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Red (Painted) Mountain and the North Fork Trail

11/24/13, 7.5 miles of hiking • 2500' elevation gain •

The plan was to do one more hike in the North Fork Sauk area off the Mountain Loop Highway before the road was closed due to snow. The route was simple: head up the Red Mountain Lookout Trail then descend and travel the North Fork Sauk Trail to Mackinaw Shelter or, time and energy permitting, White Pass. The trail to the old lookout was in pretty good shape overall and guided us through a splendid example of old growth forest. The way was wonderfully wrought with sylvan delights and we took our time looking and listening to all around us. It soon became apparent that, as we ascended, so did the temperature: we had encountered an inversion zone. As we relished in the warmth of a mid-autumn's sun, Sloan appeared to our right, dominating the horizon in blinding whiteness. The view from the old lookout added to the majesty of the day and, spirits invigorated with the warmth of the sun, we headed further up the trail towards Red Mountain. After a short while, we arrived at an interesting rock formation which invited some scrambling which all of us accepted. Here we encountered some old scat that appeared to be bobcat but there was no further evidence of the feline to be found. The way up steepens sharply and quickly became a challenge as snow now covered most of the way. Not having planned to go much beyond the lookout, we decided to save further explorations of big Red for another day and so, still basking in the warmth of the day, we began our descent. As we neared the junction to the North Fork Sauk Trail the temperature dropped quickly and we began ruing our decision to descend but, having done so, we set off down the trail. The way wanders through a beautiful old forest not far from the Sauk River, her raucous song dominating our hearing. As we traveled further, the snow began to appear in earnest and, combining with mud frozen solid in grotesque shapes, sought to twist ankles and knees with every step. Having dallied longer on Red than planned, our travels beside the Sauk were time-constrained and, having reached our preset turn-around time, we did just that, quickening our pace to ward off the cold of the day. Arriving back at the trailhead we decided this was an outing to be made again with the goal of standing atop Red and taking in the views he surely will reveal to us.
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