North Fork Sauk River

Mountains across the valley.

Two days, one night backpacking in the northern Cascade Mountains

June 1-2, 2019

This was my first hiking trip with the Mountaineers, an outdoors group I joined in late April. The Mountaineers describes itself as “teaching skills, sharing adventures” and “getting people of all ages outside safely and responsibly for over 100 years.” This group sets the industry standards for hiking, climbing, kayaking, and other outdoor activities, and they are the creators of the “10 Essentials” list.

I was super excited. This is exactly the kind of group I was looking for. I want to learn as much as I can about backpacking and traveling safely in the backcountry, and the Mountaineers promised to do just that. Moreover, this particular backpacking trip was the one and only beginner trip the group offered all summer. I had signed up late and ended up being waitlisted. And, at the last minute, a vacancy opened up. I canceled my other plans, and I got the spot. I was ready for my first hike with the group

This was not only my first hike with the Mountaineers, but it was also my first backpacking trip in more than 25 years and only my third backpacking trip ever. The Mountaineers website described it as “an easy-going trip, a 10 to 13-mile backpack with 925 feet of elevation gain. It also counts as a field trip for B3 [beginning backpacking] students, giving them the opportunity to try out gear and new skills on an easy overnight backpack with an experienced mentor.” The difficulty level was listed as “easy,” with a hiking pace of “1.5-2.0 mph.”  This was a perfect first hike for me. I knew I could handle that pace and terrain, and I looked forward to discussions with the hike leader, who was one of the Mountaineers’ most experienced mentors.

I left home early Saturday morning at 4:00 a.m., excited to meet up with the rest of the group. Since I had a rental car and getting to the trailhead meant driving over sketchily maintained dirt forest service roads, I met up with another hiker at the Tukwila Park and Ride and rode the rest of the way with her. I didn’t realize what a long drive it was! 

Three and a half hours later we met up with the rest of the group at the Bedal Campground and convoyed the last six miles to the trail head. Road 49 was washed out a bit in several places, but both vehicles managed it without too much difficulty. And, it was a good thing that we carpooled because the parking lot was full by the time we got there. We parked the larger vehicle in the one remaining parking spot and the smaller one just off the road in a grassy area.

The weather was absolutely beautiful. So beautiful, I had debated leaving my wool Napapijri sweater behind, but at the last minute, chickened out and brought it. It can get cold in the mountains, even in June.

We all introduced ourselves. Despite this being described as a beginners’ hike, I was the only beginner in the group. Some were very experienced, having hiked remote locations in far flung areas of the planet. At 9:18 a.m., we hit the trail. Since I sometimes need a little extra time navigating obstacles, I chose to bring up the rear. 

Within minutes, the entire group was out of sight, and I found myself alone on the trail. I knew I might be slower than everyone else, but I didn’t realize they would leave me behind! I’ve participated in some day hikes and also led some during my college years at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and we would never leave anyone behind.

But, I had a map and a compass and knew how to use them, and the trail was well marked. I was confident I wouldn’t have any problem catching up with everyone later in the day.

The trail sloped uphill gently at first. About a half mile from the trailhead, I ran into the tail end of the group as they were helping each other cross a stream cascading down the steep mountainside. The crossing was a rock dam of sorts less than a foot wide. The woman ahead of me, my carpool driver, decided not to take her chances on the precariously balanced rock pile and waded through the thigh-deep pool of water just upstream. I didn’t want to finish the hike in wet boots and socks, so I took my chances.

It was pretty scary. Losing my balance would mean either falling into the pool of water upstream–and potentially ruining my phone and cameras (priorities!)–or falling onto the rocks downstream and possibly tumbling down the steep mountainside. I took my time and inched slowly across. And I made it! Amazingly, my Under Armour boots kept my feet completely dry, even though the water flowed almost up to my ankles.

Within minutes, I was alone again, and I fell so far behind that I could no longer hear or see them, even in the distance.

From this point, the trail had numerous ups and downs. Perhaps a few more ups than downs. Some were pretty steep, but most were slight to moderate inclines. The trail was still in great condition–single track dirt with some exposed roots and embedded rocks. In places, I had to really watch my footing so that I didn’t trip and fall. However, for the most part, the trail was relatively smooth from hundreds of hikers’ boots.

This area has some pretty massive old growth trees and not a lot of underbrush, since the trees block out a lot of the sun. Some of the trees had grown around big rocks and were hugging them with their roots. I also saw some pretty amazing fungus and wildflowers. I wish the group had not been in such a hurry so that I could have taken some photos.

For much of the hike, I was completely alone on the trail. Once in a while, other hikers would pass me as they heading out, but for the most part, it was just me and the birds and the trees. Since there are bears in the area, I talked to myself and tapped my trekking poles to make noise. At one point, I came to an opening in the trees filled with foliage that grew high above my head. A small creek crossed the trail, creating a bit of a muddy patch, but nothing my boots couldn’t handle. However, it seemed a perfect place to have an accidental run-in with a bear. I called out and sang as I crossed the opening, telling the bears how scrawny I was and nasty tasting.

I caught up with the group again at about noon at the Red Creek campground, four miles from the trail head. The Red Creek campground is fairly large, although there are no individual “established” campsites. However, there was no underbrush or low tree limbs, so the ground was pretty clear. And, we could see that many people had already leveled and cleared areas for small tent sites. It also provided a water source with nearby Red Creek. Moreover–and perhaps most importantly–it had a loo–a small box with a hole in it perched over a hole in the ground. The loo was in a ravine, so it provided a bit of privacy. We had to provide our own TP, of course, but we didn’t have to pack it out, and that was a plus.

I picked out a spot, set up camp, and headed over to the creek to replenish my water supply. We had arrived at the campsite way ahead of schedule–the trip leader had planned for the hike to take all day–and the rest of the group decided to take off for a day hike to Mackinaw Shelter and back. I wanted to go with them, but unfortunately, I wasn’t ready, and they were ready to go. They had had a half hour longer than me to eat lunch, replenish their water, and set up camp. I still needed to hang my food bag and get my day pack ready for the hike. So, off they went. 

I hung up my food, found my GoPro and my day pack, and headed off up the trail at my own pace. I knew I wouldn’t be able to catch up. Moreover, I wanted to enjoy the hike and pay attention to my surroundings. I wanted observe the different types of ferns, fungus, trees, and other foliage along the trail, trying to remember the names of everything from the Wilderness Survival class I’d take in May. I wished I’d brought my notebook with me! Note to self–bring notebook next time!

And, unfortunately, my phone doesn’t have the best battery life. Since I was solo hiking, I was reluctant to use it for photos in case I wore the battery down and needed it for an emergency. I need to remember to bring at least one battery charger next time.

I hiked up a bit further and ran into a huge section of deadfall blocking the trail. It must have been half the length of a football field. One of the realities of solo hiking (or solo mountain biking or solo kayaking or solo anything!) is that I have to be more cautious than I might be if I were with a group of people. With a group, I would cross the deadfall without hesitation. But crossing it alone would be sheer stupidity, especially with the limited mobility in my left knee. It would be way too easy to get a foot caught and twist a knee. It wasn’t worth taking the chance. The group had already passed me on the way down, and there were no guarantees anyone would hike up this way again until the following day, especially with as late as it was in the day.

Reluctantly, I turned and headed back to camp.

The evening was relatively uneventful. I had brought a package Knorr’s taco rice with me and added slices of pepperoni. It was delicious! Knorr’s makes great, economical side dishes that work well as backpacking meals. They cost about a dollar and take about seven minutes to cook.

I was the first person up in the morning. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal and trail mix, I packed up my gear. I had my entire campsite packed up and did a MOOP sweep before anyone else was up.

Finally, a couple of people got up. I put on my backpack and handed one of them a packet of hot chocolate to give to the hike leader. He had forgotten to bring any, and I had an extra. I told them I was heading out and would see them at the trailhead.

I hadn’t intended to take off before everyone else, but I knew the hike out would be another solo hike. I could either leave first and be in the lead or leave with everyone else and bring up the tail. I chose to be in the lead. I took my time. It was a relaxing hike, and this time, I enjoyed it. I looked at flowers and plants and observed beetles and caterpillars and fungus marveled at the mountains and rivers and trees and birds. I stopped halfway to the trailhead and had a long lunch on a fallen log and listened to the breeze sighing through the trees and the river cascading over the rocks below. Because of the old growth trees, the north fork of the Sauk River was rarely in view, but I could always hear it.

I took off my boots and socks at the stream and waded across, rather than attempting the rock dam solo. I had brought water shoes to wear around camp, and I wore these to protect my feet. The clear, ice cold water came up just above my knees, and I could feel the smooth, round river stones under my feet. They were slippery. I crossed carefully, making sure my footing was solid before taking another step.

After crossing, I sat on the warm rocks on the other side and soaked up the sun while my feet dried. It was really relaxing. I felt like taking a nap right there on the rocks! Instead, I enjoyed the view, listened to birds and the cascading stream, studied my topographic map, and took some photos. And then I put on clean socks. The clean socks felt amazing!

I reached the trailhead at about 11 a.m., took a nap in the sun, explored the trailhead area a bit, washed up in the river, and changed into clean clothes before everyone else arrived.

I have to say I’m not impressed with the Mountaineers.

Lessons Learned

Despite being shut out of the group hike, the trip was not a failure.

  1. One of my fears has been solo hiking in the wilderness. I overcame that fear this weekend. I may not have solo camped, but I certainly solo hiked. This is a big confidence booster.
  2. Although I’ve used my gear camping many times, this was the first time I used it backpacking in the wilderness. I had spent six weekends in the fall testing my gear and familiarizing myself with it in the security of local campgrounds. I knew how to use everything, and I had tested it to make sure it would work for me. As a result, I was well prepared, without being over prepared. I had everything I needed, and nothing more.
  3. My backpack fit well, and at 32 pounds, it was not too heavy or over packed.
  4. Because of #3, I was not sore at all from carrying it the eight miles round trip, nor did I have any blisters from the pack or my hiking boots.
  5. I was happy I took my Napapijri sweater as it got really cool once the sun went down. My sweater kept me both warm in the evening, and also warm at night as I slept in it.
  6. I brought my new LifeStraw Go water bottle and tested it using water from the creek near camp. Unfortunately, I was not able to suck any water through it and ended up just using the bottle to carry water back to camp for boiling.
  7. I pared down my cooking gear this trip and took only my stove, a canister of gas, my stainless steel cup, and a silicon cup. This worked OK, but because the stainless steel cup is tall and narrow, it took longer to boil water than it would if I had had a pot with more surface area on the bottom. On the other hand, the silicon cup worked great as a lid, so that helped. I was able to make a on-pot rice dish for dinner, a big cup of oatmeal for breakfast, and boil a liter of water.

Alignment of Expectations

Clearly, my expectations did not align with those of the rest of the group. I was new to the Mountaineers and unfamiliar with their hiking protocols. The Mountaineers’ website described as for beginners with a hiking pace of 1.5 to 2.0 mph, and my assumption was that would be correct. However, I was the only beginner in the group. That changed the group dynamics and, therefore, the hike’s goals. No longer was it a hike for beginners, but rather one for experienced hikers. As a beginner, I did not belong there.

I am the only person responsible for myself, and the only person who will look out for my needs and interests. No one else will do that. The trip leader will not do that. Moreover, I made the assumption that a “group hike” meant the group would stay together. That was clearly incorrect they left me behind not once, but twice. I essentially solo hiked the entire trip. In the future, I need to be more vocal and clarify expectations with the hike leader before even signing up for any future hikes.

Getting left behind was no fun. This hike was no fun. This group was no fun.


From an individual standpoint, the trip was a success. I was strong, capable, knowledgeable, competent, confident, experienced, independent, and resourceful. It was a big confidence booster.

From a group standpoint, however, the trip was a failure. I will never hike with the Mountaineers again. Moreover, I would not even recommend joining this organization unless you are already an experienced hiker looking for people of similar abilities. Otherwise, if you are new to the outdoors, this is NOT the group for you. They will leave you behind. That is not what I call being safe or responsible.

Interested in reading the Mountaineers’ response to my feedback regarding this hike?

I highly recommend the North Fork Sauk River Hike. It’s a great hike for beginners, as well as for those who might not be at peak physical abilities. I would love to do this one again, but with another group. Solo hiking is great, but sometimes, it’s nice having someone(s) else with whom to share the experience. And, I would like to hike at a slower pace, one that provides photo opportunities.

After all, we had all day to get there.


Trail rating*: 75, or moderate, based on the four mile hike to the Red Creek Campground and 700′ elevation gain.

*More about trail ratings.