NE Rainier to White Pass (July 24-25, 2021)

This weekend’s hike came from an odd set of constraints. I needed back-to-back long training days to get some miles on my feet before an upcoming race. I haven’t done a big overnight in a long time despite them being such a big part of my life last year. I wanted to go to eastern Washington but there’s too much smoke which is a pity as it’s not even august yet. Mt Rainier was clear but I’ve done the Wonderland Trail twice. I drove down to a ranger station before work for a walk-up permit but discovered there were only three campsites left in the park, none of them on my intended route. What eventually developed, and was only finalized on the drive to the start, was a trip from the Skookum Flats Trailhead NE of Mt Rainer to White Pass. This would connect a bunch of trails in Mt Rainier National Park which I haven’t walked, let me revisit a beautiful section of the PCT, and let me spend the car rides with my girlfriend who was going down to spend the weekend in the area anyways.

Saturday, July 24

I woke up as the sky was lightening at the Skookum Flats North Trailhead where I’d cowboy camped in the bushes after getting dropped off in the dark the night before. Packing up was quick since gear was light enough to jog with and the easiest way to lighten your load is to not bring much stuff (and if I’m being honest, lighten my wallet by paying for things which are priced inversely to their weight).

The trip started with a jog up the gravel road to the Huckleberry Trailhead. At some points there was alpenglow at the end of the long rows of trees making it seems as though I was on a road to a ruby kingdom.

The road behind. A failed attempt to capture sunrise.

I’d actually jogged for the first 45 minutes and the road had been (slightly) uphill and was feeling like things were going well so instead of going up the Huckleberry Trail, decided to walk the extra four miles to the Lake Eleanor Trailhead. I’ve been wanting to connect from that trailhead to the Sunrise area for as long as I’ve seen it on a topo map, and it parallels the Huckleberry Trail but one valley southwest.

The road was steep enough that I used it as an excuse to walk instead of run, though I tried to put on a good show of running when I heard a car coming. Some part of the motivation for this trip was supposed to be the need for training and if pride or vanity were going to be the actual motivation for that training, then so be it.

Eventually, I saw some cars parked at a pullout and started looking around for a trailhead kiosk. One of the hikers gearing up from the back of their vehicle called out to ask how far I was going. I replied that I had a permit for Deer Creek Campground (the 3rd to last campsite available in the entire park as of the previous morning), but needed to find the Lake Eleanor trailhead first and hoped it wasn’t too far. They gave me a humorous look and pointed over my shoulder. I turned around, saw the sign pictured below next to a small, muddy trail which looked completely unlike what the start of most popular trails look like (how would the Lake Eleanor Trail not be popular if it it went the way I expected it too?). I thanked them and hiked off.

Not what I was expecting.

The Lake Eleanor Trail does go to Lake Eleanor which is just south of the northern border of Mt Rainier National Park. The trailhead itself is outside the park which I guess explains its relative under-development. Lake Eleanor a medium sized pond crowded by trees and is an OK destination. The real prize, however is that after another mile or two, you get to walk through Grand Park (a high plateau) facing Mt Rainier. See below.

When it leads to this.

Grand Park was exactly as grand as I expected it to be. Jogging across it seemed a pity when compared to the pair setting up their high backed backpacking chairs in the shade of a tree with a full view of the mountain. That said, I was a harder target for the mosquitoes.

Eventually the trail descended into a valley. I hadn’t looked closely at this part of the map since it wasn’t my primary route. It was lush and hikers were now on the trails. Marmots too.

The marmot kept going back and forth between me and the other guy. Eventually it got off the trail and let us pass.

The climb out of the valley wound its way up to the last traverse of both my Wonderland trips. On those trips, I’d noticed a trail coming up from the valley and pitied those who had to climb it instead of already being at the top. Now it was my turn to make the climb.

This brought up an opportunity to do a side trip I’ve seen but never had the chance to do, a fire watch tower overlooking the area to the northeast of Mt Rainier. There were many people on the trail and at the tower, but the views merited it. At one point I saw a couple standing back-to-back taking pictures in opposite directions. I had my first lunch overlooking most of the route I’d traveled this far.

The trail out to the fire watch tower.
Looking back at Mt Rainier.

Back at the intersection just west of Sunrise where I’d turned north to the fire watch tower, I saw a volunteer I recognized. He’d been greeting people, offering directions, and making recommendations when I’d passed through two years before. He had to young boys with him this time as well, also dressed in park service uniforms.

A dedicated volunteer at his post. Buy him a drink if you get the opportunity.

Looking around at the trails on offer, I realized there was another opportunity for a side-trip which I’ve been curious about since last passing through and just assumed I’d never really get around to taking. This trail went up some ridge that rolled down from the mountain and so I hiked up and along the first two of those rolls before taking a break and then descending to the White River campground as soon as the opportunity presented itself. This hiking thing was getting hard.

The fewest people I could capture in a picture from the ridge.

Looking back up at Mt Rainier while descending to White River presented a very different view from when I’d been crossing Grand Park. The shift in perspective made me feel like I was going around the mountain.

A different perspective. Also a glacier.

The White River Campground was packed with cars. One driver asked if I was about to leave so he could take my parking spot. Despite this, the picnic tables in the day use area were mostly available and so I ate and laid down with my feet up for 30 minutes. I was now in the phase of the day where I had to decide how much of this was for training (ie I should push myself to actually run the upcoming flats) vs fun with a side of miles (ie walk and enjoy an afternoon free from stomach issues). Part of the problem with not having resolved that question before the trip started is that I never take the more demanding option in the moment. I made a few weak attempts to jog after lunch but decided to accept that fact that I just didn’t care to.

Despite looking adjacent on the map the Owyhigh Lakes Trailhead is not actually connected to White River campground by a trail. There’s a road which solves this problem for cars. It would solve that problem for hikers too, except for the cars.

Not much of a shoulder.

I had some kinda of poorly specified stomach/head issue and on the well graded climb up to the Owyhigh Lakes. This stuff plagues me a lot in endurance situations and since it wasn’t a race, I just sat down in the middle of a switchback and let my body sort things out. Several groups passed and I didn’t care to move. Nothing fixes vanity like a long, yet incomplete day of hiking.

After the switchbacks, the trail broke out into sloping alpine meadows. There were some lakes but they were relatively small. I skipped the side-trip up to Mt Tamanos which I’d mapped out as an alternate in case I wanted extra miles and elevation gain (ha!), but it did look like a good day trip for the future.

Owyhigh Lakes Trail. Not pictured: lakes.

Eventually, the trail rolled over a verdant divide and a stream picked up. I love these little changes where one moment, all the rivulets and streams flow in one direction and then next they flow the other way. The trail here was clearly less used, though maintenance was still good. I tried a little jogging as it was all downhill. My map noted a large waterfall on the descent but from the trail but it wasn’t easily visible. Just before camp, I crossed a river which sported some small falls and enough variety in its rocky banks to be quite interesting.

Despite it’s lack of popularity, Deer Creek Campground has a surprising amount to offer. It’s just not what you go to Mt Rainier National Park for.

At Deer Creek Camp, I dropped my pack and then went to offload some extra food which I didn’t want to carry the next day. The only other site was occupied with a few young road trippers with some great stories to tell. Against the ranger’s expectations, the area was mosquito-light and I was able to wash up and fall asleep in peace.

Sunday, July 24

I was a little slower out of camp this morning. I’d left breakfast to cold soak and it was disgusting. The trail from camp was a reasonable climb with short spurts of unreasonableness where the trail cutters apparently decided that there wasn’t room for switchbacks. I’d misunderstood the topo lines on the map and was worried about the angle of the terrain coming until I suddenly saw a car and realized that the first part of the climb was over.

A trail for humans and a trail for cars.

The trail from where I first crossed the road up to Cayuse pass wasn’t much used but was in good shape. When I got to the top, the sun had risen making for gorgeous, rich varieties of green. Less wonderful was the lack of a trailhead toilet. I’ll avoid detailing what happened next.


I was now on the PCT and was due at White Pass by 5pm. This is one of the easiest sections of the PCT in Washington and while I jogged a little (I was feeling behind, but didn’t have a good count of miles remaining), I mostly just enjoyed it and tried to constantly reposition my hat to keep the sun off the sunburn I’d acquired yesterday.

A highlight of the morning was taking a break to connect with some southbound thru-hikers. There’s been a lot of interesting weather this year and it was interesting to hear how it’s affected different hikers.

Another angle on Mt Rainier. It’s like I’m making progress.

On a long descent, I stopped to collect water by a small stream where another set of northbound thru-hikers were taking a break. I congratulated them on their upcoming finish. They gave me the wonderful information that I had 4 fewer miles than I’d thought. They also let me use their DEET based bug spray which was key for the moments when I wasn’t moving. Ideally, I’d have applied it to my face after taking a lunch break.

The nobos called this a “big river”. I guess big everyone’s entitled to their own opinions about what “big” means.

I was feeling depleted as the trail climbed through verdant, bright fields, with clear streams and ponds. Any honest assessment of the trail was that it was an easy section but I had to keep unbuckling my vest on the uphills to take deeper breaths. Maybe something to remember for race day.

A common view for miles: clear pond, bright grass, and meandering trail create a park-like atmosphere.

The final descent to White Pass was familiar from a recent trip I’d take with Lydia where we introduced her young nieces to backpacking by taking them to a lake with so many mosquitoes that it was preferable to spend the entire afternoon in the tent.

I reached White Pass a little ahead of schedule and walked the gravel trail around Leech Lake to the Kracker Barrel to relive some memories from my thru-hike (guzzling large quantities of soda). There was a high school track team moving in fine form despite running uphill which put my slow, ponderous downhill steps to shame. Oh well.

One final point of amusement. As I climbed an embankment behind the Kracker Barrel, I was greeted with an ultralight cuben fiber tent, a sure sign that thru-hikers were about. I found several resupplying and enjoyed some good trail talk until the ride home.

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Return to Ross Lake (July 2-5, 2021)

Lydia and I have been to Ross Lake once already this year, this time we were going with her housemate, Brenda, and Brenda’s boyfriend, Isaac, who I’ll call IQ so you don’t think I’m referring to myself in the third person. We wound up visiting some campsites I’ve seen on the map and wanted to explore. We also got a lot better at canoeing.

Friday, July 2

Instead of hauling a canoe up to the North Cascades, we opted to rent from the Ross Lake Resort which meant we didn’t have to put in on Diablo Lake, then portage. Instead, we hiked down directly to Ross Lake Dam, then crossed it and took the trail to the floating resort. Still, had were packed heavily for a canoe trip, not a backpacking trip, and so when the trail turned out to be a little longer and slightly hillier than we’d expected, we were mildly disconcerted.

Finally, the resort.

In the building to rent a canoe, there was fellow who’d forgotten his belt and was using a dog leash to hold up his pants. Another fellow, who looked like the resort’s owner, smiled and said, “they should sell belts here”.

A canoe was waiting for us tied up to the dock. A resort employee helped me pick out a life jacket and paddle, then we paddled out through the logs strung together to create a ring around the resort.

Brenda and IQ had started the day before and our plan was to meet them at Cat Island whenever we got there. We traced a familiar route out from Ross Lake Resort and turned north past Cougar Island (which was actually an island on this trip as the water was 50ft higher), and took our first break a Rainbow Point a few hours later. We’d been warned that a wind tends to come up in the afternoon and so were hurrying to get as far as possible before that might happen.

On our previous trip, I’d mostly steered with what’s called the “C stroke”. When paddling on the right side, the C stroke moves the nose of the boat to the left. If the canoe was a little too far to the left as would frequently happen after paddling for several normal strokes, my only remedy was to switch which side of the canoe I paddled on.

On this trip I started experimenting with dragging the paddle behind the canoe for a moment like a rudder. Lydia told me about something called the “J stroke” and described the technique. Eventually, my paddling morphed into something resembling the J stroke and we were able to keep the canoe going relatively straight despite not switching sides frequently.

Playing with the strokes got us to Rainbow Point which is where Brenda and IQ had started their day. We ate a quick lunch, watched some Forest Service employees survey erosion control devices around the dock, and hopped back in the canoe to paddle some more miles before the wind might pick up.

Action shot nearing Rainbow Point.

Ross Lake had risen about 50ft to “full pool” since we were last here. One of the consequences is that many familiar landmarks (“watermarks?”) looked different. A waterfall which had seemed incredibly tall remained dramatic but without being quite so awe inspiring.

This cascade was much taller last time.

We reached Cat Island in the early afternoon having avoided any bad weather or wind. I’ve seen Cat Island from the Desolation Peak trail several times and always thought it would be fun to camp there. It’s not far from the main land but the shore facing it is steep and so you’d have to jump in to swim over. Canoeing was much easier.

We passed an outcropping of Cat Island (which IQ dubbed “Kitten Island”) and landed on the northeast side by the dock. At first, the island appeared deserted, despite us having seen another red rental canoe (a “red tomato” as we called it), though with a little exploration, we found Brenda and IQ on the south side. We’d left our bags at the first campsite we encountered and when we returned to fetch them, discovered a deer attempting to gain access to our food. Maybe the park should rename their metal food storage containers, “deer lockers” instead of bear lockers.

A deer scavenging for our food.

After bringing our bags down, I brought the canoe around to a little cove and IQ helped me pull our “toasty tomato” out alongside theirs. The rest of the day was spent lounging, hammocking, resting, relaxing, and reading.

Found our friends and pulled our “red tomatoes” out on of the water for the night.

Saturday, July 3

Our destination for the day was Silver Creek, a boat-in campsite at the north end of the lake. I’ve wanted to visit since I first saw it on the map and wondered about the lonely, disconnected dot in the top-left. It was a shorter distance than on Friday but the wind picked up. Lydia and I haven’t practiced rolling a canoe and so we weren’t really sure whether the chop was fun or concerning.

The plan had been to meet up at the Boundary Bay camp for a mid-morning snack, but we failed to spot the campsite from the water and so passed the point on the north side of the “bay”. Not being familiar with now much roll the canoe could safely handle, I found myself steering with the waves (but not around the point) when things got uncomfortable and only turning north (maybe 45 degrees off direction of the waves) when the waves were calmer. I was concerned that if we got too close to the shore, we’d have to run perpendicular to the waves to get around the headland. This would mean making it as easy as possible for the waves to tip the canoe over. As it turns out, then angle of the waves shifted enough that we made it around without having to have too much excitement.

After rounding the point, we realized we’d completely missed Boundary Bay and had no idea where Brenda and IQ were. However the water was calmer. By the time we’d finished talking through options, another Toasty Tomato was visible rounding the headland. Brenda and IQ seemed to have had more fun than concern and so we set off together from east side of the lake to the west side aiming for a delta of sorts which we expected to be hiding the Silver Creek Camp.

Brenda and IQ arrive after an exciting morning. Not pictured: small whitecaps.

Crossing Ross Lake is talked about as though it’s a risky proposition under certain conditions but we were able to run with the waves and so despite pitching and slapping a little, the lack of rolling made us feel more comfortable. Silver Creek turned out to be sheltered from the southerly wind as it was on the north side of the bulge of land where the creek entered Ross Lake. By lunch, we’d arrived and tied up to the dock with a view looking northeast into Canada.

The Toasty Tomatoes looking into Canada.

The Silver Creek Campground appears to be the least used of any boat accessible camp I’ve seen in North Cascades National Park. Conveniently, this meant that firewood was available on that short paths from dock to tent side. We had read, lounged, explored a nearby cove, practiced rolling the canoe, and played a dramatic game of Farkle after dinner. Despite starting with a little excitement, this was the lowest-key day of the trip.

I’d brought the wrong tent – it was sized for one person. Mosquitoes like Lydia more than me so I got to cowboy camp.

Sunday, July 4

Happy Independence Day! We were up early anticipating a long paddle with the potential for headwind and waves in the afternoon. The sky was lightening and the sun hadn’t crested the eastern mountains. The water was almost glassy, the wind calm, the moment serene.

A serene goodbye to the northernmost point of our trip.

We reached our first rest stop, Little Beaver camp, shortly after the sun had crawled down the western slopes and touched us down on the lake’s surface. We pulled over by the sign which said Little Beaver at a set of concrete blocks which appeared almost eroded out but might once have supported a floating dock. For a bit, we thought the camp was abandoned and I wondered why it was still on the map. Nature called, and the search for an outhouse revealed (and due to dog barks, may have awakened) the entire camp. A short side-trip up a nearby inlet just after we departed revealed that the entrance to Little Beaver camp was actually just inside the mouth of the inlet and the camp’s infrastructure was very much intact.

Pylons of a former dock.

We were going to cross the lake and stop at 10 Mile Island for the next break but having been there before, decided to pull up early near Ponderosa camp. We made good time on calm water. I used the last of the toilet paper in the outhouse then awakened (probably) most of the camp shouting to Brenda and IQ that we’d altered course. We had a snack and made our escape from the pirate-themed camp (they had a jolly roger) before anyone discovered my treachery.

From there it was a straight shot down the east bank of the lake to McMillan’s. The wind never picked up. We learned that holding a straight line meant that we were able to keep up with Brenda and IQ’s more powerful strokes because their coursed meandering more. We were at McMillan’s by noon and I went for a swim before setting up camp and the morning’s sweat could dry. For some reason, once I’m dry, I lose all motivation to swim even if I’m covered in salt deposits. Other revelers were around and some briefly stopped by our dock to pick up an alcohol assisted sunburn.

Otherwise, this is how the rest of the day was spent.

Happy 4th of July.

Monday, July 5

Our last morning of the trip was lazy. IQ made the best egg dish I’ve had in the backcountry. After shoving off, we spent some time paddling in circles so Lydia could practice her J stroke as I’d been hogging the canoe’s stern for the last three days.

Cougar Island. Now an island.

There were just a few hours to paddle back to Ross Lake Resort. The wind we’d feared the day before came up and it was nice to be close to shore as it felt like we might have been at a standstill if we didn’t see ourselves creeping past nearby rocks and trees.

Actually reaching the resort felt like a satisfying end to a long trip. It was an end in the sense that we returned the canoe and settled the bill, with some question as how we should get back to the car. Instead of hiking around to the dam, we took a powerboat across to the trail which went directly up to the road. It was strange finish, to hike out with day hikers, backpackers, and other boaters. Some were outbound, others returning. Some were touristy types with fresh clothes and gear, others with gear and skin indicating longer adventures. Every trip has a unique narrative but on this trip, the end was a reminder that we were just a few more members of the outdoors community, some of whose names were inscribed on plaques mounted on the walls of the Ross Lake Resort going back to the early 1900s.

Ross Lake Resort. Finally done paddling. A powerboat ride made the hike out shorter.

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