Well, they can’t all be winners.
I like to view any trip outdoors as good. I have yet to be the victim of any trailhead break-ins, no injuries beyond a blister, no real disasters. But my last backpacking trip was one big ‘meh.’
To be fair, we did probably the most boring part of the trail. Permits for our top choice already gone, we settled for what the North Cascades National Park rangers said was similar, which was the East Bank Ross lake trail. The trail one-way is 31 miles long, and stretches all the way to Canada, with tons of camping (and boat-in!) sites along the way. However, the trail looked like it didn’t actually join the banks of the lake until nine miles in (you also leave the lake at mile 16), and our permits were for Roland Creek, which was six-ish miles in. I hoped there would still be sights of the lake, but we saw neither hide nor hair of it from the entire trail.
You start by heading down at the trailhead, but nothing too steep of a plummet. You cross the beautiful blue Ruby Creek (which turned out to be our prettiest view of the entire trail), and into the woods you go. It was a warm day, and the heat felt stifling without any breeze. We saw a few people, including a trail runner who blew past us. The steps felt like an uphill slog without anything interesting to look at. The doldrums were broken up when about a mile later, the trail runner came back, letting us know she had just spooked a mama and three cubs and had to turn around. Why don’t I have bear spray?! I chided myself. The boyfriendo wanted to see them, but a spooked mama and three cubs were pretty low on my must-see list. The runner felt confident she had scared off the bears, and we saw no trace of them, but warned other people we came across in the vicinity just to be safe.
After a little over 2.5 miles, we reached a junction. Left takes you to Hidden Hand and an actual lake view in 0.5 miles, if interested. Right would have taken us up, up, up, Little Jack Mountain (but that was the direction the runner said the bears went). Straight and you’ll continue on the East Bank trail. Bellies rumbling, we tried to gauge when we could eat our peanut butter-y lunch with distance from where the bears might be. We finally gave in and ate at the almost exact half-way point, on high alert the whole time. My trail map had showed a gradual uphill and steep downhill, but we felt we’d been climbing up the entire trek.
Finally, the elevation leveled off and began dropping. The trees around us went from green to white, birch or aspen or similar. That was kind of our only scenery change. If I sound ungrateful, I guess I am–walking in the woods is great for some, but I like things to look at, or at least knowing the woods end at a destination. We came to Roland Creek, which the boyfriendo braved wet feet for. Lacking his height, I just stripped off my boots and socks and put on my camp sandals to cross the skin-deep water. A few steps after crossing we reached the signs for the camping area, where there are three permitted sites, including a group site, and an (unenclosed!) pit toilet.
Our permit (by default) was the group site, which was huge! We saw flat spots for at least 3 tents here, one of which close to the creek, and a huge cooking/eating area. We picked our spot by the creek, and got our beers cooling before setting up camp. We then hit the trail again and explored north for 10 or so minutes before accepting seeing the lake was futile.
We headed back to camp. By now, cooling my heels in the creek and having a snack seemed a wonderful idea! I tried to keep my aching feet in the water as long as possible, but it was a lot cooler in the creek bed than hiking uphill to get there. However, there seemed to be less bugs there. It was too hot for layers (I thought) so our bug nets would have to do (stupid, stupid choice I’d come to regret). The boyfriendo then napped while I read his book (why haven’t I ever thought to bring a book?!) to pass the time, chatting with our neighbors when they came by to get cold, fresh water from the creek.
As night came closer, the bugs, and my hunger grew. I awoke the boyfriendo and we poured our beer and got to preparing dinner, swatting away the ‘skeeters. However, the sound few people want to hear when backpacking came from the boyfriendo’s lips: Uh-oh. A second later, the hiss of our camp stove went out. Welp, there’s a first time for everything! Luckily, I am not a shy person, so I went to the campsite of the couple I met earlier, who had brought ample fuel they were willing to share (the trail provides!), and we were able to have a hot meal.
It felt like it was still 70+ degrees, but it was already apparent my bare legs, exposed feet, and shoulders were getting feasted on. I would have cursed myself for not bringing DEET, but given the many layers of sweat and sunscreen, I felt I likely would have talked myself out of putting it on until it was too late anyway. We sought shelter in our tent, and I even slept a bit, despite the roaring creek occasionally sounding like a jet and having to peel my sweaty body off my sleeping pad and away from my 30* sleeping bag constantly.
Morning came, and I was antsy to hit the road before the heat got too intense (and get some itch cream on my bites). We had our breakfast, instant oatmeal we had cold-soaked the night before (not bad in a pinch, but I was missing the stove), and packed up. I decided to again cross the creek in my sandals, and just thoroughly dry my feet before putting on my shoes and hitting the trail. Within minutes, we saw a young buck exploring our now-evacuated campsite (it probably reeked of sweat and salt after that warm night!). As usual, I was too impatient with waiting for my feet to dry and would pay for it later, but the cool morning temperature was worth it.
The alder/aspen/birch portion was pretty bathed in morning light. While we were gaining elevation, it felt far more gradual then the trek in, even with a blister forming on the back of my foot from the climb. I knew it would feel better AND we’d be flying once we hit down the downhill portion, so I soldered forward.
After the junction for Hidden Hand and Little Jack, I settled in the the last half. In a few spots, we saw some new sites compared to the previous day, including a waterfall from the Jack Mountain side. However, I still was feeling ‘meh’ about the whole trail. I’m sure continuing further would offer amazing sites, but would maybe advise finding a better trail if only doing a single-night.
We passed a few incoming hikers, including what looked like a scout troop (hope they brought bug spray!). At this point, I was worried about our food stores, and sucked down a peanut butter packet to keep going. I am a little embarrassed to admit the tiny mistakes we made–not bringing enough food, no bug spray, and the basically-empty fuel can. Every trip is a learning experience, and this one felt like a lot of lessons that we should have already known, but hey–I’m not perfect! My aching feet and pounding heart also made me a little nervous for my next trip, which will be hotter, higher, steeper, and longer. Also, I knew once we crossed the bridge we’d have an uphill climb, although it was short and shaded. Luckily, the climb was painless, and we returned to our intact car, remembering our humbling mistakes for our next trip.
Distance: Choose-your-own-adventure, this trail can be a day or several. It was 6.5 each way to Roland Creek.
Elevation: Total gain depends on destination, but most of the trail is fairly mild.
Parking: No parking pass required, but Backcountry permits are required for overnight stays.
Bathrooms: There was a pit toilet at the trailhead, and one at Roland Creek, as well as other camping sites.
Food Storage: Hanging food or a bear can is required. The rangers were recommending cans over hanging, as many people do not hang correctly.
Fires: Allowed in designated rings, pending burn bans.