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The Instant Overnight
Driving empty roads at only marginally illegal speeds, I recently reached the best route into Washington's Henry M. Jackson Wildernessthe only one that passes through a bona fide ghost townjust 82 minutes after leaving Seattle. Here, at the Barlow Pass trailhead, begins a classic bike-to-hike: four miles (6.5 kilometers) of easy pedaling on a decommissioned gravel road to the busted silver-mining town of Monte Cristo, then onward by foot into the wilderness itself. With all due respect to Nepal, there's something singularly appealing about going backpacking so close to home. The decompression from chaos to calm takes two, not twenty, hours to happen.
Leaving Barlow Pass, the road goes from a bad wooden bridge to a worse wooden bridge to an abandoned fisherman's camp, the rushing Sauk River below and 6,213-foot (1,894 meter), icebound Gothic Peak above. Within a half hour, riders reach the edge of Monte Cristo, where someone has thoughtfully placed a bike rack. Ahead, bricks and buckets and gears are strewn along the former main drag; I spotted a massive safe that sat rusting under a hemlock. Miners' cabinsthe few that remainsag under their own weight. The soggy Pacific Northwest is unkind to ghost towns.
But Monte Cristo is the perfect entrée to the 103,591-acre (41,922-hectare) Henry M. Jackson. By car, then bike, then foot, you watch civilization recede, layer by layer. Outside the decaying town, nature takes over as the trail climbs steeply above Seventysix Gulch toward Poodle Dog Pass, named after turn-of-the-century miner Frank Peabody's hardy pet. Evergreen forest becomes alpine meadow, with asters and glacier lilies hugging the snow line. Less than three miles after the pass come the icy blue Twin Lakes, perched below the glaciers and sheer granite walls of 7,172-foot (2,186-meter) Columbia Peaka worthy goal for backpackers looking to beat the crowds. And the wilderness goes on: another three dozen mountain lakes, 29 peaks above 6,000 feet (1,829 meters), and 19 marked trails to equally spectacular high camps. Contact: Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest (+1 360 436 1155; www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs).
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