that gets you up close and personal with the glaciers on Mount Baker's south side. Count the crevasses on Baker's icy masses while creek jumping, gorge crossing and, more than likely, tiptoeing across mini snowfields.

Directions: Head east on Highway 20, about 15 miles past Sedro Woolley. Turn left on Baker Lake-Grandy Lake Road. About 12.5 miles farther turn left on Forest Road 12. Turn right on Forest Road 13 in three miles, and follow for six miles to the road's end.

Just beyond the trailhead kiosk, run left at the Scott Paul trail sign and cross a wood bridge. (Don't worry that the sign points to the right, you'll return that way.) After passing through wildflower meadows and boulder-strewn creeks, enter cool forest and begin climbing. At 2.0 miles run right at a T-intersection following the signs for the Scott Paul Trail.

Continue climbing and soon you'll begin a series of creek, gorge and snow crossings in a glacial moraine environment. Stop from time to time to let Mount Baker's snowy summit inspire you. Though miles away, it looks close enough to reach out and touch. At 5.5 miles, return to the forest and a rip-roaring descent back to the trailhead.

WONDERLAND TO PANHANDLE GAP

Route location: Mount Rainier National Park
Route: soft forest trail to rough moraine; creek and snow crossings
Distance: 11.4 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3,000 feet
Run time: 1-1/2 to 2-3/4 hours
Difficulty: challenging

NOTE: Because of the possibility of early season snow, call Mount Rainier National Park at 360-663-2273 for the latest conditions.

Mount Rainier National Park is one big pie and this route offers a number of tasty slices. Forests, meadows, waterfalls, glaciers, as well as views of mountains hundreds of miles away - it's all here.

Directions: Head south on Highway 410 to the White River entrance of Mount Rainier National Park. The trailhead is about three miles ahead on the left, just across the Frying Pan Creek bridge.

From the trailhead, run through cool forest on the wide, mostly level trail. At about 1.7 miles, you begin to gain elevation as the trail switchbacks alongside sizzling Frying Pan Creek. After passing through a gentle meadow, begin climbing in earnest until reaching Summerland Camp at 4.2 miles. Mountain and meadow views here are simply glorious.

Descend for a bit, cross a creek and start the mix of creek, snow, and boulder crossings that come with running across a moraine. At 5.7 miles, reach Panhandle Gap, which on clear days offers bird's-eye views of Mounts Adams and Hood. Return the same way.

CAPITOL PEAK

Route location: Capital State Forest, about 20 miles southwest of Olympia
Route: forested single-track, wide trail and logging road along a ridge
Distance: 8.2 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1,700 feet
Run time: 1 to 1-3/4 hours
Difficulty: moderate

On clear days, this route pays off with heart-stopping views of every Washington volcano, the Olympics and the Pacific Ocean. Not too shabby.

Directions: Take I-5 to Exit 88. Head west on Highway 12 for 18 miles to an easy-to-miss C-Line road on your right. Drive the dirt road for about 8.5 miles to Camp Wedekind, a horse camp. Just before a shelter, find a gated dirt road to the left and a trailhead sign pointing the way to Capitol Peak. Park here.

From the Capitol Peak sign, find the trail leading up into the forest. At 0.5 miles, run right onto Green Line #6 and bounce along a soft dirt single-track. Cross a dirt road at about 1.1 miles. In a little more than a half-mile, come to a multi-way dirt road intersection. Turn right and run about 100 yards crossing a road on the way. Find a horse trail sign a few yards farther on the left and re-enter the woods.

At 3.4 miles, come to another multi-way dirt road intersection and pick up the trail directly across the road. Descend for about a third of a mile until the trail pops out onto a dirt road, C-4000. Run along the road until you come to three prongs of a dirt road fork. Ascend the middle road and reach the awe-inspiring summit at 4.1 miles. Return the same way.

OZETTE TRAILS

Route location: on the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula
Route: forested wood plank trail and sandy beach
Distance: 9.3-mile loop
Elevation gain: 580 feet
Run time: 1-1/4 to 2-1/4 hours
Difficulty: moderate

Running Ozette is a day at the beach (as well as the forest). It entails running only about 200 yards on a dirt trail. The rest is forgiving boardwalk and sandy beach along the Pacific Ocean and all the cool things that implies - crashing waves, sea stacks, tidal pools, petroglyphs, eagles, and more.

Directions: Drive west on Highway 101 to Sappho, about 43 miles west of Port Angeles. Take a right on Highway 113 and continue north for nine miles to Highway 112. Turn left and drive about nine miles, just past Sekiu to Ozette Lake Road. Drive 21 miles to the ranger station at road's end.

From the ranger station follow the sign for Sand Point. Hop on the boardwalk and snake through thick forest and dense undergrowth all the way to the beach at 3.0 miles. Find the sand/rock/pebble surface that offers your feet the best grip and take a right, heading north.

To get around some blocky sea stacks at about 4.8 miles, find the orange-and-black disk sign pointing to a trail leading up into the headlands. Before you do, however, check out the petroglyphs of whales and passing ships etched onto the rocks. A little more than a mile farther, reach Cape Alava and spot another orange-and-black disk. Find the trail leading back to the Ozette Ranger Station and return on another three-mile boardwalk trail.

MOUNTAIN LAKE TO MOUNT CONSTITUTION

Route location: in Moran State Park on Orcas Island
Route: wide, level forested trail and long steep climb
Distance: 8.4-mile lollipop loop
Elevation gain: 1,850 feet
Run time: 1-1/4 to 2-1/4 hours

With snow-capped mountains that tower over emerald isles rising from northern Puget Sound, views from the top of Orcas Island's Mount Constitution are among the Northwest's best. This route gets you those views but makes you earn them the old fashioned way - by climbing.

Directions: From the Orcas Island Ferry Landing, drive nine miles on Orcas Road to Eastsound. Continue through town and about one mile farther, turn right on Olga Road. Drive 3.2 miles to the Moran State Park entrance archway. In 1.3 miles, turn left following the Mount Constitution summit sign. About a mile farther, follow the sign for Mountain Lake. Parking is about a quarter-mile ahead.

Start by following the well-marked Mountain Lake Loop Trail for almost three miles along the lakeshore. At 2.8 miles, run right, following the sign for Twin Lakes. About three-quarters of a mile ahead, turn left at the Mount Constitution sign and begin fighting gravity - 1,200 feet worth over the next 1.5 miles.

At about 4.9 miles, the grade lessens, signaling that the top is near. About a quarter-mile ahead, pop out onto a paved loop parking lot and bolt for the stone viewing tower just ahead.

Return the same way for about 2.3 miles to the northern tip of Mountain Lake. Follow the sign for Mountain Lake Campground. From here, it's a mostly flat cruise back to the parking lot.

IRON GOAT TRAIL

Route location: near Stevens Pass in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
Route: forested single-track and wide trail on old railroad grade; 1.2 miles of tunnel
Distance: 11.4 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 720 feet
Run time: 1-1/2 to 2-3/4 hours
Difficulty: moderate

This route follows the old Great Northern Railway that crossed Stevens Pass more than 100 years ago and passes several abandoned tunnels and snow sheds. Various railroad artifacts line the trail as well.

Directions: Head east on Highway 2 to just past Milepost 55. Turn left onto Old Cascade Highway following the sign for Iron Goat Trail. In 2.3 miles, turn left on Forest Road 6710, a dirt road, and continue for 1.4 miles to the Martin Creek trailhead.

Run south from the trailhead kiosk. In about 200 yards run left and up, following the sign for Martin Creek Crossover. Check out the remains of snow sheds which were built to hold back snow slides when the railroad was being built. At 0.5 miles, pass the first of several abandoned tunnels.

At 3.0 miles, the Windy Tunnel offers a nice place to stop to sip something cool. A couple miles farther enter a 0.6-mile tunnel that's open to the right. The wide dirt path is great fun to run on and the tunnel's roof protects from the elements. At 5.7 miles, arrive at the Wellington trailhead, your turnaround point. Return the same way.

MELAKWA-PRATT LAKES LOOP

Route location: near Snoqualmie Pass in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Route: wide, easy trail to technical, hard-to-follow single-track
Distance: 16.7-mile loop
Elevation gain: 3,650 feet
Run time: 2-1/2 to 4 hours
Difficulty: challenging

Run past plunging waterfalls, pristine alpine lakes, sky-scratching peaks, as well as through dense forests of solitude on this amazing alpine wilderness loop - a feast for the senses.

Directions: Head east on I-90 to Exit 47. Take a left and another left about one-tenth of a mile farther. The Pratt Lake trailhead parking lot is 0.4 miles ahead.

Run the first three miles from the Pratt Lake trailhead to the Denny Creek trailhead on pavement. (If you have two cars, park one at each trailhead to eliminate this.) Once on the Denny Creek Trail, climb gradually through dense forest. At about 4.8 miles, the woods open, allowing a good gawk at plunging Keekwulee Falls, a few hundred yards to the right. Climb steadily over the next two-plus miles to Hemlock Pass, at 4600 feet, the route's highest point.

Drop quickly, and at 7.5 miles take a hard left following the sign for Tuscohatchie Lake. (Melakwa Lake is only about 100 yards ahead.) Continue descending until the route levels off but becomes overgrown. On and off for about 1.5 miles, the going is slow as a variety of vegetation does its darndest to obscure the trail.

At 10.4 miles, reach Lower Tuscohatchie Lake, and about a half-mile farther, Pratt Lake, the final big pond on the route. Climb about 800 feet over the next two miles, and at 12.4 miles begin the long, fast descent back to the parking lot.

LAKE PADDEN

Route location: Bellingham
Route: wide, easy trail
Distance: 2.6-mile loop
Elevation gain: 70 feet
Run time: 20 to 40 minutes
Difficulty: easy

Lake Padden offers something for trail runners of all levels. Beginners can run the 2.6-mile lake loop to get a sense of what trail running is about. Those in the speed-work mood can utilize the posts marking quarter-mile intervals along the trail. And technical trail rats can head off on the myriad trails leading from the lake's south side.

Directions: From I-5 take Exit 246. Head northwest on Samish Way for about three miles to the Lake Padden Park West Entrance.

From the parking lot, run right on the obvious, wide trail. Stay on this path all the way, keeping the lake on your left side, and ignoring the many trails that beckon to the right (for now). The few minor hills offer a bit of fun, but the last mile is flat.

For a more technical take on Padden, at about 0.4 miles, run straight at the fork at the minor crest of a hill. Keep climbing and in about 300 yards, take a left at a four-way intersection. From here, run wherever you want. Trails seem to head off in all directions so let your trail-running soul improvise.

COUGAR MOUNTAIN RING

Route location: Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park near Issaquah
Route: single-track and wide, well-maintained trail through forest
Distance: 9-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1,200 feet
Run time: 1-1/4 to 2-1/4 hours
Difficulty: moderate

Here's a cool forest loop that offers plenty in the technical running department without overdosing on the hills. It's a fun sampler of this 4,000-acre park that's home to some of the Northwest's top ultra runners.

Directions: From I-90, take Exit 13. Head south on Lakemont Boulevard SE for 3.2 miles to the Cougar Mountain Parking Lot which will be on your left.

From the parking lot, follow the sign for the Red Town Trail. After about a quarter-mile, take a left on the Cave Hole Trail. At 1.3 miles, run left, and in about 100 yards, cross Clay Pit Road and pick up Coyote Creek Trail on the other side. In a little less than a mile, head right at the Klondike Swamp Trail and drop quickly into said swamp. In about 150 yards, find the Lost Beagle Trail and return to the forest, ascending for a not-too-painful half-mile.

Next up, at 3.5 miles take a right on Cougar Pass Trail. A couple hundred yards farther, take a left on the Klondike Swamp Trail. In a quarter-mile, cross Clay Pit Road again and pick Fred's Railroad Trail on the other side. In a little more than a half-mile, run left, following the sign for Shy Bear Pass.

At 4.9 miles, reach the pass and follow the sign for Long View Peak Trail. In about a half-mile, pick up the Deceiver Trail on the right. Run right at the Doughty Falls turn-off and at 6.6 miles, turn left at the Shy Bear Trail intersection. A little less than a half-mile farther, bear left, ignoring the sign for Far Country Lookout.

Just ahead, follow the sign for the Red Town Trailhead and after a fast downhill stretch, turn right on the wide, smooth Indian Trail. Follow signs for the Red Town Trailhead back to the parking lot.

BLANCHARD MOUNTAIN LOOP

Route location: Blanchard Mountain, just south of Bellingham
Route: technical and non-technical single-track
Distance: 6-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1,200 feet
Run time: 50 minutes to 1-1/2 hours
Difficulty: moderate

The Olympic Mountain/San Juan Island views from this route's trailhead are better than what you get on most trails, and the views only get better en route. One must pay for them, however, with a steep, rocky, mega-climb.

Directions: Take I-5 to Exit 240 and head west. Just ahead, take a left on Barrel Springs Road. About a half-mile farther, turn right on B-1000. Follow this dirt road for about 1.7 miles to a three-way intersection. Hang a left on B-2000, another dirt road, and continue for 2.2 miles. Park at the somewhat vague parking area.

Find the PNT (Pacific Northwest Trail) sign and loosen up with a quarter-mile jaunt down the Larry Reed Trail. Run right at an intersection with the Oyster Dome Trail and traverse a forested hillside. At about 1.5 miles, begin climbing steeply up what is now the Talus Trail. About a third of a mile up, turn left on the Rock Trail - your highway to the best views.

Climb the steep rugged half-mile trail and reach the top of a 300-foot rock face. The views here appear to stretch to infinity. Return to the Rock-Talus intersection at 2.8 miles and this time take a left. In a little more than a half-mile, reach Lily Lake. Just beyond, take a right on Max's Shortcut, and start your downhill cruise home. At 5.2 miles, take a right on Samish Overlook Trail and finish in less than a mile.


Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham (WA) freelance writer and author of the forthcoming book, "Trail Runner's Guide to Western Washington."

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