When I write rare, I mean the opportunity to do a great hike in weather that seasonally is not so cooperative. For October, this turned out to be on the 19th. My daughter was home for a few days from school and was craving a taste of North West outdoors, it didn't matter if it was in rain, she just wanted to get out. Staying within a two hour drive, we traveled to Mt. Rainier National Park to try something new, a loop hike starting at Mowich Lake that would take us up above 7000 feet with a possible summit of Observation Rock if time allowed. We proceeded "off trail" on a well established trail to Knapsack Pass, continuing cross country on less obvious tread until we intercepted the Wonderland Trail. A few minutes on the WT brought us to a high point at 6400' where we proceeded off trail to the Flett Glacier. The snow was soft enough to transit in trail runners as long as the angle was mild, and we exited the glacier to a ridgeline for steeper sections. Beyond this description, the entire day elicited comments about what an incredible day it was, about the sublime vistas and skies, about our luck that the snow level was still much above 7000', and how we couldn't believe it was the middle of October; here we were in one layer and short sleeves, climbing to a high point of 7900' and putting on sunscreen. We didn't want the day to turn into a sufferfest so decided to turn back below 8000' as it looked like our looping finish to the summit of Observation Rock would take us at least another hour and it was already 1:30 PM. The trip out was spent enjoying the views to the west, chatting, taking pix and having a pose-off. Our arrival via the Wonderland Trail back at the Mowich Lake trail head at 6:27 PM made for a wonderful 11 hour day without donning the headlamps. This day was balanced in every aspect....difficulty, length, weather, wow factor....it doesn't get any better.
The area had cold temps but clear skies and still no significant snowfall below 6000 feet. Striking out solo, I decided to do a hike practically unthinkable in most years at this time of year.....bike the West Side road (Mt. Rainier National Park) to its end (9 miles), hike the North Puyallup River Trail to the North Puyallup camp (3 miles) and ascend via the Wonderland Trail to Sunset Park (3 miles). This would make for a longish day of 30 miles, 18 biking and 12 hiking, especially with the short days. I charged up my bike light and hit the road just as it was getting light, at a balmy 27 degrees F. The ride was rougher than usual as everything was frozen and in some places a grader had made ruts in muddy spots that were now frozen into teeth chattering mini bumps, plus I had to dismount twice to bypass frozen water on the road (the West Side road has been closed to vehicular traffic, aside from the Park Service, since the 90's). Although I was in shadow for the better part of the day, the clear skies ahead beckoned me in open areas and my planned lunch spot in Sunset Park. This day was chacterized by frozen landscapes, crunchy footsteps from hoar frost on the trail, and spectacular ice formations around water falls. It was also a 2 and 3 layer day as it never really got above freezing, particularly noticeable during the bike due to the wind. This trip gave me a good enough sample of conditions over the season to do a review of the Beyond Clothing I have been using this year....stay tuned. It's hard to adequately describe this hike, which I have done many times, in the context of the timing. The smells were completely different and less abundant, the sun was lower on the horizon, the animals were tucked away, and the feel and taste of the air was understated from the lower moisture content. Dead leaves still clung to branches in the shadows, impossible formations of ice inches thick rose from the ground on skinny twigs and still golden leaves. My feet sometimes sank 6 inches into the hoar frost that elevated the forest duff in disguise, and summertime easy creek crossings became treacherous due to rocks coated with ice. Adding to the wonderment was the knowledge that I was completely alone, that no summertime hikers would appear on the trail and at my lunch spot I was 15 miles from the nearest trailhead. And what a lunch it was, at last out of forest with the sun smacking my face en force, the only snow a dusting on the trail or cozied up against some deadfall. Warm enough in the vitamin D providing sun for just 2 layers and no gloves. For sure I wanted to continue through the park and proceed higher, but I wanted to see if I could make the return trip without too much time in the dark on my bike. I packed up and headed downhill by the way I came, absorbing as much of this late season gift as I could before mounting my trusty steed and heading down the bumpy road. I was delighted to make it back to my vehicle by 4:30 PM with just enough light to preclude using artificial lumens. This may be my last hike of the season in anticipation of the skis coming to the fore, but one never knows. Happy Holidays everyone.