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.

Pretty

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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