Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Nude Hike to Iron Mountain in the Wild Sky Wilderness

Addendum: This hike was made last Thursday on June the 12th. My apologies for the delay in posting, which might lead to some confusion as to 'the when'

Summer is finally here . . . at least for a few days. Who could resist such an opportunity to get up in the mountains for a chance to hike and recharge the body's depleted store of vitamin D? Not me. I don't need much of an excuse in any case!

The question was 'where'? A great day in the mid-sixties with promise of sunshine? Everyone was going to be heading out to the mountains. Fat chance of finding one of my more common trails to hike nude on. Jacks Pass and the FS63 trails beyond (Blanca, Cady, Quartz and North Skykomish) were too far away for a simple day hike. I yet did not know the condition of the road over Jacks. The high pass trails are still snow-challenged and blow-down crippled. I didn't want to drive far and then have to deal with slushy snow and fallen trees. Nor did I feel much enamored by FS 62 and the massive clearcut logging that denuded the Proctor Creek Drainage this past year. That left the low-land foothills near Index . . . the west side of the Wild Sky Wilderness.

Some of my favorite hiking has been in the old reverted logging and mining roads that lead into the Wild Sky area off of the Index-Galena Road. Just about every creek the road bridges has a path leading in . . . the legacy of 18th-century mining activity and more recent logging: Heybrook Ridge and the Fire Tower via Lewis Creek, Jumpoff Ridge via the Boss Creek road that was supposed to one day to lead to a massive subdivision for the rich until permits and costs to reconstruct the road lead to a sale of the property to the Forest Service, and the ever-popular old mining road leading to Sunset Mine and a number of defunct mining claims along the Trout Creek drainage. There are a number of other such old roads beyond the washout of the Index-Galena Road past the 6.4 mile point, but the river running down the torn-up roadbed is too swift, too deep and definitely too cold for a nude hiker, yet alone a clothed one.

Heybrook had a bunch of cars parked at the trailhead . . . one of the Trails Association Orienteering Classes that they run up near the fire tower. By the way, I highly recommend this course to anyone wanting to know how they can get themselves 'unlost' in the wilderness. $35 when I took it, and well worth it. In any case, the back way onto Heybrook wouldn't do for a nude hike today.

Boss Creek was likewise occupied by a 4x4. That gated track has long been a favorite of mine for solitude, but not today.

That left the Sunset Mine road . . . more a wide track, eventually petering out to a trail just perfect for nude hiking (few people ever go beyond the old mine ruins.)

The far end of the Sunset Mine Road, now no more than a wide trail
Photo from an earlier hike

I was surprised to find no vehicles parked at the base of the old, eroded road. Nor were there any parked along the dirt shoulders of the Index-Galena Road. I pulled in the short stub road and parked off to the side . . . just out of visibility of the main pavement fifty feet away.

Safely parked and almost ready to go . . . nude from the very start!

No cars . . . no activity . . . the first order of business as soon as I stepped out of my car was to strip off my clothes. It's been too long since I've felt the air on my skin. Even though it's still cool in the morning shade, I'm comfortable. I take my time (as I always do) getting my stuff together. Roll a teeshirt and shorts tight and onto the outside flap of my fanny pack. The pack is more of a bicyclists fanny pack, larger than most. It carries everything I need and I can carry it the typical way strapped around the waist to the small of my back . . . or more often just slung over a shoulder.

Inside the pack I have my GPS and compass, a topo of the area along with pencils and notepad. Some granola bars, the small first aid kit, a tightly folded multi-purpose trash sack, bug spray and sunscreen. In the second pouch I secure my cell phone, wallet and car keys (can't forget those). I add a couple of bottles of water to the outside holders. Bear spray and my hunting knife are already secured to the wide strap. Then on goes the floppy blue hat, sunglasses, oh, and where's my hiking staff?

Time just to enjoy. Coffee? Yes. I pour myself another cup and explore the area nearby. Recent vehicle tracks? Footprints? The road to Sunset Mine is a hard drive even for the ruggedest of high-clearance four-wheel drives. There are fresh tracks at the base but those are concentrated around the other stub road leading to a campsite near Trout Creek. The county has emplaced jersey barriers across the muddy dirt road. About time. I noticed on my return trip later that day that quite a few popular (and established) campsites now have these concrete barriers preventing vehicles from heading in.

There are also footprints fresh from this morning and heading up the road to the mines. Sunset is very popular amongst those who like to delve deep into the earth in darkness. Sunset is also ridiculously easy to get to so it makes sense to figure out if anyone is up there despite the lack of a vehicle down at the bottom. At little bit of walking around reveals a second set of footprints coming back down. Someone was up there earlier but has since left. I'm reasonably certain I have the route all to myself. Time to head in. I finish my coffee, double-check headlights off and doors locked. Hiking time . . . au'natural, of course!

This is one of the better sections of the
abandoned (but still used) roadbed

The first mile is over extremely rough, eroded and steep old roadbed, switchbacking to high above Trout Creek. Every year this roadbed gets worse to where only the most rugged off-road vehicles can make it up. I suspect that with the passage of the Wild Sky Wilderness Act this road will soon be barricaded again and vehicles prohibited. That will make hiking that much more pleasant when you don't have to worry about vehicles careening up and down the mountainside, leaving bits and pieces of said vehicle behind.

One of the many muddy stretches you have to negotiate

After the switchbacks the roadbed levels out and the hiking is easier . . . idyllic as you slowly stroll in mostly shade of thickening alders. Sight distance is great. The only nuisances are the countless muddy stretches and pools of water across the roadbed that you must skirt. At just about the one mile point the track forks . . . the level roadbed straight ahead continuing to the Sunset Mine site another mile along, and even greater hiking beyond to numerous other adits and old, abandoned mining claims. That section beyond Sunset is not frequently visited as most people are searching for Sunset and content to arrive there. The best nude hiking is the three miles beyond. But not today.

The track straight ahead leads to the Sunset Mine area in another mile.
The left fork leads upslope onto the flanks of Iron Mountain

The left fork leads up the flanks of Iron Mountain. I've passed this branch a number of times and wondered where it went. No mining claims up there but a topo shows clearcut. This was an old logging road. The tracks I'd noted earlier down at the base, head in (and out) from the Sunset route. Nothing on the left fork. Like most nude hikers, knowing you will not encounter anyone actually drops you into a new layer of abstraction and relaxation. You bring your senses back in close and immerse yourself in the now and the immediate sensations. Gratefully, I head up the left fork.

The road quickly degenerates into a path for run-off . . . etched deeply

Unlike the lower roadbed, this upper one is in really bad condition . . . essentially becoming a streambed that has deeply etched into the clay-like soil in places six to eight feet deep. The major challenge is to carefully pick your path across unstable footing, hopping from one side to the other. But this old roadbed goes somewhere and meanwhile I'm hiking nude without a care in the world.

Higher up, after a few switchbacks, what was once a road is indistinguishable from a rubble-strewn creek and now I have to step from rock to rock while keeping my shoes out of the water. Eventually I get above the route of this years runoff and back onto more stable terrain.

One of the many waterfalls along the trail

Near the apex of the minor peak of Iron Mountain (and the end of countless switchbacks) the alders thin and the sun peeks through. There are numerous small waterfalls to enjoy . . . take a break . . . enjoy a cup of coffee.

Once past the initial set of switchbacks you're
back in sunshine and the views start

The roadbed only gradually climbs now . . . in an easterly direction across the saddle between the two peaks. Alder is giving way to hemlocks and other evergreens. If you find a break in the foliage you have great views to the south over the Trout Creek Drainage and peaks further south . . . Jumpoff Ridge, for example. The hiking is easy but I take it slowly, enjoying the views and the frequent sunlit patches.

A large tractor of sorts that tumbled down
the mountainside some time ago

I have no idea what this tractor did up there. Nor did I venture to climb down the very steep slope where this tracked behemoth had fallen a very long time ago. Perhaps it was part of the grading operation for the road . . . perhaps it helped with tree harvesting. One thing is certain . . . it won't be coming out anytime too soon.

There is a lot of wildlife up here. Deer cross my path a half dozen times and birds are in a mating frenzy of calls and courtship . . . ignoring me. The logging clearcuts of the fifties are long gone and the area reclaiming itself with second-growth. Soon this road will no longer be recognizable for what it once represented.

Even at the lower elevations snow still lingers

On the far side of the saddle the road degenerates into a bog of soft, mucky marsh full of late spring stinkweed and devil's club. I give up. Snow still lingers though it will probably be gone by the time I next get up there. The return hike is more of the same quiet sojourn . . . a slow amble back down to time my arrival at the base with the setting sun. Nothing particularly stands out on this hike except for the solitude and the occasional scenic views. It is a path into the wilderness that you can pretty much assure you will have to yourself . . . and that makes it a great nude hike, well worth repeating again.

Directions: Drive Highway 2 east to the Index turnoff, following the Index-Galena Road 6.4 miles to the Trout Creek Campgrounds and the ending of the road at the washout. Just before the washout and barriers there will be a narrow dirt spur road on the right (east). Follow this up a hundred feet or so and park safely. (Remember, this area is now part of the Wild Sky Wilderness so display a Forest Service Pass on the rear view mirror.) It is possible to drive further up (the gate is broken), but this road is very rough and officially decommissioned. Park at the bottom. This is the unofficial trailhead for the Sunset Mine route.

Sunset Mine is popular amongst those delving into historic mine shafts (it's very easy to get to and until recently you could drive all the way in with a HC 4X4. Few attempt to drive it now but look for tire tracks in any case. If there are no fresh ones and no vehicles parked at the trailhead or alongside the Index-Galena Road, you can pretty much assume you can start your hike nude right from your vehicle. The trail is the old mining roadbed to the left and uphill (north). You will hike through and number of switchbacks before the road levels out in an easterly direction following Trout Creek in from high above. At the one mile point the road 'Y's'. The straight-ahead path leads to the old Sunset Mine remains in about another mile (with an additional few miles of nice hiking beyond to the Non Pareil and Merchant Peak claims.) The left fork going uphill is the route taken today.
Distance: 4 1/2 miles; Elevation Gain: 3,400 ft

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