Off the Trail

Heavy mist hung amidst the treetops as we ascended the mountain.  Overcast early-May skies threatened rain, but we were undeterred.  Moscow Mountain had been on our hit list for a very long time, and since the snow had fully melted at the mountain’s summit, it was time to finally cross it off the list.

The lush green fields of the Palouse were slowly replaced by pine and fir trees and bright green undergrowth.  We passed several mini-mansions on our ascent, speculating as to whether they were owned by wealthy farmers on the Palouse or wealthy professors or administrators from one of the two major universities situated in Moscow and Pullman.


Heeding the word of our GPS, we made it to the trailhead.  It began on what looked like either an old fire-access road or a retired logging road, and was blocked by a cement barricade to vehicular traffic.  The smell of the pines mixed with the heavy rain that had fallen the night before coated the inside of our nostrils.

We branched off of the gravel road onto a trail and began making a steeper ascent into the wilderness.  As we continued our climb we came across an increasing amount of animal droppings, mostly from deer, but we saw a growing amount of what we believed to be elk or moose droppings as we continued our hike.  Luckily, we didn’t notice any bear scat, albeit black bears do roam the slopes of Moscow Mountain.


Since Moscow Mountain is not a national park and is mostly privately owned, the trails were not manicured or signed by the U.S. Forest Service or National Parks Service, making it difficult to know exactly where we were and if we’d taken a wrong trail.  Luckily, our phones still had service on the mountain, and using a mobile application called All Trails, we had a general sense of where we were on the mountain in relation to where our car was parked.


As we continued to ascend we got closer to what we believed to be the summit of East Twin, one of the three peaks on Moscow Mountain.  We continued to follow what we believed to be the right trail, until we came to yet another Y in the trail.

The trail to the right was unobstructed, and seemed the easier and more gradual climb.

The trail to the left ascended at a far steeper rate, and a few feet up, a small fallen tree lay across the trail.  Intentionally so.

“When I was in the Girl Scouts they taught us that if a tree is put across a trail like this it means you’re not supposed to go on it.”  Amber told me as we stood at the Y.

In my quest to reach the upper-most point of the mountain, I stepped over the tree, and we took the trail anyway.

The trees and brush were thick on either side of us as we made our way along the trail that looked like it began to widen up ahead where the trail took a bend to the right.  Amber was walking alongside me and I was looking down at my phone checking our GPS location when we came to the mouth of the bend in the trail.

Amber stopped dead in her tracks and clutched my arm.

About thirty yards ahead the trail ended, and sitting at the end of the trail was a very small and old green camp trailer.  Trees and brush grew up all around it as it had clearly been there for years, and the forest had begun to reclaim the area that had been cleared for the camper.

We hadn’t seen another soul on the mountain since we had started our hike back at the car, but our immense sense of solitude evaporated at the sight of the camper.

The hair raised on the back of my neck.  I felt Amber’s pulse speed up through her fingers that gripped my forearm.

“Let’s turn back.”  I whispered in her ear.

Once we got back on the other trail we continued on toward the summit, and in short order came to another point where the trail branched off to the left.  I looked at the map on my phone and tried to decipher which trail we should take.

As we stood there trying to decide which trail to take we heard the echo of a shotgun blast clap through the trees.  It had to be a couple miles away.

“We’ll go this way.”  We stayed to the right.


We had started on the south face of the mountain, but according to our GPS we were on the north face now, near the summit.  The south face of the mountain was filled with thick undergrowth, wet grass, and ponderosa pine trees whose canopies weren’t so thick that light was blocked from making its way through.  On this north face of the mountain, tall cedar-grand firs dominated the scene, blocking out sunlight that had still yet to poke its way through the overcast skies.

The hammering of a woodpecker high in a cedar cracked the silence again.  We kept moving.

Eventually, we circled the summit back to the south face, and climbed our way to the top.  A congregation of boulders made up the summit, and on a clear day we could have surveyed a good portion of Moscow and the Palouse hills to the south of the mountain.  But the misty haze had thickened, and a blanket of gray was all that we saw.

We’d hiked about three miles to reach the summit, and now it was time to make our way back down the mountain.  Not wanting to backtrack, since at the time I was sure we could find a quicker way back down than the way we had come up, we located a trail that descended steeply down the southern slope.  It was more of a ravine, and the heavy spring runoff had filled the trail with a litany of debris.


Once we made it out of the ravine, the trail became clear of debris and level again, making a gradual descent in a series of switchbacks.  Possessing the geographic coordinates of the location of the car, I followed my GPS until the trail took a sudden and unexpected switchback.  Instead of continuing to descend, this switchback turned back up the mountain, and we surmised that it was a loop back to the summit.

Straight ahead of us there was evidence that the trail we’d been walking had continued to descend down the mountain at one time, albeit it had grown over with grass, plants, and some young trees.  While it was clearly not heavily traveled, it certainly looked passable at the time.

Not wanting to turn back, we decided to forge ahead, and attempted to disturb the flora as little as possible as we made our way along our new trail that was not so heavily trafficked.  After traveling down a steep grade for about a half mile, and making a few brief but steep climbs as well, we confirmed that the trail had officially disappeared.

We considered turning back, but at this point we were far closer to our car in terms of pure distance, and I was sure we would intersect with a trail at some point soon.

We forged ahead.


Continuously checking my GPS, we continued to descend, navigating through and around small trees and bushes, climbing over logs and fallen trees, and trying not to slip on the wet grass.

We stopped abruptly at a whirring noise we hadn’t noticed since the beginning of our hike.

The sound of cascading water.

Blind to where exactly the sound was coming from, we had no idea the width or depth of whatever stream or creek we were coming upon, but we were sure to be reaching it soon.  The thickening of the undergrowth and darkening canopy of the pines corroborated the stream’s whooshing claim that we would soon be crossing its path.

When we came out of the undergrowth to the shadowed creek-bed, the stream was not as mighty as its song had built it up to be.  Maybe three feet at its widest, we simply stepped over the stream and continued our journey.

Continuing to work our way south, we eventually made our way to Idler’s Creek, the recipient of the smaller tributary we first crossed.  Although about twice as large as its tributary, Idler’s Creek posed no problems in crossing either, as Amber and I made an easy jump to the other side.

As we exited the forest, the sun attempted to force its way through the clouds for the first time all day, and there before us was a gravel road.  We’d made it to the base of the mountain.

Although our car was now east/southeast of us, our exhausted selves gladly accepted the flat, forgiving surface of the road that took us straight south.  If we stayed on the road the entire way, our GPS told us we’d have another three miles to walk.  We were far closer to our car as the bird flies.  We’d try to figure out how to get over the ridge to our left that separated us from our car at some point, but for now we’d gladly head south.


We passed a few houses along the way, and eventually spotted some signage and a gravel parking lot off to our right.  We made our way into the lot, and after studying the sign discovered that we were on the edge of Idler’s Rest Nature Preserve, maintained by Palouse Land Trust.  A large map was on the sign as well, showing the loop trails that went up the ridge to the east, right in the direction we wished to go.

We decided our chances were better trying the trail, so we set off across the road to the east.  Sunshine peeked down through the tops of the old pines, dancing off Amber’s pearly legs as she glided across a short plank walkway, and soon, the forest opened up, giving way to a corner of prairie grass to our right as we hugged the grassy hillside and climbed to the top of a steep hill.


Yearning for oxygen, our lungs went into overdrive as we made our final climb.  After reaching the gravel road we recognized to be the correct one, we worked up the hill. We laughed as our legs struggled to go on, exhausted after our journey, and the road made one final switchback.

Waiting humbly on the side of the road, with the innocence of a virgin, was the bright body of the Volkswagen.

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