A Day in the “Wilderness” – Hidden Lake Lookout and How to Raise Trail IQ


Nothing destroys the wilderness experience faster than arriving at a trailhead full of cars, like a parking lot at the mall, with overflow spilling a mile down the road. There’s nothing “wild” about it at that point – we might as well all be at spin class.

Part of this is no one’s individual fault. There are simply a lot of us enjoying this pastime. We need to deal with the reality of that.

I hate to see more permitting. The current permitting system is already arbitrary. We put in for the lottery for campsites at Sahale Glacier camp, and not only did we not get selected, we had to pay for the privilege…of not getting selected. For people like us who have been hiking and climbing in the mountains of our home state for decades, it felt like a kick in the teeth.

Then you get on the trail, and you realize that a lot of the space is getting taken up by people who don’t really respect wilderness. Cutting switchbacks. Trampling vegetation. Leaving trash on the trail. Playing music. Bringing dogs unleashed into areas with sensitive wildlife.

I was reminded of this on a recent hike to Hidden Lake Lookout. The trail was clogged, as were the trailhead and road. There was frequent trash along the trail. There were huge overnight parties coming down the trail from the night before. It felt like a party atmosphere, not a wilderness at all. None of the usual marmots or pikas that watch you huff and puff to the lookout were out. We also didn’t see the ptarmigan we’ve observed at the saddle between the two summits before. The views were still incredible, as were the terrain and the wildflowers, but the experience was diminished.

What I’d like to see is more education and self-selection, not more bureaucracy. One thought I’ve had: if you can’t score 100% on a quiz about wilderness knowledge and etiquette, your Northwest Forest Pass costs an exorbitant sum to pay for more rangers to do enforcement. You should care enough to know how to minimize your impact in these special places, and if you don’t, you should have to offset the cost of ignorance. Simple. Fair.

With that in mind, here’s my quiz.

1. Which of the following is the most accurate statement about hiking with dogs in North Cascades National Park?
Your dog must be on a leash at all times.
Dogs are not generally allowed in the park. It doesn’t matter whether they’re on a leash, if they’re more than 50 feet from the nearest road.
Your dog must be within 50 feet of a road.
The national park does allow you to have your dog with you as you travel through the park, but only in or near developed areas.
You must have dog waste bags in your possession at all times while hiking.
Sure, but it’s a moot point. The dog isn’t allowed on trails.
2. Which of the following is allowed in a designated wilderness?
Hunting may seem very disruptive and exploitative, but it is a traditional use of wild lands in the US. It is generally allowed in wilderness areas, although specific regulations can vary greatly.
Riding a bicycle.
Wilderness regulations prohibit the use of mechanized transportation. Bicycles fall in this category.
Using a chainsaw.
Mechanized tools conflict with the spirit of wilderness, which is why trail crews still use crosscut saws.
3. How long did it take the meadows surrounding Paradise on Mount Rainier to return to normal after the ski area there closed in the 1970’s?
Not known.
The plants that grow in the meadow have been meticulously cared for by hand off-site and restored to the area around Paradise constantly since the 1970’s. No one can say if or even when the meadows will ever be fully restored. Likely never, as they remain under great pressure from the crowds of visitors every year.
The meadows remain under restoration and likely will need the effort of dedicated volunteers for many years to come, if not always.
4. When traveling in wilderness, what is the general size limit on a party?
In order to manage impact, the size limit on parties in wilderness areas is generally 12 individuals.
The limit is actually pretty generous, so no, it’s not as low as eight.
To stay at or below the limit, two parties cannot be in the same area at the same time. Parties that have split into two parties have been ticketed for being in the same place at the same time.
5. Which of the following statements about trail etiquette is true?
Uphill yields to downhill traffic, because downhill hikers have more momentum.
People often argue downhill should have right of way, because they can’t slow down. The etiquette, promulgated by groups like The Mountaineers is that uphill has right of way.
Downhill yields to uphill to allow uphill hikers to conserve momentum.
This is the generally accepted etiquette. It’s much easier for downhill hikers to regain momentum after stopping.
Hikers should make eye contact and come to an agreement about who is traveling faster and who will yield.
This often winds up happening, but it’s not consistent etiquette that people could follow.
6. What is the primary reason fires – even in the small camp stoves designed to burn twigs – are banned above certain elevations in wilderness areas?
To prevent forest fires.
This is certainly part of the rationale in sensitive areas, but it’s not the primary reason.
To preserve resources needed by the ecosystem to renew itself.
High alpine areas rely on the decomposition of scarce deadwood to replenish soils. Scavenging for fuel would strip already barren areas of what little of this resource is available.
To preserve fire as a signal for hikers in trouble requesting rescue.
7. Plastic – like food wrappers – that gets left along the trail will typically take how long to break down and bio-degrade?
5-10 years – it’s like chewing gum.
50 years
Hundreds of years
Plastic is a very durable material. In landfills, it’s estimated that plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade. Losing even a single wrapper will contribute a piece of waste that will likely be part of the wilderness environment for what might as well be forever.

What knowledge would you test people for, if you could, before they head out into Washington’s wild places?

2 thoughts on “A Day in the “Wilderness” – Hidden Lake Lookout and How to Raise Trail IQ

  1. I feel your pain. The same is true in Colorado. Wilderness is just wilderness in name. Music, dogs and the selfie culture has turned “wilderness” areas into theme parks.

    Enjoy what we have as it may not last for too long.

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