Mosquitoes everywhere. Angry black clouds were bashing into our eyes, screaming in our ears and pouncing on exposed slivers of flesh. This is what camping at Merritt Lake is like in the summer.
With a classic alpine setting at 5,000 feet elevation, Merritt Lake is nestled on Nason Ridge, just east of Stevens Pass. It’s a postcard-perfect venue: deep blue water edging a shoreline studded with evergreens and a boulder-strewn amphitheater as backdrop.
There’s everything you’d want in a quick overnighter, except for the mosquitoes. Which is a shame because it’s hard to enjoy all that beauty when you’re fighting off fierce hordes of insects.
But fall is a different story.
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By October, the air is crisp, the huckleberry bushes have turned a radiant orange and the mosquitoes have called it quits for another year.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to stop camping just because school is back in session. I first started camping in the fall when I noticed that my hiking guidebook listed some of my favorite locations as “open until October.” That’s because many high-elevation spots don’t thaw out until July, but often remain snow-free well into fall. While recent early snow was a warning that you have to be wary — and prepared — we could just as easily have a spell of sunny autumn in coming weeks that will lure you back to the hills.
In fact, now is the time of year when you can have some of the best alpine locations to yourself, so long as you’re willing to put up with short days and some chilly weather.
A season in flux
On one visit to Grand Lake, near Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, a chilling mist sent us scuttling to bed at an early hour. Earlier, our group had been huddled together gawking at the tremendous bowl of stars above.
Come morning, we awoke to discover a layer of ice coating our tents like the glaze on Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The mist that had chased us from our stargazing had retreated, leaving a world of white in its wake.
Grass that had been brown and nondescript the day before stood like powder-coated soldiers around our camp. A thin film of ice frosted our gear, the lake, shrubs and rocks, until an advancing beam of slow-motion sunlight erased it inch by inch.
Was it cold? Of course, but a blinding white, ice-coated alpine landscape isn’t something you get to see every day, and enduring some degree of discomfort was a small price for witnessing this phenomenon.
Slow your roll
Camping is the chance to narrow your world. When you spend a day at a campsite, you sit for long hours staring at very small windows of life. You have a chance to notice the subtle workings of your environment.
The high country in October means those small windows reveal a narrative we don’t often get to see. It’s the last gasp of life before plants and animals are buried under several feet of snow for the next eight months.
At Merritt Lake, spent wildflowers are dropping their seeds hoping for a fresh start come summer. Fish break the surface of the water every few seconds. But harder to see are the pikas that live in the scree slope at the north end of the lake.
On a recent visit we bypassed the lake’s campsites, choosing to scramble up to a small cliff adjacent to the rock pile where the pikas live. We set up our Therm-a-Rest chairs and watched the gradual changes in the colors of the lake. Hours passed as we sat and watched quietly. Eventually we heard shrill “peeps” from the rock field to our left.
Shadows darted across the rocks. The adorable miniature, rabbit-like mammals with tiny round ears bolted from car-sized boulders to search out the last of summer’s grasses among the clefts of rock.
There are some unique safety concerns when you camp in the fall, most notably the changeable weather.
One of the most amazing sights in the high country is watching the weather transform from sunny skies, to sideways rain, to blowing snow, and back to sun in less than an hour.
Rangers recommend that you check the extended forecast before heading out, and pack a small weather radio. Don’t rely on your cellphone because the signal can be unreliable in the mountains. And be sure to tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to return.
Packing rain gear is essential. Even if the forecast looks promising, prepare for the worst. Carry a stove that you’ve tested (to ensure that it works and you know how to use it), a quality sleeping bag (you want one with a “minus” — below zero — rating) and emergency heat packets (the air-activated ones that are sold as glove warmers). Avoid wearing cotton clothing because it won’t keep you warm if it gets wet — instead go with synthetic fabrics and wool.
Another useful trick is to pack your spare clothes and sleeping bag in a waterproof stuff sack or garbage bag when you hike.
The hunting season is in full swing on many public lands in October. To stay safe, wear brightly colored clothing, talk loudly when you hike and make your presence known if you hear gunshots. If you’re hiking with a dog, consider getting your pooch a bright vest or sacrifice an old orange T-shirt.
Seattle freelancer Jeff Layton has traveled to more than 75 countries as a journalist, photographer and tour leader. He blogs at www.MarriedToAdventure.com.