When I was thinking of how to write this trip report, I wanted to call it a waste of time and leave it at that. Then I realized it was actually a pretty great scouting trip for the maintenance these trails need. They're rough. Even the PCT needs some TLC in this section.
I put together this loop because I assumed Tieton Pass was a destination where you could eat lunch and enjoy expansive views of the Goat Rocks after a challenging uphill battle of the sort some hikers relish. Then you could enjoy a moderate 5-mile descent, creek-hopping and shaded by big trees.
The only thing that’s correct about the above assumption is that there's a challenging uphill battle that only some sorts of hikers relish. And that uphill battle is the Hidden Springs trail.
Hidden Springs is a beast. It’s murderous. It’s awful. It’s puninshingly steep. But, of course, it’s not quite hard enough to follow to discourage me completely. It’s 1.7 miles from the turnoff with the North Fork Tieton Trail. I think it’s the longest, steepest trail I’ve ever hiked. With a lot of false summits. Three times I figured I’d finally gotten to the top, and three times I was wrong. Three times I plateaued, praying it was the camp only to have the trail say “nah” and kick me straight back uphill.
There are also these delightful sections where trees that have snapped in storms are balanced delicately on their trunks, leaning against other trees. One was particularly creepy: it seemed to be balanced on just a few fragments of tree trunk and I couldn’t see where it was leaning against the other tree (photo below). It looked like a strong wind could knock it down, and there was a medium breeze already blowing. I stood behind a large tree for a while, trying to decide if I could hike uphill fast enough to get out of there if it came down while I was passing. There is more than one situation like this on the way up Hidden Springs.
It was largely because I’d gotten through these sections unscathed that I decided I had to finish the loop, despite running behind schedule. Not only was I unsure my knees could take the grade going down Hidden Springs, but I was also freaked out about crossing back through those areas.
I made slow progress (really slow), but finally, I reached a point of the trail where there were some very nice views of the Goat Rocks. Unfortunately, by that point, I was too tired and anxious about running behind to stop and really enjoy them. Plus, you’re in a pretty dicey spot once you get to them. There, the trail is a steep, narrow, gravelly path, where the idea of falling is verboten – it’s not necessarily cliffy, but the terrain is so steep it would be a second until you stopped sliding. And then you’d have to get back up and climb what you just went up.
(related: on maps, the Hidden Springs trail is rated hiker/horse. I have no idea how it ever got rated for horses. It would be terrifying on horseback.)
Eventually I did get to Hidden Springs camp, and then the PCT. The PCT junction is nothing remarkable – just a crossroads in the forest. No views. Disappointed, but very, very hungry, I sat on a log and shoved a sandwich and apple in my mouth, calculating how far I had to go and how much daylight I had. I figured even if I hiked at a mile an hour the rest of the way I could still get to camp by 8pm. I didn’t anticipate taking that long, but it was good to know I’d probably still get to camp with some daylight, even with a slower than normal (for me) pace.
The PCT through here is fine, but there’s lots of small blowdown, some areas that need tread improvement, including one area where a big tree has pulled the trail out. This is about two miles from the junction with the PCT, outside of Goat Rocks Wilderness areas. Plus, this section's completely unsigned, which I thought was weird. Usually there are little medallions along the PCT to ensure you you’re on the right track.
The highlight of this section was when I startled a big elk just before the North Fork Tieton junction. I was so surprised I said, “Uh...hi.” Such sparkling rhetoric. Luckily, he bolted into the woods. Good thing it’s spring and not the fall rut! But he was beautiful.
Arriving at the North Fork Tieton Pass, I was dejected to see it’s just a forested saddle where three trails meet. I had thought about going all the way to McCall Basin to add on a destination but it was 4pm by the time I got to the pass and I was bushed. I didn’t have the 5-mile roundtrip detour in me.
So I headed down North Fork Tieton and boy is it in terrible shape. The last three miles to the pass are in desperate need of rebenching. The slumping is terrible. I could see that a horse group had been up there before me, and I can’t imagine they had fun doing this on a horse. What trail there is really narrow and outsloped, and the trailbed is bad, too—totally uneven. There are also several large blowdowns. A couple of them looked like they’d been stepped over by the horses, but one, about 3.5 miles down the trail from the pass, was laying across the trail, about three feet up off the ground. I have no idea where the horses went around it.
Though not as long as Hidden Springs, the descent did take me longer than anticipated because of how rocky and uneven the tread is. No wonder the last trip reporter rolled his ankle here!
A final note: MANY trees on this route, particularly on the North Fork Tieton Trail, are carved with the letter "i". Once I noticed it, I couldn't help but be creeped out by it...what did it mean? The hills have "i"'s?
tl;dr – this loop is super awesome if you love punishingly steep trails, limited views, spotty access to water, and trails in serious need of maintenance.