Monday, August 27, 2007

Indian Bar at Mt. Rainier

Indian Bar is our favorite of all the backcountry campgrounds we've stayed at. It's a gorgeous setting, right on the Ohanapecosh River, with countless waterfalls streaming down the mountainside upriver, creating a stunning backdrop. Because it's a popular and small campground, we make our reservation each year in the spring to make sure we get a spot.

We'd been there two or three times already, always on an in-and-out weekend trip – hike in to Indian Bar, spend the afternoon and evening enjoying the amazing scenery, hike out and drive home. This time we were going to see more – we were going to start on a Friday and do a loop hike, taking the Wonderland Trail down to Indian Bar for one night, and then continuing to hike south to the southeast entrance to the park (Stevens Canyon), then back up the Eastside Trail to Deer Creek Camp for a night, and then out.

Because of the flood damage to Mt. Rainier last November, I called the Ohanapecosh Ranger Station on Thursday to make sure our hike was doable. The ranger told me that two bridges were out, one on either side of Deer Creek Camp, and both rivers were unfordable. Deer Creek Camp was inaccessible – how had I managed to get a reservation to stay there anyway? So much for that plan. So I improvised and asked if we could change the second night of our reservation to Indian Bar. I didn't have much hope, knowing how popular the campground is, but lo and behold, she was able to reserve it for me for Saturday. So instead of the loop hike, we'd do our standard in-and-out hike, with an extra day to spend at Indian Bar. As fallback plans go, this was a pretty fantastic one – there aren't too many places in the world I'd rather spend an idle day than at Indian Bar.

Friday morning, we packed up our stuff and headed out. I decided to try out my new hiking boots – Hi-Tec Altitude IVs to replace my worn out REI Monarch IIIs. It's never a wise choice to break in a brand-new pair of boots on a 20-mile backpacking trip, but excitement about trying out new gear won out over better judgment.

We picked up our permit close to 1:00, figuring this would leave us just enough time to get to Indian Bar, set up camp, and eat dinner before dark. At the wilderness center, the ranger mentioned a hairy creek crossing – a bridge was out, and while the creek was crossable most of the time, late in the afternoon on a hot day, the water tended to run high, making the crossing dangerous. He recommended crossing early in the day. Well, so much for that idea – it was already afternoon, and we wouldn't be hitting the creek until about 4:00. We'd just have to see what it looked like when we got there.

The first few miles of the trail are a superhighway – wide and smooth, and well-traveled with dayhikers. After a couple of miles of forested trail along Fryingpan Creek, the views started to open up, and then at Summerland, a popular dayhike destination, the views were stunning. It was a beautiful day – bright blue sky with just a few wispy clouds, jets leaving trails that stayed in the sky for ages, indicating perfect stillness in the stratosphere. Mt. Rainier was in full view:


Past Summerland, we traveled up a creek with pink wildflowers on either side. Our wildflower guide says they're Lewis monkeyflowers:


As we got past Summerland, we ran into several groups of hikers on their way back down. Two of them warned us about the creek crossing – one group, in fact, had backcountry permits for Indian Bar for that night, but had turned back because they couldn't get across the creek. How sad to cut short a trip to Indian Bar! Now we started to get a little worried. A few minutes further along the trail, we saw the creek. It wasn't wide, but too wide to jump across, and there just weren't any obvious places to rock-hop across. It seemed fordable, but the water was running awfully fast. We spent a few minutes walking around, trying to find the best place to rock-hop across, hoping we wouldn't have to try to ford.

Fortunately for us, a dayhiking family of four was stuck at the crossing and had been for some time – they'd crossed in one direction in the morning, and now were trying to get back across with the water running much higher in the afternoon. The two kids had made it across just fine, but the parents were stuck on the far side. The trail seemed to lead to an obvious rock path through the creek, but right in the middle, the water was tumbling over the rocks with such force that it didn't seem safe to cross using the path.

We asked the younger of the kids where he had gotten across, and he said he didn't know – he'd just jumped. Not very helpful. The older of the kids then came up to me. She said that she'd found an easier spot to cross just a bit downriver and walked me to it. The creek forked there, and the first fork was easy to cross. The second fork had two rocks spaced pretty far apart, but we made it across and thanked the girl for her help.

As we hiked out, we took a picture looking back – the parents eventually made it across, using the main rock path:


Next came the climb to Panhandle Gap and beyond that, more stunning views to the south. As Sarah hiked ahead, I took this picture, with Mt. Adams off in the distance:


The last 1.5 miles or so are straight down into Indian Bar. You'd think this might be a relief after the 3000 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead to Panhandle Gap, but it's not – the steep descent only serves to make already tired legs even more wobbly. We got a nice break, though, when I heard some rocks clattering to my left. I turned quickly and saw three white shapes walking in the opposite direction, soon blocked from view by a rise. We walked back up the trail a bit to get over the rise and waited, and very soon we were rewarded. The three white shapes multiplied to nearly two dozen – mountain goats, far more sure-footed than we, eschewing the steep trail for the even steeper mountainside:


At long last, we made it to the campground. The first and second sites were taken, so we set up camp in #3, then walked down to the river to make dinner. The dinner – soup and some prepackaged Indian food – was delicious after a long day of hiking, and as we were finishing up, the sun went down. We weren't expecting much of a sunset with hardly a cloud in the sky, but some wispy clouds appeared above the mountains up Ohanapecosh River just in time:


At the same time as the clouds were turning orange, the water turned red:


As the colors faded, we hung up our food bags on the bear pole and crawled into the tent. After reading a few pages of our books, we fell asleep, tired and content.

The next morning, we awoke to find the tent soaking wet. When we unzipped, we found that it was raining. After digging out our rain gear and putting it on, we got out of the tent and realized that it wasn't really raining – rather, we were in a cloud. We were completely fogged in and water droplets just seemed to be floating in the air. As we walked, they collected on our clothing, and as we brushed plants on the trail, our pants and boots got soaked.

With another night scheduled at Indian Bar, we didn't have anywhere that we had to go, though. We each had a book to read, and we'd brought a deck of cards. We had plenty of food, and an assortment of hot beverages – coffee, cocoa, cider, and a wide variety of tea bags. And Indian Bar has a great stone shelter, right across the river from the campground – it serves as the group campsite and was unoccupied. What a great day to spend lazing around camp!

We gathered up our stuff and headed to the shelter to make breakfast. From the shelter, we could just barely see the other side of the river:


And we did what we planned – mostly, we read. I had Nevada Barr's “Blood Lure” with me, about a grizzly bear attack and murder in a national park – Glacier, not Rainier, but still, maybe a little close to home. Good book, though – as a ranger turned mystery writer, Nevada Barr fills her books with details of the wilderness. Sarah had a Carl Hiaasen book – goofy, hilarious, and sans bears.

Whenever we got a little chilly, we'd dip a pot in the creek, boil water, and make another round of beverages. We played a few hands of rummy, chatted, made lunch. Every so often, the fog would tease us, seeming to lift, and then it would roll right back in. But we were content.

At one point I walked around and took a few pictures. Just as the water clung to our clothes, it clung to the flowers and plants in the meadow around the shelter:




Our one big activity of the day was to move our tent. While all the campsites at Indian Bar are beautiful, #2 is the best – the tent pad is in a clearing, with open views up the river. So we picked up our wet tent, with our stuff still inside, and walked it down the campground trail to site #2. When we were done, this is how it looked:


Eventually, around 4:30, it cleared up a bit, and we decided to go for a walk. We walked past Wauhaukaupauken Falls and looked through a field of wildflowers down the narrow gorge at the base of the falls:


Then we continued on the Wonderland Trail south, up and out of the river valley. The sky was still cloudy, preventing views of Rainier, but the views of surrounding mountains and valleys were unblocked:




As we headed back, we got some beautiful views down into Indian Bar:


The next day, we woke again to fog – we weren't actually in a cloud this time, so we'd be able to see the trail ahead of us as we hiked out, but there were no distant views to speak of. It was actually perfect hiking weather – cool and crisp – so the hike out of Indian Bar, which is normally a hot, sweaty, steep slog, 1000 feet straight up, was enjoyable. The brand-new boots were working out well, too – they were waterproof and very comfortable. At one point, well on our way out, we looked back – you can just see Indian Bar and the shelter in the lower right:


After about two hours, we reached Panhandle Gap and stopped for a snack. We quickly put on our hats, gloves, and multiple layers of fleece – the Gap was completely fogged in, with a stiff breeze blowing. A ranger walked by and we chatted briefly, and after wolfing down snacks, we were quickly on our way.

On the other side of the Gap, the fog wasn't as thick. When we got to the dreaded creek crossing, we found that the stone path across was actually a man-made walkway, several feet wide. It looked entirely different now – it was amazing to think that this had been nearly unpassable just two days earlier:


Back at Summerland, we enjoyed the monkeyflowers again:


And so did a marmot:


After another snack break at Summerland, we continued on our way down the trail. We took off some layers – we were out of the clouds now, and the air was warmer. We made good time on the superhighway part of the trail. The whole 9.6-mile hike took us six hours on the way out to Indian Bar on Friday, but only 4.5 on the way back.

As we left, we reflected on the trip. The conditions weren't optimal by most measures, but after seeing Indian Bar several times before in bright sunshine, it was fun to see another side of it, and the foggy Saturday made for a great lazing-around-camp day. It was another wonderful trip to our favorite backcountry campground.

No comments: