The Full Nason by Clinton Koontz | Tales from the Trails: PNW High Country

The Full Nason by Clinton Koontz | Tales from the Trails: PNW High Country

The Full Nason by Clinton Koontz

Nason Ridge on TrailForks

With a big adventure on my mind, I laid there wide awake, not even close to asleep anymore and I really needed a little sleep. Check the clock, it is 11:20. What seemed like an eternity later I was still awake, what time is it? 12:15. Finally it is about 1:10 and I just decide to get up, make coffee and fill the thermos and hit the road. I slept from about 9:30 until 11 and not much after that.

My plan was to complete the full West to East traverse of Nason Ridge from Snowy Creek to the Nason TH near Lake Wenatchee, solo, and with no shuttle. I had taken Friday off work for a mountain adventure and promised that whatever I decided to do I would be back to Seattle for daycare pickup at 5. As usual, I looked for the adventure that would absolutely maximize the time available in a 24 hour day. Sleep can wait. The only way to get this done was a 4am start at the latest per my calculation and this left near zero room for error.

I got to the trailhead about 3:30 and by the time I managed to get the light mounted and all of my gear for the day (extra headlamp, inreach messenger, a sandwich, a quesadilla, a bag of figs, an assortment of bars, a bag of chips, water filter, first aid kit, extra layers and jacket, tools, etc, etc) it was just after 4 when I got started. I decided to forego the trail beer this time.

With the late August sunrise coming at 6, it was still pitch black when I started the road pedal which would be 18 miles minimum depending on the decision I made at the old Snowy Creek trailhead.

I had my new Outbound Lighting bar mounted light which turned the road to complete daylight but left everything else completely dark. It was a long lonely pedal and I imagined all sorts of wildlife were watching me and perhaps considering jumping out and eating me for an early breakfast. Not a single car passed me the entire time. The stars were absolutely amazing, I kept looking up and behind me letting my eyes refocus off of the light and enjoy the night sky a bit. It was chilly but not cold maybe upper 40s/low 50s. I put on my jacket but really didn’t need it and was a bit annoyed that I would be carrying it all day.

There is something about a long road ride on a slack enduro bike that feels strange.

Night turned to twilight and the outline of the steep surrounding mountains and trees started to appear as it got closer to sunrise. I remember at one point I could make out the outline of Dirtyface Peak and see some headlamps at the top. It was an easy cruise to the left turn on Little Wenatchee Rd and up to the turnoff on FS6700 up Rainy Creek.

After a long flat pedal there was finally a bit of climbing on FS 6700 which required me to remove my jacket for the last time today. Right around daybreak I arrived at the spot where the road crosses Rainy Creek and it was time for the day’s first decision after 2 hours of mindless road pedaling. There is an old abandoned trail, what used to be the lower portion of Snowy Creek Trail that would cutout about 8 road miles and an extra 800 (~400 net) or so feet of climbing. I was making great time and it was 6am, still sort of dark in the woods. I could continue the road climb at an easy pace for another hour or so to the current Snowy Creek TH or I could risk a bushwhack of epic proportions to possibly save 20-30 minutes and head up the decommissioned “trail”.

Don’t do it, you have been on many adventures in the mountains and you know what happens here. It is never a shortcut. Do NOT do it. You know exactly what is going to happen.

So of course…. I walked into the woods and started looking for signs of a trail.

Nothing, probably over here, nothing.

I had a gpx track from someone else’s ride the year before that looked like a telltale sign of someone looking for but not really finding a trail and tried to follow that. He had done this ride many times before and had to know what he was doing. Little did I know, this used to be a shortcut many years ago but not so much any longer.

For those who can’t quite picture this - a bicycle is not something you want to be dragging along while bushwhacking through thick vegetation. Spokes, pedals, derailleurs, handlebars are all great bush grabbers. I just tried to keep moving uphill with the creek in sight. I found a faint trail for a while and then lost it again a short time later. I finally ended up climbing a steep embankment back to the road and an hour and 20 minutes later I was at the Snowy Creek trailhead proper. Upset that I had wasted so much energy at the beginning of a big ride but thankful that I had found the trailhead and didn’t spend half a day lost in the woods before I really even started the “ride”.

Decommissioned Trail – the part I actually found

A sample of the epic bushwhack

Finally arrived at the “start” of my Journey

I started up Snowy Creek and thought it was quite a pleasant trail to climb. Loamy classic PNW forest trail covered in needles and a grade that was gentle enough to pedal. This would end soon as the trail meandered into and out of the forest into the Snowy Creek drainage where I encountered hellish brush. I’m talking can barely make out the trail and impossible to ride for the brush alone.

A sampling of the Snowy Creek brush

There was a bounty of ripe huckleberries and salmonberries within the brush, if I were hiking with a 5 gallon bucket and not a mountain bike I would have been much more excited but I did enjoy a frequent snack. I pushed through and every time the trail went back in the forest I could hop back on my bike and ride. Eventually you find yourself in a big meadow looking straight up at Rock Mountain over 2,000 ft above. I wasn’t sure whether to be happy I could finally see my goal or deflated to realize how far I still had to climb.

Looking up at Rock Mountain from the Meadow

There was a bit more brush, and a bit more forest before the trail turned to switchbacks above treeline straight up the side of Rock Mountain with nearly zero pedaling left and a hike all the way to the saddle. Where I could pedal my flats kept pedal striking the uphill side so I submitted to just hiking.

As I slowly made my way up Rock Mountain the views of the surrounding mountains in the early morning light just got better and better. Incredible views of the glacier capped peaks of Mt Daniel and Hinman to the SW and the Mountain Loop peaks to the NW. The sun just started to creep over the ridge and light up a narrow beam of light along the NW face of Rock Mountain as I neared the top. I was happy to make it to the top before the sun actually hit me.


Sunlight finally starting to hit the NW face of Rock Mountain

Nason Ridge Trail junction at the Saddle. Mt Daniel in the far distance.

Mt Daniel with Rainier stalking behind

It was about 9:15 when I topped out at the saddle, over 5 hours after I left the car the real part of the ride was just beginning. I looked up at Rock Mountain, deflated that the summit was still so far away and debated skipping the summit but decided to head up there considering I had put in all of this effort already and it was just a quick 15 minute side trip.

Rock Mountain from the saddle

From the summit there were incredible views of Glacier Peak and the North Cascades, Mountain Loop, as well as the Alpine Lakes with Mt Daniel and Hinman. Rainier was just peeking over the top of Daniel, stalking if you will - which made for a neat effect. Below me was a beautiful alpine landscape with vibrant greens all leading down to Rock Lake and my first view of the trail as it began the long traverse along Nason Ridge. I couldn’t believe the path the trail took, zig zagging down from the saddle and traversing rocky ledges all the way down to the lake. I could hardly contain my excitement to finally do a little descending. I also took the time to remind myself that I was over 20 miles from the car in all directions and there wasn’t another human being in sight. The Snowy Creek trailhead was completely empty when I started up so I was truly alone and a long way from help.

Summit of Rock Mountain. Daniel is the glaciated peak in the distance.

Summit of Rock Mountain.

Glacier Peak from the summit

Looking E/NE from the summit towards Howard

Rock Lake from Rock Mountain

I carefully picked my way down the rocky switchbacks from the top of the saddle. They were sharp, rocky and had significant exposure. I made my way down to Rock Lake finally enjoying some fun broken ledges, slabs, and primitive alpine singletrack along the way. This place is special and amazing, regardless of what happens the rest of the way it was worth it. These are the moments from a day like today that you remember after you forget about all of the work required to get here.

Rock Lake

The trail traversed along a steep slope for quite a while with some loose rock and scree and significant exposure (see photo below). There wasn’t much of a trail bench so it was easy to start sliding downhill and perhaps not stop for hundreds of feet. I rode as much as I could but a few spots required a dismount, especially after I felt the rear wheel slide out and felt like it wasn’t going to stop.

Looking back up you can still see the saddle and Rock Mountain furthest back. Sketchy sidehill in foreground.

Once back near treeline after rounding a ridge and heading towards Crescent Lake the trail became more and more overgrown again with huckleberries. The good news is there were ripe, tasty huckleberries everywhere. The bad news was the trail was very primitive and the brush hid a lot of potential hazards so I took it slow and any notion that I would be ripping down a fast alpine descent were over. This was going to be tough travel. I filtered some water at Crescent Lake, chugged one bottle full and refilled again but didn’t linger, I had a new goal of noon departure from Merritt Lake and was trying to make some time.

The ride from Cresent Lake to Merritt Lake had some tough climbing and hike a bike, as well as some technical descending but also mixed in some fun descending on loamy, forested needle covered trail that always seemed to end and turn back uphill way too soon.

 Random trail views, from the “b roll”

There were several downed trees in this section that got slightly annoying as I got closer to the Merritt Lake junction, at one point I remember the first real sign of weakness and fatigue that I could not control which is never a good sign. I was picking up my bike to walk around a big downed tree and pile of limbs and getting a full blown arm cramp right at the bend in my elbow in my bicep and forearm at the same time and had to drop the bike, when I bent down to pick it up my core cramped up as well. I just laid there for minute or so and stretched and then kept moving. The final downhill to the Merritt Lake junction was fast, steep and fun. I admit I was very relieved to make it to the Merritt Lake junction as I knew the going would get “easier” from there, or at least from a brushy and primitive trail to more of a well-traveled trail and more familiar route.

Merritt Lake was a big mental goal for me on this ride and for some reason because of it I likely underestimated how much further I still had to go. I had some energy to ride a lot of the technical climb up to Merritt Lake where I stopped for a swim and a snack. It is amazing what a swim in a cold alpine lake will do for you. It is a complete physical and mental reset on a ride like this. It was Friday in August, around noon and there wasn’t another soul at Merritt Lake. I had been on this ride for nearly 8 hours and had still not seen another human being. I drank and filtered some water and decided since there wasn’t THAT much further to go that I just needed to refill my 20 oz water bottle and keep going. Ate the other half of my sandwich and some chips. 

Merritt Lake

Snacks on snacks on snacks

I left Merritt Lake just after noon confident that I was definitely going to make daycare pickup at 5 back in Seattle. The lake swim, lunch, and water had really rejuvenated me and I was still feeling strong and enjoying riding as much of this next, and “last” climb to the lookout until it turned really steep and loose. It was at this point pushing up the steep slope, switchback after switchback in the hot sun that I wished I had filtered more water at Merritt Lake but had no choice now but to conserve what I had and keep pushing. It was also at this point that I was ready to be at the car in my camp chair with a beer.

I pushed in the hot sun on loose, steep, dusty, and rocky trail for what seemed like forever until the junction with the lookout trail where I saw my first human of the day. As always when on a journey like this I couldn’t wait for the where did you come from, where are you going part of the conversation. Uh, Snowy Creek, yeah, headed to Lake Wenatchee. Are you descending this? Yeah. I thought about heading to the lookout but checked the time and realized that I was never making daycare pickup if I went to the lookout so it was time to keep moving and pick up the pace if I could. Besides, I had already been to the top of Rock Mountain, I didn’t need to go to the Nason Alpine Lookout today. Just past the lookout there was a great view to the South where I enjoyed for a quick rest in the shade, I noted you could see smoke from the Chickamin fire.

View South from the 9 Mile Saddle – Chickamin Fire smoke in far right.

Every time the trail turned downhill after this I swore I had passed the Round Mountain junction and was on my was down the final descent, but I was wrong. What is usually a pretty short trip seemed like an eternity. It was hot and dusty and I was out of water at this point. The one thing I will remember from this ride is that Nason keeps going, and going, and going, and going. Then it keeps going again. Then when it is finished, it keeps going for 9 more miles.

I stopped at the Round Mountain junction to rest before the final, long descent back to the trailhead. I had hoped to recharge a bit to enjoy it more but it was too hot and dusty and I was just ready to move on. The descent from Round Mountain was classic August moto trail conditions, absolutely blown out. It was fast, loose, and chunky with those surfy bermed moto corners that regardless of how dry it is always seem to provide enough traction to rocket you around the corners. It was a constant fight to stay loose, focused, and keep moving while ignoring arms and legs that were screaming to stop all the way back to the trailhead where that beer and camp chair were finally waiting for me.

Author: Clinton Koontz

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