Saturday, August 18, 2012

Wonderland Trail 8/4 -8/12 2012

When I first learned that I would have to switch my vacation from beginning of July to beginning of August due to some scheduling difficulties in our office, I frowned. Four more weeks of waiting for the much needed time off seemed agonizing at first but soon the smile returned to my face. That’s when I realized that those extra weeks will allow for more snow melt and will open a whole lot of new areas to go backpacking. The Wonderland Trail immediately came to mind.

Between learning more about the loop, supply shopping, and trying to decide on a back-up plan should we not be able to obtain a permit, the time flew and there we were on afternoon of August 3rd driving South, little worried how things will turn out. Let’s admit it. The chances of walking to Longmire Ranger Station on Friday afternoon securing a permit for the Wonderland Trail starting on weekend during the peak season are not that good.

Somehow, and I still find it hard to believe, the luck was on our side. Within 10 minutes we had a permit in our hand for exactly the route we wanted, except for Klepatchee Park Camp, which was the only one fully booked for the night we wanted to stay so we settled for a longer day and a stay at the next camp instead.

Starting from Mowich Lake trailhead allowed us to conveniently stash our food caches, one we left directly in Longmire, the other was dropped off at White River Ranger Station on our way.

The next morning we set out for the adventure. It was 8:22 a.m. when we left the trailhead, and the sun was already beating down on Earth, bringing drops of sweat to our foreheads even on the first downhill part of our route. The destination for the day was Cataract Camp via Spray Park where we intended to spend most of the afternoon.

The trail soon took us to the beautiful stretch of Spray Park. In vast amount avalanche lilies carpeted the meadows here, occasional lupine and paintbrushes added to the color palette. Not much snow remained on the trail making for an easy pleasurable walk in this wildflower heaven.

In one of the meadows we spotted a smaller black bear. Not bothered with out presence, he strolled to a creek to take few sips of water, and then lay on a snow patch at the far side of the meadow and rested there, cooling off, while we stretch our camera’s zoom to maximum to take a semi-decent photo.

The landscape character changed as Seattle Park blended with Spray Park. Now rockier with vegetation of tiny alpine flowers our surrounding was, and above all of the rugged beauty Mt. Rainier rose to the sky.

We spend considerable amount of time here. Dropping our packs, and free of the weight we roamed towards Echo and Observation rocks with views of Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, and Mt Stuart behind our back, and that was just to name a few. The day was clear and the views astonishing. Here we met our friend Amanda who was exploring the area on a day hike trip, and ample of other hikers and backpacker, many of whom we exchanged few words with.

When the sun dropped towards the horizon, it was time to leave this breathtaking area behind, and drop down the valley to our first camp – Cataract Valley. And drop it was. First we practiced few standing glissades on a long snow patch, later we found ourselves back on a firm ground, and down, and down we went until all the views disappeared and then we walked into the world of evergreens which swallowed us for the reminder of the day.

Cataract Valley camp nested in the trees was nice and peaceful, already inhabited by several other parties when we arrived; but still we had a choice from 2 sites. Water source, a creek running right through the camp, was a 2 minute walk. We set up camp, and as the darkness started to take over, we lay in our bivies watching the most amazing star display above our heads, immensely happy and filled with excitement for the journey ahead.


The morning sun woke us up at 6:30 a.m., and it was surprisingly warm already. So warm that even a downhill walk under a thick canopy of trees produced sweat. Various berry bushes could be seen along the trail, but their fruit was far from being ready for our consumption.

After an easy 1.6 miles the trail spitted us at an intersection with Carbon River Camp. We took few minutes to check it out, as we later did with all the other camps, and found it being a pleasant place, located nearby a creek and a waterfall, with sites 1 and 3 being especially nice.

From there it was not far to the first suspension bridge on our route, followed by the first serious incline. More exposed the trail was, and the sun baked relentlessly us all the way up. I haven’t felt more sluggish in a long time, it’s amazing how quickly heat can effect one’s hiking abilities. The views were of Carbon Glacier and stretched up the valley, topped with a view of Rainier itself. There was an interesting contrast between the dirty look of the glacier and the spotless beauty of the volcano overlooking it.

At last, after 2.5 hours and 2 snake encounters the trail eased up a little and led us through Morraine Park, another meadow dotted with lilies and lupine. There we saw him - a second bear of our trip. A cinnamon one this time, much bigger than the one in spray park, he roamed the meadow at the head of the valley. He was too far for a good photo, and we had no intention to go any closer, so for a few moments we cherished the view, and then faced the very last uphill part of the day, a short but steep switchback section making us huffing and puffing as we slugged our way up.

When we reached Mystic Lake, a sugary scent of wildflowers carried across the meadow. We found the same scent at various parts around the mountain, usually when it was calm and sun touched the blooms, and every time it made us stop and soak it up, for its sweetness was one of the simple pleasures we came here to seek.

0.4 miles separated us from the camp, and as we stepped through a denser area, I turned to Dave to warn him of upcoming snow patch. His interest seems to be laying somewhere behind me. I turned to see what caught his attention, and froze half way in my turn as I found myself facing another cinnamon bear. His proximity, barely 20 feet from us, made him the closest bear I’ve ever been cautiously near to.

He looked at us, as if he was considering whether we would make a worthy snack, then he moved, luckily the opposite direction, and before I unfroze and reached for my camera, he was nearly gone in a dip behind a bush. It was incredible to watch how animal of his size could vanish in such a short time, making nearly no noise.

That evening we decided to have dinner by the lake, and as fate would have it, on our way there, we met a ranger, who invited us up to the patrol cabin where there was a view of Mt. Rainier, and supposedly a good rock/ice fall show about sunset time. He also mentioned the bear was now in the meadows on the other side of the lake. We took an opportunity of that information and headed to see if a safe photo opportunity would arise. It did, and after a while of waiting, we scored some good shots.

The mosquitoes were present in the area, and even higher up from the lake, when several groups of backpackers gathered at the patrol station, they swarmed and bit relentlessly. Here with a view of sunset colors reflecting of Mt. Rainier, we met a group of 4 backpackers from Florida, and a group of 3 ladies, all of whom we had the pleasure to share the next two days of our journey with.


Getting up early paid off. Not only we escaped the heat, most of the morning was overcast, but we also got to Sunrise Camp first, and though could be really picky about choosing our site. Only one had a view of the lake, and that one won.

The terrain we covered included a downhill on a ridge, an unabridged water crossing which under given conditions was not posing a problem but should the water be little higher or faster, it could turn tricky, and a long uphill in the shade of trees.

On our way we passed Granite Creek Camp which we found neat but not overly exciting, tucked in the trees far away from any views.

The terrain opened shortly before we reached Skyscraper Pass, and there it was again the sweet smell of lupine laden meadows, and incredible views in all direction. The weather improved, and the clouds were now disappearing, leaving room for all the breathtaking scenery to shine.
We reached the camp after a stroll down to Frozen Lake, from there the trail continued in partially shaded area where 2 snow patches could be still found, none of which posed any difficulty to descent.

After making ourselves at home, a trip to Sunrise was in order. We haven’t been away from civilization for long, yet a craving for fresh fruit creped in. On the top of fruit we ended up having a burger and an ice cream.

Sunrise Camp was really nice but it had 2 negatives. First, potable water was not available on site, the nearest suitable water source we found was 0.4 miles away, and second, there were incidents reported lately involving the resident bear who bluffed charged several times, and was now becoming a nuisance (very unlikely this was his fault. If I had hundreds of Sunrise visitors, many of whom have no idea how to respect wildlife, chasing me for a pic every day, I’d probably get grumpy too).

The group from Florida left a bottle with fuel at their site, and upon return from Sunrise, they found out they had a visitor. There was a hole in the corner of one of their tents, the bottle cap was bitten off and so was the one from a water bottle. They were certain it was the bear who caused the damage; however in my mind the evidence did not add up. A bear, in my opinion, would use his claws to tear the tent open, and I can imagine the small bottle of fuel would get crashed in his mouth. A beautiful 10 point stag we found wandering through the camp after dusk was more likely the culprit.


It happened that our camp site with a nice view, was not as flat as it appeared, and most of the night we end up slipping off our pads, so when we got up, we did not feel that rested.

Luckily the first part of our day was downhill on a soft forested trail. It seemed to be a long downhill despite what the map had said. Finally, after what seemed eternity, we arrived at White River Ranger Station and picked up our cache. After short refreshment, we hit the trail again. Luckily it was flat for next mile or so, giving our bodies an opportunity to adjust to the increased weight.

We were happy to arrive at the intersection with Summerland Trail. We hiked this part several times before, and knew it was a reasonably easy hike….. that is with a daypack. Now weighted down, the trail seemed much longer.  Switchback after switchback, we steadily gained elevation, hoping the creek we wanted to refill our water and chill by was just behind the next corner, and many times the trail tricked us into believing it must be right there just to reveal several more hundred feet of uphill and yet another switchback.

Eventually the creek came, rushing down swiftly, carrying light breeze that cooled us off. And as we were resting, down the trail came Ingunn Markiewitz. What a nice surprise! After several minutes of catching up and taking photos, she continued on her way back, and we resumed the climb, taking our time to admire the blooming meadows, and views of Little Tahoma, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Summerland Bear but we had no such luck.

When we arrived to the camp, surprisingly none of the other groups were there yet. We found a site we liked, way back with a partial view of a meadow, and after we settled in and did our daily chores (washing etc), we wandered up the trail and spend hours watching marmots playing in the meadows of Summerland.


With a long day ahead of us, longest so far, we decided to have an early start but when we woke up the first time, everything was socked in. Our site felt like an island in a never-ending sea of fog.

When we woke up the second time, the conditions seemed better. Even though some clouds were coming in and out, the sky showed signs of blue, and visibility around us improved dramatically.

As I was preparing myself to get out of my cozy sleeping bag, a chipmunk run to a lupine nearby and started his breakfast. Quietly I reached for my camera to capture the precious moment.

The views were spectacular all the way to Panhandle Gap. We arrived there first, the group of three ladies were right behind us, and once we were at the top, we saw Florida group making their way up also. This was a part of the trip they were not super comfortable about, not having much opportunity to play in snow, so we made sure we kicked good steps for them, and left a sign where route finding could become a problem.

The view from the top of the Panhandle Gap was the last view we had for a while. The clouds rolled in, and were there to stay. Visibility varied from poor to none. At one point, we were not quite sure if we are still heading the right direction, and that was the only time we during the entire trip we consulted the gps.

The views returned as we dropped below the cloud. We were now on a ridge that led us down through beautiful meadows. Across the valley a tall dark walls rose to the sky, a home to 16 waterfalls we counted from a single vantage point. I’ve never been to this part of the park but right then I knew that if I should pick my favorite part of the Wonderland Trail, it would be hard to find competition for the stretch between Summerland and Indian Bar, and I was very sorry we were not spending the night.

Once we fully descended the hill and arrived at the beginning of Indian bar Meadow, raging river stood in the way of our progress. We could see the shelter at the far side of the meadow and we knew we would somehow have to cross the river. The cairn at the bank pointed out this was the crossing point but something did not feel quite right. The river run too strong to be crossed safely, and fed by all the waterfalls above, it did not seem to ease at any point through the meadow.

After a few minutes of exploring we found a path through the bushes that connected us back to the trail. It was not an obvious one and in the past the trail likely led closer to the water; however that part seemed now washed out, and impassable.

Once back on track we made for the shelter. At the very end of the meadow, we found Indian Bar Camp, up in the hillside the sides were laid, some with a view of the valley, a very peaceful camp, but the best site was no doubt the group site which was located at the shelter.

We crossed the river on a bridge and enjoyed a lunch at the shelter in a company of a couple from Monroe who started their trip just the day before,  they got lost in Panhandle Gap, and never made it to Indian Bar where they were supposed to spend the night. The night fell, and unable to proceed they pitched their tent on a hillside. They did not dare to resume their trek until they saw people in the morning and could follow them through the snow laden, foggy stretch of the Gap. We never saw them during the reminder of our trip, and part of me wonders if they perhaps decided this adventure was beyond their skills and abilities and turned around.

Here in Indian Bar we also said our farewells to both of the groups we befriended in last couple days, and from now on we were on our own again. We climbed a steep hill, the last 900 feet of elevation gain we had to conquer before being able to cruise down to our camp sites, and as we were ascending, the views grew, and wildflower displays made them even more spectacular.

It was a late day, we did not get in the camp until around 6:22 p.m. Soon after we rolled the pads out and set up bivis, we stroke a conversation with two girls from next lot. It was their last night, and the day before they run out of fuel. We could spare a boil. Their faces lit with smile over the prospect of warm dinner. It’s amazing how people became part of your journey and you part of theirs. Little acts of kindness go a long way in the wilderness.


We were now entering what is considered the least interesting part of the loop, a long slog down and up with not many jaw dropping views, too close to civilization, and probably the worst tread of the whole loop – a narrow trail leading too close to a cliff to my liking with parts washed out and tricky to cross.

Yet nature has the most amazing ways of letting one forget about all the stress of everyday life and experience joy in the most unexpected moments. A patch of wild strawberries caught my eye near Box Canyon, and as I run my hand through their leaves, a tiny red berry popped out. It was the first ripe berry we found on the trail, and wild strawberries being my favorite, the found was even more treasured.

Once we were past Box Canyon and turned on the long uphill towards Louise and Reflection lakes, snacks of salmonberries and blueberries grew at various spots along the trail, initiating numerous stops and little bit of scrambling.

The nearer to Reflection Lake we got, the more we could feel the civilized world. The noise of heavy machinery as a crew worked on road repairs near Louise Lake, Blue Jay’s, the little camp robbers, and people. Tons of them, coming in various shapes and sizes, mostly car hikers in flip flops carrying only a bottle of water or nothing at all. After the 5th screaming kid, I could not wait to be somewhere more remote again.

Paradise River Camp where we arrived somewhat early, was inhabited by not very social group, so we retreated to our site and hid in our sleeping bags as the evening was arriving cold, and read The Fellowship of the Ring. It felt good to give our feet few hours of rest.

And while we were reading, a doe wandered through the sites and after her a fox, it looked just like the grey Paradise fox that is often seen by the road, visited with us. It run away quickly but despite its briefness it was a very neat moment.

Not so nice of a moment was our realization that our itinerary was not quite correct. Things started not to add up when we calculated remaining places we will spend a night at, and it nearly made me jump to realize we had a 9 night/10 day itinerary not our originally planned 8 night/9 days one. I have no clue how we ended up with the extra night, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I already got away with 5 vacation weeks this year, I would gladly take that extra day; however I knew under these circumstances I could not afford not to be at work on Monday morning bright and early.

Quick check with the map, which camp could we try to switch to make things work? In the end, the best solution was to simply skip the last camp and opt for a long 15 mile day to walk out. Any other combination would at this point only add up to already longer days, and would make us speed through parts we really wanted to take some time to enjoy.


Another re-supply day. A bucket of goodies awaited us in Longmire, including cookies and a bottle of wine. We arrived there at a good time, after a brief stop at Narada Falls, and informed the Rangers we would not be staying at Golden Lakes (darn it, that was suppose to be a very nice camp).

After a snack of chips from local convenient store, we were on our way back to the wilderness. We met a few dayhikers in the beginning but their number declined as we got further up the slope. It was a nice uphill, gently grade and a soft ground to pamper our feet.

We spend most of the day in the shade of trees, the only view came while crossing Kautz Creek, a very nice one of the water ravaged valley and of course Rainier topping it off.

It was another early day, arriving at Devil’s Dream Camp at only 2:22 p.m. Devil’s Dream was rather suitable name for this shady, mosquito infested place. They swarmed no matter what amount of bug spray we put on. We did not plan to linger, the plan was to go visit Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, eat dinner and watch sunset there. We left without even setting bivys, and hurried up hill in a hope the mosquito situation would be better in the open meadows.

Better it was, but not by much. Luckily a breeze would go by once in a while chasing the nuisances away for a brief moment. Either way it was much more pleasurable to be eaten by skeets in a colorful meadow with a view Rainier reflecting in its tarns than in the middle of forest with no view whatsoever.

It was a pleasant surprise to see Ranger Dave strolling through the meadow towards the cabin. He recognized us also from few days earlier at Mystic Lake, and immediately a long conversation sparked about duties and responsibilities of backcountry ranger, his adventures including a very recent one with a Klepatchee Park Bear, and of course destinations around the park and other places.


It’s always nice to explore a new area, and this day was all about it. We entered the part of the park we never been to, not on the Wonderland Trail, neither any other hikes.

It was a long day – 14 miles – and the mosquitoes returned with the first sign of daylight so needles to say we were happy to leave Devil’s Dream very early in the morning. We waved at Ranger Dave as we passed the patrol cabin and from there we were in completely new territory.

After an initial descend we arrived at the second suspension bridge on route. I was little uneasy about it after the story Ranger Dave told us about a man who was so scared of crossing it that he scrambled down and tried to cross the raging river, unsuccessfully, there is a suspension bridge for a reason there. I was relieved to see this bridge was higher that the one over Carbon River but otherwise perfectly easy to cross.

Right from the beginning the following uphill promised more open terrain and views. It was a pretty walk (if you can call huffing and puffing that) up between wildflowers, I have never seen so many tiger lilies in one place, with blue sky above our heads. Nearing the top, we stepped into a rugged terrain of rock. Western Anemone thrived here but not many other flowers bloomed around. The trail was rocky and tough, our pace slowed down, but every ache our feet felt was justified by the beauty of this area. Smaller ridges nearby invited us for scrambling while across the deep valley the bare cliffs of Mt. Rainier dominated the view. In vain we looked for any possible route to the top from this side.

The meadows and wildflowers returned atop Emerald Ridge and here right in front of our eyes we have all the elements of nature’s wild beauty. Unfortunately we could not linger long, the miles ahead of us were pressing and we continued on the gravely trail, admiring the scenery, speechless.

Andrew’s Lake was still mostly frozen, and at that point an ice bath for our feet sounded great so we stopped to rest briefly. The water was, well it was freezing and at some spots it had the consistency of a slurpee. And it definitely worked.

Refreshed we made it to Klepatchee Camp. Immediately we knew why this camp was so popular. Campsites with a view of Mt. Rainier, a beautiful lake reflection the mountain, and beautiful meadows definitely added lots of appeal. We decided to stay for dinner but again the time was not on our side and after about an hour we had to say good bye and continue towards our destination.

The North Pyuallup Camp was full when we arrived, except for the group site. We knew for sure we did not have a group site so either people who were suppose to stay there decided they liked the individual site better, or somebody who did not have a permit for the camp took our spot.

It was upsetting in a way but in the end we won. The group site was spacious, had it’s own water source nearby, and an open view of the sky which on Perseoid  Meteor Shower Night was not a bad option, even though we were so tired that in the end we did not enjoy the show that much.


It was hard to break camp that morning knowing this was the last day of our adventure. We had a 15-mile day ahead of us, so we did not procrastinate, and before the sun was fully up we were on our way, lucky to scale the first uphill to Golden Lakes before the heat came.

Golden Lakes Camp was also a nice one, with a view of the lakes from couple of the sites. We missed out not staying there.

The area of Sunset Park near the camp was full of ripe blueberries and huckleberries. I wish even more the camp was our destination, I could have stayed in that berry meadow for hours enjoying the sweet fruit.

What followed was the longest downhill I have ever experienced. 6 miles to South Mowich Camp on a long never-ending switchbacks. I’m sure the people heading the opposite direction appreciated them but heading down we could definitely use more direct, faster route.

Crossing South Mowich River was also a pearl. There were two bridges, one on each side, and both ended in the middle of the river, yet not even remotely close to each other. Luckily the water was low and we managed to rock hop from one to another. If the water was higher, we would be in trouble. Judging from the surrounding damage this did not seem like a river to be messed with if it’s running high.

A short break at South Mowich Camp, and hurray, the last 4 mile up the hill back to Mowich Lake which once again seemed never-ending.

And then we were back. 93 miles later we stood at Mowich Lake trailhead again, enriched by the amazing experience this trail brings, wishing we could start all over.

1 comment:

Frank Nelson said...

Great story! Planning for August 2015. Take care, Frank