The Northern Loop

THE NORTHERN LOOP (9.17-9.21.2012)
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
~37 miles, ~9,200 feet elevation gain

Ladies and gentlemen, please tighten your shoe laces for the journey before you.

Although only three hours north of Portland, I haven't spent any time at all hiking in Mt. Rainier National Park. Earlier this summer, I read about the Northern Loop in Craig Romano's Backpacking Washington, described as a lonely and isolated, strenuous backpacking loop in the northern section of the park. It got put on The List. Andy and I almost went there for our annual Perseids trip but kaboshed the idea due to heinous bug reports in the high country. I haven't had a solo trip this year yet, and the Northern Loop seemed to fit the backpacking bill perfectly while giving me a chance to explore an area I've never hiked in before.

At 14,410 feet high, Rainier is the king of the Cascades and the most glaciated peak in the lower 48. The mountain is a gloriously beautiful beast, and the trails surrounding it are no exception. Hiking is tough here- the incredible diversity of the landscape from temperate, old growth rainforest to barren, high alpine zones means you are constantly trekking in and out of deep glacial valleys. There's no straight route to your destination- just when you think you're done, the trail throws you another curve ball. The Northern Loop would take me through all these life zones while challenging legs and lungs alike.

DAY ONE: A haze of wildfire smoke. (Sunrise to Berkley Park, ~4 miles).

I *think* these are the Sourdough Mountains from near Sunrise, with Huckleberry Park below
I arrived at the White River Ranger station at 12:30pm on Monday, banking on securing permits for the loop based on my phone conversation with Ranger Gavin the day before- he assured me that so long as I remained flexible, my chances of getting permits were good. In the end, I opted for a four night trip comprised of two short and three longer mileage days, primarily because I wanted to stay at least one night at Yellowstone camp. Mileage-wise, the loop is perfect for a three night/four day trip but arriving without a permit already in hand means you take what you can get. Turns out, it was a great decision, and at 4 nights/5 days, gave me my longest solo trip yet into the backcountry.

By 1:30, I was setting off from Sunrise for Berkley Camp, some 4 miles away. I was stunned by the haze surrounding the mountain; huge wildfires burning east in the Wenatchee National Forest were sending smoke directly into the park. I felt like I was hiking in a campfire snow globe. Still, I was determined not to let it ruin my trip, even if the views were hazy with a strange, eerie light.

Mt. Rainier in a haze of wildfire smoke

Just past Frozen Lake on the Wonderland Trail. Skyscraper Mountain (7018') is the peak on the right. I would pop out on Friday at Skyscraper pass, the tiny notch just to the left of the mountain.

1.5 miles from Sunrise, I started to leave behind the hoards of fresh-faced tourists. Soaking in the feel of the barren alpine, I left the Wonderland Trail and began the long descent into Berkley Park, an expanse of meadow nestled between Skyscraper Mountain and Mount Fremont. Alone at camp that night, I spent the afternoon wandering Berkley Park, whistling back to countless pikas and marmots, and watching wildfire smoke create strange patterns with the light. 

Dropping into Berkley Park

fall color on false hellebore

wildfire smoke light play in Berkley Park

DAY TWO: Rollercoaster. (Berkley Park to James Camp, ~9 miles).

Day Two: I'm going to drop into the White River Valley, then climb up and to the right of the burn (far right hand side of the picture) to James Camp. On Day Three, I'll pass Windy Gap, just above the burn area and beneath the peaks in the right of the photo. On Day Five, I'll cross just below the glacier near the headwaters of this creek.
Day Two: this is the face of here goes nothing.

Today, the rollercoaster elevation gain and loss Mount Rainer trails are so famous for began. From Berkley Park (elevation 5600'), I would first gently descend to the banks of Lodi Creek, then climb up and over a small knoll at 5750' before finally entering beautiful, fall-colored Grand Park (5650'). I saw lots and lots of bear sign on the approach to Grand Park but no bears.  From here, the trail took off for the White River, dropping 2400 feet  through beautiful old growth hemlock forest. I took an hour break at the river, filtering silt-heavy glacial melt water, rinsing off trail dust, eating lunch, airing out my feet, reapplying sun block, and beginning the process of becoming very, very well acquainted with moleskin.

Grand Park is grand indeed

beautiful old growth forest on the way to Fire Creek

(I would learn a lot about blister management over the next four days. If I was going to complete this loop, I was gonna have to stay on top of these little boogers.)

I should also mention that the nine miles between James and Berkley Camp are dry, unless you a) have a filter than can handle glacial flour or b) are willing to hike another round-trip mile to Fire Creek Camp (1/2 mile off the trail) in hopes that it has water (seasonal).

After crossing the White River on a foot log (looks like the river here went nutzo during the 2006 November floods), I began the two mile, 1250 foot climb to James Camp, again through beautiful old growth hemlock forest.

crossing the White River

James Camp is quiet, set away in the trees with no view of the lake nestled 0.1 miles away. I was learning this about MRNP- enjoy your walk. As far as backcountry sites go, the camps leave much to be desired in the way of views or beauty. They are really nothing more than 'home' for the night. Still, I found myself respecting the thoughtfulness of the park in an effort to truly practice low impact, leave no trace (LNT) backcountry camping.

James Camp

James Lake

Until James Camp, I had seen only four people all day, all near Grand Park. The three individual sites at James Camp were full, but it was quiet. I spent some time at the nearby creek chatting with a woman from Seattle hiking the loop clockwise with her husband; she seemed surprised I would consider hiking by myself. I assured her that I receive a significant amount of grief from family and friends alike regarding that very same issue.

I love hiking alone. Not always, but I find myself more and more enamored with it. The feeling of just me out here, hidden within the silence of the world.

DAY THREE: Pure alpine bliss. (James Camp to Yellowstone Camp, ~4 miles).

When I first obtained permits on Monday, I really wanted Yellowstone Camp, mostly because I had heard it was one of the prettiest backcountry sites in the park. With only two individual sites, it fills up quickly, and at twenty miles from Sunrise, it makes a really great second night stop on the loop. Since it was full Tuesday night, I opted to have a short day this day so I could stay there.

Fantastic call. I took about five hours to walk from James Camp to Yellowstone because it was just that damn ah-awe-some.

I left James Camp around 9:30am (slow start due to a strange and unexpected case of backcountry insomnia the night before) and began the 1.7 mile, 1300 foot climb to Windy Gap. The forest quickly transitions to more open, higher alpine forest as you gain elevation. Turning a corner, I could suddenly see peaks that had greeted me from near Frozen Lake on Day One: Redstone Peak, Sluiskin Mountain and Crescent Mountain (I think).

Sluiskin Mountain from near Windy Gap

Windy Gap, 5800'

off trail wanderings near Windy Gap

I want to stay here....[whine]

fall colors on the Yellowstone cliffs

The basin before Windy Gap (5800') and the wild, high alpine meadows beyond just before the descent to Yellowstone Camp, are some of the most glorious alpine wandering I have ever experienced. I spent hours wandering around up here, making stupid ooooohhh and ahhhh noises around every corner. I found myself extremely reluctant to leave and really, really, really hoped against hope that the park service had situated Yellowstone Camp somewhere up here. Alas, it was not to be- I had to drop some 700 feet in elevation, out of the most spectacular area, down some surprising and unexpected switchbacks, before I finally found Yellowstone Camp nestled a quarter mile off the main trail. I was the first to arrive and snagged my first (and only) campsite of the trip with an actual view.

campsite with a view

I spent the remainder of the afternoon doing camp chores, reading, soaking my feet in bone-numbing creek water and repackaging my feet/blisters for the serious elevation rollercoaster ahead of me tomorrow.

fall light on the Yellowstone cliffs from camp

repackaging my feet for tomorrow

I would share camp that night with a gal named Kat, on her first solo backpacking trip ever. [Grin].

alpenglow on the Yellowstone cliffs

DAY FOUR: Hallucinating that a marmot is a bear. (Yellowstone Camp to Mystic Camp, ~11 miles).

4am and to say that I am wide awake is an understatement. No idea what this weird sleep pattern is about.

I lay in my tent, watching stars fade in the pre-dawn glow over the Yellowstone cliffs before finally shimmying out of my bag at 5:45. I actually love hiking at dawn, but decided against hiking by headlamp in an area with high bear activity- the Yellowstone cliffs have a resident bear family in the area and sign was everywhere. Scat, smashed meadows, chewed grasses and berries, tree markings.

leaving the Yellowstone cliffs just past dawn

Funny thing is, I must have some sort of natural bear repellent. I saw NO bears this trip, at all. That means I have spent a total of 8 days in the Olympic backcountry (no bears ) and 5 in Mount Rainier. No. Bears. I know I smell bad, but really?

Today, the trail quit screwing around. Almost immediately upon leaving Yellowstone Camp, I entered the beginnings of the dark, old growth temperate rainforest that characterizes Mt. Rainier's Carbon River Valley. Twenty-three switchbacks and less than 2.5 miles later, I had lost 2150 feet of elevation and found myself sitting near the banks of the raging Carbon River, airing out my howling toes.

if you listen closely enough, you can actually hear my toes yelling at me

Overall, this, and the day before, were to be my favorite parts of the loop. Alongside the Carbon River, the trail reminded me of the Gorge, all lush and green and rocky. It soon spit me out of cool forest, however, and began a baking hot climb on an exposed, rocky shelf alongside the Carbon Glacier.

suspension bridge over the Carbon River

beginning the climb out of the Carbon River Valley

Cool trivia: the terminal moraine of Mt. Rainier's Carbon Glacier makes it the lowest elevation glacier in the lower 48.

the Carbon Glacier and Mt. Rainier

About this time, I started to feel queasy and nauseated. I had run out of fuel this morning (not sure how I miscalculated that one so badly), which left me with a dilemma. I could make it to Mystic Camp and try to bum a burn off someone to cook dinner. I could also try my Esbit emergency fuel tablet to try to cook dinner (I had enough for a dinner and morning cup o' joe). Or, I could save my remaining no-cook food for the just-in-case scenario that neither worked. Which left me with a granola bar and a snickers bar to sustain me through 11 miles of hiking with a lot of elevation gain and loss. So let's just say it made for an interesting day.

nearing Moraine Park

The miles were beautiful though. As I gained altitude I left behind the toaster oven of the Carbon River Valley and entered cooler, sunlit dappled forest with tiny creeks and waterfalls scattered here and there. By the time I reached Moraine Park though, I was very low on energy and noticed I was walking in a bit of a daze. I was focused on little details: the fall colors of the brush, the way the light came through the trees, the enormity of Rainier over the landscape. Somewhere in that daze, I thought to myself that I wasn't paying enough attention to my surroundings from an animal standpoint...

the face that says 11 miles is too much in Rainier

...cue GIANT hoary marmot jumping right in front of me on the trail to scramble into his hidey hole.

My first thought, as I was pulling my best Michael Jordan moves up and backwards on the trail, was: "BEAR!"

My second, rational, thought, following close on the heels of that one was: "Bears don't live in the ground, Amanda. And I'm pretty sure they are a helluva lot bigger."

Time to find camp and food. Now.

Just beyond Moraine Park, the trail decided to screw with me, throwing in a steep climb over a 6060 foot pass. Really, Rainier? Are you kidding me?

Rainier near Moraine Park

Moraine Park from that little surprise pass I had to climb....grrrr

Beyond the pass, Mystic Lake is another mile down trail and what a beautiful area it is. Funniest part is, I was on complete autopilot at this point, and I have no pictures of the place. It was also the biggest camp I was to stay at on the loop with seven individual sites and a group site another 0.1 miles down the trail.

Later, on the shores of the lake with my meager Esbit tablet and dehydrated meal, I asked to borrow a lighter from two gentleman heading back down to camp. They recognized me first (we passed each other on day two near Grand Park), and upon discussing my dinner dilemma, refused to loan me the lighter. Instead, introducing themselves as Ed and Michel, they insisted that I come back to camp to boil dinner at their site.

Trail. Angels.

I spent the evening with them, filling my belly and listening to them exchange stories of their thirty-eight years hiking together. Friends for a very long time, every year Ed and Michel take a minimum six day backpacking trip together, somewhere. They've done the Wonderland Trail twice. I had a fantastic evening with these two gentleman, and I couldn't thank them enough. Michel even loaned me his fuel canister to make coffee in the morning and drop off at his tent doorstep before I left.

I fell asleep that night with a cozy, warm feeling of trail camaraderie. I absolutely adore the backpacking community.

DAY FIVE: Destinationitis. (Mystic Camp to Sunrise, ~9.5 miles).

There comes a point in the backcountry, when you are again ready for the comforts of modern living. Today, I wanted a shower, beer and a steak. In that order. Upon arriving home, a good friend corrected me:

"No, the CORRECT order is beer, shower with said beer in hand, then steak."

Fueled by 600ml of instant espresso (thank you, Michel!), I left camp by 6:45 am and powered down the trail through beautiful forest, occasionally stopping to snap pictures of Rainier in the dawn.

Shower, shower, shower. Beer, beer, beer. Steak, steak, steak.

(My hallucinations this day were different, mostly consisting of dreams that my wonderful husband would be cooking rib roast when I got home. Alas, it was not to be.)

From Mystic, I initially lost a 1000 feet of elevation on my way to crossing Winthrop Creek at the base of the Winthrop Glacier. Although the temperatures had (finally) cooled, the creek was still raging. Watching the birth of a river from the snout of a glacier is quite the sight, let me just say. Rainier was awe-inspiring in the early morning light, the ice fall from numerous glaciers visible in fine detail from the trail.

good morning, mountain

Winthrop Creek and the Winthrop Glacier. I'll cross the creek below the glacier (lower left hand corner of photo).

From here, it was all up, gaining over 2100' on the way to my goal of Skyscraper Pass, which would spit me out just some three miles from Sunrise. Compared to the Northern Loop trail though, this section of the Wonderland Trail was well-graded.

Destinationitis was in full throttle. I popped out on the other side of Skyscraper Pass, 6750', to spooky views of Sunrise, Rainier and Berkley Park, darkly smudged by dense wildfire smoke. Sometime during the morning, the wind had shifted again, bringing in distinct smoke plumes from the complex of fires raging to the east. Although definitely not picture perfect with postcard blue sky, the alpine meadows surrounding Rainier near Sunrise possessed an eerie, unique quality I haven't experienced before in the backcountry.

nearing Skyscraper Pass, Skyscraper Mountain dead ahead

On Day Three I passed behind the peaks in the right of the photo (Sluiskin and Redstone). Day Four I dropped into the Carbon River Valley (left side of photo) and have been climbing out of it ever since.

Wildfire smoke plume over Rainier from Skyscraper Pass

This close to Sunrise, my legs took on an attitude of their own, and I hit the parking lot by 12:00pm, passing dozens of tourist in loafers and sandals on my way down the trail. They gave me wide berth, as I'm sure I looked like I was possessed by the steak/beer devil and evidently stunk enough to ward off bears.

Skyscaper Pass, 6750'

Leaving Skyscraper Pass on the Wonderland Trail, only 3 miles now from Sunrise

Sometimes, trips are just everything that you need them to be. For me, that was this trip. Previously, I had avoided MRNP like the plague because, quite frankly, I find the rules and regulations of the National Park Service to be obnoxious. However, the Northern Loop really, really gave me a lovely and addictive sampling of the Mt. Rainier backcountry...I *may* just have to actually start thinking about a Wonderland trip...

No comments: