Otter Falls

Pretty normal views for the Middle Fork
Teddo waiting for Anita (who took this)

Another hike to strike off my OG hikes list! With no plans leading up to the weekend, I joined a mellow (but long) hike with Anita, Charles, and Emily. I had never actually been to the Middle Fork besides on SAR missions, so I was curious to get a taste of what it’s actually like and get some fresh air and socialization with friends I hadn’t seen in a while. I brought my new (to me, still, despite having it for like 6mo by now) camera figuring there’d be some cool waterfalls. After all, the hike is called Otter Falls. For the sake of recordkeeping, this was hiked January 9th, I was just slow to write about it. And ah shit, I forgot to take a panorama for the top of this post.

  • Distance: 11mi round trip
  • Elevation: only 650ft!!
  • Weather: 40’s and sunny
  • Commute from Seattle: 1:12 without traffic
  • Did I Trip: No but RIP my favorite glove
Tree growing around a boulder

We rolled up to the trailhead I think at 9am. You know me, I’m usually up by 5:30, gym by 6, work by 7:30… yeah, well, if you give me ANY slack in that routine, I’ll be late. Fashionably so. Anita has seen this firsthand several times now, where my “I’ll just have tea for 20min” turns into “omg it’s been 45min what happened where have I been yes hello it’s eve and i will be 20min late.” So to avoid this, I packed everything the night before, and set an alarm for 15min before I needed to leave the house. So I actually got there at 8:50, and hung out waiting for the rest of the crew, and they all rolled up basically at the same time like they had a telepathic connection I hadn’t cued into yet.

Yours truly ignoring everything (PC: Anita)
Teddo being a sack of potatoes

Anita had brought a sweet little dog she was dogsitting named Teddo who came with his own jacket and even a little doggie harness. We started off down the trail, pup trotting ahead of us after an immediate bathroom break. The trail is an old road bed, very consistent and flat and wide which is great when you’re socially starved and want to talk to all of your friends at once and not walk single file. I’m honestly not sure where the road bed ends because it keeps going past Otter Falls itself. The forest is second growth (the road bed is from an old logging road) but it’s still spectacularly green, mossy, and beautiful.

The trail hugs the Taylor River, which was the last large scale logging operation in National Forest uplands (I assume as opposed to lowlands?) according to Mid Fork Rocks. Crazy to see how wild the forest looks despite being second growth. The old logging road may have used to connect to Highway 2 – it definitely connects as a trail now, though the section through Lakes Snoqualmie, Deer, Bear, and Dorothy seems pretty trail-y and less road-y, so the rumors I’ve heard of a road connecting the middle fork Snoqualmie with highway 2 may just be that, rumors. I was up by those lakes a few years ago (came from Highway 2) wondering where some trail runners came from – the answer is the middle fork, and it’s a sweet little car to car. At this point I’ve been tantalizingly close to connecting them, minus the elevation gain between the Taylor River and Snoqualmie Lake. Which, brief aside, is stupidly named because Snoqualmie Mountain is a few peaks/ridges away and Snoqualmie Lake drains into the Taylor River.

First waterfall!

The creek crossings were extra hilarious with Teddo. Everything was covered in a thin slippery layer of ice, so Teddo got a ride across each creek thanks to the handle on the back of his harness. He was incredibly tolerant of being treated like a sack of potatoes, though he’d whine waiting at the other side if the rest of us weren’t fast enough. The trail honestly was much of the same. Trail, second growth, wow, moss, wow, glimpse of peaks, stream crossing. Second growth, wow, moss, wow, glimpse of peaks, stream crossing. Rinse and repeat.


At the first major river crossing, which thankfully (maybe) had a bridge, I decided to take out the new camera and see if I could get some of those long exposure waterfall shots I’ve seen others take. My pack immediately fell over at my feet, threatening to dump its contents (camera on top!!!!) into the river 15ft below, but I snagged it just in time. I spent the next 15-20min messing with my camera wondering why I spent an hour on reddit instead of researching how to take waterfall pics before leaving the house. But I think I got some that were passable.

Unfortunately, it turned out I hadn’t snagged my pack fast enough. I put the camera away, and a glove was missing. Nowhere to be found. Presumably swept downriver who knows how far, only to rot away in a stream never keeping hands warm again. I bought those gloves I think at SeaTac on the way to run a marathon in Moab years ago, when I thought I had forgotten gloves and panicked. Turned out I had remembered gloves, but the ones I bought still ended up becoming a personal favorite, as they were very light but completely windproof and good for frigid fingers. That’s definitely one of the worst clothing losses I’ve suffered on a trail. Up there with my hat coming down from a one day assault on Snowfield and my Patagonia puffy coming down from the Ptarmigan Traverse before the Bachelor Creek drainage was brushed out. And this one doesn’t even have the epic story. Just a glove dropped into a creek 😦

Huge split glacial erratic we found just past Otter Falls
GREAT crew! I missed the memo to wear black pants.

We carried on as I rallied past my injured pride and regret for losing my poor glove. It had a good life, it saw some cool places. We briefly debated going to Marten Lake, which is a short steep detour from the Taylor River/Otter Falls trail, but decided to continue on to the falls instead. Emily kept us occupied with stories of her WTA trail work parties and middle fork history (she has like a perfect mental map of the middle fork, it’s wild), Anita kept us laughing with quotes from movies and dating mishaps (dick videos apparently are a thing nowadays), and Charles had us cracking up with his stories about hikes with Anita, including a hike he bailed on that was like a half mile long. Charles also did not judge my abject ineptitude at photography with my new camera, including waiting for me at one point while I was totally, helplessly absorbed in figuring out the camera and oblivious to anything else. Bigfoot could have run past me and I’d have had no idea. I didn’t expect anyone to wait, but I also realized when I snapped out of my camera world that I was grateful he did.

The turn off to the lake is like a free for all. There’s no real trail, just a bunch of trampled ground and all routes lead to the falls. The falls are GORGEOUS. I didn’t realize how huge they were, and we can only see the bottom ~500ft! The water technically falls something like 1,200ft. Emily had memories of being a teen and climbing up the rock to use it like a waterslide wearing denim shorts. We had a short snack before heading back to the main trail to push a little further to a second (smaller) waterfall. We came across a HUGE erratic split in half, and followed a social trail next to it thinking it might lead to the river or some views. Instead we suddenly found ourselves standing upon a bed of freshly cut boughs, which I figure might have been where someone slept… because I couldn’t think of another reason to have laid out freshly cut evergreen branches like that. And on our way back to the main trail, someone caught eye of an old brown tarp set up like a lean to. Pretty sure someone was living back there and we had almost stumbled across their space. Wouldn’t be the only one doing that back in the middle fork drainage.

Another massive glacial erratic along the trail

We turned around for good at another waterfall just a bit past the turnoff to Otter Falls. Emily kept me occupied with other creepy middle fork stories, and brief side trips down just about every significant social trail we saw. Which I love. At one point we heard Anita getting excited telling a story to Charles and Emily laughed and said “well we’ll never run into any bears with them around.” True, and anyone who knows how I feel in the woods knows I am very thankful for that.

We were back at the trailhead around 3:30pm, temperatures dropping quickly since the whole valley was so shady and sunset this time of year was something like 4:30. I think because of the lack of elevation gain it felt like a pretty fast 11 miles, even though in hindsight we only did ~2mph. Must have been how starved I was for socialization. I was excited to get home and read up on middle fork history, but I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. But for when I’m not too busy adulting or getting outdoors, that’ll be the next rabbit hole to go down. Emily, if you’re reading this… be warned. I have questions.

I gotta give a huge shout out and thank you to Anita for pulling this all together, especially kind of last minute! It was so refreshing to get out with such a fun group while the country was threatening to implode. And thanks to Emily for the wealth of knowledge about the area and the hike suggestion (I think Otter Falls was her choice), and to Charles for unknowingly probably protecting me from whatever middle fork spirits would have captured me while I was becoming one with my camera. Hope we can repeat the adventure someday!

Secret waterfall just past Otter Falls along the Taylor River trail

An Anthology of Half Day, Half Assed Ski Tours

Down the Nisqually!

And some three-quarter ass trips for good measure. And yes, most of these can be snowshoed too! But snowshoeing anything is a full ass endeavor unless you’re just popping up to like Glacier Vista or Skyline Lake on pre-trampled trails and making hot chocolate and ramen in the sun. It’s freaking hard and you don’t get to go “wheee!!” all the way to the bottom.

Sometimes you want to get out and ski, but you don’t want to spend 4hrs thrashing in the brush in the dark going uphill and 4 more hours slogging to the top and 2hrs skiing ice/being bitch slapped by trees and crying back to your car. That used to be my definition of a ski trip. Yeah, it’s more rewarding maybe, but it’s not realistic, especially as responsibilities start creeping up. Turns out I can’t actually only do chores/errands/adulting just on weeknights. Actually sometimes I need a weekend day for chores, which sounds SO old and SO boring and SO domesticated. And growing up I was told only boring people get bored, so I am now a boring person. SO. We need to mitigate that. And I’ll do anything to avoid using PTO on a weekday for chores. Oh god. Stage an intervention if I ever do that.

Heading to the Nisqually

Oh, and usually when these days happen my mind is already fighting off baseline choring anxiety (for example right now: “oh shit, I forgot to respond to that” “oh shit, I didn’t pick up those screws” “oh shit, i need to get olive oil” “god dammit, I was supposed to ship that” “you still don’t know how to get new blinds for your window, they’re gonna be entirely broken aka see through any day now you cannot keep avoiding this” “you NEED to sell that dress, dude” and “fuck, I need to figure out what to do with the (full) trash can that some asshole added to my trash cans”) so the capacity for additional challenges is low.

And thus, half day half ass tours are born. You might still feel like a poser, but at least those $700 skis are on your feet and not gathering dust in your basement while you sign refinancing papers and weep over tea remembering when you used to actually be cool and found adventure in untouched wilderness and powder and views instead of finding vague glimmers of grandeur in newly lowered interest rates.

1) Okay, we’ll start with the obvious: Paradise. What’s great about this? The road is usually well maintained and you can go as slow as you want, just pull over for the braver souls with bigger balls (and maybe smaller brains). The gate doesn’t even open until 9 so if you live in Seattle like me, you don’t have to get moving until like 7am. The most used skin trails are quite mellow, but there is a GREAT mix of terrain from open slopes to treed slopes and basically flat to avalanche territory and cliff jumps. And you can bring your snowshoe friends! If you are really nice to your snowshoe friends, they might agree to take your keys and pick you up at the Nisqually Bridge after you ski all the way down the Nisqually instead of just going back to Paradise. Oh, and if it’s clear, you can stare at Rainier or the Tatoosh all day, obviously. And when there isn’t a pandemic, you can stop at Elbe Bar & Grill and get a Boingo Burger on your way home. Copper creek is also great, but it can be packed. Also, despite Rainier looking grand, this is a great option when it’s socked in by clouds, because it’s less distracting and you can find treed slopes for contrast so you don’t get flat light vertigo.

Views heading up to Castle
that slope is BEGGING us to do turns

1.5) Castle/Pinnacle Saddle. This is like Paradise, but closer to the Longmire gate with a more specific objective and feels a bit more alpine. It’s only something like 4 miles round trip, and not that much elevation gain. Also, if you camp up there in shit weather, you can line every aspect of the bowl with your own tracks before anyone else gets there the next day since the gate doesn’t open until 9. BOOM. You’ll feel like a boss until you wipe out hitting a patch of scoured ice skiing down with your overnight pack in front of another party. Not that’s ever happened, to me, at least. A friend. Obviously.

The views!! And tons of terrain to play on

2) Artist Point. Similar to Paradise, usually well maintained road, lots of varied terrain though main skin tracks are quite mellow. Great for snowshoe friends too. In fact, you can just walk some of the trampled trails with no snowshoes, just be ready to posthole and faceplant if you step 12″ too far off track. And you can stare at Baker and Shuksan if you go to the right areas! And you can pay for a lift ticket and ride the chairs if you get lazy, or have a beer at the lodge and just stare at Shuksan. Downsides? It’s far. You’re probably leaving home at 6am. The lot will be packed. You might wait in line for parking. Snowshoers are traffic cones you’ll probably be dodging all day, including your friends, who you’ll wait for because you’re nice. Avy classes everywhere. People doing dope jumps make you feel like a nerdy wuss pretending to know how to ski. Also great for cloudy/socked in days, despite the ridiculous views on clear days.

3) Yodelin. Slightly more adventurous and not great for snowshoers. Not sure about views because I’ve never been there on a nice day. So I choose to believe that this has no views ever, and therefore is perfect for socked in days with flat light (woo, trees!). Usually space for parking, but Stevens Pass can be messy with a train of cars going slowly turning into the ski resort next to assholes still trying to do 60 mph to pass everyone on compact snow and ice with the occasional un-chained prius. You do actually skin to the top of a thing, which is cool. Two things, actually, since there are two minor peaks to check out. You do have to consistently head skiier’s left as opposed to true line of fall (or line of fall and then flat traversing for what feels like forever), though supposedly there’s a more direct line I haven’t found yet. There is also some neat history – this used to be a ski resort (with cabins/lodges/chair lifts) until the cabins were wiped out by a MASSIVE avalanche in 1971, killing four people. Interestingly, Yodelin is now known as a good place to go tour on high-avy-risk days due to its (mostly) mellow slopes and consistent tree coverage. Still looking for a map of where those cabins were, but the old concrete base of one of the cabins is still easy to find. Oh, one more downside: beware of sledding kids on your way out.

Yodeling burn zone towards the top
You have a LOT of this before getting to the skiing part if you go left at the “trailhead”

4) Kendall Fun Zone – yeah…… uh… fun…. I mean… it… has… skiing? It’s at Snoqualmie. Views are meh. You can listen to the highway the whole time. Park at the first lot on the right at exit 52, walk under the highway carrying your skis, and hop onto the snow just north of the highway. But Snoqualmie is low. It’s often wet. It’s often heavy. It’s often full of the other 500 people who woke up that morning and decided they wanted a short tour, so the bottom is a luge track and the top is already all chewed up by other people’s turns and “damn snowboarders scoured this” but turns out it was just skiiers survival slipping around other parties/trees/ice/backcountry moguls/dogs/children/lost snowshoers/rogue branches. You’ll also have to scout every corner on the way out or you’ll take down an innocent person on their way up while you battle ice. If you just got a dump of fresh powder and get there at 6:30am to beat everyone up? Sure, the trees are great, just knock out a few laps real quick and gtfo before the hoards come. Dru Bru opens at 11 so apres-ski can start early.

Laps laps laps

5) Hyak – not fun per se, but if you just want to rip some laps and get some vert then I guess this is your solution. Views? Who needs views when you’re pushing for laps. No views unless you like looking at ski resorts or highways. Expect people. This is like the Vantage of skiing, except it’s a $1000 fine or something like that if you’re caught while the lifts are open. But if you do the Hidden Valley area, you can choose between black diamond runs, blue runs, or a green cat track alll the day back to the parking lot, and that’s just the front side! There’s a world of groomed cat tracks on the backside too!. But don’t try to pee in the bushes, you might get rudely called out by ski patrol, including a surprising “I’m so sick of you people.” You people. Backcountry skiers? I assume the contrast between yuppie ski resort patrons and dirtbag backcountry skiers peeing on trees just highlights those of us that don’t like waiting in line with 100 people for an indoor 2 stall bathroom during a pandemic.

Honorable Mention:
Skyline Lake: The stuff on the back is fun, and you can get to Tye, but Skyline itself is underwhelming and shorter than Yodelin and highly trafficked (so you’d be lucky to get fresh tracks). Parking is also a nightmare now that everyone and their mom skis/snowshoes/snow camps/sleds/splitboards/swims in snow so let them have their space to learn and try just a liiiiittle harder to find something better for yourself.

Amabilis: I had high expectations for this one and have wanted to do it for a while, but all I’m hearing right now is nightmare parking stories, a very groomed road (sometimes groomed all the way to the top!), and we weird mix of xc skiiers, snowshoers, and the occasional AT skier who decides skinning up a groomed road with 200 of their best friends will be fun. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll try it someday because anything is better than sitting at home wondering if you should have tried skiing, but I’ll save it for a day with a snowshoer friend or a cross country skiier. I hear rumors of small views along the top ridge but nothing jaw dropping.

Okay, here are some not-full-day-but-more-like-three-quarter-ass trips. And these come with blog posts, because they were great and didn’t all blend together like a sloppy slope of pacific northwest concrete transitioning to mashed potatoes. And you should save them for clear days because VIEWS. Except maybe Jim Hill and Lane. Lane looks at Rainier like the rest of the tatoosh, and you don’t want to sacrifice powder for sun.

Robert below the summit of Rock

6) Rock Mountain. This one was a surprise. Yeah, you’ll be pushing up some steep treed areas to start, but it mellows out above treeline and turns into another planet. Totally worth the steep grade coming right off the highway, and we only ran into one other party. There’s a traverse up here if you want more, but even just Rock Mountain for the was pretty damn good. And on the way home, Mountain View Diner. Food if necessary, but really, you just want the pie. Any of the pies. All of the pies.

Looking at this hurts a little. I’m jealous of myself

7) Jim Hill. Wow. This was another just phenomenal day, and another route that’s mostly skiiers and not snowshoers. I’d recommend the Henry Creek approach over the Lanham Lake approach. Lanham Lake had significantly fewer people, but some very tedious and icy sidehilling and a lot of elevation gain in a short time. We gypped ourselves because we thought it would take longer to get down than it actually took, and the Henry Creek approach was way less annoying (though it did resemble a luge trail). Either way, north facing cold powder when we were there, with minimal effort as far as ski touring goes and surprisingly few crowds (despite being a Saturday morning). It’s amazing we have something like this as a half day tour, and you can knock out several laps of ~500ft of vert pretty quickly once the skin track is in. Also pie.

Who doesn’t love cold fluffy low angle glade skiing

8) Arrowhead. Okay, I’m taking a unique stance on this one – you basically get the “ski route” experience of Arrowhead on Jim Hill, and both are amazing. But if you follow the snowshoer route up Arrowhead (east slopes through trees, not starting at Henry Creek and traversing), you might find some of the BEST low angle tree skiing in the Stevens Pass area. North facing aspect, stays cold and light, and NO ONE is there because everyone takes the main skin route that traverses from Henry Creek. There’s no luge track! Just the sweet “whshhhhhh” of powder on your skis making fresh tracks because the mobscene is to the west. And the ridge ski is fun too and you have consistent views of the Chiwaukums once you hit the ridge which are just outrageous. And you can take snowshoer friends with you, and you don’t have to worry about etiquette or splitting trails because there’s no one there to bitch about your inter-activity friendship! Just make sure you find the right turn off or you’ll be bushwhacking through dense steep brush and… not skiing. And the aforementioned pie.

9) Table Mountain Circumnav. More than a half day I guess, but less than a full day, and very easy/obvious navigation if it is clear and you have line of sight. Haven’t seen a snowshoer, but I guess it’s possible if you are determined? Pretty good skiing. despite being a circumnavigation, and spectacular views the whole way. Rare to get a high quality traverse in a day, but this sure felt like it, except for the ice couloir I tried to ski down from Herman Saddle.

Top of the Fly on Lane Peak

10) Lane Peak. Also basically like Paradise or Castle/Pinnacle, but with more vert and more technical skiing. Just make sure you don’t need to rope up on the way up. If you do, wait til you’re more comfortable on steep snow. Also, this sucks when it’s icy, or when you break a ski boot at the top of one of the couloirs. But overall, it’s a phenomenal ski, and you can choose between three sweet couloirs. The zipper is the classic, be comfortable with jump turns. The fly is the easiest one, you can pull it off without jump turns and still get in some sweet steep powder (or ice, if another party beat you to it and scoured all the good snow off). And Lover’s Lane exists too, but I don’t know much about how that one compares to the other two. the best part of this is probably how those couloirs look when you’re driving the road to/from Paradise – “Yeah, I skiied that” “NO WAAAAY THAT’S RAD” and secretly it’s far more mellow than it looks from the road. Also, see #1 re: boingo burger.

Another honorable mention: Union & Jove peaks (easy duo) or McCausland, also at Stevens Pass. Yes, you’ll skin up a road. Yeah, it’s probably chewed up and icy. But it’s worth it, especially if you hit the right conditions and know how to ski (I did not). If you’re ambitious you could probably combine all three of these, maybe even add Lichtenberg. But that wouldn’t be a half day, or a half ass.

Jove Peak, honorable mention for the three-quarter-ass trips

So there you have it. Want to sleep in? Lacking motivation? Dog/child/SO/your feelings can only handle a few hours of ski touring? I got a go to list you can knock out so you don’t feel like you’ve totally lost all sense of adventure/fitness/ski capabilities. And really, only some are like that. The three-quarter days are actually pretty dope, and you’ll have actually earned food afterwards, unlike kendall trees and hyak where you pretend like you had fun and then cancel everything you just did out with beer.

Views near the summit of Rock Mtn