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Ingalls Lake Overnight
posted by John : September 26-27, 2009


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With a summer as full as we've had it's no wonder there wasn't a free weekend to be found until September. Labor Day was planned for Clara's annual backpacking trip, but the skies opened and we were rained out. After that there were no more opportunities until the last weekend in the month. As the days grew shorter and the weather less predictable I worried she was going to be cheated out of a trip this summer. (Last year we got lucky with the weather on the last weekend in September, too.)

Thankfully, we must have been good because we were gifted a glorious weekend for a trip into the mountains. Not a cloud to be seen on the east side where we were heading. Clara had asked to do a "desert mountain hike" so I came up with a destination of Ingalls Lake and camping in Headlight Basin.

Of course, Ingalls Lake is a terribly popular destination and Headlight Basin is one of those magical spots that would be overrun with folks like us so it's strictly controlled. There aren't permits, but you can only camp in established spots on a first come first served basis. When hiking with a potentially slower partner those aren't words one wants to hear.

To try to mitigate the risk of being locked out of a camp spot we left early. Ugh. 6am meant I was up at 5:15 on a Saturday and transferring her straight to the car in her jammies. The hope was she'd sleep most of the 1.5 hour drive, but once awake she was awake. It was good to just talk, though.

By 8am we were leaving the trailhead. (The same trailhead used for Lilly's overnight.) Just a short way up the trail we turned onto the Ingalls Way trail that climbs 2,000 feet up to Ingalls Pass before descending into the next valley over. Clara's done long hikes before, but this would be her most challenging. Coupled with a need for speed I was a bit worried as we got going.

She did great. At six she's able to focus on hiking with minimal stops and is pretty good about listening to warnings and taking them well. While a request to Lilly to stay away from the edge of the cliff usually results in her going closer to the edge Clara gets it.

We weren't passing too many folks, but the people who did pass us were serious climbers using the trail to access Ingalls Peak. They were all sweating heavily and burdened by climbing racks, but no camping gear. Good news for us. Of course, there were a couple of groups that looked like they would stay overnight, but not so many I was really worried.

Don't think it was all work and no play. We took breaks to look at rocks (oh, so many rocks), plants, berries, and the odd chipmunk. If Clara wasn't convinced I was crazy before she is now. As we switchbacked up the side of the valley we'd get views of Esmerelda Peaks to the south. Just about every time I'd comment that the mountain looked familiar, but it seemed shorter than I remembered. Of course, this was repeated on the way down with the mountain getting taller. Oh the joys of entertaining little ones.

To get me off my schtick Clara insisted I provide words for her to spell. I ran out of good ones pretty quickly so we started spelling whatever I was seeing. She might not be able to spell "cat," but she'll be able to spell "carabiner" and "Rainier." (Did I mention that Rainier and Adams were clearly visible as we neared the pass? Sweet.)

It was 11:30 when we got to the Ingalls Pass. Mt. Stuart dominated the views and Headlight Basin was full of larches just starting to turn. Big rock slabs interrupted the landscape and the ridge from Fortune Peak to Ingalls Peak bounded the views to the west. The valley disappeared into the trees looking to the east.

I thought having lunch up high before descending into the basin would be a good plan, but looking back along the trail and seeing more people approaching the pass scrapped that plan in favor of a quick descent. Especially after seeing how few camp sites were marked on the map. We started out along the high trail that leads to Ingalls Lake, but turned back to the lower trail when we were told there were no sites up there. (Actually, there are. Some nice ones, too, with access to water even though they're right on the trail.)

Access to the basin was the hardest part of the trail thanks to loose rock and dirt. Clara bounded down without much trouble, but I was slower courtesy of all our gear.

Actually, "all" our gear is misleading. Clara carried all our food, her book, and her own water. She might have been able to carry more, but her pack was full. So was mine. Plans for next year call for me to take both the girls on an overnight. That means either I have to stash gear at the destination early or soembody needs to get a bigger pack. We'll have to see about that.

The first site, perhaps the best one around, was taken. It was at the base of big, smooth rocks with a perfect view of Stuart from the tent. The next one was open though. It was set back from the trail in some trees. To take it or to look for a better spot? Always the worrier, I figured if the other sites were worse or they were taken we might not even get this one. We claimed it and set about making camp and eating lunch at about noon.

By 1:30 we had the tent up (with lots of rope used to tie it down given the windy forecast), food hung, lunch eaten, and even had a bit of a rest in the tent. Clara wanted to climb on some rocks and visit the lake so we shouldered our (much lighter) packs and started toward the lake. Although the basin trail goes there fairly directly, I wanted to make a loop of it by connecting with the upper trail that was just above us. To be nice to the fragile plants that the restrictions were trying to help we stuck to the big slabs of rock.

Clara was like a goat and had no issues scrambling around. She has a bit to learn about sticking to the easier routes, though. She seems to instinctively go for the harder lines.

We joined the trail and the stream of dayhikers heading back from the lake. Clara got a lot of kudos for making it as far as she had. I was very happy to see other fathers with their (older) daughters hiking around. I'm still looking for the guaranteed method to keep the kids interested in hiking, but those examples give me hope.

The trail is well defined and drops slowly before a quick scramble through the cliff to the Ingalls Lake basin. When we got to the lake there were only a few others there even though we'd seen perhaps 20 or 30 leaving the lake as we climbed up. From our camp it'd taken another hour to get to the lake so we found a nice spot and tried to relax. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing pretty well and we were a bit chilled after all our earlier exertion.

More rock scrambling, lots of pictures, a fruitless scanning of the hill for goats, and then it was time to head back. We took the low trail that dropped into the basin and it was surprisingly lush. It shouldn't have been a surprise since we saw a bunch of little creeks higher up that were feeding the green below, but somehow it was still unexpected. (Clara declared it wasn't, in fact, a very good desert hike since there was so much green stuff growing and so many trees. She cited our hike on the Westberg Trail near Thorp as a good example of a desert hike. I'll have to do better next time.)

We saw a few more camp sites, almost all taken, lower down. I think the one we got was the best compromise between privacy and views. The only downside is there is no water at this time of year. (That's why we had about 7.5 liters brought from home and partially refilled from Ingalls Lake.)

We had the traditional rehydrated Macaroni and Cheese dinner, but Clara wasn't feeling too well so didn't eat much. I was really worried it was her turn with the 24 hour flu (Lilly had it earlier in the week) and the thought of that in the tent was not a good one. After some more rest she was feeling well enough to have dessert (of course) and hot chocolate while we watched Mt. Stuart turn red with alpenglow as the sun set. We were in bed by 8pm.

Of course, being in bed doesn't mean sleeping. It seemed like Clara woke up every few hours and woke me up. She says she only remembers waking up once (because some bear was outside snoring, apparently), but regardless it was a rough night. At 4:30 I lit a candle lantern and after that we slept until almost 9am. The temperature was pretty cold (below freezing, I think), but we were ok in our bags. Toward the end Clara was curled up pretty close to me and I opened up my bag to throw it partially over her.

We had a "quick" breakfast on the rocks where we could gaze at Stuart and I could look around for goats without success. It took an hour to break down camp so we weren't ready to head out until almost 11:30. It was a quick climb to back to Ingalls Pass and then a few last looks into Headlight Basin and at Mt. Stuart before we headed down. Clara had asked about climbing Stuart and I suggested it might be a few years before she was ready. (It's a strenuous and technically demanding climb, though not one requiring actual climbing gear.) I, on the other hand, have Stuart squarely in my sights.

The way down was much like the way up only quicker and with more people heading the other way. We spent a lot of time on the side of the trail letting others pass us. No small feat in some spots where the hill is steep and the trail is little more than a narrow ledge. Clara had some trepidation in spots, but decided she didn't care and that was that. We just weren't allowed to talk about the "cliffs" until we were done with them.

The only "problem" was when a well-meaning woman passed us on the way down and asked if we'd seen the goats. Really? Goats? Where? At the lake, of course. No, we hadn't gone back to the lake this morning. It was three hours we just didn't have. Dang. (I guess we'll have to go somewhere else that has goats. I might have a few ideas about that for next year...)

By 2:30 we were back at the car with the promise of ice cream just down the road. Unfortunately, Clara was made to feel less than ideal by the twisting dirt road and then the twisting paved road as we headed out of the valley. My sighting of a flock of turkeys in a field didn't fix her, but as if by magic, though, she recovered just in time for ice cream.

By 4pm we were back at North Bend, but drove through to get to NanaPapa's for dinner.

Total distance was about 9 miles and 3,200 feet of gain over two days. Next year with both girls it'll be like starting over from scratch. Wish us luck.

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