The weather had finally turned back to what might be considered more typical September Northwest fare, that of clear crisp days and generally ideal conditions. I decided spur of the moment to take advantage of these conditions on some days off to cap off this season with a thru hike of Mt. Rainier's Wonderland Trail. Yes, I know I have spent some time in the Mt. Rainier environs this season, but I haven't actually done a continuous Wonderland hike since 2009 for various reasons. My fitness was peaking, my gear was dialed in, and it didn't take me long to pack for this trip, planning on a max of 3 days with an open itinerary. Now, I've been a good boy and acquired permits for the park when needed this year, but for this trip it really wasn't necessary...I was playing it by ear, so to speak. I planned on perhaps stopping the first night at Mowich Lake campground, which is self registering and car accessible. Wonderland Trail Fastpack photo set
Day 1, September 29: Longmire to Mowich Lake (35 miles/9500' elevation gain)
I started hiking at 8:15 AM from Longmire heading Clockwise on a trail so familiar by now (I have hiked the Wonderland about 30 times) that I wonder why I even bother packing a map. On this trip I took more documentary photos, meaning more diligence capturing creek crossings like Kautz and Pyramid, to compare to earlier years and as reference for the future. As an example, I reviewed video taken after the floods when I hiked the trail in 2007 and these crossings were completely devoid of any vegetation, yet now have alders growing at a rapid rate. The sky was completely clear and as usual I stopped at the ranger cabin at Indian Henry's Hunting Ground for a break and some chow. With this season having been so far ahead from the beginning (reference my hike on June 9/10) I found that fall colors are fading fast and most of the area looks ready for winter, with brown being the predominent hue. However, vibrant patches of reds and golds could still be found on this hike and I made sure to capture them on camera. Today reminded me how much I love hiking in the fall, despite shorter days and more reliance on night hiking when undertaking a trip of this length and difficulty where my days were expected to be in the vicinity of 17 hours. Luckily my body cooperated over the 5 significant climbs that would chacterize this first day, enabling me to enjoy all aspects of the reasons I get outdoors....physical toil, mental rejuvenation, smells and sounds and sights all rolled into one. I especially enjoyed the section transiting St. Andrews Park, despite temperatures that bordered on hot. I was amazed to see that there was still some water in Aurora Lake at Klapatche Park, although I suspect that it had been repumped by more recent rains and inclement weather preceeding my hike, rather than being left over from the entire season. After a significant break here I continued my 2500 foot drop down to the North Puyallup where it was time for...big surprise...another snack break. I tried to eat about every hour and a half to provide a steady stream of calories for this undertaking. From here I started yet another climb to Silver Forest, a place to gauge my progress based on sunset at this time of year. I determined that I was actually ahead of hikes I did even 20 years ago so was pleasantly pleased how I was holding up to this point. However, before the slight descent to Golden Lakes I had to turn on the lights and enjoyed glimpses of the glow of Tacoma from this side of the mountain. Many times I have stopped at Golden Lakes (25 miles to this point), especially if I'm doing a 4 day hike, but I forged on and committed to the 2500 foot drop to the South and North Mowich Rivers, which I transited (obviously) in the dark. As I passed the Mowich River Camp I noted that this would be my usual stopping point for a 3 day hike, but tonight I contined the grind up to the Mowich Lake camp, another 2300 foot climb and the last for the day. When I arrived at Mowich Lake I laid out my bivy on the concrete pad where the (empty) trash cans were, stashed my food in a food locker, used the vault toilet to clean up and bedded down at 1 AM, with my alarm set for 6.
Day 2, September 30: Mowich Lake to White River (25 miles/6000' elevation gain)
As usual I missed my alarm and woke up to already light skies, but managed to get on the trail by 7:30 AM. There were a few cars in the lot and one tent set up in this most inglorious campground. I took physical stock on the trail and was pleased that my legs were cooperating nicely as I started out on the first miles. Mowich Lake was like glass and when I reached Ipsut Pass the sun was blazing on the rock faces and setting the gold bushes aglow. One of the benefits of doing this trail in the fall is one doesn't have to contend with trail disguising overhanging brush, so my descent into the forest proper was accomplished without hidden rock obstacles causing near face plants. The hike through the old growth was back in cool shade and abundant with flowing water and waterfalls, quite pleasant indeed. What's not pleasant is noting how much elevation I was losing, bottoming out at 2400 feet elevation, as I knew a steady 3600 foot grind-climb to Mystic Pass was in my immediate future. I had to remind myself that this trail throws all kinds of obstacles to pleasantness at you...rocks, roots, huge steps up and down, gravel over rock, muddy trail and so on, and this is just part of the agreement. Suck it up and enjoy the surroundings, and that's exactly what I did. This proved to be another warmish day and I welcomed the less heat producing trek down from Mystic Pass, stopping again at Mystic Lake for another break. On this occasion the sun was beating on my face but I didn't mind and enjoyed the gently lapping waves on the miniature beach as I munched away. This season I've been on this section 4 times already but no matter, familiarity is not a detriment to enjoyment. After a quick stop at Granite Creek camp I predicted that I would be able to transit most of the area around Skyscraper Pass when it was still light, and this proved to be. Near Skyscraper Pass the area above treeline absolutely glowed golden in the low angled sunlight for a scene I hadn't witnessed before. Even after 30 times I can always count on pleasant surprises. But as the sun set, my lack of sleep over the past 3 days was catching up with me, manifesting itself with this strange urge to lie down and take a little nap. At this point, before Sunrise, I decided to stop for the evening at White River after only 25 miles and just sleep as long as I needed. It was still rather early for me and I set out my bivy on the side porch of the White River cabin at 10 PM and closed my eyes.
Day 3, October 1: White River to Longmire (33 miles/6100' elevation gain)
The skies were light when I awoke, but that was OK as I finally felt rested. No one was to be seen, the campground was closed and there were only 2 cars in the overnight parking lot. However, the facilities were locked and the water was shut off, so I had to go to the still open vault toilet at the campground entrance for my morning chores. I expected this and still had plenty of water so I cleaned up and headed off for the high country, hitting the trail at 7:30 AM once again. I knew I had a long day ahead of me as I wasn't able to capitalize on my extra mileage on day 1 (for a 3 day trip) due to my short day yesterday. Once I started up the trail I knew my decision was a good one as my body and mind were showing their appreciation for some recovery time. As expected, I ran into some day hikers around Summerland and even Panhandle Gap, but once beyond there I had the trail to myself. Besides, I had pleasant conversation with some and this is all part of the Wonderland experience. It was warm again but I certainly wasn't going to complain, considering the weather my daughter and I contended with in August and the first part of September. I was reminded once again that no lens can capture the grandeur of some of the vistas along the trail, in this case an overlook (above 6000 feet) of the Ohanapecosh valley leading to Indian Bar, hearing the distant whoosh of the cascading myriad waterfalls marking the headwaters of the Ohanapecosh River. An inspiring sight indeed. I noted some further wandering of the river as I neared Indian Bar and took refuge from the sun in the newly shake-clad cool stone shelter there. For some time I had the place to myself until two lads showed up who were doing 59 national parks in 59 weeks, truly a very cool trip. We enjoyed some pleasant banter for awhile but then I was off to finish up another 21 miles for the day. At least the remainder of the trail was benign by Wonderland standards and I made it past Box Canyon still under natural light. Perhaps the one thing I regret about doing Stevens Canyon in the dark is missing the fall colors of the understory, usually fantastic here at this time of year. However, it seems my recompense was Reflection Lake, where a low cloud deck quickly parted to reveal the moon's reflection glistening on the water with both the original and copy surrounded by an orange halo. I enjoyed this in complete solitude despite being right next to the road. After this it was a matter of lasting to the end without my old bod blowing up from the strenuous days behind me, arriving at my vehicle at exactly 1 AM, very satisfied that I could still pull off a 3 day Wonderland hike more than twenty years after I did my first.
If you'd like to read my thoughts on doing this at age 60, go here.