CARSON — No huckleberries, and no wildflowers. It's the down side of hiking in Indian Heaven Wilderness this mid-September.
Here's the upside: Few mosquitoes and few people while still a chance to enjoy good weather and the gentle terrain of the lake-and-meadow plateau in the southern Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
"It's accessible and easy,'' said Cary Retlin of Olympia, hiking recently on Indian Racetrack trail No. 171 at the south end of Indian Heaven. "A mile here seems a lot shorter than a mile in the Olympics where it's so steep.
"It's not so challenging,'' he added. "It's a great place to learn map reading.''
Racetrack trail No. 171 from Panther Creek road No. 65 to the summit of Red Mountain is a 3.87-mile trip one way.
The trail is not too steep, not too long and the trailhead is not too far away — all pluses when scheduling a hike in the shortening daylight of late summer and early autumn.
From the trailhead on road No. 65, the trail crosses Falls Creek on a bridge in just beyond a quarter-mile.
The elevation at the bridge is 3,590 feet and it the trail climbs relatively steeply reaching 4,372 feet elevation before dropping slightly and reaching a large tarn at 2.55 miles.
Trail No. 171 passes the tarn and arrives at Indian Racetrack at 2.74 miles.
The meadow is large and bissected by the historic Kalam'T Indian Racetrack. Once several feet wide, the former horse-racing track now is basically a trail through the meadow.
The racetrack was a gathering spot for Indians from as far east as Roosevelt in Klickitat County to the Willamette Valley on the west. The bands camped in the trees around the edge of the meadow and participated in social and religious ceremonies at the end of the huckleberry picking season.
"The racing season is the grand annual occasion of these tribes,'' wrote George Gibbs, a naturalist on the 1853 railroad survey expedition led by George McClellan. "A horse of proved reputation is a source of wealth or of ruin to his owner. On his steed he stakes his whole stud, his household goods, clothes, and finally his wives. They ride with skill, reckless of all obstacles, and with little mercy to their beasts.''
There were camps throughout Indian Heaven, not just at the racetrack. A 1910 Forest Service report estimated 1,500 Indians in the Red Mountain area.
From the meadow at the racetrack, the trail climbs 0.9 mile and 530 feet in elevation to road No. 6048. Continue heading up the road another 0.2 mile to Red Mountain Lookout.
Red Mountain was the first fire lookout on the Gifford Pinchot, according Forest Service archaelogist Rick McClure of Trout Lake.
McClure and retired Forest Service archaelogist Cheryl Mack are co-authors of "For the Greatest Good,'' a history of the early Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
The earliest lookout on Red Mountain was built in 1910. It was replaced with a standard cabin in 1935, which was replaced by a lookout tower in 1959.
A windstorm in December 2006 blew the lookout apart.
In summer 2007, a volunteer effort began to restore the damaged lookout. Volunteers donated labor in 2007 and 2008. Forest Service employees continued the work in 2009 and restoration was completed in 2010.
The lookout is locked and it's windows boarded, but visitors can climb the stairs and experience a splendid view, including mounts St. Helens, Hood, Adams and Rainier.
Retlin visited the lookout on Labor Day weekend, while a forest fire was burning on the north side of Mount Hood.
"It's something to be on a lookout with a fire close enough to see,'' he said.