My long time hiking friend Michele and I had been toying around with the idea... backpacking the Wonderland Trail around Mt Rainier in Washington. However neither of us had enough vaca time to hike the whole 125mi Wonderland Trail, so we opted for a 6 day option we called the Northern Figure 8, about 55 miles on the north side of Mt Rainier, its least busy side. This route encompasses the Northern Loop, and includes part of the Wonderland and Spray Park trails.
We talked up a few other friends and faxed our permits in on the first possible day in the spring of 2016. Almost immediately after the document went though, Miche;e phone rings. It was a ranger from Rainier, letting her know the entire permit system went down in a snowstorm, and therefor all permits would be served on a first come, first server basis for the rest of 2016.
Great, now what? Do we take the plunge, flying across the country without a permit, taking our chances and unsure of our possibilities? Or should we make new plans, backpack somewhere where permits are needed, or where it was possible to secure a permit? This dilemma reminded me of a trip to Glacier National Park, where our group of 4 secured permits for a 6 day dream backpack in the northern edge of the US/Canada border. Despite achieving the difficult task of getting a permit, a rogue bear & poor weather caused us to cancel the backpack, waiting out the storm while visiting Missoula and day hiking Glacier when better weather prevailed. Security couldn't be found in a permit. So we bit out lips and took the plunge.
When we arrived in Seattle in August, Michele and I got our rental car and headed straight to the campgrounds along the east side of the park. By 2pm everything was full, but a free horse camp had lots of available sites in a woodsy spot close to the park's east entrance. After setting up, we then went straight to the permit office to get a sense of the situation. We figured they would laugh us out of the office at 4pm, 1 hour prior ot closing, but the ranger was kind, excited to set up a permit for us, and out Figure 8 route fit perfectly into their scheduling system! Before we knew it, we were hugging the ranger, taking pictures with our permit and skipping out the door, eating burgers and slapping high fives! Rainier her we come!
Lakes & Bear Poles
The next day we started out backpack at Sunshine parking lot, which has a stunning, close up view of Rainier. The day was perfect or packs were weighted down with 6 days of food but you wouldn't have noticed with the lightness in or steps. We did it, permit flapping in the wind on the back of my backpack. Our 11 mile day took us through Berkley Park, Grand Park and finally Lake Eleanor, where we were the only group of backpackers staying the night. We swam in the lake, floated on a thermarest and chatted in the sun for hours until it was time for dinner.
Blowdowns & Bears, oh my!
The following morning we would leave Lake Eleanor & our first camp behind us. We walked back through Grand Park with the Rainier peeking over the edge of the field, up and over a moraine, and downhill, thankfully, over 64 blowdowns, from minor step-overs to huge path-blocking trees, pulling along our packs behind us. Just before lunch, we crossed a wide yet shallow rushing river and briefly lost the trail on the other side. We managed to find it and hiked back into the woods, past James's Camp and towards Yellowstone Cliffs, our next camp. Ahead of us in Mist Park, we saw movement in the grass. Sure enough, our first bear sighting, a good size bear, eating away, seeming unaware and no interest in our presence. We kept our distance and watched another hiker see the bear, and quickly and carefully walk on the path around him, running lightly once he got past. The bear paid no mind and continued eating berries. We chatted with the hiker and continued on up the trail, towards the bear, we moved carefully and quickly ,and once past, took out our cameras and got a few pics from a safer distance. He ate, ate some more, and soon carried on, backs turned towards us.
Shortly after this close encounter, we spied a delightful alpine lake and decided to take a swim. There we met a young ranger and talked to him for a while before getting back to our swim.
After a long lovely day, we headed down hill to the stunning Yellowstone Cliffs, a quiet camp perched high in the park and a river, sheltered by trees and just across from the glowing yellow cliffs.
Wilflowers & Glaciers
Spray park is one of the more photographed areas of the park, due to it's wildflowers and views of the snow capped Rainier. Its also one of the highest points on the trail we took. Hiking out of Yellowstone Cliffs took us down, down, down tot eh Carbon River, over the suspension bridge and up Cataract Valley to Spray Park. Up and Up we marched past paintbrush, lupine, waterfalls and green lushness, and soon we found ourselves scuffing on rocks and a barren moonscape. Snow under our feet, we made our way tot he top of the pass, and continued higher on a smaller footpath and onto the snow. There we found a big sledding hill, where we walked up and slid down on our button and butt pads, whooping it up along the way down, tossing snowballs on a mid-summer day.
In Spray Park, we lay by the flowers taking photos of the ever-present Rainier eventually picking a camp spot at Eagle's Root, where for the first time we had backpacking neighbors. We also walked to a nearby waterfall and cooled off in the summer heat, a perfect way to end a long, rewarding day.
Ranger Randy & Lake Relaxation
Midway through our trip, today was a day of reaching a little civilization in teh form of Mowich Lake. I knew one could drive to this location, but the books made it sound far flung and not too popular. Clearly things have changed! Walking a few miles tot he parking lot, we were greeted with 30 or so camp spots newly improved, the brilliant blue Lake Mowich and cars and people about.
We embraced the chance to dump some backpack trash and use the restrooms, as well as find a ranger to rearrange our next camp spot. We wanted to add a side trip to another lake and camp at Isput Creek, a slightly earlier camp than our original permitted plan. Michele found two rangers, and after some small talk, one revealed that he was in fact, the park Superintendent, Randy King! This news blossomed into another photo-op moment, handshaking and big smiles, Our permits were changed, we met the big cheese, and off we went to another lake, climbing up above to a fire tower for outstanding views of Rainier and the surrounding volcanos.
The lake below the fire tower offered a relaxing and quiet place to eat, so we snacked and soaked in the sun, napping an reading and whatever the moment demanded. But soon we were up again, hiking down the steep Isput Pass, eating Salmonberries all along the way to camp.
Carbon Glacier is the thickest and the longest glacier of Rainer's 14 active glaciers. Today we would walk right past it's toe and up it's side as we walked back along the mountain's most northern edge. Today's hike would also take us back onto the Wonderland Trail, and up to yet another lovely lake, Mystic, where our camp awaited.
Mystic lake was a simple beauty, where we hung out for hours on its shores swimming, drying out, and swimming again. A young couple hurried past us, as they were undertaking a quick, 6 day Wonderland Trail full circle, a 24 mile day ahead of them.
Already? Our final day was upon us. We headed out in the morning towards Sunshine, where we started the adventure. The day was short, over to Granite Creek and through Berkley Park again and up to Sunshine. Six amazing days of wildflowers, gurgling water, lakes to swim in, bears, glaciers, snowfields and cliffs glowing in the sunset. It all went off without a hitch, without a permit in advance. With persistence, smarts and a bit of luck, we hiked our own wonderland!