Washington's Supreme William O. Douglas Wilderness

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

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.

QUICK TAKE: William O. Douglas Wilderness

WHERE: The wilderness is 110 miles (21/2 hours) southeast of Seattle.

THE WAY: From Seattle take I-5 south to WA 18 east to WA 410 east. Follow WA 410 to Chinook Pass. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is accessed on the south side of the highway from the Tipsoo Lake parking area. Or, continue east to Goose Prairie and turn south onto the Bumping Lake Road. Drive southwest to road's end at Mosquito Valley Loop.

TRAILS: The 30-mile loop from Chinook Pass heads south on the PCT to a junction with the American Ridge Trail. Head east on American Ridge for 2.5 miles and drop down the Cougar Lake Trail to a junction with Bumping River Trail and then back up to the PCT. The 19-mile loop through Mosquito Valley follows the Indian Creek Trail south to a network of trails weaving through a series of meadows and lake basins between Tumac and Fryingpan Mountains. Pick from among the many options; you can't go wrong.

ELEVATION: The highest point in the wilderness is Mt. Aix at 7,766 feet. Bumping River is the low point at 2,700 feet.

CAN'T MISS: The American Ridge Trail, with its spectacular views, sprawling meadows, and-in late summer-enormous, juicy huckleberries.

CROWD CONTROL: August is the busiest month, but much of the wilderness is snowfree by mid-June, so aim to get an early jump on the crowds. Prime berry picking occurs after Labor Day.

PIT STOPS: Baumgartner's Restaurant, a New York-style deli, serves a great posthike menu in the town of Enumclaw.

WALK SOFTLY: Lots of black bears roam these hills and valleys, so properly bag and hang all food.

MAPS AND GUIDES: Green Trails Maps offers an excellent series of topographic maps. Ask for quadrants Bumping Lake, Old Scab Mountain, White Pass, and Rimrock (800-762-6277; $4.00 each).

MORE INFORMATION: Wenatchee National Forest, Naches Ranger District, 10061 Highway 12, Naches, WA 98937; (509) 653-2205.