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Looking Back: Big Crow Basin

by Amanda Phillips

Rain is beating against the plants outside our window and I have never been so grateful.  Unlike previous years, where rain meant the end of backpacking season and the slow countdown to next summer, this year rain means salvation.  With an extreme fire year and many beloved places currently burning, rain is a welcome change. There is hope that this rain will slow the Norse Peak fire, the location of one of my earliest and one of my favorite backpacking trips: Big Crow Basin.

I originally completed this trail in late September 2014, when fall colors were beginning to show and elks bugled non-stop through the night.  Unfortunately, this area is in the Norse Peak Wilderness, an area heavily impacted by wildfires this year.  In fact, the entirety of this route is currently on fire.  I am heartbroken to see that the wilderness as I knew it is gone and looking forward to seeing nature rebuild.  We had hoped to repeat this hike this fall, but instead, I will have to celebrate our trip from several years ago.

Big Crow basin has a special place in my heart; as it was one of my first backpacking trips it was a huge learning experience, and the Copper Ridge Loop Trail was the first trail in years to come close to Big Crow in terms of sheer wildness. It came to define the wilderness in the fall for me, and nothing since has quite stacked up for Autumnal features. This route follows the trip in Craig Romano’s Backpacking Washington Book. It consisted of a nice loop through Big Crow Basin and the second day on the PCT with awesome views of Rainier.

This route follows the trip outlined in Craig Romano’s Backpacking Washington: Overnight and Multi-Day Routes. It is a stunning loop through Big Crow Basin and the second day is on the PCT with awesome views of Rainier. Hopefully someday, y the trail will return, we will shiver in tents as the first Autumn chill crawls through the valley and hear the unique lullaby of elk searching for love. Until then, I thought I would share some pictures of our backpacking trip a few years ago as an archive trip report.

Day 1

8.2 miles, ~2400′ elevation gain

Trail

The trail begins on dusty switchbacks, with views of the forest and highway. Not the most scenic start to a backpacking trip,  this section is boring and slightly miserable. In fact, the memory of these dusty switchbacks is the main reason I haven’t returned to this area. After about 4 miles of switchback after switchback, the trail opened to a glorious valley.  Mt. Rainier poked through the clouds and there was nothing but wilderness as far as the eye could see. We took a few moments to celebrate escaping the dusty, oppressive switchbacks and into an area more beautiful than we could have imagined.

So happy to be finished with the switchbacks!

Beautiful valley and the colors of fall.

Rainier peeking through

There were no other cars at the trailhead, we didn’t see anyone else on the trail and we saw more elk prints on the dusty trail than boots.  Once we crested the hill and looked into the basin the solitude really hit us.  This was our second backpacking trip together (only third overall!). Our previous trip together in the Olympic National Park included Marmot Pass, a busy day-hiking location. It was extensively signed and easy to follow. This trail, however, had many game trails to lead us astray, a misty fog that obscured much of our destination and an overwhelming feeling of wild. It was marvelous.

Goat Lake in the distance.

Goat lake glittered below to the left, but our destination was to the right.  After marveling at the beauty of the mountains, we continued on the trail. The mist continued to grow, coming down the hillside in icy fingers.  We traversed the hillside until we reached Big Crow Basin.  At the turn-off for Big Crow Basin, we took the junction down to the shelter and camps.   We began to hear elk bugling in the distance and hoped to spot a herd (spoiler: we never did see elk on this entire trip, the first time Meg and I saw elk was at Mt. St. Helens three years later).

Nice flat trail

Neat shelter, ash now.

Realizing we had to turn around and retrace our steps.

At this point, we got off-trail and started wandering up another section. Fortunately, we discovered our errors quickly and made it back to the main trail. Our destination was Basin Lake, a mile or so up the trail. As we rounded the corner to see the lake, there were close to 60 goats on the hillside. We continued to see goats, hear elk and come across a lot of black bear scat, still without seeing any people.

Goats on the hillside

Camp

We dropped into the lake basin and found a place to put the tent that wasn’t too close to the lake.  Some hikers or hunters with stock had been there earlier, as there was a bunch of dry wood plus a fresh lemon and onion in the fire ring.  It was rather eery to see no people but have such an obvious sign that someone was there before us.  As we explored around the lake basin we found a bed constructed of cedar branches in a sheltered area; it looked cozy but felt like we were imposing, so we retreated the way we came.

Basin Lake from Basin Lake Trail

The trail leading to basin lake

Goats above the lake

View from the opposite side of Basin Lake

 

After a delicious dinner of boeuf bourguignon, and a cozy fire, we went to sleep.  We heard elk all night bugling across the basin. There were two bulls on opposite ends and they continued getting louder.  We believed that they may meet in the meadow where we slept but alas, we didn’t see them.

Tent does a great job of matching surroundings.

Sunset on the hills.

Fire that I did exactly zero labor for.

Day 2

 13.5 miles, ~2550′ elevation loss

Misty lake in the morning. Very cold.

Trail

The next morning was chilly as the bite of fall was already present in the backcountry.  We had a long day ahead of us so we packed up and made it out of the basin. Shortly after we continued on the Basin Trail and rounded a corner to see Mount Rainier.  We had seen a few glimpses of the mountain the day before, but it was large and glorious and without clouds when we made it to the viewpoint on day two.  Once again, we celebrated and marveled at the beauty before us.

Mount Rainier

The beauty, however, was slightly marred as we continued on the PCT and got excellent views of…Crystal Mountain’s parking lot.  After the solitude and wilderness we experienced the day before, seeing so many cars, a ski lodge, and someone’s wedding was jarring.  Instead of the bugling we heard all of yesterday we heard the sounds of a highway.

At this point, we felt we had left most of the scenic parts of the trail behind and hurried on the trail. We knew we still had to make it down the dusty switchbacks to return to our car and we were not too excited about it.  Despite this section being better signed than yesterday’s, we missed the turn-off to make our loop shorter and added an extra 1.5 miles. We essentially ran down the dusty switchbacks, desperate to make it to the car and rest. On our way down we passed a woman on her horse; the only other person we saw on this entire trip.

In the year’s since, we often reminisce about how wonderful this trip was. It was an excellent second backpacking trip, but I was equally excited to revisit it 3 years later.  I am hoping for a quick rebound from the current fire and the chance to discover the basin anew.  And rain, I am hoping for lots and lots of rain.

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