I arrived at the Wilderness information center in Port Angeles 930am, about three hours after leaving Seattle.
For a summer Saturday, the line for permits was not too bad. Most of the people ahead of me were headed to the Pacific coast beaches, and the rangers were telling them to be prepared to spend the night with hundreds of other campers.
When it was my turn, I told the ranger I wanted an overnight permit for Lake Angeles, and by rote, he issued me one as leaving from the Heart o’ the Hills trailhead. This is the, I believe, the most common way to access Lake Angeles.
But for my own reasons, I wanted to start from the Switchback TH, so I had him make the change, and after confirming that I had my own bear canister(which was helpful, as they were out of loaners and had to refer people to outfitters in Port Angeles where they could be rented), I was on my way.
My reason for starting there, rather than Heart O’ the Hills was that I was redoing a trip I’d taken 20 years ago and made a hash of, back when I had no idea what I was doing.
I’d spent the previous year, my first post-college, living with two friends in Chicago. Two of us had jobs and the third was going to graduate school. I worked nights at a temp job for a financial company, proofing the trades that had gone through the day before. It wasn’t difficult, and so I had a lot of time to read. And nap. It made for an easy transition from college. It was not exactly like still being in school(We all gone different place) but it wasn’t quite full adulthood yet, either. When our lease came up for renewal, my friends decided to fully enter the adult world, and got engaged and moved in with their now fiances. Rather than jump immediately into finding a new apartment, I decided to travel a bit. I had gotten the bug, post college. Reading Jack Kerouac had given me some vague notion about travel, which I had mentioned to my Dad on one of the long drives back for a holiday weekend or something, and so as a surprise, for my graduation, he’d gotten me a plane ticket to London. He had had the travel bug himself, I learned, after spending two post-high school years in the Army, stationed in Germany. He’d returned from the Army and started going to college on the GI Bill with the intent to become a teacher at Army bases abroad, but he’d met my Mom, and no regrets later, he was married and eventually with children. But so I hadn’t entirely got my notions of travel from Jack Kerouac. So I decided to head for the West Coast. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and the couple family vacation to southern California had been a wonder, the light and the color and the hills and mountains. I took the Amtrak to Denver and then to San Francisco(Beat inspired stops) before taking the Coast Starlight to Seattle. Why Seattle, I can’t recall. Maybe I dreamed of finding Desolation Peak as well. But in 1998 the internet wasn’t what it is now. There were no Youtube videos, or travel blogs to point the way, fewer ways to plan ahead and foolproof your journey. To find things, to know how to do them, you had to talk to people, go to the library, or just go blind with vague notions; which, as an introvert, is how I handled things. There are certainly limits, but sometimes I miss the time when I less felt the need to be certain. So when I showed up at the WIC in August of 1998 and the ranger asked me where I wanted to go, I looked briefly at the map and pointed to teardrop shaped Lake Angeles, for all practical purposes throwing a dart at a map. And that ranger, for whatever reason, did not default me to leaving from Heart o’ the Hills. If he had, I might not be back here.
The Switchback trail is what its name says it is – over 1400’ vertical feet of them over 1.7 miles – to Victor Pass where junctures with the Heather Park and the Klahhane Ridge trails. It is a slog, shadeless except for the first quarter mile or so, and I was carrying a Jansport backpack more suited to post-college European travel than actual backpacking, loaded with probably 40 pounds of gear more suited to car camping. I’d told myself I wasn’t going to be a gear person, obsessing over ounces and technical specs. I’d just use what I had and I’d be fine. My shoulders started throbbing half an hour in. I didn’t know then how to adjust the waist belt so it rode on my hip bone and so all the weight was ripping in to my shoulders. I had also mistaken looking physically fit for being fit – when had been the last time I’d done any aerobic exercise? But I made it to the ridgeline and then along the crest. I didn’t know, because I hadn’t studied the map, that I’d be dropping from the ridge down to Lake Angeles, losing every bit of elevation I’d just struggled to gain. With each step down, I thought about having to take this step in the opposite direction tomorrow. Once, lost in my frustrations, I tripped and fell forward on to my hands and knees, arresting my fall at the edge of a steep slope, but the momentum of my backpack nearly carried me forward over it. But there were moments of transcedence; looking south into the heart of the park, the crumpled black and white peaks of faraway mountains, and north to the blue Straits of Juan de Fuca and Vancouver Island. The wind and the silence. I made it to Lake Angeles, where I ate a can of beans heated on an old and heavy stove. I had seen a bear and her cub as I came down from Klahhane Ridge, and so I attempted to hang my bag from a tree branch. I think I got it about 7 feet off the ground. A useless hang if a bear was really interested. But I settled in and forgot the trauma of the hike as I wandered the lake shores, hopped across the logs jammed up at the outlet creek ,and explored down the creek for a ways. I think I found some sort of small cascade, but I may just be making that up in my head. I watched the light change on the jagged headwall. It was a dark and starry night, and I sat up for awhile trying to percieve the imperceptible movement of the stars. And also because my thoughts had turned to those bears, and how they were probably waiting in the shadows to attack me, and so I was afraid to go into my tent and go to sleep. I peered into shadows and jumped at every sound. I finally crawled into my and spent a restless night awake in the tent, clutching my hand axe(why was I carrying an axe?) It was only a 4.5 mile walk from the car, but it felt like the middle of nowhere. And the next day I did it all over again, in reverse; regaining something like 1600’ of altitude as I climbed back up to Klahhane Ridge and then down to the car. It was miserable. And so I wanted to do it again, of course.
Pictures from 1998
It was 11am when, carrying less than half that weight, and with proper gear, I started up the Switchback Trail. It was still a slog. I was in better shape, I was carrying less, but my legs are 20 years older, and 1400’ of switchbacks is still just that.
But I knew what was ahead of me, and with my pack riding properly on my hips, I was in no hurry. I stopped to look West to Mt Olympus and South into the the heart of Olympic National Park the far off peaks(whose names I hope to learn by sight eventually) tinted blue by the particles of the angled sunlight scattered in the haze.
I reached Victor Pass, where the trail junctures with the Klahhane Ridge and Heather Park trails, just below Mt Angeles. A lingering marine layer obscured my memory of the view North out into the Straits of Juan de Fuca. This is where I diverged from my trip of 20 years ago, heading north to Heather Park rather than east along Klahhane Ridge. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that all that misery was contained in a 9 miles round trip out-and-back that now I would deem little more than a warm-up hike. So I decided to make it a clockwise loop, via the Heather Park trail to the Heart O’ the Hills TH, and then up to Lake Angeles, closing the loop along Klahhane Ridge and back down the Switchback trail the next day.
From Victor Pass, you can see the Heather Park trail tracing a route along the moderately steep sided bowl to the point where it disappears in a sharp left seemingly straight up to the ridgeline. It looks intimidatingly exposed to someone afraid of heights(like me) so I descended with trepidation. It wasn’t so bad once I was down there, the scrubby grass slope almost inviting me to barrel roll down carefree like a child.
I reached the loose dirt-and-scree chute to the saddle in between Mt Angeles and Second Top. I took small steps and carefully placed each foot, making sure one foot was always solidly planted. I had trekking poles, but they stayed strapped to my pack. I felt the poles would be more of a hindrance than help. Rather than having to find two secure points of contact with the ground, I’d have had to find four on a narrow, loose trail. I crossed paths with a group doing the Heather Park-Klahhane Ridge-Lake Angeles trails as a day hike starting from Heart O’ the Hills. They lamented that they had seen no mountain goats yet, but had seen a bear near Heather Park. I spent some time on the saddle taking in the view before heading down. I figured the worst of it was over.
But beyond the saddle, trail was narrow and traced the scree slopes just below the ridgeline. In most sections, despite the exposure, a fall would probably(probably?) not lead to death, but just the idea of a slip and then an uncontrolled slide down the gravelly slope had my heart in my throat for most of the next mile. There is a section not far beyond the saddle where a five yard or so section of the trail is washed out altogether. I trusted my feet, otherwise I would not have been able to move forward, and each step forward took me further away from turning around and going back. For someone without a fear of heights, it probably would not be an issue. Despite of and because of my fear, I did my best take it in, as I did not imagine I’d be back this way again. But mostly, I was focused on the ground in front of my feet.
I don’t recall being afraid in these situations before. Yes, I am afraid of heights, but that had always been limited to buildings and bridges and other man-made structures. So long as my feet were on the ground, even if that ground dropped away to some other, lower ground, I’d always felt fine. There’d been no traumatic event to explain this change, so I suppose being 20 years older had just given me a different sense of my own mortality, and with it, jangled nerves as I crept step by careful step along the steepest parts.
I reached another loose dirt chute that ascended roughly to another saddle below First Top.
From there, the trail descended past the Heather Park campground and the the remains of an old house, now just a low base of stone walls and a large chimney with two iron stoves. I stopped along the creek to refill my water, and continued through the forest via long, loping switchbacks to Heart o the Hills. I had plenty of time to think, and so I did. The fear had focused my mind, but now that I could just put one foot in front of the other for several miles, it took the opportunity to wander for a bit before I settled into a walking meditation.
I tried to figure out why I was here. In the micro and macro sense. What was the point of redoing a hike I’d done 20 years before, badly? (I harbor the same dreams about re-doing the Grand Canyon someday as well). What pleasure was to be gained in showing up my younger self? It seemed an odd bit of vanity as I’ve never been a big believer in proving things to oneself, but that had to be some of it at least, on some level.
There is the pleasure in doing things well, or at least not badly. And that trip 20 years ago was certainly a benchmark for doing something badly. I still do plenty badly. I can’t really start a fire to save my life, my map reading skills are mediocre, and I don’t know nearly all the knots I should. In conditions less than ideal, I’d be back where I was 20 years ago in terms of misery.
From Heart O’ the Hills, I had to regain as much elevation as I had lost. The Lake Angeles trail ascends moderately but constantly, gaining 2400’ 3.3 miles(by the time I reached Lake Angeles, I accumulated 5800’ of total elevation gain over 13 miles.), but it is a wide, well-graded and maintained trail, made up of mostly long switchbacks through the forest. It’s quite boring, in fact, and if I’d started here 20 years ago, I’d have just had an unmemorably difficult hike and I doubt I’d be back here. I pushed on as the miles were starting to wear on my legs and feet, and my mind wandered to finding a campsite when I arrived. Would I recognize my campsite from 20 years before? And arriving so late in the day, how hard would it be to find a site at all? Lake Angeles is non-quota, and it was a beautiful summer weekend. I had my hammock, which gave me more flexibility, but still, I didn’t want to be crammed back in some trees with no views.
I turned out to be quite busy when I arrived, just after 5pm. All the properly established campsites were full, but I was able to find an unofficial but impacted site(remnants of a prohibited fire ring scarred the ground) with two trees well-spaced to hang my hammock. Despite being near the trail, I was at the far end of the campground, so it ended up being decently private. I also had a semi-private ‘balcony’ overlooking the lake. The bugs weren’t too bad. I didn’t need my head net, and since I was wearing pants and long sleeves, I didn’t even need to apply repellant.
I’m not a hermit, and I’m not looking for unbroken solitude, I’m not bothered by crowds out in the backcountry so long as everyone is respectful of one another, and it was a convivial atmosphere at Lake Angeles. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring a bathing suit, but it had to plenty of others.
There was a large group across the lake that brought bluetooth speakers, and decided to play music like they were at a backyard BBQ or something from about 7pm-8pm while they were making dinner, but that was a minor and temporary annoyance, and when the music stopped and everyone settled in, the only sounds were the whine of insects and the kerplunk of fish jumping out of the water to dine on them.
I ate my rehydrated meal overlooking the lake, and shortly after, a woman camping nearby with her boyfriend offered to trade a Rainier beer for the use of my stove, as they’d forgotten theirs. I told her of course, that last time I was out, I’d forgotten a spoon and so had to make due with the Snickers bars I’d brought as trail snacks(A spoon being the kind of thing you can’t really ‘borrow’ from a fellow camper.) I told her she could keep her beer, but she insisted, and so I returned to my ‘balcony’ and watched the sky dim.
I slept well and rose the next morning at 6am and had coffee overlooking the lake before packing up and starting the climb and descent back to the car.
Half a mile later, I was 500 feet above Lake Angeles, on the ridge between two basins, Lake Angeles on my left and Mt Angeles to my right.
Continuing to climb, Port Angeles came into view. I continued through meadows, ascending the South side of Klahhane ridge before reaching the highest point and the ridgeline itself, where the trail made its way along, sometimes just below the crest, but also for short stretches where you walk the ridgeline itself, with 360 degree views
This also meant the trail was exposed, and often narrow. I couldn’t believe I did this with that big, heavy, unbalanced pack without a thought. How had I not hurt myself, or worse? I almost did, I guess, and was just lucky. Perhaps frustration overrode fear, I suppose, or maybe I just wasn’t afraid? I was afraid now though, and there was nothing to be done about it but move ahead. It was just something that had to be done to get where I was going. I wished I could spend more time on the views rather than imagining a fatal fall. I wasn’t going to fall, it was just in my head. I couldn’t even console myself with the thought that I’d looking back and feeling a sense of accomplishment at having done something that frightened me, an vain pat on my own back. It wasn’t as if I didn’t think I could do it. I knew I could. This wasn’t a ‘challenge.’ I had nothing to prove to myself in this regard. It just wasn’t enjoyable and it was just relief when I was through.
The final section traverses a broad, grassy slope, time to take in the expanse of it all
before arriving at Victor Pass, from which all I had left was the toe-jamming descent down the switchbacks back to the car.
Since it was only 1030am when I got back to the car, and 4.5 miles really wasn’t enough hiking for the day, I drove up to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center and walking around the paved trails there before heading home.
I’m not sure I’ll visit Lake Angeles again. I don’t see the point in approaching it from Heart O’ the Hills, and I don’t know that I’ll be able to convince myself that really, I wasn’t that bothered by the exposed walking along Klahhane Ridge and Heather Park . And how many times do you need to go back to a place? I’m still don’t have an answer as to why I had to go back this time.