Exploring Northwest US and Canada: Week 4, Day 25, Mount Rainier to Spokane


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Published: July 15th 2018
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8/4 Equipment malfunction at the Ashford Alexander’s Lodge this morning so the “major motel chain style breakfast” of eggs and bacon etc was replaced with crappy breads. There were little cartons of milk in the fridge but no cereals. At least there were some bananas, fresh oranges and old apples. All this with loud country music. I am wondering if the “equipment malfunction” had anything to do with an overload of air conditioners last night. The best I can say for this rustic lodge with its tiny sometimes hot sometimes cold shower is that it was one of the closest (5 miles) to the entrance to Mount Rainier National Park although, as we drove towards the park entrance we saw other (probably) better options. They did have 2 plug ins for electric cars so there was that.

It was 66 degrees at the entrance to the park at 8:15am. The first and only construction stop today was at 8:30am. We headed up towards Paradise then turned east on Stevens Canyon Road (open only in summer). As the road curved up I pulled into a lay by and turned around to see a spectacular view of Mount Rainier! It was quite hazy but not as bad as it had been (although my camera reports differently), but I chose to wait a little and was rewarded with a much better view.

We drove three miles east on Stevens Canyon Road towards the iconic Reflection Lake in Packwood where yesterday others had complained about poor mountain visibility, but thankfully, with winds and weather there is always change. We were very lucky to be rewarded with wonderful reflections of a clearly defined mountain in the crystal-clear subalpine lake. This area is an easy drive-by site and because there is no hiking involved to see the lake it is said to be the most photographed view in the entire park. The canyon road is only open in the summer, closed in inclement weather, so there are some limitations on accessibility.

From Reflection Lake we drove into the forested part of the park through the steep, switchbacked, winding and tunneled Box Canyon and once on the other side of that twisting road I hiked the short Box Canyon Trail down to the Cowlitz Overlook Bridge to see the lichen and moss covered glacial rock and the glacier carved waterfall from the Cowlitz River. Across the road was another overlook platform looking deep into into the Box Canyon. The small parking lot is right off the road and easy to find, and there are portable restrooms here as well. Heading east we began to see evidence of smoke from the BC and Oregon fires come into the canyon, at times completely hiding any mountain view.

We pressed on to The Grove of the Patriarchs and arriving at 10:30am on a Friday morning. We were stunned to find a parking place in the few allotted spaces. I got out to hike the easy 3 mile walk. Dave tried to join me for a short while but soon returned to the parking area where he rested his back and knees staying in the shade at a picnic table. The east walk (little ups and downs but a bit rocky at first) was quiet and peaceful. I had the trail mostly to myself. The tall Douglas Firs provided cooling shade and created a cathedral-like atmosphere on the winding path along the river. I crossed a suspension bridge over the clean, clear turquoise Ohanapecosh River rushing over colored stones. The same stones out of the water were not colorful but simply gray. The path continued on the other side of the river for a few hundred feet before turning to sand and then boardwalk entering the short Grove of the Patriarchs Loop. The tall cedar and fir gave a serenity to the grove and luckily I was able to experience it all alone. It took me over an hour, stopping along the way to reflect and photograph, before returning to find Dave had banged his head on the car again. This man needs a full time nurse!

From the Grove of the Patriarchs we worked our way north and east stopping along the Chinook Scenic Byway as it connected to the Mather Memorial Parkway along the Ohanapecosh River Valley passing the stunning green Tipsoo Lake near the Pacific Crest Trail. Wildflowers surrounded the lake like a colorful necklace and if you positioned your camera right from above you could get a lovely reflection of Mount Rainier in the lake. There is a short nature trail around the lake but since it was getting progressively smokier than when left the Nisqually entrance and we had to get to Spokane for dinner, we pressed on driving on 410 east, the Mather Memorial Parkway. The rest of the drive was in and out of tunnels against canyon walls and ravines with an occasional lookout over the canyon in Chinook Pass (what you were able to see through the smoke).

We continued east on 410 until we turned onto Route 12 east toward Naches. It was 95 degrees at 2pm when we stopped for lunch in Natches, a rural farming town featuring several farm stands selling many varieties of fruit such as fresh cherries, peaches and apricots. We chose to eat in the center of town at the Sticky Fingers Bakery and Cafe, one of three options in the town of 700, and the other two were run down bars. This town could be used in a bad cowboy movie. Dave had a surprisingly good cup of white bean and ham soup and we split a four cheese grilled sandwich (freshly baked sourdough bread crusted with cheese, topped with Mozzarella, Swiss, cheddar, American cheese and then grilled. It was accompanied by a side of coleslaw. I ordered iced tea that tasted like it came out of the coffee maker. A taste of local color. But I have to say the sandwich was quite good, and the soup too. The coleslaw was excellent and the fresh fruit a nice touch. Just stay away from the iced tea.

Not long after lunch we headed up 82 to Ellensburg. At 3pm at a rest stop it was 103 degrees. Tawny scrub grass and silver grey sagebrush dotted the hilly landscape as the heat seemed to rise above the land. A few junipers and pine brought a dark punctuation to the soft landscape. There was a sign pointing to Mt Adams and Mt Rainier but there wasn't even a hint of where they were in the smoky haze. Another sign nearby said "Watch out for rattlesnakes". I did.

By 3:30 we were on our way east on I 90 heading towards Vantage passing horse country, sunflower farms and produce farms but by this time the hills were completely consumed in smoke and I could hardly make out the road, much less the landscape. I had wanted to see the famous Wild Ponies Monument, Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies near Vantage so I was on the lookout for a sign. I also thought it would be a great place to stretch our legs before the long drive to Spokane. We crossed a large bridge then passed Vantage and shortly after there was a sign that said Scenic Area next. There was no other indication that there was a major site to see and where to turn next. The Scenic Area sign was immediately followed by a small sign that said Wild Horses next but there was no sign for the actual turn and the tiny gravel pass looked like a dead end or turn around off the highway. Maybe if there was better visibility it wouldn't need a sign but today nothing was clear. We took a chance and drove up the unnamed road and finally saw the multitude of pony sculptures at the top of the bluff far away up from where our car was parked. I opened the car door with great anticipation and inhaled a blast of smoke that set me coughing up a storm. Nonetheless I was determined to see those damned ponies! I saw a family hiking up so I thought I could too but in my haste I grabbed my cameras but forgot to change my flip flops for hiking shoes. Bad choice. I made it 3/4 of the way on the near vertical loose gravel path but gave up when the path got too steep for my shoes and for my breathing. Sadly I turned around and went back to the car. It was over 100 degrees and in the heat and smoke it was too much for me. We left the Ponies at 4:20 for our final leg to Spokane to have dinner and enjoy a stay with our friends Jim and Ellen.

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