Last week I “thru-hiked” from the Kelley Creek/Martin Creek trailhead up to Johnson Mountain, and then out to the Johnson Ridge trailhead. From there I biked back to my starting point, creating a fun bike/foot loop.
I’m really loving this type of route these days! Traveling across the landscape using multiple forms of human-powered transport. Connecting routes/trails in ways that haven’t been done before (at least not recently). Some off-trail travel/navigation (although not quite as much as I’d hoped). Views!! Big trees!! Bike section is at least 50% off-pavement. Long enough that I end the day feeling tired but not shattered. Home in time to tuck in my daughter. And icing on the cake for this route: they even spelled Kelley correctly 🙂
The bike section was a known quantity, and basically just a way to shuttle myself back to my starting point while exploring some new-to-me gravel roads and enjoying some nice scenery. It was a great way to end the day!
The foot section was the more “exploratory” part of the route. Trip reports and maps provided mixed information about this section. I knew that there would be a well-established trail from Johnson Mountain west. I also knew there would be a reasonable trail from the Iron Goat/Martin Creek trailhead up the Kelley Creek drainage at least a couple miles. It was the miles in between that were uncertain. The new Kelley Creek trail has not been officially connected to the old Kelley Creek trail. I found a couple of good trip reports, but they were from years ago (2005 and 2015) and did not describe going all the way through from trailhead to trailhead. Just recently, one group did go all the way through, but they bushwhacked down from Johnson Ridge to Kelley Creek, with the key word being “bushwhacked.” They hadn’t successfully found the trail leading off of Johnson Ridge, and fought a lot of brush and talus until they finally got back on trail below Captain Point. While I admired their tenacity, I had a hunch there was an easier way.
It turns out that if you start at the Kelley Creek trailhead and make your way north to Johnson Ridge, the route is relatively easy indeed. I was surprised to find that as soon as the Kelley Creek trail starts to fade even slightly, flagging begins. There were a few times I had to stop and look for the next flag, but for the most part, the flagging leads you right up the Kelley Creek drainage to the Captain Point ridgeline, on mostly good tread the entire time! It gets a little narrow and brushy in places, and could use some maintenance, but the tread is almost always there, and when the tread disappears the flagging picks up.
On the one hand, I was a little disappointed at how much flagging was up there, and that it no longer felt like an “exploratory mission.” On the other hand, the mosquitoes were terrible on the ridge between Captain Point and Johnson Mountain, and it sure was nice to just keep moving from flag to flag, without stopping frequently to check a map!
Kelley Creek trail – current conditions:
The first couple of junctions from the Iron Goat/Martin Creek trailhead are clearly marked – just follow the signs directing you to Kelley Creek. It is a little brushy at first but quickly clears up. You reach a scenic bridged crossing of Martin Creek at 0.5 miles. By this point, the brush is gone and if anything, the trail almost seems to improve as you go along, widening and remaining clear. Large trees line the trail, and you soon enter Wild Sky wilderness.
The climb up the drainage starts out gently, rolling along with plenty of flat sections. Big thanks to the crew that recently logged out this section! At mile 2.8 you reach a partially hidden waterfall, with a viewing spot carved out of the trail. This would make a good place for a lunch/snack break, or even a turnaround if you’re looking for something on the shorter side. At mile 3.1 you cross a stream with no bridge that could be tricky in high water. It was a non-issue the day I was out there. In general, this first section along Martin and Kelley Creeks felt a bit like the Woody Trail at Wallace Falls State Park. The waterfalls along Martin and Kelley Creeks aren’t as spectacular as Wallace Falls, but neither are the crowds. 🙂 The trail crosses Kelley Creek at mile 3.25. There is no bridge here, but there is a giant log, not to mention the creek is currently shallow enough to easily ford.
After the log crossing over Kelley Creek, the trail gradually becomes more narrow and faint, and has crumbled down the hillside in a few places. But it is definitely still a trail, very much passable, and not even that brushy for mid-summer in the PNW.
At 4.2 miles you reach a clearing (perhaps the location of an old landslide?) with views across the valley to the other side of the drainage. The tread becomes even rougher here, but still present. Stick to it! There are plenty of cut logs to reassure you that you’re on the right track. There are a couple of tricky spots where the trail seems to disappear, but it’s usually just a switchback hidden by blowdown. Keep your eyes peeled for flagging and take your time. At no point should you actually be bushwhacking. The tread is always there. This section is a good place to fill your bottles, as the last running water is at 4.5 miles. After that, there were no water sources at all, unless you drop down to Joan Lake.
As you finish climbing out of the Kelley Creek drainage and walk the ridge between Captain Point and Johnson Mountain, the trail starts to fade even more. However, the flagging becomes more consistent, and almost excessive in places. If you lose the tread through this section, just look for the flagging.
The final meadow before you reach the maintained Johnson Ridge trail is glorious, expansive, and green, filled with wildflowers and buzzing bees. And views! Great views of Stuart, Daniel, Hinman, and beyond.
I picked up the maintained trail and then took a short jaunt up Johnson Mountain. It was mid-day at this point, and hot, and I wasn’t sure if the side trip would be worth it. But it was! The views from the top of Johnson Mountain are even better than those along the ridgeline. I took a bunch of photos and then began the journey along Johnson Ridge back to the trailhead, where I had stashed my bike earlier that morning.
The Johnson Ridge trail is in excellent shape, and much of the way is on smooth forest duff that is perfect for trotting along, if you so choose. I made great time through here and was back at my bike before I knew it.
The bike ride from the Johnson Ridge trailhead to the Iron Goat/Martin Creek trailhead was lovely. NF-6520 is a steep gravelly descent from the Johnson Ridge trailhead down to Beckler Rd, and you can really pick up some speed through here. The gravel is in good condition with only a couple short sections of washboard and potholes. Don’t go too fast, though, or you’ll miss the views of Mt Fernow, as well as a long view the down the Beckler River Valley, which I especially enjoyed because I knew I’d be riding through there within the hour. Beckler Rd is paved, but it is similar to a gravel road in terms of scenery and lack of traffic. There was a headwind through here, but the gradual decline helped me maintain speed without too much effort. Finally I reached Hwy 2, the one part of the trip I wasn’t super excited about. I’ve ridden up and over Stevens Pass before, and as a whole, Hwy 2 is not very bike-friendly.
However, Hwy 2 wasn’t as bad as I remembered. Yes, there are a few places where the shoulder is narrow and the cars whizzing by at 60+ mph seem awfully close. But for this route, you’re only on Hwy 2 for approx 5 miles, and there are stretches of road with a very wide shoulder that allow you to get plenty of distance from the traffic. There is even a scenic viewpoint: Keep an eye out for a gated “Stewardship Forest” on your right that offers unobstructed views of Bald Eagle and Silver Eagle Peak. In addition, there was a tailwind along this section, so although I was climbing, it felt like a pretty easy ride.
Soon enough, you reach the turn-off for Old Cascade Highway. Although this road is paved, it is similar to Beckler River Rd in that it feels like a gravel road in terms of solitude and scenery. After several miles on Old Cascade Highway you turn on to NF-6710, and finish the last few miles of the route on a proper gravel road. I climbed the final hill under the watchful eyes of a barred owl, and reached my car around dinnertime, happy to have spent the day outside, exploring new-to-me routes under my own power.