My familiarity with Mt. Rainier led me to consider a trek that would cross all zones, climb high and go off trail, using the Wonderland and other trails for access. Witness the Mt. Rainier Grand Tour, a 150 mile trek with 50,000 feet of climb and descent, which could be subtitled "Beyond the Wonderland." On July 22-24, I did what might be considered the "easy" part of the journey, traveling from Longmire CCW to White River. Now I've done this portion of the Wonderland Trail in one day many times, but the Grand Tour is what one might call "slightly harder." View the full photo set here.
Day 1 (19 miles/7500')
First many thanks to my wife and her friend Debbie, who repositioned my vehicle from Longmire to White River, saving me a half day of biking. I arrived at Longmire just as the ranger station was opening and waited a short time in line to get my permit, staying at Maple Creek campground on the first night and in a cross country zone on night two. The weather forecast was neither good nor bad, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I did have hopes of climbing above the cloud sea and enjoying some sunshine on this first day. My route used the WT to Narada Falls, then the trail to Paradise, to Muir, to Pan Point where I took the Skyline Trail to the Lakes Trail to the WT to finish. This day was interesting in that it was a basic 7500' push all the way to Muir, then a descent back to 2800 feet. My legs were feeling the constant descent but I needed to get them back into hiking shape anyway. The challenge of the Grand Tour is packing for all conditions one will find from low elevations to 10,000 feet, but I've pretty much got my gear dialed in and still enjoyed a fairly light pack. My entire sleep system is rolled in a "taco" where I leave my EE quilt attached to a NeoAir XLite inside a custom eVent bivy and just throw it down when it's time to sleep. This section was mostly on trail and I had some great encounters chatting with people over these 3 days, from day hikers to thru hikers to fastpackers to climbers. Anyway, I rolled into the Maple Creek camp at 10 PM and planned on sleeping in as I was sleep deprived from a recent overseas trip....no alarms for me!
Day 2 (14 miles/4000')
I did indeed get some good sleep and consequently got back on the trail like at 9:45, but this was a planned kick back day, almost all on trail. The weather cooperated and I enjoyed mild temps and no bugs (again), lingering at Indian Bar and sauntering up to the Panhandle Gap area. I wasn't sure what to expect higher up near Banshee as the clouds were dark and ugly looking over that area so I chose a bivy spot amongst some trees lower down. By evening it was getting quite chilly so I pulled out all the stops for sleeping and hit the rack at 7 PM, wanting another night of good sleep but planning on an early morning get up. It got cold enough during the evening to have frost on my bivy the next morning but I stayed relatively toasty with a great view to the stars (after a clearing night) and the mountain.
Day 3 (12 miles/2600')
Up at 5 AM, I got dressed and left for Banshee, a 1000' climb with only my camera tucked inside my jacket, stopping constantly to snap the rising sun on Rainier. The views were so incredible, with low angle light hues, the company of the goat herd, the thick ground cover of still blooming flowers, the sun rising above a flowing mass of clouds between the Cowlitz Chimneys, and the lingering cloud sea still covering the folks camped at Indian Bar, that I took two hours going up and down. Then I ate breakfast overlooking Ohanapecosh Park with ever changing cloud fingers below. But hoping to finish by early afternoon, I eventually left and transited a snowless Panhandle Gap. I chatted with some folks at the bridge above Summerland but when I arrived there no one was to be seen. I tanked up and headed out cross country, negotiating the terrain that eventually deposits one at a saddle to access Goat Island Mountain. This area is especially impressive as views abound both left and right, allowing an all encompassing view looking over to Banshee and down on Summerland, sighting the trail all the way to Panhandle Gap. Once the descent off the ridge on the other side begins the fun meter starts to rise, as one must negotiate a steep heather section to work over to the ridge that will deposit one eventually on the Wonderland. I made the error of getting off the spine and found myself on very steep treed terrain where I fell on my arse 3 times accompanied by a string of epithets. I eventually emerged from the trees, with pine needles plastered to my sunscreened neck and dirty buttocks. It was nice to be on gentle trail by that point and I strode to the White River crossing. It was interesting to see that the bridge over the White River didn't span the whole river, but no mind as I knew my vehicle was just across the way, so I waded through ankle deep chilly water to mount the shaven tree. I was about an hour and a half later than I wanted to be but when I got to my car my wife had left a thermos of hot coffee and a cooler with drinks and food, eliciting a giddy "Oh Boy!" response from me as I partook after cleaning up and changing.