Thursday, September 14, 2006

Clothing-Optional Beach in the Cascades?

I just got back from a few days in the Cascades on an extended camping/backpacking trip. Most of the time was spent on technical backpacking . . . including a trip to Benchmark Mountain and Saddle Gap. Base was a campground that is central to the trails in the area and is just plain fun and enjoyable to be at. Especially on weekdays after Labor Day when the campgrounds get emptied out. I had the entire place to myself and spent all of it in the nude. The only thing I missed was the ability to light a good campfire because of the fire ban. Ah well . . .

The technical hike isn't important. I still did not find the cache I was looking for and with freezing levels all of a sudden dropping from 12,000 ft to 4,000 ft I think Benchmark might be off the radar for the rest of this hiking season . . . at least in the nude. What I want to share with you now is a little secret about this campground that few know about, simply because it does not show from any road or map or aerial photo. You have to go wandering off from the campground to discover that the wide floodplain of the North Fork of the Skykomish River above the FS 65 bridge has sand . . . and lots of it!

You don't see if from within the campgrounds and dare say, few bother to wander far from those grounds, as nice as they are on a warm, late-summer evening. But crossing a minor water obstacle . . . a slow-moving creek and a wash of bowling-ball-sized river rocks you come to this wide avenue of hot sun-baked sand in a straight line that at first makes you think it must be a road long abandoned . . . and then you realize there are two more just like it running parallel with stunted tree growth. You're in the ancient flood plain of the North Fork. Looking back, you realize none of this is visible from the bridge and the more popular campsite below it . . . and there is no obvious reason nor route for a lazy camper to even want to head up that way.

From your camping area . . . yes . . . but only for the exploring types. There are a few footprints but not many. Temptation is to lose the shoes as well and enjoy the sand barefoot. After a hundred yards or less the wash opens up onto the wide floodplain. The Skykomish is low at this time of year and most of the river bed is exposed. Brush and foliage have attempted to make a comeback but for the most part the wide and flat valley is as wide as any stretch of the river downstream. You step out onto the dry river rock plain to the pleasant gurgle of the river . . . no more than thigh deep at it's deepest. The sun bakes down on you like you rarely feel in the valleys of the Cascades where shade filters everything. With the blaze of sun is a constant and sometimes frisky breeze funneling into the wide valley mouth from down south. The combination is perfect.

So is the scenery. For someone who likes to hike, I can get remarkably claustrophobic under dark canopy. That's why I prefer to hike ridges. Rarely does an alpine river valley present itself so openly.

Then there's the sand. Lots of boulders but there are countless patches of sand to make dozens of little mini-beaches with no feeling of being hemmed in at all. And the sand isn't an afterthought . . . it is inches deep and succulent to sit down on.

There is no insect problem with the breezes. There is just this wonderful warmth and open sky.

In the three days I spent camping and enjoying this beach after a long trek to higher places, I never once saw another person. That I missed them is for sure . . . the campfire rings on the beach tell me that I'm not the only other person that knows about this place. But the cleanliness also tells me that it is not overrun by too many. I find the combination a good indicator of an acceptable place to enjoy some extended sun-soaking.

On the afternoon before I broke camp I did a hike further up the river for about a mile or so. Had to ford the river three times where it did crazy bends in the current channels. Beyond the first ford the sand deposits where more pronounced and undisturbed. Though the ford isn't difficult, thigh-high freezing cold water is enough to deter most people. Cul d' sacs everywhere for undisturbed sun tanning.

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