After last year’s successful Thanksgiving trip to Mt St Helens, I wanted another go ’round. Having the made the 11 mile trip up to the Olympic Hotsprings as a final long run before the Moab 240 this year (in flipflops because I forgot running shoes), I thought it would make an accessible trip, good for a group of friends in cooler weather. The hike is about 9 miles along a paved road which isn’t passable to cars due to a short washout. The final two miles are on a wide trail which is clearly a former forest road. This means the group can walk side-by-side for easy conversation. The consistent grade and surface make for easy walking. Most of my invitations were ultimately declined (not surprisingly between Thanksgiving being a family-first holiday and COVID) but Ella, my go-to hiking partner, managed to wrangle her friends Briana and Fran into coming at the last minute. The trip was a smashing success.
Thursday (November 26, 2020 – Thanksgiving)
The trip started with some last minute packing in the Madison Falls Trailhead parking lot. Briana is an experienced bike packer but this was going to be her first backpacking trip and since I’d forgotten to bring my extra full sized backpack, Ella’s spare frameless, hipbelt-less pack was going to have to suffice. Given that she was carrying a two-person tent and a bear can, it was going to be something of a trial by fire. Ella had to sit on the pack to make it all fit.
We set off down the road. The first mile was spent adjusting pack straps, stopping to change layers, and figuring out how to access snacks. My participation in the shakedown portion of the trip was to reposition a cellphone holder I’d purchased since losing my phone out my pack’s hipbelt pocket earlier this year (Ella found it).
The road starts broad and well maintained. It’s hard to imagine it washed out. Eventually the road has to cross the river and at that point, there’s simply no bridge. The footings are still there and appear in good shape. It’s such a clean break that it seems strange that bridge hasn’t been repaired.
We took the well used, unofficial bypass route along the riverbank (per signs: Warning! Unstable!) to avoid a short climb.
The bypass trail shows you a collapsing shelter on the bypassed section of road. Maybe the repairs would require more than just airdropping in a bigger bridge. It seems like an entire section of road is vulnerable to flooding.
The other side of the washout shows more damage. Maybe it’s not as simple as replacing the bridge with a bigger one. There area past the washout has a number of buildings, including a ranger station so I’m curious what the maintenance plan is.
A little while later you reach a bridge which hasn’t washed out. This answers the question of how to get across the river.
From here the road began to slowly climb. It was wide and we walked four-across falling naturally into stride.
The next stop was a small overlook and one of the few viewpoints on the hike.
Conversation seemed to dominate the experience to the point where walking might or might not be happening depending on whether we were waiting for someone to water a tree or grab a snack. In one case, I’d dropped back, the ladies had stopped, and didn’t restart when I caught up.
The talking was so constant as the road meandered upward that if one particular thread of conversation involved only the two people on one side of our line, the other two would start spinning their own. We fell into pairs and drifted apart and reconvened at the end of the road without significant time seeming to have passed. From the end of the road, a wide trail which appears to be a former forest road continues. There are a few rivulets, a rock hop (Ella tried to eschoo her traditional crossing technique of pretending there’s no water), and one footlog. These would block a car but aren’t an issue for pedestrians.
From the footlog, the campground is a short distance. You can see how both trail there and to the trail to the hotsprings were former forest roads. That makes for two generations of infrastructure loss due to wash out. It is incredible to think that once you might have been able to drive to the hotsprings. I certainly don’t mind using 11mi of easy walking to reduce use so there’s more for me, but it seems a pity to lose access through deferred maintenance.
We set up camp on arriving to avoid having to do so in the dark after dinner, then went to find a hotspring for our Thanksgiving feast. At this point, having scouted the pools previously was a great boon. The best pool was take by a friendly older woman we’d passed on the way up and who must have passed us back when we were setting up camp. She was by herself and had set up a tent by the pool and so I guess she was making the best of having to celebrate alone.
After a quick tour of the offerings, we set up at the second best pool which conveniently happened to be near camp. A number of the pools have been damaged which goes with the theme of deferred maintenance. I wonder if there’s something preventing trail crews from working on them since it seems like public hotsprings would be both an easy sell for volunteers and a much beloved destination which would many would want maintained.
When setting up at our chosen hotspring, it was a little hard to figure out where to put packs and food since the pool was fed by a seep which seemed to be coming from everywhere. We balanced what we could on rocks but between the seep and an intermittent mist, everything got wet.
Initially I’d been worried that if I got wet, I’d be cold after getting out. The air temperature wasn’t that cold and the spring was very hot and so I wound up going in as did most others. You actually had to get out from time to time to cool off dried quickly without toweling.
Ella has a interest in fashion and loves taking photos (“pics or it didn’t happen”). She broke up the stereotypical Thanksgiving table argument I was having with Fran about whether college dorms rooms should all be single occupancy, by getting us to pose under the fairy lights. Then she took a bazillion pictures. Many looked a awkward. Maybe that was due to the painfully hot natural heat vent where we were being posed (beauty is pain, right?).
While the fairy lights illuminated one end of the pool, the end where Briana had set up lacked area lighting so she mounted a headlamp sideways to illuminate the surrounding area. I thought it was hilarious, like one of fake arrows you can put over your head to look like it’s gone through.
Eventually things wound down and we packed up. I’d left my insulation layers out when I’d taken them off and they’d all gotten damp. Fortunately, the hotsprings left quite an afterglow and fleece handles the damp well. In any case, warm, fluffy sleeping bags awaited us back at camp. Eventually, actually I put on more damp layers to dry them with body heat. Briana’s socks had gotten wet but she was enamored with their ability to hold heat anyways because they were wool. Everyone wound up warm and cozy.
Camp was set up with our tents facing each other and we talked until about 10:30pm. We finished the wine and when the others went to hang the bear bag, I went to relieve myself only to discover that I couldn’t stand without leaning on a tree. I didn’t drink during that traditional time of regrettable introductions to alcohol known as college and like to feel stable on my feet. Usually walking back to the bar or fridge is a moment to check whether I should be getting a soft or hard drink. I’d been reclined as we passed the wine bag and while I noticed some effect, had no clue that I’d gotten stumbling drunk. Ella tells me my stories started being padding with nonsense. Apparently I’m a happy drunk. Other than having to retension my tent because I leaned on it too hard, things could have been worse.
Friday (November 27, 2020)
I heard an alarm go off and be quickly suppressed while it was dark. When my tent walls did begin to lighten, I was feeling good and got the bear bag so we could have breakfast. Ella had packed in the only stove. Fortunately, she gets up early to make herself tea and so obliged my request for hot chocolate.
I got back in my sleeping bag to enjoy breakfast in bed and after Fran and Briana woke up, we pretty much repeated the previous evening but in daylight: snuggled in our sleeping bags talking and eating. No alcohol this time, we’d finished that the night before.
It was something like 11:30am before we packed up camp. The sun had long since risen but with cloud cover, it stopped getting brighter after the first hour so there was no cue that it was almost lunch.
The trip back was pretty much the same as the day before – always talking, usually walking, sometimes eating. Everyone got to connect with everyone both in pairwise conversation and when we marched in a single rank. The timing of our trip had been excellent as we saw many more people heading up to share the hotsprings than had been present when we were there. We also took a little time to poke around the buildings trapped on the wrong side of the washout.
We made it back around the washout and to the cars. Ella did not throw her traditional post-hike tantrum, but maybe that’s because there was still the ride home to let the good vibes drain away slowly. It had been a Thanksgiving to be thankful for.