Walking around the Mountain
Walking Around the Mountain-
Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail
David Pex, November 30, 2003
The walk around Mt. Rainier is an adventure, no matter how many times I do it. It is a privilege to get to know this mountain so intimately.
The first thing you need to know is to be flexible. When you get your hiking permit at the ranger station in Longmire, you have to set your campsites ahead of your hike. If a particular campsite is full (like Indian Bar) you have to agree to camp elsewhere. Well, gee, the first time I walked around the mountain, I camped in non-campsites three out of four nights. I walked until it got dark, and set camp. As a no-trace camper, what’s the diff? There are also backcountry permits, which let you stay just about anywhere, as long as you are more than 1/2 mile off the trail. But I prefer to stay on trail. In any case, get your permit with whatever campsites are available. My last itinerary was South Pullayup, Eagles’ Roost, Granite Creek, and Nickel Creek. Well, I was three for four, as I camped at Indian Bar instead of Nickel Creek. What could I do, I ran out of daylight! (and Indian Bar is one of my favorite spots on earth, and I intended to camp there regardless).
Another thing to know: the full length of the trail is between 90.5 and 96 miles. Calculating from trail signs will give different mileage than the distance indicated on trail maps. No matter, it is a long way. Fully worthy of 5 days of your life. Some people take 2 weeks to do the trail, but they must be plodding. Most folks can easily do this trail in 7-10 days.
I typically do the Wonderland in early September. Cold enough at night to reduce the mosquito population, still enough daylight to hike ten hours a day, and the snows haven’t started falling. And the weather is generally good.
Anyway, I usually roll into Longmire about 9:30 in the morning (from Portland). After getting my permit (round-the-mountain folks can, theoretically, get permits by mail in advance, but I have not got this to work for me yet), and loading up, I am usually on the trail by 10AM.
As you begin, in less than a half a mile you will hit a trail junction sign. I always bear left for a clockwise journey around the mountain. Remember this sign, you will see it again in about 90-95 miles!
Soon you will cross the road and enter the rain forest. A lovely space, lots of undergrowth. At one point, the trail crosses on a boardwalk (protects the delicate wet soil under it). This is great, for now you are truly in the forest!
Shortly you start heading uphill. Not a tough grade, and soon you hit a trail junction at the top of Rampart Ridge. The trail contours and gently drops down to Kautz Creek, where you get your first taste of a glacial stream crossing. Usually not too bad, and there is usually a log bridge to cross on.
Soon you will hit the turnoff for Pyramid Creek Camp. This camp is pleasant enough, good water, no bugs. View is not great, but it does have an open feeling. But since you are only three miles from Longmire, this is not a suitable stop.
Then you start uphill into the deep dark forest. Unlike the first part of the trail, these trees are much taller, and have shaded out most of the undergrowth. Shortly after crossing a rather deep ravine you reach Devil’s Dream Camp. Not recommended, as this camp has no water, no view, and I feel closed in upon here. Unfortunately, the next real campground is South Puyallup, which is another six miles or so (and you’ve only covered five-plus miles since Longmire at this point). So, it is highly recommended to give yourself enough time to make South Puyallup, or be prepared to bivouac somewhere along the trail (I’ll have a recommendation when I get there).
From Devil’s Dream you’ll have a bit of an uphill to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground. You’ll pass Squaw Lake, which is a lovely site. And then Indian Henry’s. This is one of the most beautiful spots on the trail. Acres of wildflowers (in September at least) and a superb view of the mountain. There is no camping allowed on the meadow here, and there is a manned ranger station here (probably to keep it to no camping, and also because the ranger stations tend to be in the more lovely spots on the mountain!) Wonderful area, wonderful mountain.
As you start to leave this area, there will be a spur trail to the right that goes to Mirror Lakes. This is over a two-mile detour (round trip) to a small lake with a lovely view of the mountain. But not much more dramatic than Indian Henry’s, so I would not bother with it unless you have plenty of time.
Then you have some serious downhill to the Tahoma Creek suspension bridge. You lose over a thousand feet of elevation in a rather short time. And then the bridge! I would guess it is about 80 feet above the roaring Tahoma Creek. In 1987, I wanted to take a picture straight down from the center of the bridge, but by the time I got out there, the bridge was so wobbly I didn’t have the nerve to do it! In 1994, the old bridge had been replaced by a new suspension bridge with an arch in it (very stable), though the old bridge was still there. In 2001, the cables of the new bridge had stretched some, but it was still a fairly stiff bridge. The old bridge had been removed, and I can just imagine how it was: Some poor guy had to go out to the middle of the bridge and disconnect the wooden treads one by one. And with each removed tread, the bridge became even more unstable!
Anyway, once across you pass an old trail junction. The Tahoma Creek trail is officially closed these days due to glacial flooding (jokulhaups) that destroyed the lower part of the trail and trailhead in 1987 and 1988. But folks still use this trail as a dayhike up to the suspension bridge.
Now you get to make up all the elevation you just lost (and get a good view of that thread in the air that you just crossed the creek on). As you gain the upper part of Emerald Ridge, you’ll have a great view over to the area of Indian Henry’s, and you climb above timberline for the first time. You’ll pass an ancient moraine, and reach a flat area suitable for trailside camping, if required. And then you will swing around the ridge and have a great view into the beginning of the South Puyallup, and a great view down the South Puyallup valley. When I was here in 1987, a marmot was whistling at me, and in 2001, one of his descendants (I guess) did the same thing!
Then you start a long gradual descent down to the South Puyallup camp. Nice views of the rugged glacial river, and startling orange soil of the upper valley. About a quarter mile above camp you will cross a small creek on a bridge. This is your water stop. Fill up, as the South Puyallup River at the camp is hard to reach, fast, and very silty.
South Puyallup camp is a welcome sight at the end of the day. Not much of a view, but not dark and encompassing like Devil’s Dream. No bugs, and the campsites are laid out nicely and well spaced. After setting up camp, you should take a short walk down the South Puyallup River trail. After about a quarter of a mile or so you’ll reach the “Colonnades”, postpiles of volcanic rock in hexagonal columns. Not as spectacular as Devil’s Postpiles in California, but rather amazing nonetheless.
The next morning begins with some serious elevation gain up the side of South Puyallup Valley to St. Andrew’s Park (2,000 feet elevation gain in about three miles). You will get a clear sense of topping out as you reach the ridgetop and swing around to your right. There is still some uphill, and then contouring over to St. Andrew’s Lake, which has a wonderful view of the mountain. Good water stop at the lake if needed (I carry 4.5 liters these days, since I got my two-liter Camelback unbottle, which allows me to drink and hike for hours without stopping).
Shortly you will reach Klapatche Park and its camp, after dropping some elevation. Nice views, quite open with camping under the trees. There can be good water, but in 2001, Aurora Lake was almost dried up, only a few inches deep. Not potable. There is supposed to be a well at the campground, but I have not checked it out. The camp can be buggy when the lake is up. But it is too soon to stop, anyway!
Another serious grade as you rocket downhill to the North Puyallup, losing 2,000 feet in 2.5 miles. Hang on! You get a clear sense of geology here, as you drop in and climb out of several major valleys on the west side of the Mountain. Nice wildflowers in Aurora Park, and good views of waterfalls at the upper section of the North Puyallup canyon.
The bridge at North Puyallup used to be the end of the Westside Road. But that was a long time ago, and the road is now a trail for over two miles to Klapatche Point, where the road now has its official end. The camp here is nothing remarkable. Good water, no bugs, some views. The main trail out of North Puyallup starts out very level, and you contour for quite a while and the valley drops below you. After a mile or so, the trail starts gaining elevation, and then starts gaining it rapidly. After this climb you move into the silver forest. These trees were killed by fire in 1930. In 1987, there were still clear signs of this fire, but by 2001, there is now a lot more green than silver. Still, you will climb out of the green and get out of the timber into a high beargrass area. Great view of the Mountain behind you.
Now you are in the area known as Sunset Park. In early September there are acres of wild huckleberries here. Stop and sample, it is wonderful. Nice wildflowers also. A slice of heaven. Then you drop slightly into Golden Lakes.
Golden Lakes has a ranger station, good views, water, and bugs. All these lakes are good breeding grounds, so I wouldn’t stick around for long.
The next section of the trail is a fairly level contour around the basin that contains the largest of the Golden Lakes. Then you go down slightly through some beargrass and move out on a ridge. The ridge gets skinny, and you pop to the other side and start to head down in a hurry. 2400 foot elevation drop in the six miles from Golden Lakes to Mowich River, but the first couple of miles are fairly level. The forest is rather thick, no views or water.
Shortly before the south fork of the Mowich River you hit several small creeks. Good water stop. The crossing of the south fork usually has a log bridge. The campsite at Mowich Shelter is okay. No bugs, no view, with water nearby.
After crossing two branches of the north fork of the Mowich, there is some significant uphill. You gain 2200 feet in a little over three miles. In 1987, I was overtaken by darkness on this ascent, and camped by the trail. In 1994, my water filter broke at the creek before the south fork, and I camped at Mowich River. In 2001 I pushed on through to Eagle Roost (the Spray Park alternative route). Just about as I was ready to get my flashlight, I saw the lights of other campers. Long day, twenty-three miles in 13 hours from South Puyallup to Eagle’s Roost. If you give yourself more than five days (four nights), camping at Golden or Mowich is probably a good idea. But Granite Creek is about 10-11 hours from Eagle, and Indian Bar is another 10-11 hours, so if I had not made Eagle, I would have been pressed to meet my overall goal.
At the end of your climb out of the Mowich valley, there is a trail junction and decision to be made. The official Wonderland trail forks to the left, climbs up to Mowich Lake, then down the Ipsut Creek drainage to the Carbon River. The alternative route climbs up to Spray Park and then drops down to the Carbon River about a mile and a half upstream from Ipsut Creek. My preference is Spray Park, but here are both routes;
Mowich Lake: From the junction, it is a short (1/4 mile) little climb to Mowich Lake. This is a drive-in campground, so there will be cars and trucks and reminders of civilization. Also a ranger station. And there is a hike-in campground to get away from the motorized folks. Water from the lake is good, views are nothing special, but there aren’t a lot of bugs. Less of a push than trying for Eagle’s Roost, though.
From Mowich Lake it is a gentle contour for a bit, then a quick, easy rise to Ipsut Pass. Then down with a vengeance. This is a 2500-foot drop in less than three miles. You reach a junction with a short trail to the left leading to Ipsut Creek car campground. In 1994, I took this sidetrip to load up on water. By taking a right at the junction, it is a gently contoured hike for a while up the Carbon River. There is another junction where you can go to the left to begin the Northern Loop, and I will cover that option shortly. Stay straight, and in about a half mile from this junction you will reach the Carbon River camp. I have not explored this campground, but I believe it has good water, little view, and is not bad bug-wise. Immediately after the campground the Spray Park trail comes in from the right.
Spray Park: From the junction, turn right away from Mowich Lake. The trail contours slightly downhill for a little less than a mile, than there is a spur trail that goes to Eagle Cliff. I’ve never taken this spur, but reportedly, in about a quarter of a mile one gets to an excellent viewpoint. Which is more than one can say for Eagle’s Roost. No view, no bugs, and no water. But it is level. And has a bear pole where everyone hoists their food bags (rather convenient).
The gifts of the Spray Park alternative are still to come. Shortly after Eagle’s Roost is a spur trail to Spray Falls. This is worth the time. Lovely waterfall. Back to the main trail, there are several creeks with good water and the climb up to Spray Park (highest point is 6400 feet, the highest point on the trail so far, and 1700 feet above Eagle’s Roost. But it is not a grueling climb. And there are loads of wildflowers in the park! And Mount Pleasant and Mother Mountain are like a miniature mountain range stuck alongside the Mountain. At one point you encounter what I call the “stairway to heaven”, a portion of the trail above timberline where crossbeams have been placed to reduce erosion. And it is like a staircase (there is a short section of this between Devil’s Dream and Indian Henry’s that also has this). At one point, this staircase rises to a point above you that is the horizon (the hill is that steep), so it looks like you are stepping up to the sky.
Once the heights are gained, you have incredible views of Spray Park and Mount Pleasant, as well as the Mountain. After crossing a couple of permanent snowfields, the descent begins. 2900 feet elevation loss in about three miles to the Carbon River. Not a trace of uphill rise. You may actually miss level ground! Part way down this decline is Cataract Valley campsite. This has no view, no water, a few bugs. And feels really remote. In another mile (and 1600 foot drop) you reach the Carbon River and the Wonderland Trail.
So, all in all, I prefer the Spray Park alternative. It has more elevation gain (and loss), but there is a nice waterfall, and the beauty of Spray Park, and really feeling like you are on the slopes of the Mountain. The Mowich Lake route feels far from the Mountain, and is rather non-descript.
Soon after the junction, there is the crossing of the Carbon River. In 1987, there was a suspension bridge over the river. Not nearly as high as the Tacoma Creek Bridge, it is much easier on the nerves. But on my last hike, this bridge was closed, and flags and cairns marked a route across the glacial river. A log bridge made the actual crossing easy (Since the Carbon is a braided river, most of the crossing is just through a boulder field).
Now there is another choice of routes: the Northern Loop or the Wonderland proper (past Mystic Lake). In 1994 I did the Mowich route with the Northern Loop, and would say I prefer the Spray Park/Mystic Lake routing. But here are both routes:
Northern Loop: Coming up from Ipsut Creek, this trail branches off to the left and crosses Carbon River about 3/4 mile downstream from the main crossing. There is also a junction after crossing at the main crossing that will connect with this loop. In any case, the Northern Loop begins in earnest with a steep climb of over 40 switchbacks as you gain 2,000 feet up to Yellowstone Cliffs. Most of the climb is in the first half, and you have a definite sense of topping out as the trail levels off in the Spunkwush Creek drainage. The Yellowstone Cliffs camp has a great view of the cliffs, no view of the Mountain, good water and no bugs. A pleasant campsite.
Moving out from the cliffs a short climb brings you to the saddle of Windy Gap. A short distance below the Gap is a junction with a spur trail. The spur goes to the north and in less than a mile reaches a natural bridge. About 100 feet high and 100 feet long, rather spectacular (and not for crossing, just viewing!)
Back at the Northern Loop trail, it is about 2 miles to the campsite at Lake James. Can be buggy, no view, but has water. Then the trail drops to the West Fork of the White River. On my trip in 1994, I camped near this river, which was fine (though rather noisy!).
Another grueling climb as the trail leads out of the West Fork valley. 2500 feet elevation gain in about four miles. Along the way is Fire Creek camp, the only water on the climb. No bugs, and no view. You top out at Grand Park with a fine view of the Mountain, and you walk straight toward it for the next three miles. You lose some elevation, which is re-gained immediately as you enter Berkeley Park campsite. Good water and no bugs, but not much of a view. Climbing up through upper Berkeley Park you reach the junction with the Wonderland Trail.
Mystic Lake Section: From the crossing of the Carbon River, you turn right and head upstream toward the snout of the Carbon River glacier. The glacier is that big brown thing with nothing growing on it. But the layers of dirt are so thick there is little outward evidence of ice. The trail is rather gentle at first, but as you get nearer to the snout, the trail veers to the left and starts climbing. Soon you can look straight down at the terminus of the glacier, where the Carbon River springs full-sized from a cave at the glacier base.
Soon you reach Dick Creek camp. While you have already gained 1200 feet from the Carbon River crossing, but there is still another 1700 feet to be gained to reached the saddle in Moraine Park. Dick Creek has good water, no bugs, and a view, though you do feel like you are perched above the abyss with Carbon Glacier below you.
About a half-mile before the saddle proper, you top out and enter a level meadowed area. There is a small COLD creek suitable for bathing (which I usually need by this point). After crossing this meadow, there is a short climb to the saddle. There are some fine views along the way as you drop down to Mystic Lake. At the lake is a short spur trail to the ranger station, which is blessed with a wonderful view of the Mountain with the lake in the foreground.
Mystic Lake Camp is some distance below the lake. Good water, not much of a view, and buggy. If you can, push on to Granite Creek (which also has good water, no view, AND no bugs!) Soon you will cross the West Fork of the White River. In 2001, there was a large landslide that took out a sizable chunk of the trail. The detour was very rough, and marked with flags. A pleasure to get back to real trail after this detour! Then you climb a small ridge and drop into Winthrop Creek drainage, and get nose to nose with the Winthrop Glacier. Here another climb begins, about 600 feet, before leveling off and cruising into Granite Creek.
Granite Creek is a pleasant enough site, but nothing remarkable. The climb out of Granite Creek looks more daunting on the map than it is on the ground. Three broad switchbacks help you gain the 1,000 feet to the 6740-foot pass (highest point so far) below Skyscraper Mountain. Here is a fantastic panoramic view of the area of the Northern Loop, Mystic Lake, Moraine Park, even the area above Spray Park, and then the Mountain itself in full majesty (may you be blessed with a clear day!)
And you are also done with uphill for quite a while! From here it is a gentle contour (and, okay, a slight rise) to the trail junctions at Frozen Lake. There is a nice view down into Berkeley Park as you pass above it. At Frozen Lake there are some alternatives. If you need to exit or re-supply, it is a short walk to the ranger station, store, and picnic grounds (and parking lot) at Sunrise Park. There is an alternative route around Burroughs Mountain and down the Inter Fork of the White River (which I intend to check out next time). And there is the main route to the Sunrise backcountry camp (some views, lake water nearby, no bugs). From here you drop like a rock 2100 feet in three miles to the White River car campground.
From the campground, there is no option but to hoof it 1.5 miles on the road. The road reaches a junction with the road from Sunrise, and on the other side of the road bridge over the White River, the trail begins again. For about a mile it parallels the road, and then there is a trail junction. To the left is a short trail that connects with the road. The trail to the right is the Wonderland, and goes to Summerland.
The first two miles of the climb is relatively gentle. Then the trail steepens for a mile until you cross a creek (nice little waterfall). As you are climbing, there is a great view of a waterfall across the creek valley. After the creek crossing, the trail continues to climb gradually, and then there is a serious of sharp, steep switchbacks. As you near the top of these switchbacks, you can look down and see the whole series, typically with other people below you at various levels. As you top out from the switchbacks, you have reached Summerland.
Summerland is a place of exquisite beauty, matched (to me) only by Indian Bar (which is now only four-plus miles from here). Large open meadows, wildflowers, usually mountain goats up in the rocks, and lots of people. This is a very popular day-hiking destination. The camp is pleasant, excellent views, no bugs, and good water (i.e., an excellent campsite). There is also a solar “powered” composting outhouse. A great place to have lunch, sit and watch the Mountain, the goats, the scenery.
Once you can tear yourself away from here you enter a rugged, windswept desolate area above timberline. A tricky crossing of a glacial stream demands full attention. You then pass several glacial lakes, and after less than 2 miles (and 850 feet of elevation gain) top out at Panhandle Gap, the highest point on the Wonderland (6,750 feet).
From here, it looks on the map like a fairly level contour above Ohanapecosh Park. But it does have some ups and downs, and crosses several snowfields. You’ll approach the upper end of the Ohanapecosh River, where there are many glaciers and about a dozen waterfalls cascading down to the valley floor. As the trail passes by a dead gnarled tree, there is a great view down into Indian Bar. If you look closely, you can make out the forest shelter cabin a mile away (and 1,000 feet lower). As you rocket downward, the view of the valley just gets better, and soon you arrive. The camp is to your left, and up a small ridge. Great views, great water, no bugs. I stayed in the trail shelter both times I stopped here, where the view is the best. The trail crosses the Ohanapecosh River (creek) right above Wauhaukaupouken Falls (say that three times fast!) After you cross, there is a steep route to the left down to the bottom of this nice little waterfall. And to the right, a fifty-yard trail to the shelter.
Indian Bar is the gem of the Wonderland Trail. On my first trip, I was unaware of its beauty and peacefulness, and when I reached it I was not sure if I could reach Longmire in one day from there. So, I moved on to Nickel Creek. I have since successful hiked twice the 22 miles from here to Longmire in under ten hours (easier topography then the South Puyallup-Eagle’s Roost section). And nothing between here and Longmire is quite as spectacular as this place. Be here for sunset with the alpine glow of the upper walls of the canyon. And the gentle morning light. And the wildflowers and huckleberries! One year, I was grazing among the huckleberries and looked up to find two deer within twenty feet of me, also grazing. They saw me, but didn’t care. There were huckleberries to be eaten!
No photo can capture the beauty of this place. It has to be seen!
But you can’t stay here forever. When you finally have to move on, it is an 800-foot climb through fields of wildflowers (and for me, many looks back and many photographs) to a knob at the head of the Cowlitz Divide. The next 4.5 miles is a ridge run up and down, over and around points in the ridge. After a bit you move into the trees, and after a little longer, I wonder how long is this going to take? And then you reach a trail junction. The left branch goes down Olallie Creek to the Eastside Road. The main branch to the right drops down to Nickel Creek. It is about 1.5 miles downhill through lush deep forest, and then you arrive into the camp.
Nickel Creek is a pleasant camp. Good water, no bugs, but no view. When I camped here in 1987, there was no one else around. After the crowds at Summerland and a few folks at Indian Bar, it was a bit quiet. But nice.
A slight climb out of the Nickel Creek drainage, and then a gentle descent into Box Canyon. Box Canyon is a slot in the lava with a creek at the bottom. About 20 feet wide and 80 feet deep. Pretty incredible. But rather close to the Steven’s Creek Pass road, so there will be other folks on this paved portion of the trail.
Soon after crossing Box Canyon, watch for a poorly marked trail going uphill to the right. This is your trail. It gains a little elevation, then levels off, crosses above the road, and then drops into the forest. If you miss this turnoff, you will get to the road very shortly. Turn right on the road, and go through a short tunnel (the main trail is above you). When you get out the other side of the tunnel, look for a trail at the left side of the road. This will lead you back to the Wonderland in short order.
You are now on a pleasant walk through the forest, with only one more climb before you. After a bit, there will be a spur trail to a viewpoint. Don’t bother; you have already seen better views! Soon you cross the Cowlitz River on a solid bridge. You are at about 2700 feet, one of the lowest points on the trail. You have a 2100-foot climb in seven miles before you. Not grueling at all, just a steady climb.
Soon you will pass Maple Creek Camp. This is a pleasant camp. Good water, no bugs, not much of a view. But more open than Nickel Creek. The trail keeps on and upward, with the cars on the other side of Stevens Canyon grinding up the grade. Nice partial views of the Mountain along the way. And the lovely waterfalls of Martha Falls.
As you reach the top you will enter an area of heavy brush. Then you top out and hit the road. The trail parallels the road, and soon it arrives at Louise Lake. This is a charming lake worthy of the short detour to descend to it. From Louise Lake, a short mild climb brings you to Reflection Lakes, which, as the name implies, offers a fine reflection of the Mountain in its cold clear water.
Then, after another 1/2 mile or so, the trail crosses the road and drops back into the forest. After a steep descent and switchbacks, you reach a short spur trail to Narada Falls. Drop your pack and walk up to it, it is well worth it. And the view you get of these falls is far better than the motorists get, who are on the other side of the Paradise River Canyon.
Now it is nothing but downhill. Soon you pass Paradise River camp, which has nothing to recommend it, though the water is good, and there are no bugs. But you are back in deep dark forest, so no view whatsoever. Soon after the camp you cross the Paradise River on a solid bridge, and the trail follows the river downhill. After a while you will notice a huge old wooden pipe paralleling the trail. This is part of an old hydroelectric project that generated power near Cougar Rock.
Then you reach the Nisqually River. In 2001, this glacial torrent had only a single log bridge crossing it, with a guardrail on one side. Not like the solid bridges over Paradise or Cowlitz rivers! But better than rock hopping! Once you cross, you are in the Cougar Rock car campground, and only 2 miles from Longmire.
The last two miles continues the riverside walk, with a little bit of uphill. This uphill is almost at the end, so know that once you are up this short grade, you are almost there. Soon you will reach the trail junction sign you saw at the beginning of the hike, and in minutes you will be back at the trailhead.
Hiking the Wonderland is a privilege to be savored. Bring a camera and more film than you think you need (I ran out on my first trip at Indian Bar!), or go digital. Enjoy the moment and the adventure. Eat huckleberries. Watch marmots and deer and mountain goats. And come back tired, yet refreshed. A special place, indeed.
Also, once back to your car, drive up to Paradise and take the loop road through Paradise Park. A lovely place.
Recommended Reading: A Year in Paradise, by Floyd Wilfred Schmoe. Floyd Schmoe was a ranger at the park back in the 30’s, and writes a very good narrative of his time on the mountain. At one point, he goes around the mountain (counter-clockwise, on horseback), and has a wonderful time. A good read.
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