Exploring The Gifford Pinchot National Forest
Photos by Drew Smalley Photography / @drewsmalleyphoto
Words by Erika Vikander / @erikathevikingvikander
Location: The Gifford Pinchot National Forest
The problem with living in such an unbelievably scenic place is, it is nearly impossible to decide what new area to explore. Within two hours you can be at the coast, the desert, old growth forest, or on a serene mountain top with views beyond your wildest dreams. This time of year, however, can be hit or miss with the weather… This trip, we settled on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Upon preparation for this trip, my boyfriend Drew and I spent countless hours staring at the weather, maps of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and google earth. The thing is, you can plan as much as you want, but in the end mother nature always makes the last call, we just never expected her to be completely on our side.
Friday morning after our seamless pickup at the Roamerica headquarters in Hood River we hit the road north towards Mount St. Helens. We chose a route new to us that led us to our first stop, a beautiful solitary waterfall that we found while tracing our route on google earth. There was not a sign for it, nor any markings on the road. After a short but steep walk down the embankment steps from the pavement, we found ourselves in a sea of vibrant green moss with crystal clear water emerging through deep veins it had carved out through the rocks. From below, the waterfall had a cavern large enough to walk under and absorb the sheer power of erosion. We marveled at its beauty for a while before making our way back up the steep path and back to Hi Ho Silver (our van) to continue our journey.
After living in the PNW for as long as we have, we’re a little ashamed to admit that we have never driven Road 99 to Windy Ridge and the base of Mt. St. Helens. Needless to say, that was our next stop. As we started to gain elevation and dip into the blast zone of the volcano our jaws dropped at the enormity of views in all directions, the colors of the leaves changing on the hillsides and the gorgeous valley below. Feeling extremely fortunate to not only have sunshine, but big billowing clouds that lured us to the base of the mountain, we essentially had the entire road to ourselves. We took our time pulling in and out of all the viewpoints on the scenic drive until we reached the trailhead for Spirit Lake. We had too little light left to do the hike that evening, so we decided to go find a spot to camp for the night and head back the next morning.
When we rose with the sun the next morning we were greeted by a stunning view of Mount St. Helens from bed. After some coffee and a breakfast burrito we were ready to hike down to the well distinguished Spirit Lake. The hike was relatively short while declining in elevation quickly. There were sweeping views of the trees that were blown down in the initial blast from the 1980 eruption and the foliage on the hills in front of us was alive with fall color. When we rounded the next corner, there it was. Deep blue waters blanketed the scene in front of us while the edges of the lake were painted white, full of dead trees that had blown into the lake. There was an eerie feeling down there as if we weren’t meant to be there. It felt almost lifeless, no animals, nothing in the lake, logs, or even the shore. You couldn’t help but think about the inferno that place once was, and the evidence of it surrounds you and all of your awareness.
After an hour or two of taking photos and hopping around on the logs floating in the lake, we had a snack and started to plan our next move. We located a road on the map that we wanted to aim for, unsure of whether or not said road would be open and offer us with some refuge for the night as well as a killer view, we set out to beat the sunset and (hopefully) set up camp.
Our philosophy when exploring new places is to always take that dirt road you see and follow it to the end. We have found some of the most memorable campsites this way. This instance was no different and after a few thousand feet of grueling switchbacks coupled with a hair raising drive on an abnormally rocky road, we found ourselves at the very top of a mountain lookout with a perfect spot to park the van. It was just a bonus that we had engulfing views of what seemed to be the entire Gifford Pinchot National Forest, including views of Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, and even Mt. Hood. We set up for the night, warmed some homemade soup and got ready for mother nature’s light show. We sat for hours, taking in the moon, stars, and landscape until the wind picked up and we happily retired in the warm van for the duration of the evening.
The following morning brought one of the most unimaginable sunrises I’ve ever seen. The sky streaked with dark blue, orange, pink and yellow. Mt. Adams dazzled us with her beauty and the clouds added the much needed texture to envelope your mind. As quickly as the sun rose and graced us with her warmth, she retreated back in clouds that looked as if they would linger the rest of the day. With that in mind we decided to head down to the Cispus River to take cover in the trees and go fishing.
When you start seeing Chantrelle mushrooms growing right on the side of the road as you’re driving, it is inexcusable not to stop. With our mushroom senses tingling we spent about an hour roaming the forest on the way down to the river. We found countless morsels of delight and quickly filled our bag with golden Chantrelles that would compliment our meal for later that night.
After spending the last two nights in the mountains, the river was a welcomed sanctuary. The radiant trees beamed red, gold, and orange while lining the pristine turquoise river. Shortly after Drew began fly-fishing he caught a beautiful Rainbow Trout, and with that we were both instantly filled with gratitude for the entirety of this trip.
He caught a few more while I danced around the rocks near the riverbank, taking photos and breathing in the setting. Famished after the last few days, we made our way back to camp to cook our mushrooms from earlier with the flank steak in the fridge. The smells tantalized our senses and our stomachs rumbled with anticipation. We reveled on the victories of this trip, reminisced about the places we’ve been and the places we’ll go. And in my humble opinion, all is right in the world when you’re outside with the people you love.