Even the best laid plans can be derailed when Mother Nature decides it’s not meant to be:  flights, travel plans, hiking plans…you name it. We have all experienced it. Sometimes you just can’t compete with the weather. That’s what happened on my most recent trip to Washington.  The plan was to join my hiking partners in Seattle and head to the North Cascades for a winter weekend of adventure in the mountains…

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Weather in the mountains can be unpredictable and changes in an instant. Be prepared: know the trail, your limits and the conditions you may be facing. 

Mother Nature had plans of her own. A incoming storm threatened to dump over a foot of snow during the weekend. The snowfall in the Pacific Northwest this year has been astronomically high compared with recent years. This, combined with the predicted storm was making a lot of the trailheads inaccessible, the conditions unpredictable and the possibilities for views, negligible.  That’s how the weather works in the mountains, especially in the winter.

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www.avalanche.org can help with planning and making smart decisions about backcountry travel in the mountains during winter. 

Washington has no shortage of trails and parks to explore, so there was bound to be an option nearby, despite the forecast. The weather in the Olympics was forecasted to be…less bad. The predicted avalanche risks in that area were lower than the surrounding parks, so our group made the drive west from Seattle towards the coast to check out Olympic National Park.

During my visit, I learned that Olympic National Park in the winter is a unique place: the high mountains are blanketed in snow, perfect for snowlovers and winter recreation.  The coast and beaches are usually snow-free for those who want to avoid the white stuff. Olympic also has its very own unique rainforest; less snow vs the mountains but very wet during the winter.

A quick stop into the Olympic National Park Vistors Center in Port Angles proved very beneficial. It’s always a good idea to speak with a ranger who is familiar with the trails, terrain and conditions.  A helpful ranger was able to pinpoint a great backcountry trail and camping option, as well as provide info about alternate trails, campsites and potential water sources.  The trail he suggested was called Deer Ridge Trail, and it was a great choice for a few reasons: one in particular was that the road to the trailhead wouldn’t close due to poor road conditions like the road up to more popular Hurricane Ridge area. The trail itself included an established campground with privies and bear lockers. There were potential side trails to explore and the conditions were more favorable over other areas nearby. We were sold.  Deer Ridge Trail to Deer Park Campground was the plan. With a map and backcountry permit in hand… it was time to hit the trail, but not without a warning that the forecast called for gale-force winds and a snow-rain mix for that day and night.

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The forcast called for rain, snow and wind on this day?! Mother Nature duped us again.

The trail is located down a long dirt road called Slab Creek Road.  This road is muddy and rutted with potholes.  The last mile or so is icy and rutted, making this last leg tricky, but not impossible in a vehicle with a bit of clearance and good tires.  The trailhead is marked with a wooden trail sign and a place to park. The park starts on US Forest Service land and enters Olympic National Park along the trail.

“Deer Ridge Trail is a nice moderate climb”, said the ranger. Being that I live in Michigan, this didn’t mean much to me when perhaps it should have. I forget that “moderate” in mountain terms the is a whole other beast. The trail gains elevation immediately.  Snowshoes were not needed for the first 2.5 miles since the snow was pretty sparse on this side of the mountain. The trail opens up around the point where you need to strap on snowshoes.  A bench is placed at this lovely overlook where the first really great views of the ridge line appear in the distance. Grab a seat and put on your snowshoes if need be. It’s time to put in the real work.

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The first mountain views in the distance along the trail. Sunshine and all. 

As you skirt along the slope, you are treated with occasional vistas while you dart in and out of forest cover. The trees are green and covered in old man’s beard. They look strange against a white backdrop.  In another mile (give or take) you will see a sign on a tree, indicating the entrance/exit of the US Forest Service Area.

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The trail gets more spectacular as you climb higher and the trees thin out. Not knowing what to expect from this suggested trail, I was totally blown away.  The views were vast, rugged and surprisingly clear despite the predicted weather forecast.  Be forewarned: the higher you climb, the steeper the trail becomes and the deeper the snow gets. This will require a good amount of huffing and puffing with heavy packs and snowshoes on. Progress was not quick on this trail for these legs that are used to flat Michigan terrain.

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The views are opening up as I climb higher to the ridgeline.

You will reach a high point on the trail about a half mile before camp that offers the best views of the day.  Mountains on one side,  the Sound down below on the other.  As the sun was casting its evening kiss on the mountains in the distance, the yellows and reds were reflected on the looming clouds over the mountaintops. It was truly breathtaking.

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Sunset on the Mountains.
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Sunset on the Sound. 

Though the wind was gusting on the exposed ridgeline, for a moment, it was perfect to stop and take in the space around me and be thankful.  Not many people venture into the wilderness in the heart of winter and get to experience complete serenity in a landscape painted perfectly by Mother Nature and shared only with a furry rodent or busy snowshoe hare.  I didn’t linger for too long.  As the sun dropped behind furthest rugged summit, the sky got dark and threatening in the distance. It was a good thing camp was not too far away from here.

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After about 5.2 miles and a brief but short-lived decent, you will pass an official sign (if it’s not buried) for Olympic National Park.  A quick walk down the trail will find Deer Park Campground.  Swing left at the privy and bear boxes, and head downhill to some campsites.  What a treat to find there were a couple of three sided shelters here; cover from the brewing storm.

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No Vacancy. 

Unfortunately, these were occupied; by some very territorial creatures of the rodent variety who were unhappy about our arrival. We convinced them to let us stay just to have a place to prepare dinner away from the wind, hang up some gear and play a round of yahtzee before bed. Then they kicked us out to our tents for the night.  I think this was the best solution for both rodent and human 🙂

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A bit of tree cover from the blustering winds blowing off the ridge. 

It was difficult to tell how much snow was really on ground until I stumbled upon a snow covered picnic table by our shelter. I figured about 3-5 feet of snow in some places had drifted in. This was surprising since the first leg of the hike was virtually snow free. That is just another example of the magic in the mountains.

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Snow drifts and cornices on the ridge line along the trail.

There are a couple of trails that leave from Deer Park worth discovering and had our group not awoken to howling winds, dark skies and threatening weather, they would have been explored.  Maiden Peak was a shorter option that was suggested. The ridge lines beyond that area had greater avalanche risk in the steeper sections. While our desire that morning was to stay and play, the conditions were suggesting the best option was to get outta the mountains to a hot drink and a warm bed for the night.

 It doesn’t matter if you have made thousands of good calls – all it takes is one bad call and that is one too many. Some days the mountains are screaming GET OUT OF HERE and some days they are saying COME ON IN, it’s time to party! – Jeremy Jones

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Tracks from the day before were totally blown in by wind and snow overnight. The trail was well worn for most of the hike but not always obvious. Have a good map before you head out.

A few more inches of snow had fallen overnight, and the tracks from the day before were barely visible in the wind swept sections.  The pleasant sunny views from yesterday were replaced with dark and ominous mountainscapes that afternoon.   I was grateful that yesterdays hard work climbing up the mountain, would be rewarded with a lovely downhill trek all day back to the trailhead. Downhills are my favorite.

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Dark clouds threatening snow and wind ahead.

I would absolutely recommend this trail for winter snowshoeing (use snowshoes, I wouldn’t recommend skis for climbing up this trail, unless you are a sucker for punishment). This would be an awesome area to explore in summer as well.  The campground has a rough road that leads up to it during the short summer season.  To avoid missing the incredible views on the way up, I would definitely hike in.

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The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark. – John Muir

Perhaps on the next trip, Mother Nature will have a brilliant plan for the Cascades in store for me, but for now.. I will head home and dream up my next hike. Though I didn’t get to build a sweet snow shelter or explore more ridges and trails, I was thankful that the days I did get to spend on Deer Ridge provided great weather and even better views. It was an awesome adventure!  What a treat for my first taste of the mountains in the Pacific Northwest.  Although some of the best laid plans can get derailed, sometimes this is how you end up on another path to some truly amazing and unplanned adventures instead.

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