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Backpacker Magazine – August 1999

Washington's Supreme William O. Douglas Wilderness

The William O. Douglas Wilderness is a monument worthy of a great man.

by: Dan Nelson

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Everything eventually comes full circle. The mountains and valleys of the William O. Douglas Wilderness Area saved the boy who, in adulthood, saved the mountains and valleys.

As a youngster stricken with a debilitating muscular illness, Douglas tromped the eastern slope of the Cascades near his Yakima home. The daily excursions strengthened his muscles and passions for wild places. As a man, Douglas became a U.S. Supreme Court justice and a champion of wilderness. Among the many battles waged in the name of wildlands preservation was the fight to save the area that now bears his name.

And for that, backpackers owe him a great debt. The William O. Douglas Wilderness Area is one of the finest hiking destinations in the Pacific Northwest. It's also one of the most unusual. Instead of moss-laden rain forests, craggy Cascade peaks, or glacier-covered volcanoes, the William O. offers dry pines, gentler terrain, and dusty little cinder cones. Nearby Mt. Rainier is rarely out of sight on the western horizon.

The land that Douglas enjoyed remains relatively unchanged. Elk browse the open forests and meadows, and cougars stalk them from nearby forests. Mule deer, black bears, coyotes, and bald eagles are common, and wildflowers color the landscape.

With more than 50 trails covering 275 miles, hiking options are limitless. Two good choices for weekend routes include a 30-mile loop that departs Chinook Pass on the western edge of the wilderness and takes advantage of the best ridge, river, and summit routes in the area. A shorter loop trip, leaving the Bumping Lake area in the heart of the wilderness, rolls some 19 miles through sprawling meadows, over ashen volcanic cones such as Tumac Mountain, and past scores of lakes.

Time your journey for the mid-September huckleberry harvest, and your progress may be slowed considerably, as Douglas himself was during a memorable trek he took in younger days. "We dropped our packs and sat on the ground and once more ate our fill," he wrote in his autobiography, Of Men and Mountains. "We tossed them down by the handful, hungry for the sugar that sunlight had stored in them."

Even if Douglas's public career came before your time, a weekend in this wilderness will convince you there could be no finer tribute to a life's work.

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