Esther's Excellent Adventure
When Esther finds herself with five days free of family and work obligations, what else is she going to do but solo hike the Wonderland Trail, around Mount Rainier? Many thanks to herself for the awesome report and the gorgeous summer-mountain photos (except where noted)!
Saturday, August 5, found me getting on a flight home to Seattle, leaving Steve and the kids to spend another 6 days working on his family’s old Vermont house that one of his ancestors built around 1840. When we had made the travel arrangements back in the spring, Steve had suggested that I might prefer to fly back early, and I had jumped at the opportunity, immediately starting to brainstorm. There were a lot of things I would love to do in the Pacific Northwest in August, but not all of them seemed ideal as solo adventures. I kept coming back to the idea of trying to hike the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier. It was close, I wouldn’t need a car shuttle if I hiked the entire loop, and while I could challenge myself a bit, there would be plenty of other people on the trail in case something went wrong.
I hadn’t secured a permit in the spring, but 1/3 of camp spots are reserved for walk-ups, so Plan A was for me to walk up to a ranger station on Sunday, hoping to secure a permit starting Monday. Plan B ended up being even better. The week before I wanted to go, cancellations started popping up on Recreation.gov for some of the most coveted campsites along the trail: first a night at Summerland, which I immediately reserved, and then enough other sites to put together an entire loop by editing and adding on to my itinerary. Having my entire trip reserved meant I wouldn’t have to leave Seattle at 5am to be in line at the ranger station hoping for walk-up permits. And I would be finishing on Friday, the same day Steve and the kids were flying back to Seattle.
Adding to my excellent luck, my flights ran generally on time, and I made it home around midnight. I got a little sleep, raided the family camping food box, and supplemented with an early morning Safeway run for a few more food items and a couple of Smartwater bottles. I packed my pack, put it on the scale, and grimaced.
Back in the late 90’s, I did a 250-mile solo hike on the High Sierra Trail and John Muir Trail. For that hike, my only shelter was a large coated nylon tarp that I slept on top of most nights because it so rarely rained. I didn’t carry a stove, getting by on cold food but also suffering nutritionally as a result. My only mosquito protection was a head net, but I planned my days to sleep up high and rarely had issues with mosquitoes in camp. By the standards of the day, and for a solo hiker, people told me my pack was small, but in retrospect, I remember it being pretty heavy.
Fast forwarding to 2023, you’re not considered an ultralight hiker by most people’s standards unless your base weight is under 10 pounds. Here my pack was weighing in at 15 pounds not including water and food, and that was going to be the best I could do with the gear I owned. My load included a two-person tarp shelter that I sewed out of silicone-impregnated ripstop nylon 20 years ago, weighing a little under a pound and packing smaller than a Nalgene bottle. I also had a mesh tent that fit underneath the tarp, adding another pound and a half. Being a die-hard MSR Whisperlite user was not going to work for this trip, so I had picked up a little canister stove in the spring and done one shake-down bicycle overnight with it. Beyond that, I brought a minimal amount of clothing and tiny first aid and repair kits. Other items I hadn’t carried back in the 90’s were my electronics: a satellite text device, my phone, and a backup battery. The fast turnaround also meant I didn’t have time to set up any food or fuel caches, so I started the hike with 12 pounds of food added to the load.
Having thrown everything into my pack, I started driving around 9am. I picked up my permit at White River, checked in with the ranger about trail conditions, drove up to Sunrise and was probably lucky to snag a parking spot. I started walking a little after noon and was immediately surrounded by the nasal sounds of nuthatches calling and even, once, the low drumming of a grouse. I crossed the White River on a solid foot log, marveling at the loud clunking of boulders rolling down the river bed, and made the 10-ish miles to Summerland by 4:30. Last July, when the meadows were just starting to melt out, we had spent three nights base camping at Summerland as a family, had a couple of amazing wolverine sightings, and generally fell in love with the place. It was nice to be back.
Monday morning, Day 2, started with rain on my tarp, so I slept in as long as jet lag would allow, packed up and cooked breakfast in the (unoccupied) group shelter, and started hiking at 8. At this point, the weather had cleared enough to provide views of Little Tahoma and the Emmons Glacier. I also had plenty of time, with only 11 miles to go to Nickel Creek. As I made the climb up to Panhandle Gap, the high point of the entire trail, I noticed ripples in a tarn high up in the cirque below the pass. It looked like a small sea bird, darkly drab-colored, repeatedly diving and resurfacing in the shallow water. I stood and watched for a while as it continued to dive, apparently unconcerned with my presence. While I stood there, I heard it vocalize one time. At this point I was hiking with my phone powered off, but later I was able to check my Merlin bird ID app and confirm that it must have been a marbled murrelet. I hadn’t realized that they would travel this far inland, and I wondered what it was feeding on.
Passing over the gap, I walked into a wall of cloud. I would be socked in for the rest of the day. While eating lunch in the shelter at Indian Bar, I met my first runners, or at least very fast walkers. They were on their 3rd day of a Wonderland circumnavigation and, while they seemed minimally equipped even for trail running, they were in good spirits and in a reasonable position to make it back to Longmire that night.
Between Indian Bar and Nickel Creek, the Cowlitz Divide (minus any views because I was still in clouds) seemed to go on forever. It was challenging psychologically knowing that all my subsequent days would be much longer, and feeling like I was never going quite at my expected pace. This is when I started taking notes on times and distances so I could do the math later and not have those calculations constantly running through my head. That helped a lot. In camp, it was time for a wash and laundry. Besides what I was wearing, I had only packed one spare pair of socks and one set of underwear, so I’d need to wash them frequently. Bonus of solo hiking: there’s nobody to gross out by washing dirty socks in the cook pot.
Tuesday, Day 3, was my first longer day at 17 miles. I walked out of camp at quarter of seven and found that the trail surface in this southern part of the loop made it much easier to move quickly. At 7:30 and 12 miles out of Longmire, I met an older man with ski poles and a day pack who was headed to White River and must have gotten a very early start that morning. He told me he had done the same stretch in the other direction a few weeks ago and was looking forward to all the uphills turning into downhills this time! Half an hour later, I passed another pair of 3-day Wonderland folks, focused and moving fast and looking very thoughtfully equipped for a light and fast day in the mountains. I would run into this pair again two days later, on their last leg from Mowich Lake back to Longmire.
Then, around 9, I ran into a group who looked more like regular day hikers. I asked the first guy, out ahead of the rest, where they were headed, and he told me he didn’t know, that he was with a bunch of guys. When the next three guys came into view, I asked them the same question. They also didn’t know, but one of them pulled out a little laminated card with a few lines of print on it and told me: “White River.” I asked them if they were supported, and they said, “oh, yes, we have a great support team.” They passed, moving uncertainly on the side hill and looking like they didn’t have the equipment or the experience (not to mention enough time in the day or much of a sense of orientation) to set themselves up for a good time. I didn’t see them again two days later, so I don’t know what became of them.
Climbing out of Stevens Canyon and passing the Reflection Lakes put me in familiar territory, and I sped down to Longmire. As I walked over to the bathroom to use a flush toilet and splash my face, a random guy accosted me, “did you make it all the way to the top?” I laughed and told him I was hardly equipped to do that. “Doesn’t count, then,” he told me. What a weirdo. I checked in with the wilderness rangers and settled in to eat lunch on their front porch, use the wifi, and get serious about taping up my toes, which were really starting to suffer. As it turned out, these trail shoes were the first pair of Salomon footwear in which a 39 1/3 didn’t fit me perfectly, and while they had felt maybe a little snug on previous hikes, they were now starting to show a much more vicious side of their personality. After I finished my foot engineering job, another 3.5 miles brought me to Pyramid Creek Camp. I had finished my first longer day and about 40% of the loop so far. There was no easy way back to my car except just to go on. Tomorrow would be another 17-miler, followed by two 19-mile days.
Wednesday, Day 4, had me going up and down three big ridges. This was my first time on the west side of the mountain, and I finally turned on my phone to take my first pictures of the trip. I passed the patrol cabin at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground and crossed an impressive suspension bridge over Little Tahoma Creek, after which I had my scariest wildlife encounter of the trip. While walking under a snag, I heard wood splintering and was sure the dead tree was going to fall, so I started running, then finally looked back, and nothing. Just a squirrel skittering around the side of the dead tree and giving me a puzzled look. Oh.
Little Tahoma Creek:
Maybe it was the heavy mist or the seeming lack of other hikers on the trail, but this west side of the mountain struck me as particularly rugged and remote. The trail surface was challenging and made it hard to move fast. At lunch time, I sat down in a dry spot only long enough to make myself a couple of almond butter wraps, then ate them while walking. Another ridge over, the trail was taking me up through meadow twisting in and out of small groups of trees when I suddenly found myself face to face with a bear coming down the trail a couple hundred feet away. We both stopped and had a very civilized (but one-sided) conversation and a game of chicken over who was going to yield the trail before it resigned itself to taking off down the wooded side of the ridge.
On Emerald Ridge, feeling as tired as I look:
Another while brought me to Klapatche Park, a really beautiful spot that I would definitely like to come back to sometime. And then a long, wet, switchbacking descent brought me to my camp for the night at the North Puyallup River, where suddenly I found myself standing on a road grade looking at 1930’s CCC rock walls. It turns out this is as far as park service road crews pushed the Westside Road in the Great Depression era before finally giving up on the endeavor to build a circle road all the way around the mountain that would pass through Spray Park, over Ipsut Pass, up the Carbon River, past Mystic Lake and all the way to Sunrise.
It had been a 10-hour day with basically no breaks, but I had made it through my second long day and was much more confident that I was going to make it. The next day would bring me back into familiar terrain at Mowich Lake and over Ipsut Pass. Even better, when I turned on my satellite messenger before bed, I had a text waiting for me. Joy was going to hike in from Mowich Lake and meet me at the Mowich River crossing, then keep me company on the big climb out to Mowich Lake!
Thursday, Day 5, I was out early at 5:35, with jet lag and the promise of a 19-mile day spurring me along. As a result, I made it up the ridge and out of the trees in time to see the sun rise over Rainier, which was wearing a nice cap cloud. It was only my third glimpse of the mountain since leaving Sunrise:
I ran into an elk, and then, at Golden Lakes patrol cabin, the two fast guys from two days before, who told me they’d had a wet and challenging middle day going around the north side of the mountain. Then, a while later, another group of clueless 3-day hikers who told me they were going “a-round the Wonderland” but weren’t quite on the same page about whether the place they were headed that night was called Longmire. They looked dressed for a run around their city park and seemed like they might be setting themselves up for an interesting day.
Crossing the Mowich River (Joy's photo):
At the Mowich River crossing, Joy and I arrived within 5 minutes of each other. We had a nice lunch break and she caught me up on news of the outside world before keeping me company on the climb up to Mowich Lake, where she produced all sorts of wonderful things from the trunk of her car, including watermelon and two different flavors of potato chips and (luckily, since there was none in the bathrooms) a resupply of toilet paper. Then we walked together to Ipsut Pass, where she turned around to check out a very foggy Eunice Lake while I started my descent down to Ipsut campground.
Friday, Day 6, I was walking by 7 and thoroughly enjoyed seeing how very different the Carbon River Trail looked from when I had last been here two years ago. Trail crew had done a great job dealing with all the washouts and shifting river channels, and it was fun to find my way through that maze and appreciate their handiwork. This would be an almost 7000-feet vertical day, and I easily settled into the routine of walking steadily uphill, actually making a good pace with the trail surface being fairly easy. As the sun climbed higher, I took a break in a talus field to put on sunglasses and sunscreen while admiring a tuft of grass on top of a boulder that looked like a marmot but wasn’t, until the tuft of grass woke up and turned into a marmot after all.