At the trailhead for the Mount Townsend hike, the sun is hot in the dusty parking pull-off. You can look up and see the summit far above. Just an hour’s drive from town, this seven-mile hike is a summer ritual for people here. A twisty Forest Service road provides much of the elevation gain to the 6,280-foot summit, but 2,000 feet remain to do on foot.
Edged at the beginning by pale pink and blooming rhododendron, then by the logged stumps and regrowth of hemlock and Doug fir, the trail climbs relentlessly up for the first half-hour. Ever upward, the route switches to the mountain’s damper flank, covered with fern and kinnikinnick. On a clear day walkers can glimpse the Strait through trees, but a couple of Sundays ago when my husband and I hiked, a thick layer of fog and cloud covered the water and coast.
About 40 minutes up, the trail levels briefly, and at 50 minutes we stepped through snow patches. Two years ago we hiked the trail on the 21st of each month, June to September. That year in June, at this spot, we slid and sunk into significant sweeps of avalanched snow, and heaved over many winter downfalls.
Remembering the measured pace of the trail boss, at an hour and a quarter on a slope of rocky outcroppings, we stopped for a handful of nuts and some water. Just a few switchbacks below the top ridge, here the view stretches west across forested valleys to the beautiful snow-streaked Olympics.
The high tree line in Washington always surprises me, but at this elevation trees become stunted and sub-alpine. Now in early July, pale lavender and white phlox, tiny violets, and unopened allium grow in patches of scree. Later in July kamus, monkshood, potentilla, saxifrage, paintbrush, and lupine will bless the tundra.
On the top of Mount Townsend, narrow but a mile long, summiters find resting spots and a spectacular view. But on this day, a thick cloudbank obscured all but the nearest tree-covered foothills and the snow-clad volcano shape of Mount Rainier.
On our August and September trips the view was a 360° panorama – to the north all the way to Canada, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Discovery Bay, and the Quimper Peninsula. To the east, in front of the Cascades, Puget Sound and its by-waters twisted and turned. We could see the Hood Canal Bridge, follow the highway across Bainbridge, and watch ferries carrying people back and forth to Seattle’s buildings, glinting in the sun.
We ate cheese sandwiches and apples in a little grassy bowl near a long patch of snow, sheltering by wind-twisted juniper. A breeze and clouds passing over the sun made me glad for windbreaker and wool shirt. One of us had a nap, and the other painted a little scene. Chilly, we started down.
Down is quicker but hard on knees, boots slip on rocks and dust. Halfway down it felt good to sit on a tree trunk over the path and split a big chocolate-chip cookie.
It always seems like the last mile of a hike is longer than any other. (Alaska hikes are like this – you can hear the highway – even see the cars shining in the parking lot and still need to turn much up into down.)
I was glad to reach the car and look up to see clouds swirling about the summit. And glad to drive home eating cherries, hoping the fog had lifted off the bluff.