Before beginning this hike, I thought I would be posting the report on the “Lost Trails” forum, but the “abandoned” Gifford Peak Way is obvious and easy to follow from its junction with the Race Track Trail #171 all the way up to the Pacific Crest Trail. This trail is also on the 1983 USGS topo map of the area although the USFS maps no longer recognize it. I had been inspired by airdrum’s trip report http://www.portlandhikersfieldguide.org/ph/forum/viewtopic.php?f=10&t=6379
from last year, and VanMarmot descended to the Basin (a.k.a. Darlene) Lakes from the PCT this summer: http://www.portlandhikers.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=9572
. The latter also referenced Mel Hansen’s Indian Heaven Back Country
(1977), and I checked out a copy from the Multnomah County Library. Two days before the hike, as I was reading Hansen’s account of this loop, I was somewhat disconcerted to read this little caution: “I am reluctant to hike the Gifford Peak Way Trail without a companion and without a side arm because of something up there around the Darlene Lakes. In early December 1976, I traversed the trail with Spencer Frey of Trout Lake. Near one lake we heard the crackling of brush in the trees surrounding a meadow. Near a second lake we heard a growling roar not more than 300 feet away. The terrifying sound was quite foreign from that made by a known animal. Whatever it was stayed out of sight, following us from one lake to another.”
I was going into the lakes alone and without a side arm, but it was 35 years after Hansen had become so thoroughly spooked, and my rational side told me that whatever the creature had been, it had probably long since departed this world. Hansen’s “sasquatch story” is recounted in more detail earlier in the book and merits an entry on the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) site: http://www.bfro.net/gdb/show_article.asp?id=282
I parked at the Falls Creek Horse Camp off FR 65. I was well aware that it was the first weekend of black-tail season in western Washington, but there were no other vehicles around, so I felt secure proceeding up the trail in my orange jacket. I took the tie trail from the campground to join Trail #171 at the wilderness permit box. Fifteen yards beyond this, the unsigned Gifford Peak Way heads off the Race Track Trail to the left at an obvious junction:
Fork, left to Basin Lakes, Indian Heaven.jpg [ 545.15 KiB | Viewed 2705 times ]
The path leads up, paralleling Falls Creek, in montane forest of silver fir and mountain hemlock with some noble fir and Douglas-fir. In places, large silver firs have fallen across the trail and need to be scrambled over or detours have to be made. However, these alternate tracks rather clearly reconnect with the main route. The recent rains have spurred the fruiting of many fungi, such as this fly amanita:
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The picture below shows silver firs on the trail, one with a small metal marker that was placed there when this was the Columbia National Forest (pre-World War II):
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There are yellow paint blazes on trees in addition to these metal markers. In the Columbia National Forest days, the trail had apparently not risen to the spine of Indian Heaven, as it does today, but headed north from the Basin Lakes to Umtux Lake. That was the period when shepherds, and not hikers, were the prime users of the back country here.
In no time at all, it seems, you arrive at Janet Lake, one of three named Basin Lakes:
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The Basin Lakes were also known as the Darlene Lakes. There are eight of them (although Hansen says there were seven) and three were named (Janet, Peggy, Darlene), but not officially recognized because they were christened after Forest Service employees’ wives who were living at the time. Since this basin is not large, I resolved to find all of the lakes and name the other five, in renegade USFS employee tradition, after the five living female members of my family. I had checked out the area on GoogleEarth and seen that small bogs and meadows connected most of the lakes, making it easy to orient and do a cross-country loop. I prepared for a possible encounter with a bigfoot by practicing the quick draw with my sheath knife, a couple of feint-and-thrusts (mindful that Skamania County has an ordinance mandating a $10,000 fine for slaughtering a sasquatch), but really hoping that all I would have to activate was my trusty can of Mace.
First then, I followed a meadow below the north end of Janet Lake and came to Peggy Lake, with its wide golden border of sedges:
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Next, I headed uphill from Peggy to “Gillian Lake,” a dark, brooding little body of water:
"Gillian Lake," Basin Lakes_2.jpg [ 561.84 KiB | Viewed 2705 times ]
After “Gillian,” I kept looping around to “Joy,” “Cindy,” “Jane,” and “Tina” Lakes (I’ll post pictures of all the lakes below this report). Sometimes I was thrashing through huckleberries and silver fir saplings, while at other points in the loop I was balancing across fallen snags to negotiate boggy stretches. There were also elk trails and plenty of fresh elk sign. I could see that a large herd had bedded down in the meadow north of “Cindy Lake.” I’d wager, come November, there will be one or two elk hunting parties up in here on weekends, so that would be a good time to stay out.
From “Tina Lake,” you can see the saddle between Gifford Peak and Berry Mountain, which is where the Gifford Peak Way meets the PCT. “Tina Lake” is also the only lake clearly visible from the PCT. The final task was to locate Darlene Lake, the only body of water south of the trail. First, I had to reconnect with the Gifford Peak Way and I was unsure whether I’d be able to find it. I dropped down from “Tina Lake” and crossed a stream, actually the beginnings of Falls Creek. The Gifford Peak Way heads east along the low ridge south of the creek and is clearly visible in the bear-grass. I turned left on the trail and passed above a small tarn. The trail drops to a draw. From here, you leave the trail and head south past the tarn and along a wet meadow that leads into Darlene Lake:
Darlene Lake, Basin Lakes.jpg [ 440.54 KiB | Viewed 2705 times ]
This is the lake where Mel Hansen had his initial sasquatch experience. Save for one lesser scaup scudding away on “Jane Lake,” the usual skulking Pacific wrens, and a band of gray jays at “Joy Lake,” I had not run into a living creature and had come across none of the normal bigfoot signs (rank stench, size 28 prints, wads of Wookiee-like hair). I left Darlene Lake knowing that I would live to hike another day, but with a certain feeling of disappointment mixed with some relief (My wife had said she would “kill me” if I got to see a sasquatch without her being along - and still I named a lake after her).
The Gifford Peak Way heads up the slope about 450 feet to an old campsite on the PCT. There is only one large tree over the trail on this ascent: the detour is to the right and switchbacks up to the main trail. There are four switchbacks in all up the steep slope and the trail is sometimes partially obscured by overhanging huckleberry bushes and young silver firs, but not hard to follow. You can’t recognize this as a junction from the PCT, but when you come to the campsite in the saddle, head down to the left (facing west) and you’re on the Gifford Peak Way!
The PCT leads south along the slopes of Berry Mountain. Here’s some yellow coral lighting up the forest floor:
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In open areas the slopes were ablaze with huckleberry bushes:
Fiery slope, Berry Mountain.jpg [ 659.93 KiB | Viewed 2705 times ]
At various viewpoints, you can see west to the Basin Lakes and Lone Butte, east to the Big Lava Bed and Big Huckleberry Mountain, and north to Lemei Rock and Mt. Adams (obscured on this day by cloud cover). The PCT passes below Berry’s summit on red-cindered slopes and then switchbacks down, with great views of the lookout on Red Mountain, to the junction with the Race Track Shortcut #171A. I headed into the Race Track Meadow, noting its colorful hemline of berry bushes:
Meadow, Indian Race Track.jpg [ 597.38 KiB | Viewed 2705 times ]
When I returned home, my son complained rather petulantly when he heard I had not named a lake after him, so I dubbed this seasonal puddle in his honor:
"Jake Lake", Indian Race Track.jpg [ 575.32 KiB | Viewed 2705 times ]
Then it was on to the junction with the Race Track Trail #171 and along Race Track Lake:
Race Track Lake, Indian Race Track.jpg [ 541.55 KiB | Viewed 2705 times ]
The Race Track Trail is heavily gullied in places, even by Indian Heaven standards, and moves from dry lodgepole pine/noble fir forest to descend in lusher woods to a footbridge over Falls Creek. Here’s a pendulum of stink currant ripe for the plucking:
Stink currant, Falls Creek.jpg [ 260.22 KiB | Viewed 2705 times ]
Driving back down FR 65, I made the obligatory stop at Panther Creek Falls:
Panther Creek Falls.jpg [ 581.69 KiB | Viewed 2705 times ]
In all, 9.1 miles, about 1,800’ total elevation gain, lots of elk evidence, no humans encountered in this province of Heaven last Sunday, and no bigfoot either.