Once I returned from my awesome Cali roadtrip in June, I knew I had to buckle down and hit the trails to prepare for an August summit of Mount St. Helens. Next up was one of the areas most-loved conditioning hikes–Mount Townsend.
Mount Townsend ends at an elevation of over 6,000 feet, meaning you might be waiting to do this hike depending on snow melt. This particular June, there were some patches in shade at the top, but nothing on the trail. After disembarking the Bainbridge Island ferry (depending on starting location Kingston will work as well), we hit the road, hoping the looming clouds around us would dissipate. There’s various routes to the top, but we chose the ‘official’ upper Mount Townsend trail. Once you get to Quilcene and turn off, it’s 13.5 miles on a forest road to the upper trailhead–but don’t worry, it’s actually mostly paved! Knowing it’s a popular trail, we saw some cars on the side of the road just before the trailhead lot–we quickly parked there rather than having to turn around and go further. At 8 miles RT, we didn’t want tons of extra walking!
The trail starts off with the first mile or so wooded. There were rhododendrons everywhere, but other than that, it was a fairly average walk in the woods, albeit a steep one. Despite arriving at the same time as tons of other hikers (same ferry, maybe?) the elevation gain quickly spread out the herd. According to the description from WTA, we had three ravines to cross before the trees would be replaced by scenic meadows with expansive views, so we clambered forward in what turned out to be a nearly mile-long straight shot. However, before we even got far, I felt a pain in my right hip. After being rear-ended 2.5 years ago, it still can randomly cause pain, particularly when stepping up (like you do on a steep hike). Uh-oh.
The bad news continued, as seemingly the second we got to the flower-filled meadow section of the hike, cloud cover rolled in. Due to our elevation, the clouds were both under and above us. Please let this pain be worth it and have the clouds dissipate when we’re at the top, I thought. However, the meadows were stunning. Slightly up the hill was a snowmelt waterfall, just far away enough to not be misting us. The view certainly made the switchbacks more interesting, that’s for sure! The next mile or two has you flitting in and out of trees, which become less old growth fir and hemlock as you climbed. The clouds around us came and went, but mostly just kept coming, redefining “blink and you miss it” views.
Hip throbbing, I started walking every step with my fingers jammed into it, hoping the pressure would force it to behave. I had been told by my physical therapist pain could always crop up, and had some flareups, but this was exceptionally bad pain. I’m never the type to let pain make me quit, but I can only assume I was not the most fun hiking companion as I swore and whined with every step. The cloud cover grew thicker and thicker as we passed a junction signalling the last mile. This was not going to be the hike of my dreams. The skirted trees clinging to the hillsides nearby were a welcome bright spot, but other than that, there was little to be done except finish the hike and get thee into an Epsom salt bath.
Despite the intense pain and knowing I’d be robbed of what’s normally a 360* view, the hike wasn’t awful. I felt very physically strained, but not like I was overstepping any boundaries of skill. As we climbed closer and closer to the end, the space got more and more vast. Until we were fully enveloped in a cloud for the last stretch, that is, but at the top, it was clear that A) This could be a stunning view and B) The Olympic rainshadow was trying to provide us with a view. We put our packs down (tons of potential areas at the top) and sat, waiting in hopes for sun and views.
With wind swirling and clouds in constant motion, I was grateful to have brought an extra layer for the top. I tried to simultaneously scarf down my snacks while having my camera ready for the second the clouds cleared, as they would immediately reappear. The view at the top of the page was a ‘now you see it,’ the view to the right is just seconds later. In brief flashes, I saw the snow-capped peaks of the Olympics all around. It was a bittersweet sight, knowing how a full view could have been. But, that’s nature for you! We finished our snacks and gave up on the view clearing. On the way down, we noticed the last-half mile or so going up had some more complicated footing, but we made it through no problem.
Naturally, as we gained more space away from the top, the sun came out in full force. Of course. Again, that’s nature for you! Just an incentive to do this hike again, I suppose. I had hoped for pain relief on the way down, but sadly my hip was pissed off and not going to back down, even though the torturing of it was over. We powered down the mountain, exhausted and ready for much sustenance and beer (and ibuprofen) when we returned to civilization. Between hunger powering us, a lack of pain going down, and a strong desire to just be done, we made it down the mountain 30 minutes quicker than we made it up! We limped to the car, agreeing the hike had been a solid butt-kicker.
Distance: 8.0 miles according to WTA (my GPS said similar)
Elevation: 3010 feet of gain
Parking: No pass required
Bathrooms: Pit toilet at trailhead