Or "how do I contend with only walk up permits for Mt. Rainier NP in 2016?" These five loop hikes will take you over 125 miles and 32,000 feet, sampling the best Mt. Rainier National Park has to offer and allowing for increased flexibility in camp sites, not worrying about caching food, and giving you a full meal of the park. What will you miss by not hiking the Wonderland straight through? Stevens Canyon (within earshot of the road), Longmire to Narada Falls (sometimes right next to the road), and the Wonderland between Mowich Lake and the North Puyallup camp, which includes Golden Lakes but is mostly forested.
One can obviously peruse a map of Mt. Rainier National Park (MRNP) and come up with myriad ways to sample the park in short segments. These are just my suggestions for those who may have never visited this region and would like some guidance. Please reference my prior blog post for trips that include more off trail segments.
Eastern Loop Trail (35 miles/7300' elevation gain/loss)
Park at the trail head just inside the Stevens Canyon Entrance. For a complete description of this loop, check out the trip report on NWHikers I wrote a few years ago. Beyond what you will read there, this is a fantastic loop that will take you over some of the most dramatic parts of the Wonderland, namely the Cowlitz Divide, sporting some of the best vistas in the park, to Indian Bar, then over Panhandle Gap (prime mountain goat viewing area) and Summerland to the White River road. You'll have to walk the road a short half mile to the Owyhigh Lakes trail head, where you'll ascend for the last time before dropping to the Eastside Trail and finish your hike amidst old growth splendor on gentle trail. Before you hike less than a mile back to your vehicle via some short connector trails, check out the Grove of the Patriarchs. Possible camp spots are:
Olallie Creek: just 3 miles into the hike, a good place if you got a late start and want to get going
Indian Bar: very popular and perhaps harder to get on a weekend, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.
Summerland: probably the most popular and sought after camp in the park due to its easy access from the road (4.3 miles) and fantastic scenery.
Tamanos Creek: this is a pleasant spot in the forest prior to the Owyhigh Lakes and assuredly easier to secure than Summerland
Deer Creek: easy access from Highway 123 but a pleasant spot nonetheless
Northern Loop Trail (33 miles/9200')
Park at Sunrise unless you want to add 14 miles of walking (10 on the Ipsut Creek Road, closed to vehicles), which actually isn't so bad as it traverses lovely rain forest next to the Carbon River. There are some nice vistas to be seen near Sunrise if you don't mind the crowds, but once you get much beyond Frozen Lake the hoards drastically thin out. Berkeley Park (proceeding CCW, camp sites also) is pristine and a great place to camp and wander the higher lands towards evening, scouting for elk, deer and bear. Water ouzels will mesmerize you with their dipping in the creek that flows through the valley. Flowers abound here during the post melt season. Continuing on one can linger in the oddly flat Grand Park, another elk haven in the fall, and just up the trail is another "best" vista that overlooks the mountain and the White River, 2000 feet below. Once you drop out of Grand Park and descend towards the West Fork of the White River, you will pass Fire Creek Camp, which is a half mile off the trail and nestled in the forest, no views here. Be aware that it's steep trail to the river, I've seen people suffering mightily coming in the opposite direction (CW) with heavy packs. As you ascend towards Windy Gap you will pass James Camp, pretty enough but a mosquito haven for sure. Once passing the Yellowstone Cliffs (and Yellowstone camp) get your downhill legs to quivering as you drop from 5200' to 2700' ending up next to the Carbon River. You will pass another camp at Dick Creek, although with only two sites, and climb next to the Carbon for a 3300' gain. Keep this in mind in your packing, most people take 3 days to do this trail but the climbs and descents will punish you if you are toting 1/3 your body weight. However, HYOH. You'll have two more places to camp, Mystic and Granite Creek. The Mystic camp is not on the lake, it is a bit lower in the woods but lots of sites (7 individual and 2 group). If you are camping here do the short 1 mile jaunt up to Mystic Pass and watch the alpenglow on the mountain and Willis Wall as the sun sets. The trail continues over gentle downhill terrain until crossing Winthrop Creek, then ascends next to the Winthrop Glacier until veering off, steeply for a short period, to Granite Creek (and camp, which has the most private site in the park, #3). Highlights for the remainder of the trip? Skyscraper Pass with airy views, and the treeless meadows above Berkeley Park, sporting carpets of flowers at the right time of year.
Paradise/Muir Loop (7 miles/5500')
This is a day hike but if you are in the park you need to visit the Paradise area. If you don't want to "get off trail" you can skip the snow hike from Panorama Point to Camp Muir (10,188') but there are few areas on the mountain where one can climb this high, sometimes above the cloud sea, without more technical terrain. Just don't take the climb to Camp Muir lightly....on a sunny day you will fry from the sun and reflected rays if you don't take sun precautions, and in foul weather it is downright dangerous. But if you are prepared and don't mind hiking with a crowd, it's well worth it for the views and experience. Also, the route is usually wanded by the park service in case of low visibility. But I'm ahead of myself, Park at Paradise (get there early in summer) and proceed for 2 miles up the Skyline Trail to Panorama point...make sure your head is on a swivel for the views behind you. From Pan Point you can do the 4 mile round trip up to Muir and/or continue on the Skyline Trail CW to the intersection with the Lakes Trail. Open views, creeks, flowers, wildlife...a cornucopia of sights, sounds and smells, not to mention vastly diminished crowds. Before you do this part of the trail check with the park service on the steep slope one must traverse past Golden Gate...if snow covered make sure there's a good boot trail and the snow is soft, but don't proceed if it looks too scary. The Lakes Trail continues to drop to Faraway Rock with a wonderful view of Louise Lake. I recommend continuing on the Reflection Lakes trail (also the Wonderland), staying lower in elevation until the Narada Falls trail. From this road access point the trail continues up to Paradise to complete the loop. Lots of elevation for a short day hike but well worth it. The best timing for this hike is an early start but a lingering climb to Muir, saunter back with lots of breaks for snacking and picture taking, then finishing the hike later in the afternoon by Reflection Lakes and Narada Falls. A worthy day.
Western Loop (34 miles/6500')
Due to lack of access with the closing (to vehicles) of the West Side Road years ago, the western part of the park is the most remote, i.e. not many day hikers, with some of the most spectacular scenery any time of year. I'll warn you up front, to complete this loop without backtracking you will be hiking 11 miles of the West Side Road and finishing up with about 2 miles on the main drag to return to your vehicle parked at the Kautz Creek trail head. However, the West Side Road has some of its own charm and after the up and down of the trail you might appreciate the easy hiking to finish off. If you have access to a bike you could stow it at the parking terminus on the West Side Road and simply bike the remaining 5 miles to your vehicle. To start, the Kautz Creek Trail is charming and steadily climbs you through picturesque terrain until you reach Indian Henry's Hunting Ground, where one can spend hours just lounging (good bear watching area also). Your only camping choice at this point is Devil's Dream, just over a mile down the Wonderland. A possible side trip here would be to tag Pyramid Peak, which (although not shown on the map), has a trail that leads from Mirror Lakes to the summit with eye popping views. If not, continue on the Wonderland, descending from Indian Henry's (at 5300') to the Tahoma Creek suspension bridge (at 4300') for the lofty span over the creek, creaking and swaying slightly as you cross. This is truly a unique area of the park. From here the trail proceeds upwards and parallels one of the Tahoma Glacier moraines...watch out for grouse....and the mountain slowly rises over nearer terrain features until cresting Emerald Ridge, with views all around. This area can also house an explosion of white avalanche lilies and later, carpets of yellow and red flowers. Definitely a lounge area. Climb the knoll here and bask in the breezes and views. You may run into day hikers who accessed the area from the West Side Road via the South Puyallup Trail. From this point you have 2 options to shorten this loop from my description, either by taking the South Puyallup Trail to the WS Road, or continuing on and bailing via the St. Andrews Creek Trail, which also takes you to the WS Road. Keep these in mind but I recommend continuing on from South Puyallup (camp possibility) to climb yet again to St. Andrews Park and Lake. St. Andrews Lake is another area where one could spend time eating, napping and lounging. If you have a mind and the experience then a cross country jaunt up to Tokaloo Rock (7684') might be in order. From the lake the trail takes you past views to the rock formations at the foot of the Puyallup Glacier, spectacular in evening light, then down to Klapatche Park and Aurora Lake. The lake can be completely dry in later season so be aware. Being on the west side of the mountain at higher elevations affords one spectacular sunsets on the mountain and its flanks, and Klapatche Park is an awesome place to spend the evening taking in the waning sun and emerging stars. If you haven't seen the milky way recently then these elevations over 4000 feet will reacquaint you on moonless nights, one of the reasons I love to bivy instead of using a tent. After your sleepless night from star gazing, continue on to perhaps spend another night at the North Puyallup Camp. As far as backcountry camps go, this ranks low on the list....the individual sites are basically located one after another on an old road section, and the group site is in the old parking lot. What makes this worth the overnight is the completely different alpenglow on the rock formations I described earlier, glowing bright orange and ablaze with the setting sun, while the North Puyallup river provides background music in shadow below. Take this all in while lounging on the polished rock whilst drinking a backcountry martini or hot beverage just around the corner from the bridge. Life is good.
After this park sampling perhaps the easy stride on the WS Road won't bother you, especially as you check out the sights at St. Andrews or partake in a side trip off the road to Gobbler's Knob lookout. Maybe you read that the washouts from glacial outbursts on Tahoma Creek were the deciding factor in closing the road to vehicular traffic (except for park vehicles), and as you hike the road next to Tahoma Creek the stacked boulders, dead trees and obvious water lines will give you visual confirmation. You'll also see why the parking lot is now closed at the gate after Fish Creek....you can't miss the boulders that cratered the area, still parked on the road after cascading down from Mt. Wow. Now it's just the trot back to your car on easy grade. Who knows, someone may just give you a ride those last two miles to your waiting vehicle?
Mother Mountain Orbit (16 miles/4000')
Last but certainly not least, this "companion hike" to the Northern Loop Trail will be your dessert. Drive the washboard road from hell to Mowich Lake and park. I like doing this loop CW, dropping from Mowich Lake (at 4900') to the other side of the Carbon River (at 2600'). This is a very pleasant forest walk with abundant water supplies and cool shade. If you want, you can almost guarantee a site at Ipsut Creek, just a quarter mile down the trail, as this used to be a drive in campground but has been converted to a backcountry camp with over 20 sites and bear lockers. It's actually quite pleasant here and the day hikers (5 miles to the parking area) will be gone in the evening. Continuing CW climb next to the river for under 2 miles until coming to the lower river crossing. The trail used to continue right side here but was eradicated to the bedrock by the flooding of 2006. Once across the Carbon River the trail joins the Northern Loop Trail for 1.1 miles to the suspension bridge; this is the only time you will walk on the same turf if you do all 5 of these loops. Luckily it's a pleasant stretch, with moss covered boulders glistening in the sun dappled forest. Once you arrive at the suspension bridge cross this lower and less dramatic swinger (as compared to the Tahoma Creek bridge) and prepare to climb. You can also camp at the Carbon River camp, tucked amongst giant cookies from sawn blow downs, cleared by yours truly assisting the trail crew back in 2000. Just part of 33 years of personal history with this park.
The trail continues, climbing next to Cataract Creek and leading past Cataract Valley camp, which is a very pleasant one. One of the few places one can have morning constitution while basking in the sun atop a solar toilet, being serenaded by squeaking pika. Not to be missed. Continuing on, you are now next to Marmot Creek, in my view the most picturesque creek in the entire park. You have to see it to appreciate it, a cascade of pristine, freshly melted water running between shallow mossy banks, over the underlying bedrock, nourishing myriad species of wild flowers...this alone is worth the hike. But wait, that's not all! As you climb higher the forest thins and you find yourself above Mist Park, then climb ever higher until even the green is gone and only rock and boulders are under your feet. This is Seattle Park, which gives way to the high point at 6400' and upper Spray Park. Up for a side trip? Go left and continue upward to perhaps climb Echo Rock (7870') and Observation Rock (8364'), or at least the environs of the mild Flett Glacier and the scree fest that borders it. Now, the traditional way back is via this alternate route on the Wonderland Trail through Spray Park and the probable day hikers that venture here, for good reason. Or, one can go an alternate way, branching off on a side trail below the high point that will eventually peter out, but contouring below Mount Pleasant one can espy Knapsack Pass and, once crested, follow the trail all the way back to the visible Mowich Lake and your vehicle. Needless to say, this makes for an excellent day trip also if one doesn't want to spend the night. Start early.
There are innumerable ways to explore this park, but these loop hikes I've described will give you the "best of" the Wonderland, albeit with a little more punishment than the Wonderland's wimpy 93 miles and 22,000 feet of up and down. Plus, you get to adjust itineraries with much more flexibility while looping and adjust for the vagaries of weather. While you're catching your breath I suggest camping at Ohanapecosh, by far the best drive in in the park and located further from the Seattle area crowds who use the Nisqually and White River entrances.