Sunday, August 12, 2007

Northern Loop at Mt. Rainier

Every year when Mt. Rainier backpacking reservations become available in March, we reserve a couple of trips. This is our first one this summer, a route called the Northern Loop.

Most summers, we'll have done a few overnight trips by the time prime Rainier backpacking season rolls around in August, but this year I injured my heel in June playing Ultimate, so it remained to be seen how painful it would be to hike 36 miles in four days, with 9000 feet of elevation gain and loss.

We started the trip on Friday, August 3. There was no rush getting down to Rainier since our first day was the easy one – eight miles, nearly all downhill. So we rolled out of the house around 10 AM and got to the wilderness center by the Sunrise entrance around noon.

On one of our prior trips, to Devil's Dream campground, the ranger said, “Why on earth are you going THERE?”, proceeded to tell us how mosquito-ridden the campground was, and tried to talk us into changing our plans. We persisted, though, and wound up cooking dinner in full rain gear and head nets because the bugs were mauling us otherwise. Ever since then, we pick up our permits with some trepidation for what the rangers will say.

This year there was special reason for concern, since flooding last November had knocked out most of the backcountry bridges and repairs were expected to proceed for most of the summer. But it was all good news at the wilderness center. One of the two rangers on duty had done the same trip the previous weekend and said the trail was in great condition. It's a loop hike and he had done it clockwise – he even commended us for choosing to do it counter-clockwise, saying that the steep switchbacks on the northwest corner of the loop were murder going uphill.

Furthermore, the last bridge on the Wonderland Trail had also just been replaced a day or two before, so now the Wonderland Trail is finally back open for business! Some day, we'll do that one, too...

Having gotten our permits, we proceeded up to the Sunrise Visitor Center, where the hike starts. We got there, took our boots out of the car, and ... mine had no insoles. I've been trying on various pairs of boots, swapping insoles in and out, and hadn't replaced them in this pair. Doh! I put the boots on anyway and tried walking around in them – naturally, I had to lace them up tighter than usual, but they seemed OK. Sarah convinced me, though, that with my recent heel problems, I really should have insoles for a 36-mile hike. So off we went, on a search for insoles.

Now, when you're at Mt. Rainier, you're pretty far away from facilities. Sure, you can get ice cream and flush toilets at the Sunrise Visitor Center, but Superfeet insoles? Uh, no. Sarah said there was a snowboard shop near where the road splits off for the Crystal Mountain ski area, outside the park and a ways back, so we started driving.

It was getting close to 2:00 now, so I started driving faster than I should, passing cars on the two-lane road out of Rainier. I passed a car and then a camper, both of which were doing the speed limit, and then the camper started flashing blue and red lights! It was a cop camper! That was a new one. I pulled over, bummed because I hadn't gotten a ticket in the entire time that I've lived in Washington – almost five years now. The cop came up and gave me a hard time, asking me how old I was, and talking about what an idiot I must be for not knowing that you can't cross on a solid line (I didn't) and you shouldn't pass five cars at once (didn't do that either). By now I was pretty scared – not only was I getting a ticket, but I was getting a brutal expletive-laced harangue in the process! Then the cop said something about me probably not knowing I was passing a sheriff – he'd give me credit for that. Finally, he told me to slow down – here is about where I realized that I might not be getting a ticket. But don't go the speed limit, he told me – he hates it when people go the speed limit in front of him when he's trying to get home. Keep it at 60. And that's what I did. Whew.

To make a long story short, Greenwater, the gateway town to Rainier on this side of the park, had no insoles. We had to go all the way back to Enumclaw, roughly 1.5 hours from the trailhead, where we found some Spenco insoles (no Superfeet) that seemed adequate. After buying those and driving back, it was 4:00 when we were ready to start the hike.

The Sunrise Visitor Center is around 6400 feet, so it's up in the alpine – although it may not be as well known as the Paradise Visitor Center, it's just as beautiful. And there were quite a few visitors today – day hikers going a mile out and back to walk among the wildflowers and catch the views of Rainier. Three rangers were on the trail within a quarter mile of the trailhead, doing a good job guarding the wildflowers from careless trampling. We said hi and passed quickly – we had eight miles to do in four hours.

A bit of orientation to the trail. You hike 2.4 miles out to where the loop starts. At that point, you reach a junction where the Northern Loop trail heads north, and the Wonderland Trail heads west. We were going counterclockwise, so we'd be taking the Northern Loop trail out to the Carbon Glacier area, and then taking the Wonderland Trail back to this junction.

The junction, as it turns out, is just into Berkeley Park, a gorgeous alpine park with views of Rainier, amazing wildflowers, rushing streams running through, and marmots everywhere. As we hiked, I got a little ahead of Sarah and saw a baby marmot at the side of the trail! I stopped to look, Sarah caught up, and the marmot freaked out, dashing across the trail right between us and scurrying into a marmot hole. Its curiosity got the best of it, though, because within seconds, it was poking its head out to check us out. Within a few more seconds, it seemed a bit edgy but more comfortable, so it moved around its hole more freely. I took some pictures:


As we stood watching this guy, we gradually became aware that he wasn't alone – we saw at least three other babies, all zipping around. We'd never seen baby marmots before – they sure move a lot quicker than the fat adult marmots that you see around Rainier! We also didn't see any adult supervision around, although surely the mother was nearby.

We continued on through Berkeley Park, enjoying the views of wildflowers. The paintbrush and lupine were out in force – I took plenty of pictures, even though we were still in a hurry to reach camp before dark:


We hiked through another park called Grand Park, which was a wide open alpine green space but didn't have the great wildflowers of Berkeley Park. And after a little less than four hours, we finally made it to the 0.4-mile side trail to the campground, Fire Creek Camp. It wasn't especially scenic – just a few campsites deep in the forest. We didn't care, though – we were just grateful to make it before dark. There were three campsites and we were the only campers, so we chose quickly and got dinner cooking – some prepackaged Indian food from Trader Joe's that tasted great. Then we hung our bear bag by headlamp light, finished setting up camp, and got into the tent to read for a few minutes before bed.

We didn't wake up until 8:00 the next morning. We had both slept fantastically well, getting a better night's sleep on the ground than we had gotten in our bed at home the previous week. Today's hike was harder – 9.5 miles with perhaps 2700 feet of elevation gain – but our boots had insoles now, so we had all day to do it. After a leisurely breakfast, we got on the trail at 9:45.

From Fire Creek, the trail continued down through forest to the White River – by the time we got there, our legs were already a bit wobbly from the steep downhill switchbacks. We saw a man by the river who would turn out to be the only person we'd see on the trail all day! While he filtered water, we sat down for a snack by Van Horn Falls:


After the river, it was back up, up, up – past Lake James to a place called Windy Gap, around 5800 feet. This was seven miles into the day's hike and by now we were beat, but we were grateful to be at the high point of the day's hike – it was all downhill to our next campsite. We sat down for a good long break to eat and rest our weary legs, and I took a few pictures:


The flowers leading up to Windy Gap had been pretty, but as we started heading down the other side, they became simply amazing. We reached the Yellowstone Cliffs – some imposing cliffs on the north side of the trail of yellow and red rock. But more impressive than the cliffs themselves were the wildflowers below them! The trail switchbacked through a steep meadow below the cliffs, and the meadow was full of lupine, tiger lilies, paintbrush, columbine, beargrass, and others whose names we didn't know. The meadow led right down to our campsite – here's the view as we were entering the campground:


We got into camp shortly after 4:00 this time, so we had plenty of time to set up camp and relax, which was perfect since the campground was incredibly scenic. There were only two campsites, one facing the cliffs and meadows and the other right over a rushing creek. We were the first campers, so we chose the cliff view and set up our tent. Here we are in our campsite, happy to be out of our hiking boots and into our sandals:


We proceeded to grab our books and our Thermarest chairs and veg out for a couple of hours just reading. A little after 6:00 another pair of hikers arrived, a man and a woman. After they set up camp, we chatted with them – they were doing the same hike that we were but in the other direction. And in two days. Two days! They couldn't get time off work, so they were just doing it over the weekend. Unbelievable! I asked the guy how the switchbacks had gone (the ones that the ranger had warned us about) – he joked that we had probably heard him swearing loudly toward the end. He said they had been backpacking every weekend this summer – I guess they'd have to, to be able to do 18 miles with 4500 feet of elevation gain in one day! Our hardest day of backpacking was the Na Pali Coast on Kauai – 11 miles with 5000 feet of elevation gain that just about killed us. They had done comparable elevation, and seven more miles!

We awoke a little earlier the next morning but were even more leisurely about breakfast, so we wound up starting to hike around 9:15 again. The other couple was just starting breakfast at that time – for having nearly 18 miles to go again, they sure didn't seem to be in a hurry! Maybe next summer I'll be in that kind of shape...

Yellowstone Cliffs was around 5200 feet, and we were descending to about 2900 feet this morning, with most of that on the steep switchbacks. I stopped to lace up my boots a bit more tightly, and we got going, turning switchback after switchback, through deep forest. Finally we reached the Carbon River, with a massive suspension bridge spanning it:


We took some time to walk out on the bridge (only one at a time) and enjoy the views up the river, looking at Carbon Glacier:


As we hiked further up the trail, we got our first good view of Mt. Rainier! Friday had been too cloudy, and on Saturday we were in the forest in the morning and out of view of the mountain in the afternoon. But now, walking up the river toward the glacier, we saw the glacier-covered mountain:


We continued hiking up along the east side of the glacier, taking frequent breaks as the elevation gain slowed us down. We stopped at Dick Creek, a campground where we stayed in October 2002 on our first Mt. Rainier backpacking trip. We weren't staying the night but we needed to filter water, and this was a good place to do it. While I filtered water, Sarah rested against her pack, and when I came back, she was out like a light. Eventually, she came to, refreshed after her ten-minute nap.

With our Platypus (water container) reloaded, we continued on up the trail, following Moraine Creek most of the way. This was the hardest part of the whole hike – we started the day a bit tired after the previous day's exertion, and the downhill switchbacks earlier in the day had sapped a lot of leg strength. Now I just didn't have a lot left. Footsteps became slower and slower – it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. Finally we stopped, took off our packs, dug out the Gatorade powder and made cup after cup of it in our plastic mugs. After drinking well over a quart, we continued on. We crossed a small relatively flat stretch before reaching the final steep uphill to a high point at 6100 feet. Here we rejoiced – it was now all downhill to Mystic Lake and Mystic Camp, where we were spending the night.

As we neared Mystic Lake, we saw a marmot on the trail in front of us:


He seemed to think it was his job to guard the trail because as we got closer, he got up on his hind legs as if he was going to fight us off:


We were undeterred, though, and after watching him for a minute or two, we continued towards him, driving him into his marmot hole, which, we saw as we got closer, was actually right on the trail.

The lake was a beautiful sight, and we stopped for a few minutes before it started drizzling – then we decided we should get to camp. A sign told us that the campground was only 0.2 mile away, and soon we were there. This campground was enormous compared to the previous two – seven campsites! It's on the Wonderland Trail, so it probably gets much heavier use. We were the first campers, so we had our pick of the sites – we chose #6, on the far end of the campground within earshot of the creek that was the campground's water source.

Pretty quickly, more campers arrived, occupying three of the other sites. For an uncomfortable 10-15 minutes, we heard quite a bit of thunder, a rarity in the Pacific Northwest. But it didn't amount to anything, and we stayed dry. We ate dinner and then walked back up to the lake to see the view.

There was a ranger cabin just above the lake, so we walked up to it and were rewarded by our best view of Mt. Rainier yet. We chatted with a couple of women who were also staying at Mystic Camp and enjoying the view from the ranger station – the husband and daughter of one of the women had just climbed Rainier view the northeast route, so we talked about that. After they left, we stayed and played a few hands of rummy as sunset approached and the light got softer. Right before we headed back, we put the camera on a timer and took a picture:


Then, walking down from the ranger cabin back to the lake, we were stunned by the sunset light on this rock – the view across Mystic Lake had been pretty during the day but at sunset it was breathtaking:


The next morning was Monday, August 6, our last day. We got up shortly after 6:00 – we wanted to start hiking early so we could start driving back early and have some time at home to wash our clothes, put away gear, etc. We actually sat up in the tent at 6:11 and after a quick breakfast of bagels and chocolate-covered espresso beans and teardown of camp, we were hiking at 6:49 – this might have been a new record for us.

Similar to the previous day, the trail started down to a glacier, but this time the glacier was Winthrop, the next major glacier east of Carbon. Winthrop was a noisy one – it was constantly rumbling, as rocks slid down the toe of the glacier. We stopped a few times to look and listen. The skies were perfectly clear, so the views of Rainier over the glacier were fantastic:


As we continued to hike up, we saw a baby black bear. It clearly saw us first because we only saw it dashing away through the forest. We looked around for its mom, but never saw her. Then we passed Granite Creek and finally reached the alpine meadow below Skyscraper Mountain, where we got the best views yet. In one direction was Mt. Rainier:


In the opposite direction, off in the distance, we could see Grand Park and beyond that, Mt. Baker, at the far left side of this picture:


And looming above us was Skyscraper Mountain. We saw the trail leading up – it was only maybe another 300 feet of elevation gain – but we passed for today:


After a long time munching on trail mix and enjoying the incredible 360-degree views, we reluctantly started heading down. We re-entered Berkeley Park and knew we were on the home stretch. Once again, we saw marmots, including one who was eating all the lupine in the area, to the point where the area around its marmot hole was devoid of any purple, forcing it to go farther afield for tasty flowers:


Then we climbed out of Berkeley Park and hiked back down to Sunrise. We took advantage of the soap and running water in the bathroom to wash our hands and faces and headed off. A pizza craving led to a long stop in the Enumclaw Pizza Hut where we gorged on breadsticks and a large pizza, and then we continued on our way home, exhausted but happy. We hadn't been sure how we'd handle this trip – after all, we'd only done one backpacking trip this summer and that was back in May at Denali. But while it was hard at times, it was well worth it – we couldn't wait to get back in three weeks for our next Rainier backpack of the summer.

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