Monday afternoon in the Badlands of the Sage Hills.
written by Shelly Forster
My boss is out of town this week, which means I’m holding down the fort alone at WenatcheeOutdoors HQ. After some parting instructions about posting articles, recording the Outdoor Report, refraining from embezzling company assets, etc., I was told, "Monday is opening day for the Sage Hills -- get out on the trail, check out conditions, see who’s out there and, you know, 'make up' some quotes from trail users."
"Hang on," I clarified. "You need me to skip work and go hiking on what’s forecasted to be the nicest day yet of 2013? There's a catch, right?"
There wasn't ... which made this a weighty job. I needed to be professional and thorough, so I decided to run the whole length of the Sage Hills Trail just to be sure I could give a detailed condition report and to make sure I spent enough time outside to tell if it was really a beautiful day or not. My plan was to run from the Lester trailhead to the Horse Lake trailhead and back, which would have been approximately 10 miles.
I pulled into the Lester parking area toward the end of lunch break and couldn’t believe it was empty. “Really? It’s opening day! These trails have been waiting for visitors for four months! Where’s Wenatchee’s sense of duty?” I walked up to the start of the trail and discovered that the trailhead had been bulldozed. Ah.
According to the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust’s signs, there’s a home being built on the property right next to the Lester Trail access, so the trailhead is temporarily closed for re-routing. Trail construction will probably be finished in May. Until then, the CDLT asks users to enter the Sage Hills through the Day Drive or Horse Lake trailheads.
I was pleased to see two other cars in the Day Drive lot. At least a few other ambitious slackers were fulfilling their obligations to outdoor play. From Day Drive my run went well for the first few miles. The Sage Hills are turning beautifully green, much like they did last November. However, this time around they're sprinkled with wildflowers, and it seems that the Wenatchee Complex fires did little to stem the tide of spring growth. I found sage buttercup, yellow bell, locoweed, yellow daisies, desert parsley, balsamroot, bluebells, and my first lupine blossom of the season. I saw a few hikers, bikers, and canines, but compared to my loop of the Loop on Easter Sunday, the Foothills felt deserted.
Conditions were excellent along the trail, which speaks well to the decision to keep the Sage Hills closed for the winter. The trail had none of the ruts and deep footprints found on the Jacobson Preserve, and was instead smooth, sandy, and intact. A fair number of dusty bike and footprints revealed that the trail had received plenty of homage earlier that morning.
About three miles into the run I discovered a well-used spur trail I hadn’t found before. “Yahtzee! I’ve unlocked a new level!” The trail wasn’t gated off and had fresh bike treads, so I assumed it was legitimate. Based on my brief map review at the Lester trailhead I thought I had discovered the Homestead Trail, and that it would loop up and over a chunk of hill to Horse Lake, adding a few easy miles to my run.
Half an hour later I realized the trail wasn’t going to quickly loop over to Horse Lake. Rather, it was going to climb. And climb. And climb.
Two shredded thighs and an imploded lung later I hit a clearing atop a saddle. The dry, dusty Sage Hills trail was far below, and I had climbed high enough to hit a sparse ponderosa forest. Here and there the charred leftovers from the Wenatchee Complex poked up through the soil. I was surrounded by deer and dainty wildflowers. Hmm. Had I hit a space vortex and been sucked into Fairy Land? The sandy trail that had seduced me into this painful climb soon disappeared in the clearing under a flurry of pine needles and soil. I zigzagged across the meadow like a drunken bumblebee, searching for a trail that would bring me back down into the lower hills.
Navigation over the next two hours was a bit confusing, but the condensed version is that I climbed a north-south ridge, trotting in the direction I hoped would lead to Horse Lake. I think the ridge spit me out just over the Horse Lake Reserve, affording me one of the most beautiful views of the Wenatchee Valley and the snowy Cascades that I’ve yet seen.
From here I eventually found a dirt road with some boot tracks and a few mucky patches of snow. I followed the dirt road northward, looping out and around the barbed wire fence of the Reserve. Two hours and three hopped fences later I hit the Horse Lake trailhead. By this time, the post-work crowd was just beginning to emerge from their indoor burrows. My moderate one-to-two hour trail run had taken four hours and had led me at least five miles farther than I had intended.
In hindsight, I was lucky to find my way back as easily as I did. The Foothills are open enough and the views long enough that I could use the ridges to sense my general travel directions and find my way back after losing the path. However, had the trees been thicker, I could have been very, very lost. I realized that there’s good reason why map and compass are listed as part of the “Ten Essentials”, especially in areas that are loaded with game trails and spurs. Looking at the map now I think the spur I climbed above the Sage Hills was the Lightning Trail, but I can’t be sure which dirt roads I followed after losing the trail. I do know for sure that I missed the Homestead Trail and that I definitely broke recreational protocol by wandering around off-trail on CDLT property.
Granted, I was traveling cross-country because I was lost, not because I had a vendetta against trail rules. Still, as a wannabe-responsible trail user I owe it to the Land Trust to study the maps and be familiar with the trail layout before I go out. Better yet, I should carry a map with me so that if I do lose the trail again I can re-connect as quickly as possible.
In spite of (or maybe because of) getting lost, opening day for the Sage Hills trails was a memorable one, and I’m excited to spend the rest of spring exploring the views from the real Homestead Trail.
Finally, to fulfill the reporting obligations I committed to, here are some comments from other trail users on opening day:
- “The Sage Hills are almost as good as Halo!"
- “I saw 227 people in a couple hours on Saddle Rock this weekend. It’s nice to be out on a quieter trail.”
- “After a winter of running on pavement, it’s great to be running on dirt. I’m optimistic that my knees and I will soon be on speaking terms again.”
- On the views from the Horse Lake trailhead: “If only my spouse were this beautiful, I wouldn’t have to spend so much time outside!”
- On re-opening the trails: “A Sage decision.” and “This one sure is a trail for the sages!” (Groan.)
- On hiking from Day Drive: “I heard there would be a cooler of beer at Horse Lake.”
- From the mountain bikers: “Heavy flow, dude.”
- From a dog: “Woof woof woof woof WOOF woof.” (Translation: "Nice trail!")
If you haven't made it up to the Sage Hills yet, whet your appetite with this slideshow of the wildflowers and the views you can find up there this week.
Use this guidebook entry to navigate the Sage Hills.
Photo: Balsamroot over the hills: the classic Wenatchee foothills picture.