I’d venture a guess that the majority of people hiking Mt. Rainier’s Northern Loop Trail are unaware that they are orbiting one of the most pristine and picturesque areas of the park, guarded on all sides by tall ramparts that shield it from the hiking masses like a lost world. One must pay dues to pass these barriers, dues only acquired by venturing off trail and developing cross country skills that befit the task. Fortunately, people who pay these dues are also most likely to be familiar with LNT practices and awareness of the fragility of places like the Elysian Fields and will tread accordingly. In crafting the Grand Tour, transiting the Elysian Fields and Moraine Park in one fell swoop seemed worthy of a separate hike in and of itself. See all the photos of the Elysian Loop here.
The 3 Barriers
What makes this hike difficult is transiting the entire interior. Accessing the Elysian Fields isn’t so hard and many a climber have entered to knock off the local peaks, staying high and above the fields. Also, getting into Moraine Park from the other side is only a moderate scramble. However, the terrain that lies between proved to be the most difficult, not so much exiting the area of the Fields, the latter part being a solid class 3 boulder climb, but descending into Moraine Park. This area of rocks and boulders on a steep slope required testing of every handhold and footstep, as the whole caboodle seemed to be precariously perched on top of each other just waiting to become unglued and cascade down the slope. There were perhaps slightly better lines on either side when we surveyed at the bottom but probably not by much.
Sunrise to Windy Gap (13 miles/2000’)
We started out around 9 AM with this first day positioning ourselves to hit the interior the next morning by camping on a cross country permit in the vicinity of Tyee Peak at Windy Pass. As this was my daughter’s first real hike since returning home, it made for a nice warmup. The skies were strangely white, making the mountain blend in seamlessly against this backdrop, cool in a way but terrible for photography. We ran into a fair amount of people doing the NLT in the opposite direction, some with packs so huge it looked like they borrowed the one from “Wild.” It also seemed their suffering was proportionate….we saw a lot of hikers in pain. We enjoyed a bug free journey most of the day with just a few near Lake James, taking in the vistas of Grand Park and the picturesque creek rambling through Berkeley. Anticipating perhaps scant water at Windy Gap we made sure we tankered for the evening and set up camp next to a waning tarn that housed a lone duck. Due to our short evening the night before we were anxious to hit the hay early, and after bean burritos for dinner we were both fast asleep by 8 PM.
Windy Gap to Sunrise via the Interior Total: 17 miles/5500' (Elysian/Moraine transit 6.8/2500’-WT return 10 miles/3000')
When looking at our entry point from our camp site, our first thought was “wow, that looks steep from here.” However, we had already done this 5 years ago when Cassie was 15 so we knew it was a go and that the angle was exaggerated from a distance. The weather looked good and we struck off at 8 AM, reaching Crescent Gap just past 9. As you crest the gap the mountain explodes in your face. This mini lost world houses bear, elk, birds, bugs and amphibia galore. We descended towards the floor, looking for a spring fed creek we knew was there and were relieved to see it was still trickling. We tanked again and proceeded to tread lightly across the grass to the first of a series of shallow ponds. One of the delights of being here is to shed shoes and partake of the cleansing foot massage that comes with wading in the muddy shallows. The tadpoles were mostly gone, having already sprung legs to assist in their hiding from the white legged creatures. We lingered and snacked and took in the sights, enjoying the utter solitude that comes as a reward for surmounting the first barrier. However, not wanting to wear out our welcome, we reluctantly left this small paradise behind and climbed the steep treed slopes to the boulder field above. If we had peak bagging in mind this is the spot we would have continued up to Old Desolate, but we still had a long day ahead so climbed straight up a nicely glued boulder field to assess our options for dropping down to Moraine Park. We had studied photos I took looking across to this area from last year and were surprised that the slope was more intimidating than the photos seemed to show. As mentioned earlier, our route went down a steep unstable rock and boulder field and we were relieved to finally make it to the bottom fields of Moraine Park. Once again we lingered for awhile, finding another spring fed creek where we tanked yet again, having consumed liters of liquid through the strenuous activity of a rather warm day. We briefly explored the option of descending to the Wonderland via the outlet creek but found that was a sheer droop off. This meant we had to ascend yet again, climbing up to the plateau that overlooks Moraine Park. However, the going was relatively easy and the only barrier left was the descent down a relatively mild wash, at least compared to the rest of the day. We emerged from the trees into the meadow with the Wonderland Trail in sight and finally stepped foot on this highway at 5 PM. All that was left was a 10 mile jaunt back to Sunrise and another 3000’ of climb, but the trail was so mellow on our feet that we couldn’t complain about anything. When we arrived at Mystic Lake we stopped by the shore and enjoyed a dinner of margarita pizza (Packitgourmet) while basking in a slightly red setting sun, sparkling in reflection on the water. We finished the hike on tired legs in the dark, arriving back at Sunrise amid throngs of people watching the Perseids.