Mt Margaret Backcountry: in which I run 33 miles, summit 2 mini-mountains, and somehow take 247 pictures

You can tell how serious I was about running really fast by the fact that I took so many pictures, right?;)

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(though how could I not when I spent all day with this kind of loveliness??:)

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Running the Mt Margaret backcountry has been on my radar for a while, ever since my friend and I backpacked a bunch of it a few years ago and, looking at the map later, I realized I could make a sweet loop (have I mentioned how elegant I think loop runs are?:)

For the map nerds among you, here’s how it went:

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(if there’s something I love more than elegant loops, it’s being able to map them on Caltopo! Click the “open in caltopo” link hiding in the top right for all sorts of fun features! :)

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This loop is every damn thing I was hoping for, and more.

I started from the Coldwater Lake trailhead, the west side of that loop, a little after 5am on Monday morning, just as it was getting light — and then maybe 7 minutes in realized I hadn’t locked the car my friends had loaned me, so had to turn around and start over. Doh! (I’m not used to cars and their fancy locking mechanisms, ha!). But after that false start, it was an incredible day.

The Lakes Trail along the north side of Coldwater Lake is imminently runnable: rolling hills, never too grueling, nice views of Mt St Helens right off the bat, then sweet lakefront for a good five miles. The trail right now is incredibly overgrown, so my socks and shoes were soaked through from the dew within 20 minutes. Sometimes it felt a little like full-contact bushwhacking, and I managed to put my feet in several holes I couldn’t see because I couldn’t actually see the ground sometimes through all the willow branches and brush. But later in the day when I was particularly desiccated I would look back on that sweet, cool, soaking-me water with longing. (Also, the trail conditions made me sad that I had to cancel all the backcountry trail work parties I’d planned out there for this summer. Oh well!)

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(later in the loop, Spirit Lake, Mt Adams, and a bunch of paintbrush)

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At the east end of Coldwater lake, the trail starts to climb and climb (check out the profile on the map if you’re curious), and the views get better and better. This is when my happiness at being out on a wilderness run turned into a full-on, heart-going-to-burst, I-can’t-believe-I’m-alive-and-doing-this-and-I-may-explode kind of giddiness.

The trail is on top of the world for what feels like forever, and you’re kept company by Mt Rainier, Mt Adams, and Mt St Helens all day, even with itty-bitty Mt Hood in the distance (it’s fun for me when Mt Hood, usually my big mountain, is the little one:) You pass a bunch of beautiful lakes. Right now, there are still a million flowers in bloom, which always gladdens my little plant-nerd heart; later, there will be a million huckleberries.

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(sweet little western pasqueflowers from the trail up Coldwater Peak)

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(and one of the glorious lakes, I think Boot Lake)

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There were a few totally gratuitous parts of the loop I’d planned for myself that I wasn’t sure I would do: going to the top of Mt Margaret, the top of Coldwater Peak, and the end of Harry’s Ridge (the three little spurs off the loop, if you zoom in on the map). 33 miles and nearly 7500 feet of elevation gain is kind of far, and it’s been a long time since I’ve done a for-realz wilderness trail run, so I figured if I wasn’t feeling it I could bail on any or all three of those additions and still do the full loop (I also had a few other other bail-out options if I couldn’t even do the loop itself).

Of course, when I got to the Mt Margaret turn-off, it was such a short distance to the top that I had to take it, and once I’d done that one, it seemed like a shame to skip Coldwater Peak, and when I’d done two out of three, I basically had to go out Harry’s Ridge too, right? Actually, once I was out there I realized there was a fourth spur I hadn’t planned on that I could take to Devil’s Point, but by the time I got there I was super low on water with no resupply options until I was done, so I opted to skip that one. One potential downfall of this loop: very, very exposed (my legs are so very sunburnt!); very little water once you pass Mt Margaret, especially if Johnston Ridge Observatory is closed as it is now. I had a three-liter bladder with me, which felt like total overkill when I started but ended up being a lifesaver on this hot and sunny day.

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(check out that outrageous trail, as seen from Mt Margaret. Mt Rainier is in the back, and the smaller snowy peaks to the right are the Goat Rocks wilderness)

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(Another Rainier view, from the top of Coldwater Peak)

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The major benefit of starting and ending a trail run at a lake is that when I was done — super gross, super sweaty, coated in dust and volcanic grit (some of which is still embedded in my toes, I’m pretty sure) — I could strip the heck down and jump right into the water. Oh man. It was sooooo nice to jump in that lake. I mean, y’all know how much I love a good wilderness lake swim anyway, but when it caps an amazing trail run, it is basically the best thing in the world:)

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(wouldn’t you want to swim here?:)

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So, it was a pretty damn good day. The whole loop, complete with 247 pictures, flower-and-random-nature-nerd stops, a break to filter 3 more liters of water (which takes longer than you think it might when you’re using an itty-bitty hand filter!), and a few (ha!) lunch stops, took me around 12 and a half hours, which was perfect: just about the time I started reeeeeally fantasizing about jumping in a lake, I was already getting close.

(Oh! Best sound of the day, other than just the quietness: grouse! That’s one of my favorite bird sounds and one I almost always hear without seeing the actual bird, which makes it extra sneaky and special.)

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(I also saw some other friends;)

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(and one more for good measure, from near the top of Mt Margaret. Such bright little penstemons!!)

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YAY for a day spent traveling the wilderness! Long trail runs, I’ve missed you! :)

2 Comments:

  1. Thank you for the nice story and photos! For the past six weeks, I’ve been largely confined to my house (or cabin when I was in Alaska) addressing personal matters. Your story and photos were the virtual breath of air I needed this morning. I’m eagerly looking forward to escaping the city soon and getting back into the woods. My wife and I had hoped to do some hikes when we were in Alaska last month, but we couldn’t find time to get away because of family demands.

    • Awww, glad I could at least bring some virtual peace to your days <3

      Funny, too, because for my part, I've really been enjoying your city pictures:) Happy thoughts for you both.

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