Trails for everyone, forever
Three years ago, I was a city-dwelling, flatland Midwesterner who had only dreamed of an adventurous, traveling life. I had camped only once. In 2018, I slept outside for 50 nights. In all that time outside, I've found a strong connection to natural places — and the people I adventure with. | by Sarina Clark
As a recent college graduate in Minnesota, my budget did not allow me to travel and experience the world beyond my state. When I moved to Seattle in 2015 with my husband, however, I found accessible adventure in my backyard — my backyard being the Cascades, Olympics and beyond. Within 3 hours, I could reach three national parks, countless wilderness areas and so much more. The combination of wanting to explore my new state, the challenge of hiking and getting out of my comfort zone and my passion to capture it with my camera kept me coming back.
My adventures started with small hikes. Within the first couple of months in Washington, I visited Mount Rainier for a weekend of camping and hiking. I did a 6-mile hike in the Paradise area — and it lived up to the name. I was in awe of the massive size of the volcano, the beautiful wildflowers and the peaks in the distance. I didn’t know then what those peaks were — but I eventually got to know them much better when I climbed Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams.
After my Rainier trip, I adopted a rescue puppy and adventures slowed down. The following spring I committed to hiking again — starting with Rattlesnake Ridge, off of I-90. I’m goal-oriented, so I made a list of hikes to do in increasing difficulty. I started with Little Si and Lake 22 — and by the time I completed Mount Si, it felt like a huge accomplishment.
Eventually, I built up to backpacking and soon I was outside every weekend. My first backpacking trip was to Ancient Lakes in Central Washington. At only 4 miles roundtrip, it felt attainable, and I had an easy escape route if things went wrong. I was scared to carry everything I needed on my back and terrified I might forget something. In the end, I had everything I needed — and then some. Now, it’s funny to compare what I brought on that trip — a full-sized hairbrush, a whole bottle of wine and way too much food — to the lightweight gear I obsess over now. After that trip, I took my first multinight backpacking trip to Packwood Lake. I discovered a love for disconnecting from the busy, bustling life in Seattle. At the end of that summer, with the help of beginner’s luck, I got a core permit for the Enchantments over Labor Day weekend. It was my longest backpacking trip so far. It included an unexpected snowstorm, goat sightings and soaking in some of the prettiest scenery in Washington.
When I started hiking, I had made a goal to do the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier. As I learned how difficult the Wonderland Trail was, however, I had doubts I could do it — 22,000 feet of elevation gain and 93 miles is a lot. My friend in Minnesota secured the permit, so we made plans to hike it. We had a permit for 8 days to complete the hike — an ambitious schedule. It was one of the hardest things I have ever physically or mentally had to push through — but at the same time, I didn’t want the beautiful experience to end either.
Long-distance hiking brings a mixed bag of emotions. As I walked off the trail after 93 miles, I had never felt more proud. I had completed a trail that I thought was out of reach. That hike gave me the confidence that what I put my mind to, I can accomplish.
The more I explored in Washington, the more I wanted to keep exploring. I never dreamed of such wild, grand places — pristine alpine lakes, massive volcanoes, coastal beaches and more.
I didn’t set out to spend so many nights outside in 2018. Looking back, 50 nights is a lot. That’s almost every weekend of the year. Practically, it meant I spent most summer weekends outside and took a few multi-day trips. To me, being outside, in the mountains with rocks under my boots and fresh air in my lungs, is truly living. Of those 50 nights outside, more than 20 were backpacking, which allows me to get out farther for longer. I hauled my heavy pack up mountains, snow-capped peaks and rocky scrambling ridges. The sunsets, stars and sunrises keep me coming back.
Every night outside is memorable in some way, but a few trips stand out. In August, the winter snow had melted and the Cascades seemed like an endless playground. We could go anywhere. Yet, one weekend, thunderstorms sent us farther east for better weather. I planned to hike to Lake Ingalls and then scramble South Ingalls Peak and sleep at the summit bivy with a friend. I’d read about the site in an old trip report and wanted to see it.
For the first time, my pack was missing one thing — a tent. My friend, Nikki, convinced me to sleep on a tarp under the stars. The weather looked good and bugs were starting to die down, so I went for it. I had always clung to the protection of a tent — now I would be exposed to the world. We made our way up the trail and to the lake, which was reflecting Mount Stuart. After a break, we headed up the mountain with GPS to help navigate. Cairns helped lead the way, but we still had to do a lot of routefinding and troubleshooting. We finally made it to the summit of South Ingalls to find the little rock bivy site. It just fit the two of us.
We had the summit — and seemingly the entire area — to ourselves. The sun began to set, and the golden light lit up the peaks. Nikki painted and captured the essence of the scene perfectly. Later, in the dark, we watched as a meteor shower danced above our heads. That night, I felt exposed and vulnerable, yet I trusted the mountains to keep me safe. And they obliged, endowing me with a trust and connection to the mountains that I will carry on with me to all future outdoor endeavors.
Of all those nights outside, I never spent one alone, and that’s part of what made the year so special. I enjoyed 50 nights of quality time with my friends, loved ones and adventure pup. I built relationships that will last a lifetime. Mountain friendships require a special kind of trust and vulnerability. When I moved to Seattle, I didn’t know anyone, and making friends as an adult was more difficult than I’d anticipated.
Once I found my passion for hiking, it was much easier to connect with others who shared that passion. I went to the online communities of the PNW Outdoor Women’s group and the hiking Instagram community to meet like-minded individuals. I found other people who wanted to hike and build friendship along the way. A multi-hour car ride, followed by sharing the literal and figurative ups and downs of a trail, is an ideal way to forge friendships. I now have a solid group of friends to plan adventures with.
Spending this much time outside changed me. It made me realize what matters in life: the experiences we have and the people we share them with. What makes your heart sing and scream with joy to be alive? I found that on the trail and every mountaintop my feet took me to.
I am now proud to call myself an outdoorswoman. The life I was dreaming of was waiting in Washington. It revealed itself one mile at a time. My dream to live an adventurous, well-traveled life unfolded in beautiful, unexpected ways.
As for what 2019 holds for me, I hope to spend as much time outside as I did last year. I’m learning glacier skills to be able to reach more of the remote places in Washington. I want to keep the wonder and awe of the mountains close to me and never take for granted the places I get to visit.