Everyone else had plans for this weekend so I found myself on my own. Suzanne was in the Sierra's. With no dogs around and with a free weekend entrance to the national parks I decided it was time to head to Mt. Rainier. I made my only visit to Summerland and Panhandle Gap in August of 2004. Most flowers were finished and most snow was gone from the moraine above Summerland. I sat at Panhandle Gap for a few hours enjoying the views. Ragman and Rodman did a trip there a week or two back and continued on to Banshee Peak to the east. It looked to be just what I was looking for.
Expecting big crowds with no entrance fee this weekend, I was up at 5:00 am and on the road by 5:50. Not much traffic at that hour and I had no slow downs at all. By 7:30 I was at the 3800' Fryingpan Creek Trailhead. I was very surprised to see that all the paved parking spaces were taken. I had to park on grass along the road. By 7:45 I was on the trail. A group of half a dozen hikers were just ahead of me and I quickly wove my way through them.
Trails in Mt. Rainier National Park are among the very best. Not just in views and forests but in maintenance. This trail is smooth and gently graded. Mid 80s wee forecast once again and I wanted to get up high before the heat set in. The cool morning made for excellent hiking conditions. I sped up the trail. passing several more groups. The dark forest kept it very cool. I reached the bridge over Fryingpan Creek at the three mile mark in 67 minutes. Across the bridge the flower show began. My pace slowed way down. Columbine, lupine, magenta paintbrush, and many more.
Next came the avalanche lilies. Since I seldom visit Rainier, the north Cascades, or the Olympics in early summer I seldom get to see these showy white flowers. They carpet the forested hillside on the switchbacks up to Summerland. Much more time was spent here. As I rounded the bend into Summerland I ran into none other than Janet (Putz In Boots) and Anne (Tazz) from nwhikers. I carpooled to the Pasayten with Janet just two weeks ago. They had spent the night at Summerland. They were heading down and so talked a bit and then headed in our respective directions.
The green meadows of Summerland were covered in yellow flowers. I saw some western anemone too. More lupine and magenta paintbrush were in the meadow. The mountain now loomed above. Little Tahoma also stood out against the bright sunlit white of Mt. Rainier. The trail drops a little to cross two small creeks and enters the moraine. From here the way is mostly on rocks. A few flowers stick out from the rocks and gravel. I did see one big marmot standing sentry duty on a very big boulder. I could now see a few other groups ahead of me in the moraine.
I could see and hear the roaring sound of a waterfall plunging down into a slot canyon. It was warm now but still not too hot. The higher I climbed the better the views. Goat Island Mountain appeared as a lush green ridge contrasting with the gray lifelessness of the moraine. Above was the world of gleaming ice. There is a big tarn in the moraine. Last time it was snow free. Now it is still mostly snow covered. A log has been placed over the creek and its wide enough though I would not want to fall into the icy torrent below. Panhandle Gap is seen above and the gap is still snow covered.
I worked my way up the moraine now partly on snow. The snow was soft and there were plenty of footprints to follow. I could also see some glissade tracks where folks had shortened the trip down. Near the gap I saw old tracks across some snow to narrow track along the scree. This looked like it might be a shortcut to Banshee. It is. I took the main route across a short steeper snow slope to the final snow blocking the gap. A steep set of steps leads straight up. I went that way. I saw one hiker venuring off the snow to go down loose dirt next to the snow. That proved to be a much better way down.
I took another break at the gap. On the other side it wa much snowier. I could see a herd of goats lounging on the snow below. The actual gap was all snow and the current route took me above the 6750' gap. From there one path led up the ridge. I climbed to that point last time. This time I took a bootpath leading around the ridge. It began a gentle traversing descent heading towards Banshee Peak. The boot path led to open meadows where I caught up to two other hikers. They took the "short cut" before the gap and passed me. Turns out that Jon and Greg had read the same nwhikers Ragman and Rodman report.
They also met Sadie's Driver at Sunny Pass in Horseshoe Basin. A trip I was on. They went by our camp while I was in the tent. It is a small hiking world. I ended up hiking with them for the rest of the day. In one spot the lupine was as thick as blades of grass. Great colors on the open slopes. Part way up we saw a herd of goat above us. We detoured around them and managed to be close enough for some good photos. The hike up was easy enough. The 7400+ summit is vertical down to the Sarvent Glacier on one side and gentle on the other.
Fantastic views from the top. The Cowlitz Chimneys are very close by. Mt. Adams and the Goat Rocks are to the south. We could see St. Helens and Glacier Peak but it was too hazy to the north see Mt. Baker. There was a nice cool breeze on top keeping any bugs at bay and the heat off us. We spent a full 1 3/4 hours on top. At 1:45 pm we headed down. We took our time coming down to Summerland. Lots of photo opportuities. They said the shortcut has some loose scree so they chose my route via Pandhandle Gap. I wa able to get in a few short glissades that were cooling and refreshing. In the heat my pants dried out quickly.
We finally made it back to the trailhead at 5:30. Parking is limited and consequently I saw a lot less folks than I expected. It never felt crowded. Sunrise was another story. The line of cars from Sunrise whizzing by us at Fryingpan Creek seemed endless. This was a beautiful day to be high in the mountains. We hiked 14 miles with 4000' of gain though it did not feel nearly that long. The first and last 3 miles of gentle forest trail were very easy. The trip reminded me just how beautiful Mt. Rainier National Park is.