Due to a miscommunication, I thought this trip had been canceled. Determined to check the Wonderland Trail (circumnavigation of Mt Rainier) off my bucket list, I made it happen over July 4th weekend. Despite living in Washington for most of the last decade, I’d only been to Mt Rainier once. While it was clear that Mt Rainier, and really the entire area, is quite beautiful, the trip felt like something of a forced march with a lot of anxiety about mileage and elevation, under frequently ambiguous atmospheric conditions, and despite frequent human interaction, lonely. While there were some real highs, my mood was generally pretty low. Bonus: light rain and ambient moisture killed my phone so no pics.
When I got home Sunday night on July 7th and discovered I’d been included in a group chat planning to squeeze a Wonderland trip into 3 days the next weekend, I was initially put off. Hadn’t the trip been canceled? 3 days isn’t that long to hike 93 miles with 22,000 ft of climbing, especially once you account for transport each way. Didn’t I have something better to do than re-hike a trail which had left me feeling so neutral?
On the flip side, the trip was being arranged by my friend Ella (“Red”) whose well grounded sense of the absurd and quick laugh has turned several bad situations into quality type-2 fun. Also on the guest list was Clare (“Star”) who I’d known as something of a power-hiker but hadn’t seen since the PCT and was curious to see how her collegiate idealism had transferred to the real world. Our last member would be Ross (“Big Hunk”) who I hadn’t met but had heard about several times in glowing terms. Was I in? Yeah… probably. If nothing else, misery loves company.
After a great deal of indecision, we decided that Clare would drive down and get day-before permits for an itinerary of White River (night before the trip), Pyramid Creek Camp, and Ipsut Creek Camp. This would make for low 30 mile days with 7,000 ft or more. Due to unavailability of sites at Pyramid creek Clare accepted the suggestion of a “ginger ranger” to shift our first night’s permit an extra several miles and 1,500 ft to Devil’s Dream. Based on her description of the interaction, our “trail mania” affected conversations would cast The Ginger Ranger as everything from an object of ire to romantic desire.
While Clare was down by Mt Rainier getting a our permit, Ross and Ella rendezvoused in Seattle after work then came to pick me up. There was a delay when Ross’s van broke down and they had to wait 20 minutes before starting it, something about air in the priming pump. I was waiting out front when they showed up, Ella jogging in front of a tall, white sprinter van which Ross parked but didn’t turn off. I had a moment of disbelief that they wanted to road trip in a vehicle of questionable reliability when my station wagon, which has never suffered a mechanical failure, was available. Ella pointed out that Ross had just finished a 6,000 mile road trip so the van was road worthy aside from the primer pump. I decided that this was going to be one of those trips where the adventure comes from shared experience of happenstance not of planned participation in prescribed activities. During the stop in Enumclaw to get food for the hike, I stayed in the van since we had to leave it running.
By the time we pulled in to the White River campground, it was dark and we weren’t sure where to meet Clare. We knew our campsite was for thru hikers but weren’t sure where, among the many loops of campsites, that was. We first drove through the parking lot for hikers and climbers and I spotted a small blue LED light on in the back of a truck with a tall cap over the bed. It wasn’t until after driving through several of the loops that we deduced that it might have been her in the truck. We pulled up behind it and Ross called softly, “Clare?”. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have heard and so just yelled, “Clare!” which probably made Ella and Ross cringe. Fortunately, it turned out to be her and Ross parked his van, named Besty, alongside.
Ross offered us dinner (an excellent chili – I couldn’t tell it was vegitarian) and while cleaning up, I saw a set of nicely wrapped ethernet cords. This lead to a reference about working IT. Then we both specified software. Then we discovered that we’d met before. The day after I finished the PCT, Ross was the second of two hikers I talked to while waiting in the lodge at Manning Park. We’d talked about plans for the future and I’d wondered how things had gone for him.
Eventually Clare went back to sleep in the truck and Ross found room to fit the other three of us on the floor of his van.
Day 1 (Friday): White River to Pyramid Creek
We were off around 5am the next day since there were well over 30 miles and 8,000 ft to hike. This was the same jumping off point and direction I’d started from a week before and so was quick to point the way out of the campground. The trail runs an easy, forested downhill before turning up Frying Pan Creek and eventually climbing a set of switch backs to Summerland, a camp near a meadow with a wonderful west-facing view of Mt Rainier. Clare and Ella set a quick pace, chatting a mile a minute until a small bridge over a waterfall. Clare stopped for a bit and we made plans to regroup at Summerland. I chased Ella up the switch backs to tell her and after relaying the new plan, she made me pass since she doesn’t like walking in front and so I felt obliged to keep the pace up.
From Summerland, the trail went up towards a ridge through a boulder field. There’s a stream which can be crossed with an tricky rock hop if you have trekking poles. I’d advertised this as a “dry foot” trail based on my previous week’s adventure but Ella and Clare don’t use poles. They gave me a pretty solid glare after wading through. Ross kept his feet dry, crossing with grace, dexterity, and trekking poles. I followed sans grace but kept my feet dry as well.
I didn’t get a picture of it, but there’s a footlog which is half washed away except that one end has a cable around it attached to a bolt in the rock. The sight of old bridges, now useless due to a change in the course of a steam or because they’d been swept away downstream were common on this trip.
Shortly before the ridge above Summerland we encountered our first snow. Having been through the week before, I lead where the trail wasn’t immediately obvious and took a turn wider than the trail did. Fortunately, the saddle at which we cross was visible so there was no real risk of getting lost. Just before crossing the ridge and gaining a view to the south, there’s a short traverse across a relatively steep snowfield. Traction devices not required but again, I appreciated having poles.
I don’t have pictures of the view that then unfolded before us. It’s one of those special moments in hiking when you attain a ridge and can, after hours of laboring through now familiar terrain, in a moment see unique, new country. Mt Adams was visible, which it hadn’t been on my previous trip. The grass below the snow line was an intense, vibrant green. The clouds were varied above a blue horizon of distant, ragged peaks. Ross grinned broadly. The women made inarticulate exclamations of delight and made a show of falling on their knees and waving their arms. After a time, we continued.
The trail continued to traverse across snow patches. It was convenient to have come through the week before as I could point to where the footprints across had missed the trail and so keep reasonably on course. At a turn where I’d gotten lost the week before I made everyone guess where the trail went and was pleased that at no one found it obvious. We followed the majority of tracks up a steep slope to and discovered that in the intervening week, a patch of ground containing a bit of trail pointing the way had melted through.
During the ensuing snack break we somehow wound up trying to decide what 2D geometric shape each other were. This lead to a lot of discussion as to the difference between a rhombus vs a trapezoid or an isosceles vs scalene triangle. I was just glad not to be labeled a square. From there we walked the ridge down to Indian Bar. The wall of rock across the valley had a myriad little waterfalls as snowmelt found it’s way down through every crack and crevice.
Lunch a Indian Bar was a pretty brief affair. Clare set a timer for 20 minutes and when it went off we were done. The scene was idyllic but we had miles to make. With backgrounds in thru-hiking and distance running, we were all aware that eating lightly but frequently and taking regular, short breaks was the best way to coax our bodies over many miles. I found a quiet pleasure that we all knew this and acted with the same set of priorities. One of my vices is eating too much to enjoy uphill hikes and so being cut off from my second set of PB&J tortillas when the alarm went off was good accountability.
After cresting the first rise out of Indian Bar, we were again ambushed by views Mt Adams. I knew this was coming and set up to catch expressions on camera. The day was glorious.
The ridge walk wore on and eventually descended into the trees. It would be many miles, probably not until Indian Henry’s the next day, before we would again walk through such grand views.
The group spread out with a plan to rendezvous at the next camp or major trail intersection. Ella took the opportunity to practice running downhill and was soon out front. Her arms flop and sway out to the side like a small child at play. Combined with her choice to hike in a dress, she the scene was adorable. Ross’s long, clean, strides; precise pole plants; metronomic timing; lowered head; and tight, smooth, linear motion were as opposite a form of hiking as could be imagined. Also in contrast: I typically enjoy plants while in motion past them but when Clare arrived at the next stop just a minute or two behind, there were sprigs of lupine in her hair. It was so much fun to hike my own hike in the company of others hiking theirs.
On the way down, we ran across a family from Boston who I’d met the week prior at Mowich Lake. They’d given me some freeze dried meals and a few other goodies left over from the resupply they were packing up. I was carrying some of that bounty on this trip and let them know how much I appreciated it. I’d been hoping to see someone from the previous week still out on the trail and so was delighted to run into them. They also warned us that Devil’s Dream, our permitted site for the night, was a mosquito-ridden hell hole.
After Nickel creek, we finish off the descent and start pounding out the miles westbound towards Reflection Lakes. The trail goes through a river valley which isn’t so different from every other forested river trail you’ve walked. We cross a side stream on a series of logs, each just long enough to reach an uneroded island mid-stream before the next one picks up. Eventually a long, shallow climb offers glimpses of a road in the steep valley wall across the river. We cross the small washout which a sign 5 miles earlier had warned about. I’d only brought 1L water capacity and was beginning to run low. while waiting for Clare to transfer water between bottles, I went ahead to find the next source and start filling water explaining that that way they wouldn’t have to wait for me. Actually, I was pretty sure that the next water source was a waterfall and wanted to have a good look at everyone’s face when they first saw it. I was rewarded with a quality set of smiles and we took our time to collecting water anyways.
You know you’re getting close to Lake Louise, the precursor to the the Reflection Lakes, when you have to cross a paved road several times. It’s strange to be on a long hike having started from a drive-in campground and again be close to a road.
By this time, our conversation had descended into true insanity. The primary topic of discussion was the logistics of an eternal hike around, and sometimes over, Mt Rainier. This slow eviction of reality from regular discussion is what Ella appears to mean by the phrase, “trail mania”.
After Reflection Lakes, the trail descended past a waterfall (Ross made a quick side-trip to see it), to Paradise Campground, which was closed, past some smaller waterfalls (where Ross caught back up), along a small pipeline, and across a wide but mostly dry riverbed. We had a quick powow about where to eat dinner and what we wanted to do about our permitted campsite being infested with mosquitoes. It was an awkward scene with the other three sitting on rocks in a semi-circle while I stood and tried to lay out some alternatives. Mostly I wanted us all on the same page but had thought it would be fun to eat at the Paradise Lodge if there were time. This ended with the decision to just keep walking for now. We ate dinner at a picnic table in Longmire.
With full bellies and rested feet, we took on the last hill of the day. Night was falling as we passed Pyramid Creek. We found a small, empty campsite and squeezed in after agreeing to move if challenged since we were technically off permit. In the spirit of making a best attempt to follow the rules, we tried to hang our food on the bear pole. It was much taller than other bear poles I’d seen and the pole used to reach up and hook a food bag at the top was too short for some and too ungainly for the rest of us so we slept with our food. As usual, there were no problems
Day 2 (Saturday): Pyramid Creek to Mowich Lake
We woke up early on Saturday, something like 4am. I’m pretty sure it was Clare’s idea but I can’t remember why. We were passing Devil’s Dream (as reported, the mosquito cloud was dense) as it got light. This was the first place we saw the oil drum looking containers labeled “human excrement” in the clearing nearest camp. I guess teams the latrine cleaning team, or maybe the local patrol ranger, swaps them out from time to time, then a chopper carries out the full ones. It’s one of those subtle cues as to how much travel this area gets and the amount of effort that goes into maintaining it.
As things flattened out, I saw a small blackbear and pointed it out to Clare who was just ahead of me. Clare saw and so could corroborate my story that it ran off just before Ella came around the bend. I think Ella still hasn’t seen one despite having over 2,000 miles of hiking under her feet.
Indian Henry’s was gorgeous. It’s a little patrol cabin in a meadow ringed by trees with Mt Rainier rising up behind it. A trickle of a stream runs through the meadow. Since I’d seen it on my last trip and I focused on capturing others’ expressions. Only later did I remember that I’d lost all the previous trip’s pictures.
The valley after Indian Henry’s is a deep gorge with no convenient way across. Except, that is, for the flexible, twisting, one-at-a-time suspension bridge provided for your convenience. For some reason everyone had stopped before the bridge and no one immediately started across when I caught up.
The trick is to put walk with your feet in line as though you were on a balance beam. This prevents the side-to-side weight shifts which happen during normal walking from causing the bridge to swing. Of course I let everyone figure that out for themselves.
After ye old set of forested switchbacks, Ross and I broke out into the open below Emerald Ridge. Clare had been leading up the hill but stepped aside for a moment and Ella had stayed back for a moment to check on her. There’s a fine line to walk when inquiring about someone. We’re all experienced hikers and have our own preferences for working through on-trail ailments and sometimes it’s best to make it clear that they’re not holding you back so they can focus on themselves.
Clouds were blowing across Emerald ridge and so while we couldn’t see down into the valley on either side, we usually we had a good view of the mountain clouds forming halos over the peaks.
By the time Ross and I had settled in for a snack, Ella caught up and reported that Clare would probably be OK but need to catch up at her own pace. We spent a few minutes identifying evac routes in case they’d be needed, then ate and hung out. The view even cleared for a bit. Ross noticed how nice it was to recline with the feet above the head. Quality dirt napping ensued.
Clare caught up with us, feeling well and in good spirits. After a few minutes to rest and snack, she and Ella tore off down the tightly switchbacking trail. After regrouping at the bottom, we split up again on the climb up to St Andrews lake. Despite the early start we were now behind pace and while no one was worried, we figured that longer distances between regroups might help us move faster.
My pack on this trip might be described as a running-inspired hiking backpack. We were all carrying a pretty minimal set of gear but the expression of heavily laden, oft-resting, traditional backpackers we passed while still in fine form, particularly when late in a climb, were priceless. Some thought we were day hikers. Others asked if we were doing an out-and-back. The answer that we were going around the mountain in three days was universally unexpected. Since our group didn’t always hike together, it was sometimes interesting to compare differences in reactions. My favorite comment of the trip was, “We’re here to teach you kids how not to backpack like that” which Ella overheard between a parent and several of their kids. The same people had merely exchanged smalltalk about fishing with me. We stopped for lunch at St Andrews lake which had been iced over the week before and was largely shrouded in mist which cleared slowly. Fortunately the skinny dipping was over before that particular family appeared and set themselves up on a little peninsula, backs to us.
The mist continued clearing on the down-up to Golden Lakes and I was able to see the area which had been socked in on my previous trip. I mostly remember an old burn now well into recovery with knee to waist high green shrubs covered in small leaves. The silver-grey snags provided no shade. You could look back and see the previous ridge. There was long thin gap in the trees indicating forest road. One of the great joys of higher mileage trips is looking back in wonder that you body has carried you such a great distance.
I must have been moving pretty quickly because I had to wait a few minutes for people to catch up at the Golden Lakes patrol cabin. It was quite pleasant to have a log to sit on. I found my entry in the trail register from the week before and looked ahead on the elevation profile. The trail is so well marked that I’d just been using the elevation profile to track progress. It’s pretty easy to tell uphill from downhill so you just count the number of big climbs or descents since the last camp you passed.
Given that the women tended to be faster on the downhills and the men faster on the uphills, we decided to regroup at the top of the next down-up: Mowich Lake. Ella took off at a jog but Clare wound up ambling along with Ross and me, discussing a recent hot political topic. Time passed quickly and we were suddenly at the South Mowich river. It’s so nice to have people to talk to when you want to talk. It’s strange that only in a Star Trek episode have I heard conversation explicitly referenced type of pleasure. I almost hadn’t taken a drink since Golden Lakes about 7 miles before and neither had Clare or Ross given how much we suddenly all drank now that a flow of water reminded us to.
The climb to Mowich Lake was the last of the day and I was secretly hoping to catch Ella, so I took it as fast as I could. I justified this as my last training run for the White River 50 miler I would be running in two weeks. When I arrived, drenched in sweat, at the picnic table where she’d set up, already ensconced in a puffy and deep in her bag of snacks, and confessed my ambition, a wicked little smile spread across her face. She claimed to just have been testing the theory that downhill is less important in a race than uphill because you spend less time on it. Ross showed up moments later, out of breath and threw his poles down at the base of the picnic table with mock rage and joined in the griping about the climb. Apparently I’m not the only one whose competitive streak comes out some times.
There were now two problems. First was that I was quite wet and the sun was about to go down and it was cloudy with a little humidity. One option was to go to bed wet and let my body heat dry things out. It was clear though that I’d be pretty cold before I got warm under the quilt and so I stripped off my wet hiking shirt, did what I could to air out for a bit and put on my puffy whose synthetic shell made my skin feel horribly sticky. I stayed warm though and that’s what mattered.
The second problem was where to camp. No one particularly felt like continuing to our permitted camp at Ipsut Creek, about five miles dark miles down a steep and tricky hill. We’d been considering just setting up around our picnic table despite it not being a designated campsite (the surface was a closed forest road so at least we weren’t impacting the area) when another hiker came over and struck up a conversation. It turns out they had a permit but all the spots had been taken so instead of evicting someone off-permit, the ranger had just told them to find a picnic table and set up near it. We felt that this was the justification we were looking for. The women set up their bivvies on the picnic table and Ross and I pitched our tarps between it and a split rail fence. Ella yogi’d a bag of chips, M&Ms, and hot chocolate from the people at the next campsite and after profuse thank yous and tucked in then turned in.
Day 3 (Sunday): Mowich Lake to White River
I’d delegated the duty of setting an alarm and so should have expected a human voice to wake me up but my still sleeping brain processed Ella’s soft wake-up calls with the same panic as a child being woken up by a parent because they’re late for school. The upside was that this didn’t leave time to care that my hiking shirt was still soggy from last night. Everyone left camp on their own schedule and I started at a rapid clip to warm up but ran into Clare at a trail intersection where she was checking which direction to take and we hiked together for a bit.
After Mowich Lake, the trail is almost flat for a short while then takes a steep drop down towards Ipsut Creek. The footing can be loose and a little rocky in places and it was easiest to take at a half jog, throwing my trekking poles forward and catching myself on when jumping down over rocks and roots. Things flattened a little towards the valley bottom then turned into an easy uphill along the outlet of the Carbon Glacier.
I stopped at a sign for the Northern Loop Trail since the week before, I’d encountered some Wonderland hikers here trying to determine which way to go. The correct answer is to detour across the river and follow the trail on the north bank up to Carbon Glacier where you rejoin the Wonderland proper. It’d be an easy turn to miss so I wanted to make sure no one did that. I sat down just past the sign with the intention of quizzing everyone as they came in on which way to go. I was foiled by most of them doing the obvious thing: going back a few paces to look at the sign. As with other river beds, it’s fun to cross here because the after the log bridge, you have to find you way through the rocks and see the remnants of past seasons’ bridges. A ranger told me that in many places, they just let the footlogs wash out and come back each season to put them in again.
Shortly after crossing the river, I was struck with a dire need to poop. I knew there was a toilet a short ways up the trail near a suspension bridge but couldn’t remember exactly how far it was. I tried to hold it but eventually peeled off over mossy rocks away from the trail and relieved myself, having to dig a cat hole afterwards. After returning to the trail, I found the suspension bridge merely 100 yards or so up trail. It turns out I might not have made it after all as Clare, who’d been in similar predicament, but apparently with a stronger sphincter, said she’d had to hike about a quarter mile across the bridge and down the next trail to find the toilet.
I haven’t spent much time around glaciers but the Carbon Glacier struck me as strange in that it was covered in dirt and rock. I would have assumed that the darker colors warmed up more and caused it to melt faster but in this case maybe it’s a deep enough layer to be slightly insulating.
After a long climb, the grade began to reduce. The trail runs along a stream which seems, from the small, gentle cut through which it courses, like it would lead to a saddle. Instead it opens into small meadows with a view of Mt Rainier. This had been fogged over when I passed through the week before and was a delightful surprise.
After cresting the rise and passing the not-Mystic-Lake lake (there’s a sign indicating such), the trail meanders down to Mystic Lake proper through lush green fields. I decided to wash up and let my clothes dry out properly. A clean body and dry clothes (even if stiff with dried sweat) can be a real treat after damp conditions. The quick dunk turned into a swim across the lake. As I swam, Mt Rainier slowly came out from behind a ridge. This was a nice reward for making it for making it the length of the lake. Everyone had arrived and gotten in by the time I made it back. Ella was still outbound on her swim and we tried to play some game where we pushed off each other’s feet but we didn’t get the timing quite right. Unfortunately, there were ants and mosquitoes so the others didn’t hang around for long. I had full coverage clothes and a head net and was far too relaxed from the swim to want to rush, so I promised to catch up after finishing lunch.
The swim’s afterglow carried me down to the base of our last climb of the trip clean, dry, and happy. Sweat broke on the first few switchback and eventually I came back to the reality of hiking. I’d told the others about a turn in the trail where you can look back and see Mt Rainier and had expected them to use it as a place to regroup. Instead, I caught up to them sitting on the side of the trail maybe a half mile before the turn, snacking and telling stories. When Clare’s regular snack break timer had gone off, no one had taken her offer to keep going. The trip is almost over, we’re going to make it with plenty of time, and everyone wanted to enjoy it to the last.
Before the last traverse, which would bring us to Sunrise, I was subjected Ella and Clare’s interest in taking “Hikertrash Vogue” pictures (explanation). They’d made Ross pose on the shore of St Andrew’s Lake, and Ella had hers taken coming out of the water at Mystic Lake. I was seated on a rock and told to look over my shoulder and make a “come hither” look… I guess a career in modelling isn’t for me. I do like that they worked in the trekking poles and took the picture in my standard hiking uniform, though that seems to be the point.
Our final traverse was short and the views were nice but not sweeping. We passed a pair of junior rangers about knee high being herded along by a volunteer ranger who was passing out advice and answering questions for day hikers. Ella and Clare seemed about to explode from the cuteness.
What’s incredible is that despite spending three days together, the conversation never really stopped. There were some lulls but Clare and Ella are such chatterboxes that Ross and I always had the option of joining in or keeping to ourselves whenever we wanted. It’s actually quite convenient.
The last set of switchbacks after Sunrise took us down to White River. I was in the lead and set a brisk pace. The last miles of any hike are the longest and it’s best to just power through. You have to walk every step, even if you know the parking lot is just down there. Things seem much closer than they really are so time drags out. Best to just get it done.
When we finally finished, we were quite proud of ourselves. Our closing refrain, based on a picture of us taken in front of the trashcans at Longmire was, “Trash Can”, referring to hikertrash (us) being able to do the thing we set out to do. Ross had camp chairs and set them out. Then he came out with a six-pack of Rainiers in honor of the mountain we’d just walked around. Highs and lows were shared, then bonus highs and lows, then just a lot of highs. The laughter was resplendent. We’d walked around Mt Rainier in under three days and had daylight to spare. No one wanted to go home. As Phillipe Patek adverts have noted, time is the greatest luxury. When spent hiking through beautiful places with wonderful people, I’m inclined to agree.