Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Weekend Among the Clouds (and Flowers)

WARNING:  Three days in the mountains leads to LONG blog posts.  If you want to skip all the reading here is the Ultra-Cliff-Notes version:  "Family hikes up mountain, stays at hut, tramps around for three days amidst spectacular views and beautiful flowers, takes many pictures and then hikes down."  That may not quite do it justice so you may want to read on.  If not you can just follow the photo journey here:  Lakes of the Clouds Photo Album

For the last couple of years we've really wanted to get up to the Alpine Garden during the spring bloom.  We tried to plan weekends but things got in the way.  It had also been three years since we'd stayed in the huts - way too long.  This year we were determined.  Back in the beginning of March we took a guess at most likely peak bloom time and booked a weekend at Lakes of the Clouds.  Not just one but two nights.  Sweet!  Our daughter Jamie hasn't been all that interested in hiking with us the last couple of years.  Go figure - a teenager that doesn't want to hang out with Mom and Dad.  When we told her our plans she completely surprised us as said "I'd like to go too".  Fantastic!  We called the AMC the next day and they had one bunk left for the weekend and we grabbed it.  Better yet - it was going to be Father's Day weekend.  I couldn't wait!

As we got closer to the date I followed two things - the changing conditions of the alpine flowers as reported by our friends up north and (as I always do) the long range weather forecast.  The flower situation was shaping up nicely.  Two weeks prior to our visit the blooms were peaking and everything looked perfect.  Then the "freak freeze" came.  OK, in early June there's a chance of a freeze on any day but this one was pretty severe with everything being covered in rime.  It apparently didn't make the flowers too happy.  There were still going to be plenty left but not the multi-colored carpets of the week before.  As for the weather it went through its typical cycle of up and down forecasts.  As the weekend approached it looked like we were sure to get some rain but at least part of the time showed the promise of being nice.  About all you can hope for in June in the Whites...

We headed up on Friday morning and somehow managed to avoid the typical Boston weekday rush hour traffic.  It was an omen of good things to come.  At noon we were packed up and hitting the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail.  We'd never done the west side trails on Mt Washington and I was looking forward to a new way up the mountain.  In about an hour we had negotiated the easy going on the bottom of the trail and arrived at beautiful Gem Pool.

Above Gem Pool the going get steep quickly but the trail was dry and the stone steps and ledges were easy to navigate.  The many cascades of the stream over the ledges made for a beautiful hike up.  Before long we were arriving at the hut.

The going gets steep

Beautiful cascades

Waterfalls and ledges

Some steep climbing.  Glad it's not wet

Lakes of the Clouds hut perched on the edge

Mt Monroe above the hut

Arriving at the hut we checked in and dropped our packs and then headed back out to do a bit of exploring.  The skies had fully clouded up and the fog was descending.  After a bit of poking around we headed in and settled in for a nice night at the hut and anticipation of hiking on Saturday.

Exploring the lakes

Quiet afternoon at the hut

The fog descends

Home sweet hut

During the night I half woke up and heard the pouring rain outside the hut.  Perhaps it was going to be a less than perfect day for hiking on Saturday but no matter - we'd make the best of it.  I closed my eyes and let the rain on the roof lull me back to sleep.  I woke up again around 4:30 and peeked out the window from my sleeping bag.  I was expecting rain or clouds and fog but all I could see was blue sky and sharply defined mountain ridges.  Wow!  I pulled my clothes on quickly and headed out to do the Mt Monroe loop before breakfast.  I had visions of the flower display on Monroe Flats from a couple of weeks earlier and was hoping something was left.

First light on Mt Monroe with the moon setting over the summit

Undercast hanging in the valleys

As I reached the summit of Mt Monroe and turned back I was greeted by the most amazing view of Mt Washington and the first rays of the morning!

 The southern Presidentials were floating in the clouds and provided their own amazing images.

As I made my way down and around the loop to Monroe Flats I was greeted by a somewhat sad sight.  The carpets of color were indeed gone as I had feared.  The blankets of Diapensia were replaced by a few straggling (but beautiful) flowers and the remainder going to fruit (beautiful in its own right).

Diapensia going to fruit

Mountain Avens with the remnants of last night's rain

Bog Laurel

Labrador Tea

Alpine Azalea

A last Diapensia hanging on

I arrived back at the hut at 6:30 - just in time for the morning wakeup call for breakfast.  As we were sitting down to eat the clouds were gathering in the west outside the dining room windows.  By the time we'd finished breakfast and everyone was getting packed up to head out the rain came - in torrents.  We watched everyone putting on their rain gear and heading into the storm.  I was able to check the weather radar on my phone and saw that the tail end of a storm system was just passing over the area.  Perhaps we could wait this one out.  We hung around for about 45 minutes after most everyone else had left and the rain stopped.  Perfect!  We grabbed our stuff and headed out for Mt Washington.

The guest harmonica player wakes up the hut

Breakfast among the clouds

Everyone else heads out into the rain

Good things come to those that wait

The mountains were still in the clouds but there is something about hiking up a mountain in the mist that has a magical feel to it.  We enjoyed our trip up the Crawford path.  Along the way we must have seen two dozen Wolf Spiders scuttle into the rocks.  Jamie was patient enough to hang around and wait for a couple of them to emerge and get their portraits.  As we approached the summit the clouds began to break.  By the time we were on top we were in sunny blue skies and off to an amazing day.

AMC climate study gear near the hut.  The thing on the right is a "cloud catcher"

Hiking through the mists on Crawford Path

Wolf Spider doing his best to look menacing

Clearing skies as we approach the summit

Looks like we climbed out of the clouds!

As we headed up I remembered that the annual Mt Washington Road Race was that morning.  I was happy for the runners that they hadn't had to do it in the pouring rain.  It was something of a mob scene on the summit - crazier than on a Seek the Peak day!  We wandered around for and looked for familiar faces but we didn't run into anyone that we knew.  We watched some of the racers finish and then headed down the Auto Road to catch Nelson Crag trail to continue our hike.  I had to marvel at some of the people that I watched cross the finish line including the person who set the all time record for oldest person to finish the race at 91!  Amazing!

Finish line of the race

Extra big crowd - and nobody driving up the auto road today

Apparently a new device installed for collecting change from visitors as tips

Only way to get to the summit besides foot power on this day

Hiking down the auto road to Nelson Crag

Our plan for the rest of the day was to hike down Nelson Crag and the top section of Huntington Ravine trails and across the Alpine Garden and then some combination of trails on the other side back to the hut.  While the Alpine Garden was no longer in full bloom the weather was gorgeous and there were beautiful small pockets of flowers all along the trail.  Nothing lost here!

Starting out on Nelson Crag

Jamie capturing the views

The monster cairn at the top of Huntington Ravine

Jamie decided to summit the cairn. (I did not sanction this ;-)

Queen of the cairn

American Gothic?

Alpine Bluets

Mountain Avens

Labrador Tea

Still a few Diapensia hanging on

Alpine Garden stream

The beautiful Alpine Garden path

When we reached the Lion Head trail junction we decided that our path back would be via the remainder of the Alpine Garden trail, the Lawn Cutoff to Davis Path and finally the Camel Trail back to the hut.  This proved to be a beautiful walk.  A recent recommendation from friends had prompted me to try the Camel Trail and we were very glad we did.  There were a number of other lovely little pockets of wildflowers lining the way.

Boott Spur

Still snowfields in Tuckerman's Ravine

Not a good path when covered in snow and ice

Davis Path

Camel Trail

Mountain Cranberry

Bog Laurel buds

Descending the Camel Trail to the hut

Placid lake

We were back at the hut by mid afternoon and the forecast was calling for strong thunderstorms so we decided to just hang our around the hut.  I couldn't stand to just be inside though so I went out exploring around the fields above the hut and down around the lakes looking for more flowers.  I ran into a group that was staying at the hut from the alpine flower society and got some tips on where to look as well as some help with plant identification.  I really hit the jackpot here.  There are some little hidden gardens that are apparently micro-climates near the lakes and I discovered a whole slew of species that I'd never seen or even heard of before.  One of the best parts of the whole weekend was the couple of hours we spent wandering around a searching for these hidden gems.

Diapensia going to fruit

Fir Clubmoss amidst Bog Bilberry

Alpine Azalea 

Bearberry Willow


Fungus Amongus


Rosy Twisted Stalk

Indian Poke

I should know this one but it escapes me...

Moss Heather (cassiope hyponides)

Some sort of moss?  Amazingly bright colors.

Mounds of Bog Laurel above the upper lake

These appear to be unopened Alpine Bluets, but I've never seen them hanging like this.  These are growing out of the side of a vertical rock cliff.

Mountain Heath

Friend or foe?

Alpine Violet in the stone wall in front of the hut

In the end we never did get the storms that were predicted Saturday night and instead were treated to a beautiful display of clouds boiling up from the valleys followed by an even more beautiful sunset.  Just the perfect way to end a perfect day.

The forecast for Saturday night and Sunday was for strong winds and cold temps from a cold front passing through.  This forecast was definitely right on.  Saturday night we listened to the wind howl around the hut - although not loudly enough to drown out the snoring from our bunk-mates.  Ah well, small price to pay.  We woke Sunday morning to brilliant blue skies and air that was more than a bit frosty.  The summit conditions on Mt Washington at 7:00 when we sat down to breakfast were 30 degrees with a 65 MPH wind for a wind chill of 10 degrees.  Nippy!  I had gone out before breakfast and taken one last run up to Monroe Flats.  It was not bad on the lee side of Monroe and I was glad not to be on the summit.  As I returned to the hut I thought about what day it was and smiled about how lucky I was to be able to spend Father's Day with my two best girls.  I can't think of a better present in the world!

Looking very frosty on the summit

Moonset over Mt Madison

Last visit to Monroe Flats

After breakfast we got packed up somewhat slowly - not being in any hurry head for home.  We were one of the last out of the hut again and had all our layers on as we headed out up the Crawford Path.  The wind was biting but the views were spectacular and we thoroughly enjoyed our walk across the Westside  and Gulfside trails.  The southern Presidentials were spread out in all their glory and I wished mightily that we could just continue on across the ridge but that would have to wait for another day.

Jamie takes in the 100+ mile views

Bundled up against the 20 degree wind chills

On the Westside Trail

Southern Presidentials lined up

Cog tracks crossing the trail

Last mound of alpine flowers

Picture perfect day in the northern Presis

The kinder, gentler (cleaner) cog

Heading around Mt Clay

Looking down the Jewell Trail

We turned onto the Jewell and headed for home.  What a beautiful trail this is!  Spectacular above treeline views at the top followed by soft walking on tree and flower lined trail below.  Aside from the inherent beauty of the trail we got one last gift on the way down.  As we came to a trailside campsite at about the half way point we were greeted by a quartet of Gray Jays.  We've had the pleasure of their company on several other occasions but this was the first time for Jamie.  I think the expression on her face pretty much says it all.  Even better, this was a family with two juveniles (which we'd never seen before).  We hung out with them for quite a while before heading the rest of the way down.

One of the (big) babies

Dad keeping an eye on things

Handsome guy

Watching the birdie

The rest of the trail was one long succession of trailside gardens.  What a beautiful and fitting ending to our trek.

Star Flower

Blue Bead Lily gardens

On the way home we stopped and had lunch on the patio at the Woodstock Station - our favorite spot (other then on a trail, on a mountain or in a hut).  I'm not sure what I had really expected when I started thinking about taking this trip (or something like it) several years ago.  Now that it had finally happened it was more than I ever could have hoped for.  Beautiful days in simply incredible places with the two people that I would most want to share it with.  Life definitely doesn't get any better than this.

--- This post was slow in getting published as I had to first sort and process the over 700 pictures that Jamie and I took during the weekend.  I ultimately managed to get that down to around 250.  The ones that I used to tell the story you've already seen above.  The rest are here:  Lakes of the Clouds Weekend Album