Wagonwheel Lake Trail
November 11, 1999
Steep, sodden, viewless, this trail builds character
By KAREN SYKES
SPECIAL TO THE POST-INTELLIGENCER
When November comes I remember Wagonwheel Lake.
Snow is falling in the mountains, but not enough to kick off skiing, snowshoeing and other winter sports. We're talking rain. It's that time of year when you might not be able to reach the trailhead because Highway 101 is flooded or washed out.
So this is my favorite month to sort slides, plan future snowshoe trips and hikes, and become an armchair mountaineer. The trouble with this is that if you spend more than a couple weekends in this fashion, you'll get out of shape. The only way to keep moving is to keep moving.
It's time to get out of the house, revisit such old friends as Tiger Mountain and Mount Si or prowl low- elevation river valleys looking for old trails. If Mount Si is just too ho-hum or crowded for people trying not to lose it, there are other hikes just as demanding in terms of mileage and elevation.
Wagonwheel Lake is one. It is good medicine for seasonal affective disorder and you will have worked hard enough to justify a hot meal in Hoodsport, where most eateries won't mind if you have mud on your boots and moss in your hair.
Once I took a Mountaineers group there on a sodden, gloomy day in November. Everybody on the trip was a climber or would-be climber trying to stay in shape. Even a couple of the legendary Bulgers turned out for that one. (Bulgers are a group of rugged individualists, an offshoot of the Mountaineers, who have endeavored to climb Washington's 100 highest peaks. Some of them look a bit derelict.)
At my physical peak then, I was astonished as two tall hikers glided silently past me as if I were standing still. They were Bruce Gibbs and Bette Felton, my introduction to the Bulgers.
The rest of us caught up to them, but conditions were so miserable that we turned around short of the lake and stampeded down to the cars and a local cafe.
As we curled our frozen hands around hot drinks and bragged about how strong we were, I looked up to see my Uncle Eddie emerging from the gloom of the bar after a day of fishing a local creek. Beating wet brush was nothing to him -- he fished whenever he could.
Bulgers, and other hardy folks, sometimes continue on from Wagonwheel Lake for a winter ascent of Copper Mountain.
My husband, John, signed up for a snowshoe ascent of this peak as a student in the snowshoe course. He happened to pick a climb with Kal Brauner as leader, not knowing Kal's reputation as fast-paced and unstoppable. According to John, Kal never stopped moving and John describes following Kal's trough through 6 feet of wet snow to the summit. John will never forget Copper Mountain.
Wagonwheel Lake is where most strong hikers are satisfied to call it quits. It's one of the steepest trails I've hiked, offers few views, and is known as a "character builder." Only the "trail" to Lake Constance is tougher than this one.
Even if you make it to the the lake, you may find it rather sullen and uninspiring.
So why go at all?
We need a few Mount Si's or Wagonwheel Lakes to stay in shape for next summer's hikes and climbs. Such hikes are a necessary evil, and when you stop to catch your breath, you may capture a glimpse of that quiet beauty for which the Olympics are known. If you insist, you can carry your snowshoes until you hit the snow line and bash your way to Copper Mountain, where only a few have gone before.
Take Highway 101 to Hoodsport. From Hoodsport turn left on Lake Cushman Road. Pass the Hoodsport Ranger Station and Lake Cushman State Park. Turn left on Forest Service Road No. 24 and drive about seven miles to the Staircase Ranger Station. Drive uphill beside the ranger station to the parking area and trailheads for Wagonwheel Lake and North Fork Skokomish.
The trail starts at an elevation of 900 feet and begins to climb immediately, gaining more than 3,000 feet in less than three miles.
The trail begins its climb through a stand of second-growth Douglas fir. You will also see bigleaf maple and vine maple, salal and sword fern. As the trail climbs, the trees become smaller.
The trail reaches a crest on a spur where Mount Lincoln can be seen through the trees. There are also occasional overlooks to Lightning Peak, which can be seen on the far side of Lake Cushman. Rhododendrons grow here and as well as poison oak (not often found in the Olympics).
The trail continues to follow the ridge before climbing through old-growth western hemlock. After the switchbacks the trail climbs even more steeply as it ascends a narrow ridge. The trail relents a bit as it contours through a forest of silver fir, hemlock and Alaska cedar.
The forest opens as the trail crosses an avalanche slope, the usual turnaround for hikers if there is snow or the slope is icy. If the snow is deep, there is some risk of avalanche. But either way you are cursed -- without snow cover there is slide alder to battle.
The trail returns to forest, crosses a small creek and reaches Wagonwheel Lake at 4,150 feet on the north side of Copper Mountain. The lake is bordered by trees and is oval, not round. It is not known how Wagonwheel Lake got its name. There are campsites above the western shore with some views of Copper Mountain.
Round trip, 5.6 miles with an elevation gain of 3,240 feet. For more information refer to "Olympic Mountains Trail Guide" by Robert L. Wood, (The Mountaineers, 304 pages, $14.95). For current trail and road conditions call the Hood Canal Ranger District at 360-877-5254, the Staircase Ranger Station at 360-877-5569 or Olympic National Park Visitor Center and Wilderness Information Center at 360-452-0330.