Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hiking Silver Star

Some places are special because of what they are supposed to be. Such is the case at Silver Star Mountain, a hiking area northeast of Vancouver in northeast Clark County.

The namesake of the area stands at just over 4,300 feet in elevation.

The difference at Silver Star comes from a combination of geology and biological history. The entire region was once an active volcano, but in 1902, the Yacolt Burn, a forest fire that took over 238,000 acres of vegetation with it changed the area. The ground became unstable and has resisted natural recovery . The net result is alpine scenery well below alpine elevations.

Ghosts from a historic forest fire still stand among young new trees.

In reality, hiking along the ridge around Silver Star reminded me a lot of hiking the Mt. Margaret Country area around Mount St. Helens. The main difference is that the Yacolt Burn was over a hundred years ago while the eruption of Mount St. Helens was a mere 28 years ago. When comparing the two, one realizes the level of heat and ferocity leveled upon this landscape by the 1902 Yacolt burn.

This week was the height of lower season at Silver Star.

The main difference is about 1000 feet in elevation. Most of the Mt. Margaret Backcountry is between 4,500 feet and 5,500 feet. Baldy Peak, the highest point I climbed to was just under 4,000 in elevation and the vegetation was strikingly similar to the aforementioned St. Helens area. Huckleberry, Blueberry and Salmonberries were the staple vegetation while prominent flowers included paintbrush, lupine, agoseris, columbine, spirea, penstemon and bunch berry among others. This year, the third week of July is near the height of the summer flower season at Silver Star. While my views were cut short by clouds in all directions, a good day will feature Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams as well as the Columbia River near Camas.

The view from most of the trail features a view down into Copper Canyon which drains the northwest part of the mountain.

I had some problems finding the trailhead but in my defense, the trailhead I wanted to hike was inaccessible by my car. Upon reaching a key junction, I asked a gentleman in a Ford Explorer about the condition of the road. He said that his vehicle just about bottomed out just reaching Copper Creek let alone reaching the titled Silver Star trailhead just a couple miles from the 4,390 feet peak. He also informed me that there were multiple signs warning of wash-outs. It was on to plan B.

Me and Silver Star over my right shoulder.

Do plenty of research ahead of time, but I had two maps with me and they were of limited help, especially in the towns of Amboy and Yacolt. I chose to enter the area via the Bluff Mountain trail about 5 miles farter east. I suppose I had better start from the beginning. A good place to start would be at the town of Yacolt. Reaching Yacolt is easiest via Cedar Creek Road from Interstate 5 in Woodland. Drive to Amboy and follow the signs to Yacolt. Once in Yacolt turn left and go 2 blocks where you will take a right on Railroad Avenue and then drive for 3 miles. Take a left on East Fork Lewis River Road and drive 7 miles to Sunset Campground. At the campground, turn right and follow the USFS Road #41 for about 7 miles to the highest point. Just before it takes a sharp left turn down the other side of the ridge, you should see a parking area. Let’s just call it a clearing in the dirt. There are no signs, just a beautiful view with the opportunity to walk on what looks like a “jeep” road that straddles the St. Helens and Mt. Adams Ranger Districts of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Near Sunset Campground, some falls of the East Fork of the Lewis River were a nice diversion from the search for the trailhead.

The road peters out in about 2 miles and becomes a handsome, well-maintained trail. At first it is under the cliffs of Bluff Mountain and then wanders through two stands of Noble Fir before working behind or south of Little Baldy Peak. I chose the latter as my end point due to time. Like many before me, I made the 100 meter scramble up the talus slopes to the summit and ate some lunch. Due to my navigational errors earlier in the day, I would not be able to go any further towards Silver Star Mountain today. After all, it would just be another fantastic two miles or so to the summit. I turned, once again determined to return.

"Little Baldy" in the center of the photo is a prominent point near Silver Star. It is also the peak that I climbed.

I had heard that this was one of the greater Vancouver’s backyard playgrounds, but on this day I did not see another human being until I reached the parking lot.

Silver Star Mountain and the area around it are a real surprise. Almost from the start you are in what appears to be an alpine environment with impressive views and scenery for the entire hike. The day doesn’t have to be perfect, but enjoyment of the landscape will meet your expectations.

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