by Andy Dappen
The thinnest of frost coats the yellow September grass at the trailhead. The morning sun is spotlighting the highest summits but it will be hours before its warmth kisses the valley. In moments the shoes are snugged tight and I leave the car at a fast clip, partly to stay warm, partly to make miles before the temperature warms. A long day lies ahead.
My line climbs while the line cast by the sun sinks. Man and sunlight intersect an hour into the walk. I’m traversing a shadowed aspen grove when a million quaking flames of sunlight ignite the branches of each tree. The magic is immediate. So is the warmth. The coat, hat, and gloves move from body to pack.
The aspens scroll by and I climb into grasslands spotted with glades of conifers. The views become expansive. To the east waves of smoky ridges are silhouetted against a bright skyline. To the north sharp rock fangs bite into the blue fabric of the autumn sky.
The route along the Albert Camp Trail reaches a ridge system that gently climbs higher and higher. The trail enters a massive burn that were part of the Tripod Fire Complex that swept over this landscape in 2006 and burned 180,000 acres. For several miles the trail cuts through snags of charred lodgepole pines, the snags themselves forming the tombstones of a tree cemetery. Forests, however, are revolving theaters where life and death are intertwined strands of the same string. From the ashen forest floor springs a new carpet of fireweed, willow saplings, aspen shoots, and lodgepole seedlings. The strands of string twine on.
I climb on. With elevation I’m caught between the bookends of different desires. The mountain scenery is spectacular and the camera occupies my eyes more than my hip. But although I keep stopping to snap, the open scenery motivates my feet to move. I’m inspired to cover ground.
During the hours ahead, my mind floats in a daydream. I’m aware of impressions rather than conscious thought. White granite boulders, pine-perfumed air, red-leafed blueberry bushes, saturated blue skies…memories of the Sierras seep through the brain. Tundra-like vegetation, mountain avens, gnarled kinnikinnick, views so expansive I can almost see the back of my head…peaks in northern Canada flash onto the retina of memory. Yellow shrubs, melting frost, the sweet vinegar smell of decay … I’m a teenager again on my first long hike around Mount Hood.
The sun’s position in the south tells me it’s about noon when I stroll to the top of Horseshoe Mountain. A nearby patch of snow allows me to pack up my canteen and replenish water. Check: A basic need has been fulfilled. Now to fulfill the needs of the soul: I pivot slowly taking in the 360-degree view. Peaks occupy every compass point. My eye settles on one in particular, Armstrong Mountain, sitting three miles distant and situated symbolically on the U.S./Canada border. My wife is Canadian, my kids are dual citizens – it feels right that I should visit home ground for them. But with nearly 16 miles still to go to make the summit and return to the car, the camera will need to quieter if I’m to finish before dark. I commit to the endeavor.
Immediately I’m having trouble keeping to the bargain of photographing less. I let a few images slide, “Already got something similar,” I think as I pass beautiful images. But many images are just too precious to ignore for the purpose of saving a few minutes. If I need to return by headlight, so be it.
From the top of Armstrong, the naming of the Horseshoe Basin below is obvious. Pocket glaciers were once clamped onto the north sides of Arnold Peak and Horseshoe Mountain confining the basin. Those frozen giant amoebas devoured the flanks of their host mountains forming big horseshoe-shaped cirques. I quickly visit the international boundary, inhale some trail mix, and start the return back.
I weigh the details of the return– should I retrace the Albert Camp Trail which was beautiful on the approach and which will seem 180-degrees different on the exit, or should I travel the Boundary Trail heading toward the Iron Gate trailhead and then follow a connector trail leading back to the Albert Camp Trail and the Fourteen Mile Trailhead? The lure of the unknown is too strong – I’m pulled onto the Boundary Trail.
By comparison, the Boundary Trail proves crowded. Perhaps because it is the shortest of all approaches into the Pasayten high country, several backpacking groups and several horse-packing parties are spread out along its length. I find myself chatting with a number of these groups. A husband-wife team of backpackers from Palmer Lake who visit this wilderness frequently rattle off a list of other nearby hikes I’ll enjoy given that I’m so enthusiastic about today’s walk. Fortune is smiling – it’s always a boon to return from one exploration with a longer list of new possibilities than when you left.
I also talk to several hunters who are looking forward to the opening of the High Hunt tomorrow. One is particularly amiable. He talks about how often he’s visited the area, his wife who puts up with these hunts, and his son who bemoans missing the hunt because he now has young children of his own.
Life is full of seasons. “In a few years his kids will have lives of their own and your son will be out here with you again,” I say. “Of course you may be too decrepit to ride up here by then.”
He laughs at the ribbing; then he ponders the unintended truth of the tease.
“Time does fly, doesn’t it? There are a lot more hunting seasons behind me now than ahead.”
The air suddenly feels heavily charged with significance. Maybe that’s just because it’s heavily loaded with cotton from the flurry of fireweed seeds flying in the wind.
It’s snowing fire,” I tell my new acquaintance.
He’s puzzled but follows my gaze to the airborne seeds and puts the pieces together.
“Always something miraculous going on in nature, eh?”
Onward and downward I go, but still it’s hard to stay rigidly committed to moving. The late afternoon sunlight is slanted and colorful. Many scenes should be photographed rather than left to my steel-wool memory. Particularly beautiful are the shadow-sunlight streaks – the zebra light — of walking through the burns bordering the trail. Five miles roll by slow but fast – I click pictures, then jog to keep pace.
At the connector trail traversing toward the car, a sign notes the total distance back to the Fourteen Mile Trailhead: 5 miles. The chips and beer in the car exert a magnetic pull. There’s also a perverse desire, after 20 miles, to see how fast I can rattle off the final five. Can I do it in an hour? I start jogging the smooth segments of trail, fast-walking the rougher segments – no need to sprain an ankle or tweak a knee over crazy curiosity.
Human and sunlight now work opposite to each other. I jog deeper into the shadows while the line of the sun’s illumination sprints uphill. In the dim light there’s nothing to photograph — now it’s just about the race. I re-intersect the Albert Camp Trail and start retracing a section of trail I traveled early in the morning. Landmarks I recognize streak by. I know I’m on pace to win this race.
The last mile, however, drags on forever. Undoubtedly it was a fool’s assumption to think he knew where the final mile began. I’m two minutes late when I finally stagger off the trail and tag the car. Ten minutes ago I was so cocky I had the course whupped, but now the image of my awesomeness has deflated.
Regardless, there’s still chips and beer for consolation. I sit with them in the yellow grass – dusty shoes, dirty socks, and sweaty T-shirt all heaped in a disgusting pile that warps the air nearby. The light is dim and there’s not much to see. There are, however, memories aplenty about this nearly perfect day.
Details, Details: Horseshoe Mountain and Horseshoe Basin
Attractions. The Albert Camp Trail #375m and the climb of Horseshoe Mountain is a Pasayten classic. The trail is not nearly as heavily used as the Boundary Trail, making the ACT a quieter, more remote choice for walkers. Horsemen and horsepackers will probably prefer the wider, nicely graded Boundary Trail.
Distances. Roundtrip distance to Horseshoe Basin is 20 miles. Returning via the Boundary Trail adds about a mile to the walk.
Elevation gain: Just under 4,000 vertical feet for the round trip to Horseshoe Basin. The short side trip to the top of Horseshoe Mountain only adds a few hundred vertical feet.
Fitness: 3+ (advanced) as a day trip 2+ (strong intermediate) as a backpacking trip.
Skill: 2 (intermediate).
Allowed. Hiking, trail running, and horseback riding. Dogs are allowed in this wilderness. Most of the route is in the Pasayten Wilderness, meaning motorized vehicles and mountain bikes are prohibited.
Access and Trailhead Camping. From Loomis, follow the Loomis-Oroville Hwy 2.2 miles north. Turn left on Toats Coulee Road (Road 39) and drive 7.7 miles (mainly uphill). Turn right onto the Ninemile Creek Road and in about 0.4 miles fade left onto the Fourteen Mile Road. In another 4.3 miles, turn left at an intersection with inconspicuous signage for the trailhead. Reach the Fourteen Mile Trailhead (elevation 4600 feet) in another 0.25 miles. The trailhead has an unloading dock for horses and a corral. A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park. A small campground with 5 or 6 sites (picnic tables and fire pits), and vault toilets is about 100 yards past the trailhead. Bring your own drinking water for camping or treat water out of the creek. There was no fee to use the campground in 2014.
Trip Instructions. From the trailhead (waypoint AC1), follow the Albert Camp Trail (#375) for 2.8 miles through 2 gates to a trail intersection at waypoint AC2. The left trail traverses west to the Boundary Trail (BT2) in 2.25 miles, but for now stay right on the higher trail. Soon the trail starts switchbacking uphill through Deer Park and hits AC3 near the ridge in 1.9 miles. Follow a broad northwest trending ridge for 3.4 miles to AC4. Here you can leave the trail and wander north for 0.7 miles to the summit of Horseshoe Mountain (H1) or stay on the trail and drop 0.8 miles to AC5 where the Albert Camp Trail intersects the larger Boundary Trail. Turn right and in 1.1 miles reach the Horseshoe Pass/Horseshoe Basin area (BT4). If you’ve climbed Horseshoe Mountain, just drop off the peak heading west until you hit the Boundary Trail, turn right and walk to Horseshoe Basin. If you want to visit Armstrong Peak (AR1) and the international boundary (Mile Monument 104 is about 200 yards from the summit), head north of Horseshoe Basin for 1.4 miles, following your nose to the highest point.
Return trip. Retracing the same route is prettier, quieter, and about a mile shorter than coming back via the Boundary Trail. Still,loops are fun and it’s always interesting to see new country. To make a loop of this trip, follow the Boundary Trail south from Horseshoe Pass 1.25 miles to Sunny Pass (BT3). Drop from the pass 4.2 miles to BT2. Find the connector trail and follow it 2.25 miles east back to AC2 at the Albert Camp Trail (this trail is a bit bushy at the start). Turn right and follow the Albert Camp Trail 2.8 miles back to the trailhead.
Land Ownership: Most of the described route is in the Pasaytan Wilderness and is part of the Okanogan National Forest.
Leave It Better than You Found It. This should be every user’s goal. Do no damage, pick up trash left by others, and pull noxious weeds found along the way.
Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or not know all the issues affecting a route. You are responsible for yourself, your actions, and your safety. If you won’t accept that responsibility, you are prohibited from using our information.
This post was originally published on 9/23/14.