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Tonga Ridge and Mount Sawyer — September 2005

Hone your Vaccinium identification skills by taste on this easy hike into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness west of Stevens Pass. Huckleberries Vaccinium deliciosum, V. membranaceum, V. ovalifolium, V. alaskaense, and V. scoparium are all here, along with huckleberry/heather meadows, tree islands, talus, and views.

The hike begins by climbing gently through Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis) forest to break out into subalpine parkland at about 4800’ elevation. Tree islands here are comprised primarily of subalpine fir (A. lasiocarpa), though mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) and Alaska cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) can also be seen, especially in areas of deeper snowpack. Occasional openings as the forest shifts from montane silver fir to subalpine caused by fire, snow, or landslides add spatial diversity to the landscape and result in herbaceous slopes of colonizers bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), broadleaf lupine (Lupinus latifolius), and edible thistle (Cirsium edule).

White pine (Pinus monticola) and east-siders Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) and grouseberry (V. scoparium) indicate meso-topographic influences on climate on this west-side ridge, perhaps wind blowing snow off the ridge-top leading to drier soil and a shorter growing season, or a rain-shadow effect as storm fronts hit big peaks Daniel and Hinman to the west and drop much of their moisture before reaching Tonga Ridge.

Continue wandering the ridge about 3 miles to Sawyer Pass. See here classic huckleberry/heather meadows with Cascade huckleberry (V. deliciosum) and pink (Phyllodoce empetriformis) and white (Cassiope mertensiana) mountain heathers, and two indicators that this area has been heavily impacted by hikers: tame camp robbers (Perisoreus canadensis) watching from tree island perches, and a myriad of bare social paths and denuded campsites where vibram soles have trampled the not very resistant or resilient subalpine shrubs. Wood is a luxury in the subalpine and represents a tension between not enough snow (conditions too dry for the formation of wood) and too much snow (too short a snow-free growing season to produce wood). Keep this struggle in mind and stick to established trails as you botanize in the huckleberry/heather meadows. A special treat is an abundance of another woody member of the Ericacaea, white rhododendron (Rhododendron albiflorum).

Meander back the way you came and look for a cairn at the steep start of the way-trail up Mount Sawyer, about 1 ½ miles from the trailhead. Switchbacks soon moderate the grade as the trail climbs merrily 700’ through flowers and huckleberries for an easy walk to the summit of Mount Sawyer, elevation about 5500’. As you near the summit, look for foliage and fruits of Davidson’s penstemon (Penstemon davidsonii) and spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa). Views from the summit include volcanoes Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier, and Glacier Peak, and numerous Cascade Mountain peaks.

Look for patterns on the landscape of the mountains all around you, and ponder the environmental factors responsible as you eat your way back to the trailhead. Allow 5 or more hours to enjoy this 6-8 mile round trip hike, and come prepared with the 10 essentials.

Directions: Drive U.S. 2 east from Skykomish 1.8 miles and turn right on Foss River Road (No. 68). At 1.2 miles keep right to stay on the main road, and at 2.5 miles go straight at an intersection after passing under a railroad bridge. At 3.6 miles, turn left onto Tonga Ridge Road and drive 7 miles, then turn right onto road 6830 (may be numbered 310) and drive 1.5 miles to the road end and trailhead.

Updated: July 3, 2016
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