Saturday, November 2, 2013

Perfect Coast Weekend: Part I: Saddle Mountain

Perfect Coast Weekend: Part I: Saddle Mountain

We are having one hell of a dry October here in the Pacific Northwest. That isn't great for the snow pack but it makes for truly grand sunny weekends, which are very rare this time of year. Especially at the beach. My partner had arranged for us to have a 3 day adventure to the coast just west of Portland and I had this idea that since the weather was so nice and since we couldn't check in to our B&B until like 3:00..... why not climb Saddle Mountain?

View Saddle Mountain Trail in a larger map

See, Saddle Mountain is almost all of the way to the coast anyway, so it takes quite a bit of time and effort to get out there to climb the thing. And even when you get out there, most of the time the fog boiling up from the nearby ocean comes over the hills and obscures the view. So I was thinking, we are going to drive right by it anyway and the day is so clear and warm....

We are going up there !!

You get to Saddle by following route 26 from Portland toward the ocean and then when you are about 12 miles from the end of the road, you take a sharp right hand turn into the Saddle Mountain Natural Area. Then drive 7 miles down a narrow windy road and you end up right at the foot of the mountain in a nice parking lot (with bathrooms !!). On a nice day like today you can see the mountain looming overhead.... 2.5 miles of trail and 1600 vertical feet right up there.

We brought our hiking gear and I was careful to bail on a lot of the usual emergency stuff I carry. Like the shelter. But I have one major rule that I now always use when hiking the mountains around the Northwest. No matter how nice the weather is, always carry an extra fleece. You just never know. Oh, and I have the first aid kit and water and water purification tablets and compass and knife and all that. But it is the extra fleece on a warm day that I am most conscious of appreciating when the weather suddenly turns on me and I am 4 miles from the car and freezing my butt off.

I usually come to Saddle Mountain to enjoy the wild flowers. Some very unique species grow here on the alpine meadow slopes. But this is just the wrong season for that. This is the season for views. And for rocks. Why rocks? Well, because there aren't any flowers and we have to look at SOMETHING.

Saddle Mountain was created long ago when it was the ancient ocean end of a lava stream. The molten basalt dumped into the ocean and create a huge pile of fragments that heaped together in a sort of basalt and clay mashup and, when the ocean receded, became Saddle Mountain. This is such a unique feature that everyone that has come by has commented on it. The local Clatsop tribe, for instance, called the mountain Swallalahoost, which translates as “Swalla shaped like a young Girls Hoost”. It figured heavily in their creation legends. Lewis and Clark commented on the thing from their winter camp over by modern day Astoria. They called it, “roged and uneavin”. One of the things I like about Lewis and Clark is that they were not constrained by today's strange ideas of uniform spelling. The mountain finally got its modern name in 1841 when Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes named it. You want more fun? Wilkes is the same guy that “Wilkes Land” is named for in Antartica. He was the first person to see Antartica. Well, at least to put his observations on a map. He was one of the officers on the little known sequel to Lewis and Clark when the navy put a few ships together to plot the Pacific. They did some cool things and returned with a huge collection of animals and tress and such which became the foundation for the Smithsonian collection. You don't hear about them much because the officers had a falling out with their commander (i.e. Wilkes) and caused such a brouhaha that, instead of making them heroes like L&C, the government just swept the entire thing under the rug.

Where was I?

Oh yes. Rocks.

There is this one feature that my partner and I were specifically intrigued with. It is a vertical wall of rock. Really a wall. Like 3 feet thick and flat on both sides just like some natural forming castle wall. How did it get like that? How does molten basalt form into such a cool shape? Was it flat at one time and then got stood up on a side? Look at the pictures. Ok, now I need to go do some research..... [time passes]. All I found out was that there are lot of people that will sell you basalt rocks to make walls for your castle. The internet occasionally sucks.

As I mentioned before, 2.5 mils and 1600 vertical feet. So up up up we go. My partner has already warned me that I had better not use the phrase “Just around the next bend” but I am armed with more witty reparte than that. Why? Cause I have hiked this trail many times and I am heavily armed with the truth. Which is: Ok, the really hard part is coming up, but the view is EVEN BETTER than here. That is how the trail is. Hike a hard part, get a good view. Hike a harder part, get a better view. Hike the Fraking hardest part, get one of the best views you can get.


Right at the 1.5 mile mark you leave the trees and are now on open rock and alpine meadow. You can see way up to where you are going. In the spring and summer there will be iris and tiger lily everywhere. Then you enter some trees. At the 2 mile mark you come to the last of the cleverly placed picnic benches. These are wild benches that only grow on Oregon mountains. This last bench is where you rest up. Eat a power bar. Drink some water. If the weather is bad, put on your rain coat. Cause when you leave the tress, in 100 yards, you are on the unprotected ridge of the mountain. The roadway is slippery, the cliff face is just right there, and the danger is greatly enhanced by the fact that you will be starring off at the fantastic view.


Stone Crop

Ahead of us is Neahkanie Mountain. A little to the left of that we can see Nehalem Bay. Once we get a little further ahead and see around the corner we see Seaside. I turn to my partner, “Remember when we were at Gearhart Beach and I said, 'Hey there is Saddle Mountain, we have to hike that sometime' ?” And she says, “Yes, and you really shouldn't use double sets of quotes”. “Oh,” I say, somewhat confused. We pass through a little corridor of brush and start our decent into the saddle. We see this:

Have I discussed the trail at all at-all? That is, how it is constructed? It is a rather unique trail construction which consists of large broken chunks of stone held in place with chicken wire that is nailed into the native rock with re-barb pegs. It has such unique footing features that it has oft made me think that if I had a team of extremely gifted engineers, several months of design time, and lots of money for research and development, I might just be able to come up with something less desirable to hike on. But I doubt it. It is extremely slippery when wet, grabs your boots or hiking poles when you walk on it, and is built up high so you have to step carefully down off of it when ever you come to a termination. To really rub it in, some of the sections of trail have the old boardwalk and stair well trail still in existence (if somewhat broken up) to show you what a real and comfortable trail would look like if someone should care to build and maintain it. So, hike slow. Plenty of good places to slip and break a leg, no reason to hurry and find them.

Today we scurry up the last steep part pretty quickly. Half-way up that second part of the saddle I lift my head and there on the horizon I can see Mt. Saint Helens and Mt. Adams. Such pretty snow capped peaks. A few more steps, and there even larger to the left of them is Mt. Ranier. Wow, that puppy is way off in Washington State !! But where is Mt. Hood? It must still be behind the part of the sadle that we first traversed. Got to climb another 50 feet before we can see it. From this point it is clear that we are actually a little closer to Ranier that we are to Hood. When we get up to the summit, we have a pretty glorious view. We see 5 snow capped volcanoes (Jefferson was just visible off to the South East), a great view of The Columbia River, including the Columbia bar and Astoria. We can see Seaside and the beaches there and all the way south to the Nehalem River where it dumps into the Pacific. All in all a glorious sunny view. The summit of Saddle Mountain is a basketball court size piece of rock surrounded by a metal pole fence. There is a little table/bench thing on the north side. On the south side is a memorial marking the place where someone went beyond the fence in the fog. Don't do that.

One of the things you learn about if you day hike up mountain trails in the winter is to keep track of the time. It get's dark earlier every week and you really need to save time to be off of the trail by dark. Today we have an even more strict schedule. We need to be in Arch Cape at our B&B by six or we will miss check in. So, it's getting to be around 3:30, it's going to take us 2 hours to get off of the mountain and at least an hour to get from the parking lot out to the road and then down to the hotel. Oops. We had better get going. That trail is hard going down, too. One of our friends commented that the saddle mountain trail is up in both directions. That isn't really true. It doesn't wind you going down, but you still have to go slow and be careful on the dang chickenwire. As it is, we make it to our B&B with 5 minutes to spare. So ending a wonderful sunny first day of what is about to turn into a wonderful sunny weekend.

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