The summer of 2019 afforded the opportunity for a partial sabbatical, and hiking was a major part of my sabbatical plans. I have been wanting to return to Mount Rainier National Park, where I spent a week during my last sabbatical. My goal has been to thru-hike the Northern Loop trail, which takes in part of the famed Wonderland Trail circumnavigating Mount Rainier. One of the most difficult parts of hiking in MRNP, is getting a permit for the itinerary and dates one wishes to have. After several reservation attempts, and multiple phone calls, it became clear that the Northern Loop was not to be for me this year. So, I put together an itinerary in the Northeastern part of the park, a circumnavigation of Mother Mountain.
Day 0 – Getting there After days of shopping and packing and repacking, I loaded up the Subaru and hit the road. It is a LONG drive from Sacramento, especially when you’re driving alone. I spent the night at a “lovely” KOA kampground outside of Corvallis, where I spent the evening with the RV and Bud Light crowd.
Day 1 – The Mountain I got an early start the next morning, and arrived at the Carbon River Ranger station around noon to pick up my wilderness permit. They take these very seriously here, you are expected to have it displayed prominently at all times. I found a nice shady parking spot in the small parking lot at the Carbon River trailhead, loaded up, and started walking.
The first day’s hiking was five miles along an old washed out road, running along the Carbon River. The Carbon has a history of extreme flooding, and it is very evident here. Massive trees laid on their sides, pulled up out of the earth, taking large boulders along with them. My destination for the night was the Ipsut Creek campground, and for many years, this was a regular drive-up campground. But flooding of the Carbon River had caused so much damage to the road over the years, that now it is only accessible by foot or bicycle, and is part of the backcountry camp system.
I arrived at Ipsut Creek camp, found a lovely campsite in the damp Northwest forest, and got set up. That first night was spent reading up, and carb-loading for the next day of hiking, which would be more difficult and substantial!
Day 2 – Crossing the Carbon Today’s walking would involve 2,200′ of elevation gain over five miles, and two crossing of the Carbon River, as I headed towards the next campsite at Cataract Valley. The first part of the trail has some initial climbing, and a number of stream crossings, before arriving at the lower crossing of the Carbon River. This part of the river is very wide and braided, and has several small footbridges to get to the other side. I had crossed this before, and knew it was manageable. After getting across the first bridge, I came across a trail crew, who were preparing to re-build a washed-out log bridge across a particularly dicey section of the river. That unfortunately, meant I had to rock hop across a deep, swift, cold glacially fed torrent, which is usually a pretty sphincter tightening experience for me. But I made it across with a little help from the crew, and finished the crossing without incident.
The trail then turned south heading towards the Carbon Glacier, steadily climbing a mile-and-a-half to return back to the western side of the Carbon River, and the last climb up to Cataract Valley. In order to cross back at this spot, a 205 foot long suspension bridge has been built to the other side. Even though it is well built and sturdy, it is still a bit unnerving, as it rocks and sways as you cross… Indiana Jones style. I continued the last steep couple of miles to Cataract Valley camp, and arrived in mid-afternoon, found a campsite, got set up, and rested for the afternoon. I was pretty tired, so after dinner, I headed to bed pretty early, to rest up for the big day coming.
A word about backcountry camping in Mount Rainier NP… There are designated and numbered campsites, which are the only places you are allowed to camp. Your wilderness permit specifies which camp you are reserved for, and you have to stick to your itinerary. Each campsite has a good clear water source, some kind of backcountry toilet (no trowels or catholes!), and a steel pole for hanging your food bag. And the rangers do patrol and do check your permit.
Day 3 – A walk in the park Today was to be the longest and most difficult day of the trip, with 3,000’+ of up and 1,500′ of downhill over six and a half miles. The climbing starts immediately out of camp, and only relents occasionally, as the trail climbs up through a series of hanging meadows. As I climbed higher, the wildflowers got more and more spectacular, so photo breaks gave me plenty of excuses to stop and catch my breath.
As I got higher, I had the Mother Mountain complex in view to my right. This is actually a long steep ridge, consisting of three different summits, around which I was hiking. As I climbed ever higher, the vegetation became more sparse, and I entered the world of rock, snow, and ice on the Northern flanks of Mount Rainier. You have to really pay attention in this section, as the trail can sometimes be difficult to discern. The route required some boulder hopping, and a climb up a short but steep snowfield, as the views of Mount Rainier (the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states) got more and more spectacular.
After finally gaining the high point of the trail at around 6,340′, I started the descent into beautiful Spray Park. The wildflowers were off the charts here, with Backpacker magazine worthy photo opportunities at every turn! I’ve never seen anything like it in person. Even though it is a steady downhill, the trail here is extremely well constructed and easy to navigate. I also began to run into a number of day-hikers making their way up from Mowich Lake, many of whom seemed to be debating how much more uphill they really wanted to do!
As the trail continues to descend, it leaves the beautiful meadows of Spray Park, and enters the classic Pacific Northwest rain forest, for the last couple of miles to Mowich Lake. I started to realize that I had not been drinking enough water on this sunny day, so stopped near Spray Falls to fill up my bottles for the last bit of the trail. I guzzled like mad, and felt much better. By late afternoon, I left the rain forest as I arrived at my next night’s camp at Mowich Lake. Mowich is unusual in that it is accessible to day-users and car-campers via a 20 mile long drive on a washboard gravel road. But about half the campsites are reserved for backpackers, so I found a nice shady site, and set up for the evening. After a couple of quiet evenings at Ipsut and Cataract, this campground seemed much busier and noisier.
I struck up a conversation with a gentleman (I use the term loosely: ‘blowhard’ might be more apt), who had come out to Washington to help his son move back to Florida. He had a few days to kill, and had decided to go camping here on the spur of the moment, having stopped somewhere to buy a tent, pad, bag, and backpack to do it. He spent a good hour railing against Democrats, Liberals, Californians, the homeless, immigrants, and everyone else who is responsible for America’s ills. I did my best to be civil, but finally decided it was time to get into my tent to read and listen to the iPod.
Day 4 – And down we go! So far in the trip, I’d enjoyed stellar warm weather. But the forecast had been for a change, so I awoke to fog and wet everything. The fog burned off while I had coffee and breakfast, so I was able to dry things out enough to get packed and ready to head out. As I got ready to head out, the sun disappeared again, and the foggy conditions dominated the rest of the morning.
Today’s hike started with a 1.6 mile slightly uphill hike to Ipsut Pass. From the pass there was four long miles of downhill with 2,700′ of elevation loss, back to the Carbon River. I hiked UP this same trail in 2015, and knew just how steep it was going to be. The hike to Ipsut Pass was uneventful, and I had a little snack break before I started down. As I was getting ready to go, I ran into Heather, a hiker I’d met at Cataract camp two days before, coming up over the pass. It can be a small world out there! The downhill was steep, and sometimes slippery, so I was glad for a pole, and boots with excellent traction. The trail is fairly overgrown, and Devil’s Club (which you don’t want to get involved with) thrives here. But the gorgeous wildflowers and thimble-berries (yumm!) made up for it, as I headed to my last night’s camp back at Ipsut Creek.
I chatted with a father and son who arrived from the trailhead a little after I did. There were starting the same hike that I was doing, except counter-clockwise. They were a little worried about the weather, as significant rain was expected the next afternoon. He ended up talking me into selling him my backpack raincover for his son’s pack, which was not waterproof. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need it on my last day, so was happy to help. I was very tired, and went to sleep quickly that night.
Day 5 – Out of the wild I got up early, had coffee and breakfast, and packed up for the five miles back to the car. I was ready for a hot shower and cold beer, and the clean bed I had waiting for me. The walk out was enjoyable, with the a bit of sunshine peeking through once in while. I made it back to the car, and started the drive out.
I always crave tacos at the end of a backpacking trip, and spotted “Taco Time” in the town of Enumclaw, and knew that it was time for lunch! I continued on to the Crystal Mountain Resort on the east side of the park, checked into my room, and enjoyed a long shower/bath/shower. I headed on over to the “Snorting Elk Cellar” to sample a couple of local brews, and as I was midway through my second drink, an epic storm blew in, complete with thunder, lightning, hail, and wind. I thought about the people I’d met at Ipsut Creek, who were on the mountain in that weather, and hoped that they were okay!
A fabulous dinner in the Alpine Inn restaurant included Hungarian goulash, a fresh berry cobbler, and Irish coffee to finish it off. I felt great!
Day 6 – Home, James! I had it on good authority that my granddaughter and her parents were going to be in my neighborhood in a couple of days, and wanting to visit, so it was time to head home. After a massive breakfast at the Alpine Inn, I started to head home. I made a short side trip to the Sunrise area of the park, which I’d never seen, and then hit the road for the long drive back to Sacramento.
I made a stop in Portland for happy hour and gnosh with my good friend Bruce Neswick, who is the Canon Musician at our sister Cathedral there, and then headed to Eugene for a restful night in a newly built hotel room. And the last day, that long drive down Interstate 5 to Sacramento.
What a fantastic trip this was. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for some mountain adventure in the Pacific Northwest! The Mother Mountain loop is 27 miles long with 7,879′ of elevation gain and loss.
See complete photos here!
Footwear note: Those of you who have hiked with me know that my feet are always problematic on backpacking trips. Blisters are a constant problem, and I am always doing minor surgery at the end of each day to keep going. This year, I purchased a new pair of boots… the Adidas Terrex Free-Hikers. These are an interesting hybrid of a trail running shoe and hiking boot, and are super comfortable. For the first time ever, I finished five days of backpacking with NO blisters on my feet! This is a very big deal, and I love these boots. You can see a full review of them here: My Free-hiker review here