Mt. Rainier National Park is one of my favorite places to backpack, although most summers the trade-off for stunning scenery and well-maintained trails is sharing it all with plenty of fellow hikers. This is especially true on sections of the Wonderland Trail, the 93 mile route that circles the base of the mountain.
Happily, the first week of August this year was an exception. Heavy snow lasting well into spring, and a late thaw, caused many to change their plans, including me. Originally, I was going to spend a full week in the park, hiking much of the Wonderland and exploring cross-country zones in Elysian Fields and around Old Desolate. But a delayed start left me with five days to hike rather than seven, and snow covering the off-trail route into Elysian Fields seemed too deep for my equipment and experience. I decided to stick to established trails, and combine the Northern Loop (one of my favorites) with a neighboring loop around Mother Mountain. I would finish this figure-eight back at the Sunrise day lodge, pick up another day of food I'd cached at the ranger station, and hike a little more before my wife and kids arrived to pick me up.
I carried the lightest load I've hiked with to date (sub 8 pound base, and less than 15 pounds starting weight, with about 4 days food, fuel and water--gear list is under my profile). By going solo, I had no problem breaking camp and getting on the trail by 6:30 or so every morning. My reward was solitude in areas of the Mt. Rainier backcountry that are usually well-traveled.
While there was plenty of snow at upper elevations, the hiking was relatively easy. Some route-finding was required on the west end of Windy Gap, and crossing Seattle and Spray parks would have been more difficult, had there not been fresh tracks from a few Wonderland Trail hikers (I also scouted part of the route the afternoon before). I enjoyed great weather the whole time--some dense afternoon fog in the Carbon River Valley was as close to precipitation as it got. I had most campsites to myself. The park's non-human residents were busy trying to make the most of a shortened summer, and I saw bears and mountain goats, as well as marmots, pika, and a few snakes and lizards.
After completing the Northern/Mother figure-eight, I spent the night at Sunrise walk-in camp, then hiked First, Second and Third Burroughs mountains. This is usually a day hike, but with an ultralight kit in a 25 liter pack, I might as well have been a dayhiker. The summits of First and Second Burroughs are broad and open, while Third Burroughs feels a bit more like a peak, and offers fantastic views of the Winthrop Glacier.
Although I live about 6 hours from the Sunrise trailheads, I try to get to the park at least once a year. Hiking into the cross-country zones will have to wait for a more typical summer. But seeing the park so early in the season, and sharing it with so few others (on two legs, at least) was a great experience. The whole trip was about 78 total miles over five days, with elevation gain of about 18,000'.
Here's some pictures:
Trail junction near Sunrise Lodge.
Saw this guy less than an hour into the hike. No trouble--far more interested in grazing than in some solo backpacker. A "nice, polite Berkeley Park bear," as one of the rangers put it.
First day: dinner near the trail with Van Horn Falls in the background. With a six-hour drive to the trailhead, I didn't get started until almost 2 pm. A light load made it possible to cover about ten miles and still make camp before dusk.
Snow fields obscuring trail across Windy Gap. Fortunately, routefinding was relatively easy here.
Avalanche lilies on Windy Gap, with the lower slopes of Crescent Mountain in the background.
View of Mt. Rainier summit, from saddle between Seattle Park and Spray Park. I circled Mother Mountain clockwise, leaving Cataract Valley camp in the morning after my second night.
Beautiful sunny morning, crossing Seattle Park snowfields. Saw no one else the whole morning, until I was back down and in the woods near Eagle Cliff and Mowich Lake.
Heather blooming in Spray Park.
Camp site third night at Dick Creek. Fog concealed Carbon Glacier most of the afternoon. Had the site to myself, except for the small rodent that insisted on running across my head several times during the night.
Forgot my spork, so made this from a scrap of fallen cedar I saw on the trail.
Small waterfall between Dick Creek and Mystic Lake.
Garda Falls, running very big.
Exposed ice on the Winthrop Glacier, with Mt. Rainier summit behind.
Mountain goats near Skyscraper Pass.
Same trail junction sign from above, only four days later.
Mt Rainier from Third Burroughs peak.
Spider on snowfield near Third Burroughs.
Looking east across the Cascades from Third Burroughs, with Second and First Burroughs in middle distance.
A little calorie infusion at Sunrise day lodge after four days hiking.
An alternative to the pinky-hang photo: my two-year old wearing my pack at the end of my hike.