By Frank Hoffman
I parked at the 801 road at 8:30: 26°, clear, calm. Snowpack icy, 10” less than a week ago. I skinned east to the storage area, SW to the PCT-North Loop junction, then continued on the North Loop and Circle Lake trails to Circle Lake. Just north of the lake, I entered the unsigned north leg of the Cottonwood trail and turned east.
This trail was created about 15 years ago, following the 2003 B&B burn; eight years ago when I last traveled the trail the terrain was still quite open. as soon as the trail descended into the first valley, it became clear, new lodgepole growth was more than I’d anticipated. I was able to skirt most of it fairly easily by keeping to higher ground to the north, and the view from the ridge where the trail turned south was well worth the trip.
Below and to the east was a pond I hadn’t noticed on previous trips. As I turned south, it became clear that the entire valley through, which the east leg of the trail passed, was mostly filled with thickets of lodgepole 6-8’ above snow level, with shallow but close-spaced tree wells, which, in combination with interlacing branches above, made progress a slow affair—with near-zero visibility of the route ahead. After some trial and error, I found better conditions by following a series of low ridges to the west of the original trail: these ridges had less tree cover presumably due to drier conditions than in the valleys.
As I neared the 500 road, I left the post-burn area and entered a relatively open hemlock forest to reach the low point of the tour at the 500 (or Fireline) road. Conditions remained quite icy. I met a couple of skiers at the 500-Circle Lake trail junction who’d come down the Circle Lake trail and were about to return the same way. After lunch at the shelter, I followed their tracks back on the Circle Lake trail, removing skins at the Cascade crest on the North Loop for good spring skiing the rest of the way back to the 801 road.
My track log showed 8.2 mi, 510’ elevation gain. The original route of the Cottonwood trail after it turns south is so overgrown that it wouldn’t make much sense to revive it. Re-establishing a spur trail out to the expansive views from the ridge just before the turn south could be worthwhile—and is quite possible even now for those who feel comfortable with a little off-trail travel. Distance out is .8 mi with 100’ elevation loss