For several years, I have had the ninety-two mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier on my bucket list. With a sabbatical on the horizon this summer, I had decided this would be the year to do it. Unfortunately, over two-thousand people (a record number) had the same idea, and I was not successful in the wilderness permit lottery. Nonetheless, I was able to put together a short five day loop backpack trip together, and planned for another couple of days exploring the park.
After loads of training hikes, planning, and packing and re-packing, it was time to head to Washington.
Day 0 Getting there After loading up all of my stuff into a tiny rental car, I headed over to I-5 to begin the long drive to Mount Rainier. It has been many years since I drove this far up I-5, and I was looking forward to some excellent scenery. Unfortunately, due to wildfires from Clear Lake and Trinity County, the air quality was so poor, I could hardly see anything beyond the interstate. Even Mount Shasta was hidden in the smoke, while driving right past it.
I pushed on to Salem, Oregon, where I spent the night in a rest stop. Not the best night’s sleep, I have to say, but it put me within a few hours of the park. I whipped up a mug of french pressed coffee, and was back on the road.
Day 1 The Mountain My first task was to drive out to the Carbon River Ranger Station, to pick up my wilderness permit. They take them very seriously at this park, and you are expected to display it on your pack and tent at all times (more about this later). After getting the permit, I had to backtrack, and drive a twenty mile washboard road to Mowich Lake, where I would begin my trip.
I arrived at the lake, and it was teeming with activity. Being a Friday afternoon, there were lots of day hikers around, and I had to park about a quarter of a mile from the end of the road. There is a very primitive walk-in campground here, which is part of the backcountry campsite system, and where I would spend my first night. As the day-trippers left, several folks who were in the midst of their Wonderland Trail thru-hikes stopped in to pick up cached food supplies, and to spend the night before continuing on. I chatted with a couple who were on their fifth Wonderland hike, and were taking their five children (aged between about 6 and 12 yrs) along for the walk!
Day 2 A walk in the park (6.7 miles) The first part of my itinerary took me through the dramatic scenery of Spray Park. After walking a whopping 0.2 miles on the Wonderland Trail, I turned left and headed up the Spray Park Trail. The first part of the trail is in lush dark Pacific Northwest Rain forest. A short way along, I came to Eagle View, which gave me the first astonishing look at the mountain. A few minutes later, I was greeted by a park ranger on patrol, who carefully checked my wilderness permit, to make sure I was in the right place at the right time.
The trail climbs higher and leaves the rain forest for the beautiful high meadows of Spray Park. There are amazing views of not only Mount Rainier, but also of many surrounding peaks (including Mother Mountain, around which I am hiking). I stopped for a quick snack break just near the top, before topping out and entering rugged Seattle Park. In stark contrast to the green meadows and wildflowers of Spray Park, Seattle Park is a world of rock and ice and snow. Normally at this time of year, one would be navigating through snow. But it was a light snow year on Rainier, and so the route consists of a lot of loose talus and boulders. It would be easy to twist an ankle through all of the rock, so care has to be taken. After a while, I was back into the green, with trees, meadows, and wildflowers abounding. The grade of the descent is pretty steep, so my toes and quads were taking a beating. When I finally got to the sign for Cataract Valley Camp, I was ready to take the boots off!
Cataract Valley is a beautiful setting in the rain forest, with a burbling creek running right through the middle. Each of the backcountry camps includes a pole for hanging food bags out of the reach of the local bruins, and a toilet of some kind. In this case a solar composting toilet, which was not the best nor the worst I’ve seen.
I got my camp set up, and made dinner (“Rainier Rice” it was called. Really!), and then prepared for the night. At this moment, I went to move my wilderness permit from my pack to my tent, and couldn’t find it. It had obviously fallen off of my pack sometime during the day, and so I had some anxiety about being caught without it. But there was nothing I could do at that moment. It was obvious that it was going to rain that evening, so I got everything secured and climbed into the tent for the night. The gentle patter of the rain on my tent lulled me to a well earned sleep.
Day 3 The Return of Clubber Lang (9.4 miles) In one of the great scenes in the movie “Rocky 3,” a reporter asks boxer Clubber Lang (Mister T) what the outcome of the fight would be. “Pain!” was his simple reply. Clubber was going to be with me today, as I climbed the very steep Northern Loop trail up to Yellowstone Cliffs camp. The trail continued to drop from Cataract Valley, and everything was wet from the previous night’s rain, and so my pack and I were pretty damp by the time we got to the bottom at Carbon River. But the sun was shining, and things were drying out.
The Carbon River is the major drainage from the Carbon Glacier, one of the largest and lowest glaciers on the mountain. It is cold, deep, wide, fast moving, and loaded with silt, sand, and rock. In order to cross the Carbon, 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.
After crossing the bridge, I turned left and started up the steep Northern Loop trail. I had forgotten that I was going to take the short side trip up to see the Carbon Glacier, and by the time I remembered, it would have meant a major backtrack… and I just wasn’t up for it. Though most of the trail is in shade, I was working hard on the steep grade, and working up a mighty sweat. I was pleased when the trail leveled out a bit and got into the open, and a bit of a breeze cooled me down. As I approached Yellowstone Cliffs camp, I met a guy backpacking the other direction with his two teenage daughters. One of his girls was having blister problems, and they were having trouble finding the moleskin, so I gave them some of mine. At about the same time a backcountry ranger came by on patrol, and asked to see my permit. I shared my story about the lost permit, and he seemed to buy it. He needed to go to Yellowstone camp anyway, so we hiked down together. He called the ranger station on his radio, and got my permit information, and hand-wrote me a temporary permit to get me through.
Yellowstone Cliffs camp is about a thousand yards off of the main trail, and is small and quiet. I lucked out, and had the entire campsite to myself (along with a few curious mountain goats). After getting set up and making dinner, I decided to have a little after-dinner hike up to Windy Gap, the high point of the Northern Loop trail. This turned out to be the high point of the trip for me. Passing through high alpine meadows, spectacular views of the surrounding peaks dominated… totally worth the three mile uphill walk! I returned to camp, just in time for an unusual alpenglow display… instead of reflecting off of the rocky cliffs in the area, the setting sun glowed on the trees in the forest, to spectacular and eary effect. Darkness brought complete quiet and solitude… the best night of the trip.
Day 4 What goes up, must come down (8.8 miles) I was a little worried about going back down the steep Northern Loop trail… steep downhills usually do a number on my toes and quad muscles. But it was not nearly as bad as I had imagined, and I quickly found myself back down at the Carbon River for the next leg of my loop. At the lower crossing of the Carbon, the river has become much wider and more braided. So there is a long crossing of about .4 miles involving several small bridges and sand/gravel bars. The final foot bridge took me over the main part of the river, which was a little scary, as the river was very close to the bottom of the bridge, and was rushing by very loudly and quickly. But I safely made it across, and climbed out of the gorge and back into old growth forest.
The Carbon River 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. It was really quite amazing. My destination for the night is the Ipsut Creek campground, and for many years, this was a regular drive-up campground. But flooding of the Carbon River has caused so much damage to the road over the years, that now it is only accessible by foot, and is part of the backcountry camp system. But it was luxurious having a campsite with a picnic table and food storage box (and a toilet with walls and a door!). It is a lovely spot in the midst of old growth forest, with lots of ferns, moss, and tundra.
As I got my campsite set up, there was quite a bit of thunder from a storm up around the mountain. I thought for sure we’d get another night of rain, but the system seemed to blow the other direction, and it turned out to be a lovely warm evening.
After dinner, I decided to take a little evening hike out on the old park road, back across the Carbon River to lovely Chenuis Falls, a refreshing forested grotto, which seemed far from the rest of the world. Returning to Ipsut campground, I went to bed early, anticipating the challenging hike to come.
Day 5 Back to where I started (5 miles) My last day of backpacking promised a 2,700′ climb over three miles to Ipsut Pass, which would return me to my car at Mowich Lake. The hike started innocently enough, but soon the grade intensified, and the quality of the trail got sketchier. Thimbleberries (similar to raspberries) grew in proliferation right along the trail, so I used them as an excuse to stop and catch my breath, while snacking away. After a couple of hours, I finally made it to the top of Ipsut Pass, which presented spectacular views. All that was left was a relatively easy one mile hike back to the car.
When I returned to the car, I found my missing wilderness permit hanging from the door, with a note scribbled on it. Someone had found it in Seattle Park, and remembered meeting me on the trail, and having had a conversation about the missing permit. I drove to the bustling town of Enumclaw, where a motel room/shower/clean sheets/tacos/beer awaited. I had a great night’s sleep.
Day 6-7 Playing the tourist I had planned to head back to Rainier, to experience some other areas of the park. I drove from Enumclaw down to the east side of the park, where I decided to do a 8 mile hike to the beautiful meadows of Summerland, which is reputed to have some of the best views of the mountain to be had. The hike starts out like most of them here do… in shady old growth forest. After an hour or so it breaks out into meadows, and grants exceptional views of the mountain. Arriving in Summerland, I had a lunch break, and headed back down to the car.
I continued to drive the park road all the way around the eastern and southern sides of the park, and found my campsite at Cougar Rock campground, just in time for happy hour. I had good local brew and some snacks to consume, so it was a good lead up to… dinner!
The next morning, it was time to think about heading back to Sacramento. I explored the Paradise and Longmire areas after breakfast, had a picnic lunch, and then hit the road to Portland. Arriving in Portland, I visited Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, and after many years, got a chance to play the gorgeous Rosales pipe organ. The day finished with dinner with Cathedral Canon for Music, and long time friend, Bruce Neswick. And then it was back on the road to Sacramento.
All in all, it was a fantastic trip, and I am keen to return to Rainier soon!
A few other sundry notes:
- I am usually plagued with foot problems on backpacking trips. This year, I had one tiny blister on my right bunion. Other than that, no other blisters, no black toenails.
- Last year’s backpacking trip in Sequoia National Park found me bailing out two days into the trip due to extreme back and shoulder pain. I really worked on my core strength this summer, and had no back or shoulder issues.
- Mount Rainier National Park has the best log bridges I’ve ever seen. They are cut evenly with a nice level, wide tread, placed firmly, and sometimes have handrails. They are vastly superior to anything I have seen in the Sierra. And Rainier’s bridges are frequently washed out year after year, due to glacial flooding. Yosemite/Seqouia-Kings/Inyo take note!
- I seem to have gotten thru-hiking the Wonderland Trail out of my system. It seems very busy, and counter to a wilderness experience. However, the Northern Loop Trail is now on my bucket list.
Complete trip photos here
See my gear list