Driving up the road, I knew I’d made a miscalculation. On the last 2-mile stretch of National Forest Road 25, I saw snow. In my mid-sized vehicle with no snow chains or cables, I cautiously eked my way forward. There was a car immediately behind me, and nowhere easy to turn around, and a track of sorts where cars had evidently driven shortly before I arrived. But the snow started to mount–it went from being a trace on the road to me wondering if my car would clear the middle ridge between the tire tracks. Then and there, I knew I’d have to turn around. Looking for a place that seemed reasonably safe to turn around, I pulled off to the right and further into the snow so the car behind me could pass, and prayed that I wouldn’t have trouble turning around or running into any other vehicles on my way out.
Breathing a sigh of relief as I successfully exited the snowy area without incident, I started questioning my decision to try to visit Lena Lake this morning. Hiking in Washington in the winter requires research and careful consideration. You can’t just go to any trail without looking into the weather and trail conditions; you generally need to be checking day before and day of. Armed with microspikes and warm winter gear, I can pick hikes that have had snow, but always need to check how recent the snowfall was, if there is avalanche risk/what the risk level is, and what the road conditions are before I head out.
Knowing all of this, I had thought long and hard before deciding on Lena Lake. Much of the mountainous area to the east of Seattle was going to experience rain or snow that day. Avalanche risk was moderate or high in many places. I had just visited the Olympic Peninsula the previous Saturday, and couldn’t wait to get back. Lena Lake was located in the Olympic Peninsula and the trailhead was at about 700 feet of elevation, fairly close to the Hood Canal. The weather forecast had predicted some snow Friday night at the lake, but the temperatures were supposed to be in the high 30’s Saturday with rain. That should be okay, I thought. Any snow would probably be minimal at the trailhead elevation, and with the rain, it would probably melt before I got there. Visions of a mist-shrouded, drizzling, beautiful green/blue lake occupied my mind as I packed my hiking bag: warm down jacket, rain jacket, and an extra pair of wool socks, all in my waterproof backpack, and an extra set of clothes and warm boots to leave in the car for afterwards.
Clearly, all of my reasoning and planning did not correspond to the reality of built up snow along the last couple miles of road. Realizing that with any additional snow I could easily end up trapped at the trailhead with no cell service, I knew there was no way I would be making that hike on that day.
Returning to the highway, the initial relief that I was safe and sound faded as I started to think about next steps and the dreary reality of the situation. I pulled over off the freeway and reevaluated. I’d been driving for nearly 3 hours at this point, having set my alarm for 6 am on a Saturday. I hadn’t brought Gaby, my loyal furry hiking buddy, because she’d recently been sick. It was to be my first truly solo hike in that sense. To top it off, I had to urgently go to the restroom on the side of the road. And I didn’t have a solid back up plan. In fact, I’d tried to identify a back up hike Friday night after having to work late, but couldn’t find a good alternative and gave up, simply hoping for the best. Cursing the myself of the night before, I pulled up Google Maps and All Trails to see what I could check out nearby. After another 15 minutes, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t determine road conditions well enough to hike anywhere in that area. Murhut Falls was another 30 minutes north and looked pretty, but also involved several miles on a forest road I couldn’t be sure wouldn’t have snow. Mount Rose looked beautiful, but the same issue applied.
My imaginings of a magical forested hike, complete with beautiful stream crossings and ending in a pristine alpine lake disappeared as I racked my brain for another option. I’d seen photos in one of the hiking groups I’m in about a place called Little Mashel Falls. They’d looked pretty, and south of Seattle, so maybe they’d be close to where I was. It turned out they were nearly 2 hours away. After scanning Google Maps for more convenient hikes between where I was and home, I didn’t find anything promising, and decided, Well, it’s going to add on 1.5 more hours of driving, but at least I won’t waste the day. I plugged in Little Mashel Falls trailhead to Maps and headed out.
Listening to podcasts to pass the car time, I finally arrived at the trailhead at 12:30 pm. I was too hungry to wait and eat my lunch at the falls, so I hurriedly scarfed my bean stew in the car before heading out.
The road that the trail starts on was actually under construction, so I followed the detour signs. As the trail wound around a small pond, it became basically a paved (or nearly paved? I wasn’t entirely sure), flat, wide, road. For two miles. I bitterly thought, I don’t even need my boots for this nonsense. I looked around, hearing the noise of nearby roads and seeing storage sheds and peoples’ junk spilling out around them, I wrinkled my nose in disgust. What is this?! I thought to myself. It was unlike any hike I’d done in Washington, and not in a good way.
After the first two miles on the flat road, my hopes had been sufficiently dampened. There was about half a mile of actual “real” trail up to the various falls. It was extremely muddy and at that point I was glad I did have boots.
I elected to head up directly to the upper falls first, and then back track and visit the middle and lower falls. The upper falls weren’t well-marked, and were fairly unremarkable. There was even a little dam-like structure that had graffiti on it. Assuming the upper falls were the prettiest, my expectations were at rock bottom as I headed to the middle falls. Thankfully, the middle falls turned out to be decently pretty. The lower falls were nice, too.
As I headed down the trail, slightly mollified by the prettier two falls, I was struck by the fact that in the short time I’ve been living in Washington, I’ve become spoiled by gorgeous hikes. The payoff for the hikes like Hike Rock Lookout, Snow Lake, and Lake 22 and others are so amazing that I realized I have very quickly developed a supremely high standard for hikes.
But not every hike can be mind-blowing. Not every trail will feel magical. Adventures won’t always go smoothly. And sometimes, you’ll find yourself squatting on the roadside with only Chipotle napkins in hand and wondering how you got yourself into this situation. But these are the ones that we will look back on and laugh at, stories we will continue to share with others because of how ridiculously badly everything went. More importantly, they’re also the moments that will help us more deeply appreciate the truly spectacular experiences we do have. I can plan to hike every weekend and know that some hikes are simply going to be better than others, and that’s okay. I just need to remember to temper my expectations. I’m not going to be waxing poetic about the “magical” or “breathtaking” or “stunning” forests/rivers/lakes/mountain views on every hike I do, and in fact, it would probably be a little boring if I did.
So while Little Mashel Falls might not have been spectacular, it sure was memorable. Maybe I like those falls a little more for it. So I’ll end with this.
Little Mashel Falls is great for…
- families with kids
- people with joint pain who need flatter hikes
- “trail” running (I probably would have liked the first 2 miles just fine as a jogging area)
- as a side visit if you happen to be in the area for other reasons
- a reminder that we need humble hikes every now and then to truly appreciate the spectacular ones.