Snow-capped Mount Rainier stood above sea of white fog filling the valleys stretching to the east. Rare peaks of dark green peeked from scattered gaps in the cottony blanket covering the Black Hills. Capitol Peak at 2,659 is the second tallest peak in the Capitol State Forest. Neighboring Larch Mountain to the north tops it by a foot. Both stood tall enough to rise above the morning fog that covered the lowlands. As such, they provide the best vistas in the county south of the Olympics.
It took me longer to get there than it should have. I keep failing to follow my own advice: Bring a map. For some reason, I also keep getting lost.
I found an online map but lacking a printer, settled for sketching out the logging roads I’d need to follow to get there. Unfortunately, rather than write Rock Candy Mountain Road, I wrote Summit Lake Road, which intersects with Highway 8 at the same point as Rock Candy Mountain Road, only on the north. I found Summit Lake Road without problem; there’s even a logging road heading into the forest at that point. The problem is Summit Lake Road forms a loop with two points that intersect with the Highway. The first intersection is the KC-Line, which I followed hoping it would take me where I wanted. Had I had a good map, it would have. However, I lacked a map, so turned around and tried to enter the forest from the Straddleline ORV Park. Again. Wrong entrance. This is the A-Line. It, too, would have taken me where I wanted to go if I had a better map or knew where I was going.
After the two false starts, I finally found my sketched entry point and made my way to the trailhead.
The state doesn’t seem to mark the mainline at intersections with branch lines. So, when deciding which way to go, I found myself taking the unmarked route and using the signed (when there were signs) branch lines to let me know I hadn’t strayed off the main line. Eventually I found myself climbing a steep C-4000 ascending the flank of Larch Mountain. Soon after the road levels out at a broad intersection, a pair of trails head off to the left: the Twin Peaks Trail and Capitol Peak Trail.
The Twin Peaks Trail actually crosses the road: on the east side it descends the valley toward the Waddell Basin West Trail; on the west side it travels between Larch Mountain and Capitol Peak to an intersection with the Larch Mountain East Trail. Both were longer and steeper than I was interested in taking. Instead, I headed along the Capitol Peak Trail.
It heads south on a fairly level track through second-growth fir. During the winter months, hikers should have the Capitol Forest trails to themselves; horses, ATVs and mountain bikes are allowed to use the trails in the north half of the forest (including Capitol Peak Trail) from April through October. Mine was the only vehicle parked at the trailhead and I saw no other hikers.
The trail is broad enough for quads to pass and rather well maintained. After a bit, the trail starts to climb as the trail turns toward the west as it circles the flank of the peak. Towards the end of trail, it intersects with a trail heading up to the right. I kept headed straight ahead and soon passed a pile of garbage, including several plastic children’s toys, beer cans and other debris. I wasn’t able to pack out much of it.
Eventually, the trail comes to the cleared peak of the mountain from the west side, which bristles with more than a dozen communication towers. The towers are surrounded by fences and signs prohibiting trespassing and warning that the metals have no salvage value to deter theft. From here, the view of Mount Rainier and the hills to the east are spectacular. To the north, Larch Mountain blocks much of the Olympic Mountains from view; clouds obscured much of the rest. A chill wind whipped through the yellow grass growing up between the towers.
Instead of heading back via the route I came, I took a footpath heading downhill from the peak’s east edge: not the wide access road heading straight down from the peak towards Rainier, but the footpath heading downhill just to the right of the road. It quickly rejoined the main trail just downhill of the garbage pile.
On the way down I heard the echo of motorcycle or ATV engines rumbling in the valley below. The sporadic pop of rifle fire peppered the air as well. The Capitol State Forest isn’t the quietest outdoors area around. About halfway down the trail, My dog, Dodge, and I stepped aside to let a line of six men riding quads pass on their way up the trail.
Dodge didn’t know what to make of them. Once he realized they were people, he wanted to jump up in greeting but he also wanted to tuck his tail and run from the noisy machines. He settled on a confused dance, bouncing up and down, tail tucked and wagging, as he struggled with his conflicting feelings. As pleasant as the riders were, waving and saying hello, I must admit I was surprised to see them since the rules, clearly posted on the trailhead sign, forbid all motorized traffic after October. I hope they use the extra carrying capacity of their vehicles to haul out the trash I couldn’t carry.
Capitol Peak Trail
How long: A little over a mile one way each way
How hard: Moderate
How to get there: Take Highway 8 east towards Olympia. After entering Thurston County (pass the barbecue place), turn right on Rock Candy Mountain Road. Follow the B-Line west to the intersection with B-5000; turn left. Follow B-5000 until it becomes C-4000. Continue uphill to intersection with B-1000; trailhead is on the left. A state Discover Pass is required.