Monday, August 10, 2009

Devil's Dome Loop

My friend Mike Chastain and I ran the Devil’s Dome Loop in the Pasayten Wilderness on Saturday, circumnavigating the 9000+ foot Jack Mountain, and finishing up on the East Bank Trailhead on Ross Lake. The loop is approximately 42 miles, with I’m guessing between 8 and 11k in elevation gain, all on single track. I’ve wanted to do it for about five years now, as I had heard enough to know it was tough, isolated, and spectacular. Mike was game, and a most excellent running partner, never once complaining when I putzed, which I did frequently. Putzing on this day was all about making sure we made it to the finish safely, because we cast our line out pretty far.
The trailhead is off Highway 20, roughly 1.5 hours east of Mount Vernon if you drive fast. We met at my place at 5 AM--I knew this would take a while. It’s possible to start at either the Canyon Creek Trailhead or the East Bank Trailhead. We went with the East Bank, actually beginning at 7:20 AM, with a pleasant three mile warm-up jog along the crystal clear Ruby Creek (which we soaked in afterwards). At Canyon Creek, we began our first five or six mile ascent, climbing from 1900 feet up to above 5000 feet. Our top elevation for the day was 6900 feet, on Devil's Dome, and so although more climbing was to come, this first climb was probably the biggest slog of the day. We expected it, and just took it in, enjoying the morning, chattering.
Midway up, we entered the Pasayten Wilderness. Under U.S. law, wilderness areas are federal lands set aside by law, where human activities are restricted to scientific study and non-mechanized recreation (i.e. trailfools). Horses and trail runners are permitted, motors are not. Most U.S. wilderness is in Alaska, which I'd like to explore more some day--the ANWR in particular is a dream for me. When I think of wilderness, I think, no roads. I think Utah drylands, Alaskan frontiers, the far corners of British Columbia and Alberta. I’ve quoted Abbey on wilderness here before—we need to know it's there, even if we never visit it. As for me, I want to go deep at least once per year. I told Mike I thrive on this stuff, and I really do—there was a point in this run where we were 20 miles from the nearest road. Our own little Into The Wild. However, unlike Chris McCandless (who, btw, I actually ran cross country against in high school in VA), I carried a satellite SPOT 911 signal, just in case, along with a few other safety items. I don’t particularly like the product as far as its tracking function goes, but it provided some peace of mind for worst case scenarios.
We stopped to filter water for the first time shortly after entering the Pasayten, using steripens, which are a bit slow, but are very light and just downright cool. The pen fits in the front pocket of my vest, along with a Cliff Bar and some other goodies. After roughly three hours in, we leveled out a bit, and ran the trails through some mid-tier meadows. The Devil's Park. No signs of human life, but birds everywhere, bees buzzing loud, and trees spread out through grassy fields, with wildflowers of all sorts fading from the recent bloom.
Soon, the ascent began again, with the trees thinning out as we climbed above the tree line. The trail angled across wide open, grassy fields, some wildflowers hanging on, such as the red paintbrush (looks like a brush), bluebells, and what I think was lupine. The Devil's Loop is known as a top-notch trail for wildflowers, because of the high open fields, but we hit the tail end of the bloom, as we've had record heat these past few weeks. Eventually our climb reached into the early morning clouds, as the trail changed from hard pack dirt to steep slopes of shale, described on the Green Maps as “difficult for stock.” Think moonscape, with the clouds cutting across the slope, as we ran through the mist. We descended quickly into another valley, found a rare creek, and loaded up on water again. There were a few moments of uncertainty as to our direction, but big picture, we knew to keep left, since we were running around a mountain.
In advance of this run, I was probably most concerned about the availability of water. The trail names gave clues—Dry Creek Pass, Devil’s Park, Devil’s Pass, Devil’s Dome—all suggesting water might be tough to find. The Devil lives in Hell, you know. I pictured miners and stock, rotting in the sun. Didn't want that to happen. The maps and trail reports weren’t encouraging either. As such, we were careful to stop and refill whenever we hit a good creek, even if we had water. On the other hand, I was also sort of casual--I went with two water bottles, rather confident we'd hit some sort of puddle at least once every five miles, which was true. There was one time where I truly filled from a puddle, described on the map as a spring.
Another thing remarkable about this run was there just weren’t many people or signs. It was true wilderness, as good as it gets around here, with miles and miles and miles with little indication of human existence, excepting the trail itself. Very cool, as long as things are going well, which they were, but it also slowed us down just a bit now and again, because it made the backcountry nature of the run that much more real. I think we saw maybe two signposts during the whole 30 miles we were in the Pasayten. We didn’t get lost, but the complete lack of signage was a bit of a surprise—it’s not like that on the Ross Lake side, where I’ve spent more time. Definitely no confidence ribbons past a junction.
Also, in the whole 42 miles of running, we only encountered two groups, and the first encounter wasn’t until about 2:15 PM, and about 25 miles in. Fortunately, these folks were camped at perhaps the most critical junction, Devil’s Pass, which we didn’t initially recognize as such and were headed right past, though we had been looking for it for three hours. We stopped up cold when we saw the tent. People! These kind folks from Twisp were camped out for the week, and seemed just as surprised to see us. I thought of Tom Hanks in Castaway.
Devil’s Pass took forever to get to, but the trail turned much faster thereafter. We ran and shuffled along, above 6000 feet on the high, relatively flat Devil's Ridge, with mountains in all directions. The running was easy, and we reached Devil’s Dome, the high point on the loop, much faster than we expected, so much so we weren't sure at first if it was the actual dome. No signs, of course, just a big pile of rocks on top of a very high fifty foot wide plateau, with panoramic views of the dry country. Jack Mountain, the focus of the loop, came into full view during this section, with a huge glacier below its peak.
Life was easy after Devil’s Dome, as we began a steady but very runnable descent to Ross Lake. Sick downhill, and approximately eight miles of it, from the dome. Both Mike and I caught a toe a few times on the downhill, stumbling forward hard, but we lived. I had been promising Mike the whole day--usually during moments when I struggled and we seemed to be getting behind--that the East Bank Trail would be an easy finish-up to run, and that we'd make good time there, as I had ran it earlier this year. This needed to prove true, as we made it down to Ross Lake sometime after 6 PM, and we still had ten to twelve miles to go, with dusk creeping in fast. We had headlamps, but I was hoping to beat the dark.
The East Bank Trail is gravy. We hit it, taking off on a pretty steady clip, skirting the bank of Ross Lake, crossing suspension and log bridges, amidst old growth and second growth, making great time on the very soft, needle laden trail. Ross Lake is a big lake, roughly 30 miles long, stretching into Canada. It's lights out gorgeous, with its emerald waters; it's one of my favorite places. The trail along the lake is unbelievably soft, trail running nirvana, and at some points goes right under a blasted cliff shelf, right above the water. Though much tired, I was loving it. I hit one bad patch in the latter stages of this run with my stomach, but that passed, and before we knew it, the Ruby Creek bridge came into sight, just short of 9 PM, with probably only ten minutes left of light. A tired drive back, with a stop for ice cream and hot chocolate in Marblemount. Brilliant day.

Pictures below, a couple links here:

Additional pictures

Paintbrush and wild thistles

Early meadow near Devil's Park

"Difficult for stock"

Dry country

The approach to Devil's Dome

Jack Mountain

Filling up

Signs of fire on trail

Suspension bridge over Devil's Creek

East Bank Trail on Ross Lake


bengator said...


That sounds epic. Nicely done. Don't know how you travel so light for an all day adventure. Too bad they didn't happen to have a Subway at devil's pass.


Scotty said...

There was a VERY SLOW grouse that I chased and could've easily caught with my hands, but it didn't seem like a good idea to close the deal on that one. Mike ate some berries, and later asked if they were poisonous. I had 4 powerbars, a Cliff Bar, and a pound of Gu. I ate half a Subway sandwich on the drive up.

Anonymous said...


Congrats on this accomplishment. I just backpacked the Loop last weekend with a close friend from Alaska over three days and thought those accent from Canyon Creek on a warm afternoon was a ball buster. It's an amazing view from the dome on a beautiful sunny afternoon!

Thanks for sharing the experience

Murdoch said...

Holy Crap Scotty! Nice work on this loop. You bit off a massive chunk of the Pasayten with this one.
My bro was beside himself when I told him I thought you did this loop in a day.