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Horseshoe Basin

Posted by joeabbott on October 9, 2016

A bunch of years ago Suzy and I went to Windy Peak in northern Washington. The day was over 100°F, the drive is about 300 miles and six hours of long driving, and I got lost on the trails coming back from summiting Windy Peak; I’ll save the full story for another time. And while the drive is still long, my old Boeing friends and I headed back to this same area for our annual Test Lab Hike … I think this was our 23rd outing, and our formal destination was Horseshoe Basin.

This year we weren’t able to include Dan; he had a medical procedure a week prior and didn’t believe he’d be up for the six day, 40+ mile trek through the remote parts of the state. So, disappointing though it was, we forged on without him and enjoyed a fine outing.

Day 1 – getting there

The first day we just spent driving to the trailhead. The roads were good and the weather fine, so we found ourselves at the Iron Gate Trailhead around 5PM; plenty of time to talk to the few hunters heading back in, setup the tent for the night, and wonder at the poor rat who was stuck 10’ down in the pit toilet.

Day 2 – heading to camp

P9230006The plan was to head in about 8-miles and setup camp; from there we’d take sojourns out among the various local mountains and hit a second camp a day later. We all woke reasonably rested but each of us exclaimed how cold the night was. While it felt frigid, it likely was still in the high 30°s … but, for a guy without hair, it was nippy!P9230014

The trek in was less quick than I’d hoped it’d be and the weather started out fine but quickly turned chilly and either misting or coming down as snow flurries! 

We were heading mostly downhill on the way in and left the parking lot about 8:30AM. I was hoping to hit camp around noon but it was closer to 1PM when we pulled in. On the way in, it had started heavily misting on us … a very light rain … that was pretty cold. When we hit a pass, the wind bit through us but with only 8-miles to go, it wasn’t all that bad.

Our destination was Loudon Lake, a small body of water that, at this time of year, wasn’t a body of water at all, but a shallow, muddy flat. Still, it had a good camp site so we pitched the tent, ate a bit of lunch, and then took a break to read or otherwise rest. With the days being short, I got antsy so, in the lowering light of the day, I headed up the lower slopes of nearby Armstrong Mountain to see what I could see … and what I saw was mostly low clouds and continual mist.

Back in the tent we ate our dinners, read our books, played a game of Hearts, and then drifted off to the sound of rain pelting the tent and the feel of cold, cold air stealing in.

Day 3 – Armstrong and Rock Mountains

P9240033P9240037Our tent was nestled between two peaks: Armstrong Mountain and Rock Mountain. We aimed to climb them.

While “climb” is too strong a word … they’re both easy walk-ups … it was still a fun outing. The night had left ice on the rainfly but the grasses were more dewy than icy and the hiking was on good footing as we headed north up the flanks of Armstrong Mountain. Armstrong is one of the most unique mountains I’ve been up. The slopes are gentle and the top continues to fall away, but once you summit you’re really on a high plateau of sorts. Lots of small rises but it spread out over a large area. At one point I wanted to head to a different “peak” but, on investigation, it appeared to still be part of Armstrong!

At the “top” we spotted the US-Canada boundary marker and headed to it. The marker is about 4’ tall, made of aluminum, and shaped like the Washington monument. As we got nearer the marker, we noticed an additional boundary designation: all trees for about 20 yards between the two countries are clear cut. And not just downed, but cut down and removed! It was interesting to see the shorn swath running between the countries as mathematically precise as a latitudinal line.

After taking pics we walked to a second boundary marker a short half-mile off, we took a few more pics, and then wandered to a local high point that was still part of Armstrong but a touch deeper into the Canadian wilderness. While we joked about the legality of crossing the Canadian border without our passports or declaration of intent, we were ready to surrender to Mounties or border patrol of either nation in the event of being stopped. Fortunately, we were allowed to explore unperturbed.

Back at camp we enjoyed lunch and the fact that the weather was improving and short sleeves were welcome when the clouds parted. After a rest we continued our labors up Rock Mountain and found that, within about 15 minutes, we were at the top. It had a similarly but smaller rambling summit and after looking at a few cairns (some quite large) that obviously bored hikers created, we ambled back down to some R&R in camp and the evenings activities.

Day 4 – getting to Windy Lake

With Loudon being little more than a mud-patch, we wondered if Windy Lake would yield an actual lake with water in it. The four+ mile hike to it wasn’t long, but it was about 1000’ of gain with about the same amount of loss. P9250094

I was wearing a new pack on this outing and for the first time, felt a painful pinch in my hips. Regardless how I shifted the weight, it was bothersome but, like other hiking discomforts, I tried to put it out of mind and just walked. While fewer miles than any of our other days, this one kicked me something good. I’m not sure if it was the uphill with a still-heavy pack (as the days go on, the weight from food … the largest contributor … becomes less), or day three of hiking for a desk-jockey, but I was sure happy when I hit the place in the trail where we should branch off for the lake.

I was a bit ahead of Tim and Ron so I dropped my pack and headed SE to find the lake. Not a quarter mile later I spotted rippling waves in a small basin, smiled to see such a nice spot, and headed back to the boys and my pack. Hiking in, we made camp and all enjoyed our respective lunches in good sun beneath a majestic mountain: Windy Peak. From the lake, it looks imposing but that would be our objective for tomorrow.

Today we lounged, explored some of the bluffy overlooking escarpments that reviewed a valley that had been burned trees to little more than brittle, standing sticks. While a lot of growth is returning after the 2005 Tripod Complex fire, the scars are still very visible.

Day 5 – Windy Peak and Topaz Mountain

P9260144P9260160With the hard work from the day before and the steep sides of Windy overshadowing the lake, we weren’t eager to climb it, but my recollection of it being a walk-up from my hike with Suzy carried me on with anticipation. The trail runs around the west side of Windy and, as we approach its northern flanks, the trail to the summit appears. We jaunted up, wished we’d had more sun at this time of the day, and then dropped off.

Off the summit block we consulted a map on the trail home, that would be crossing this very spot. The hiking guide noted that the way could be tricky and my story about getting lost my last time here had us hoping to avoid that fate. And so, rather than head back, we pushed on another mile or so until we were pretty confident we understood the way back to my truck. Upon getting back up and onto the trail heading to camp, I noted that I’d be interested in climbing nearby Topaz Mountain. While Ron bit, Tim chose to stay back and enjoy the sun … so off Ron and I tramped.

Topaz is another peak with a broad summit but rather than a plateau, it’s elongated into a fat ridge. You’re never in too much danger of falling off, but you could hurt yourself if unlucky or being clumsy. We weren’t and so we summited the bulbous top, reviewed the domain at our feet (ignoring the nearby Windy Peak at 400”+ higher than our current vantage) and enjoyed a small respite. Upon returning to the trail, we found Tim asleep with his book propped up next to him.

From there to camp we enjoyed the remaining hours of daylight sunning ourselves and snacking on the foods we didn’t want to carry back home. And, at the end of the day, we enjoyed clear, starlit night sky with the Milky Way band decorating a ribbon of sky over our tent. Now this was a good campsite.

Day 6 – getting home

P9270253There are a number of trails into the Horseshoe Basin and we left from the Iron Gate trailhead; the nearer trailhead to Windy Peak is the Long Swamp trailhead, and that’s he trail we started down on our way out. About 4 miles from Windy we’d be catching a spur trail connecting to the Iron Gate trail but, it’s largely neglected and has received only minor attention in terms of trail maintenance.

So, it wasn’t until I had my GPS out and was spinning around saying, “the trail should be here” that we even found the route and then, as we trekked along it, we’d often have to pause to look for trail-signs a dozen yards out or so before we could put the route together. And so we tramped for a few miles in staggering steps until we hit an area where trees had burned some 10 years ago and since fallen … and now posed a bit of climbing\clambering\scrambling fun for our heroes.

At the bottom of a slope we crossed a stream over a log bridge and climbed out on what the guide called an “outrageously steep” trail. Upon hitting the Iron Gate trail, we were just a hop, skip and jump from our car. Although, by this time, none of us were hopping, skipping, or jumping … just trudging on, foot-sore travelers after a bunch of time on the trail.

At the car we enjoyed a bag of chips and some pops we had in coolers; the sodas were long since warmed but the effervescence was nice. On the way back we stopped in Omak for a meal at the Koala Street Grill and then in Leavenworth for some ice cream and to fill our gas tank. I dropped Ron off, and Tim and I arrived at my house after 7PM. A long day after a long trip but all very rewarding.


While Dan was missed, I’m glad we continued our tradition of seeing some of the quieter parts of the state. I’m getting out less frequently and this was my first long outing after knee surgery earlier in the year; along with my new backpack, everything held up well and did marvelously. For those looking for a spectacular setting, Horseshoe Basin is hard to beat for a high prairie rugged setting.

Thanks for dropping by.


One Response to “Horseshoe Basin”

  1. Jay said

    Good on ya! It was a lot of work, I’m sure, but I can see you had a lot of fun!

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