Friday, July 22, 2011

Trip Report: Mt. Rainier, July 17-19, 2011

   I had been hoping to do a backpacking trip in the Olympics this weekend, but the weather just would not cooperate. After consulting the maps and trail guides we decided our best two options were Dosewallips on the east side or Obstruction Point a little further north. Then we learned the road to Dosewallips was washed out and Obstruction Point was under six feet of snow and not accessible by about three and a half miles. After a little more looking to find another option in the Olympics we turned to our recent excursion to Mt. Rainier and decided on the option of camping up at Longmire and doing day hikes from there. Disappointing in that we have recently outfitted ourselves better for backpacking, but under the circumstances we were happy to wait for better weather.

   Of course, the day before we planned to leave two unforeseen events conspired against us. The first was a minor disaster that meant spending most of the day with the landlord, a plumber, and a repair company. That's a whole other post, but the end result is that I got no packing or prep done at all. The second thing was the weather forecast dramatically changed from a 10% chance of rain to 40%-60% over the three days. We have enough experience with this area to know that means we have 100% chance of getting wet. My wife is a pretty good sport, but camping, hiking, AND being wet is a combination that would likely equal her final outing of the season and maybe even a hard sell next season. We bit the bullet and decided to book a room. The National Park Inn at Longmire was full, so we found a cabin just outside the park entrance. Now the backpacking trip had turned into a cabin vacation with hiking excursions…

   On Sunday we arrived at the Gateway Inn around 3pm. After getting checked in to cabin #1, sorting out our gear, and a meal from Gateway's restaurant, we entered the park and drove up to Longmire. We decided we had just enough daylight to make the Rampart Ridge Loop. It was a more difficult uphill climb than we anticipated, gaining about 1300 feet in just over a mile. By the time we arrived at the viewpoint overlooking the Longmire complex we questioned whether we should press on or turn back. We had already spent about half the daylight we had and were only about a third of the way. Since the hard part was behind us, we decided to press on.

   The trail was beautiful. After another mile or so we came upon the junction with the Wonderland Trail. I pulled out my camera to take a picture and started hearing mosquitoes. Just before coming to the Wonderland Trail, the path made it's way around a swampy pond, obviously the breeding ground for these little bloodsuckers. I got one photo before my wife exclaimed that the mosquitoes were covering me. They smelled blood and swarmed. By the time we were able to get away from the mosquitoes I had eight bites on my neck and face. My wife got a couple bites on her face and hands. Our son was untouched. Unfortunately, the rest of the hike was an itchy race against the impending darkness and our near-full bladders.   As we neared Longmire I noticed a trail marker in the other direction indicating a trail to Paradise, 5.7 miles. Hmmm... We ultimately returned to Longmire, utilized the restrooms, and made the drive back to our cabin.

   By the time we got to the cabin, showered, and dressed, it was almost 9:30pm and the Gateway's restaurant was closed. We decided to drive toward Ashford and see what was available. After driving about 6 miles we came on a country store that was open until 11pm. We picked up a couple things and headed back to the cabin for the night.

   Monday morning the sun came in through the windows and rousted my wife and I early. We let our son sleep while we looked over maps, discussed the day's options, packed up, and snacked on granola and trail mix. We decided to head up to Paradise and check out some trails there, starting with Dead Horse Creek. Upon arriving at Paradise, we set out on Dead Horse Creek Trail, which was buried under eight feet of snow. The mountain was currently at 600% normal snow cover. We didn't even make it to the Nisqually Vista before deciding we were ill-equipped for the conditions and turned back. Feeling a bit discouraged, we went to the Paradise Inn just as the dining room was opening for lunch, so we got a table and reconsidered our plan for the day.

   While having lunch one of the servers, Doug from Wyoming, stopped by our table and suggested we head over to the Ohanapecosh area and check out the Grove of the Patriachs and the Silver Falls Trails. Excellent! We had a new plan. After lunch we got in the car and headed east down the mountain.

   The parking lot was full at the trailheads, so we parked in the overflow area just beyond the lot. Here is one major difference between the Olympic National Park and Mt. Rainier National Park: Mt. Rainier gets a lot more tourist traffic. I have become used to going out for a Sunday-Tuesday excursion and seeing few, if any, people after the first day in the Olympics. Here it was Monday and it was crowded with people from all over the world!

   I voted for taking the Silver Falls Trail first and no one vetoed. The trail is a gradual decent to Silver Falls, only about 0.3 miles from the trailhead. We watched the falls for a while and snapped some pictures before continuing on the loop. The loop goes about a mile and a half along the east side of the Ohanapecosh River to Ohanapecosh Campground and then back up the west side of the river. I was not aware the the campground is a full-on, eight-loop, car-camping and RV set up until we arrived, but the restrooms were a welcome surprise.

   Unfortunately, my wife's new hiking boots were beginning to hurt her feet, having not yet been broken in. We took a short break before slowly making our way back up the other half of the loop. By the time we arrived at the trailhead my wife was not up for hiking the Grove of the Patriarchs. I guess we'll have to do that one next time.

   We took our time driving back through the Ohanapecosh, Paradise, and Longmire areas, pulling over frequently to take photos.

   Back at the cabin, we showered and got online to consider our options for dinner. After reading reviews for our options within a reasonable distance, we opted for the Copper Creek Inn & Restaurant. When we arrived the place was packed and we were told there would be a short wait. Totally understandable -- it appeared we hit the dinner rush. We browsed the gift shop which featured all kinds of blackberry foodstuffs and our table was ready in surprisingly short order. The place is pretty small, but still they seemed understaffed for the amount of business they had. At one point the crowd seemed to thin and we thought the rush must be over, but only minutes later the place was packed again. It was also very hot inside. If I had it to do over I would ask to sit outside. Still, dinner was good, as was the overall experience.

   We returned to the cabin and I made a suggestion for the following day: how about my wife and son drop me off at Longmire and I make the hike up to Paradise while they explore the tourist attractions. I would meet them at Paradise and we could have lunch before heading home. My wife's feet were sore from her new shoes and my son was thrilled with the idea.

   Tuesday my wife was up before me and was half packed before I was even awake. We loaded up the car, checked out of our cabin, and made our way to Longmire. At the trailhead I put on my pack loaded with the ten essentials and started up the trail. I estimated two and a half to three hours, give or take, to meet my wife and son at Paradise.

   My first setback was only a tenth of a mile up the trail when I second-guessed myself and thought I had possibly chosen the wrong trail. I went back to the ranger station at Longmire and verified that I had the correct trail, I merely needed to walk a little further to the junction for Narada Falls and Paradise. That cost me some time.

   The path up to Cougar Rock runs between the road and the Nisqually River. Since it's only about a mile and a half from Longmire to Cougar Rock, there were many hikers from one or the other along the way. At Cougar Rock the trail takes an immediate right across the Nisqually River, but I missed the turn and inadvertently explored the Cougar Rock area some before returning to the trail and realizing my mistake. This was my second setback.

   From here the trail leaves the road and takes a more direct route to Narada Falls following the Paradise River. I began to gain some elevation. Again, since the section of the trail from Cougar Rock to Narada Falls is only a few miles and includes Carter Falls along the way, I came across many hikers along the way. One thing that I noticed is that very few hikers I came across were what I would consider to be adequately equipped for wilderness hiking. Granted, a hiker here is rarely, if ever, more than a mile or so from a trailhead, road, campground, etc. and there seems to be no end of other people to rely on if something were to go wrong. Still, in my mind, it's an unusually wet and cold summer, it's the wilderness, and stuff can go wrong. I was amazed at the number of people I saw walking around in cotton shorts, cotton t-shirts, cotton socks, a pair of shoes, and nothing else.

   Let me take a minute to review the ten essentials for any hike, no matter how short you intend it to be:

  • Map
  • Compass 
  • Sun protection
  • Extra food & water
  • Extra layers
  • Headlamp/flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Whistle and/or signaling device
  • Fire starter
  • Knife

   These lists can very from source to source (the original list coming from The Mountaineers in the '30's), but the idea is to be prepared in the event one gets lost or injured. Chances are good that no one hiking between Longmire and Cougar Rock is going to wind up having to spend a night in the wilderness. Even if one were to break a leg and be unable to walk, chances are pretty good someone would be along soon to get help and the road is right there. Still, wouldn't it be nice to have a whistle to blow to try and get someone's attention or something to put on when it starts to rain? Speaking of rain, cotton kills. If you're out hiking and it rains or you fall in the water, cotton will hold onto that water and drop your body temperature. There are many natural and synthetic fibers that are much better suited for outdoor activities.

   Just sayin'.

   Back to my hike…

   By the time I arrived at Narada Falls I had about 40 minutes before my three-hour estimate to arrive at Paradise was up. The trail from Narada Falls is only 1.2 miles, but I knew it would be steep and I knew there would be snow and I would probably be late. What I didn't know was that the entire trail from Narada Falls to Paradise was buried under several feet of snow. Fortunately I had my map and compass and was able to stay headed the right direction even if I was unsure about where the trail was supposed to be. After about a half a mile the trail comes to the road where it crosses the Paradise River and then continues north to Paradise for 0.7 miles. I came out on the road only 100 feet or so from where the trail actually was. From there it was just a matter of following the compass and any foot prints and pole holes I could spot. It was a steep incline and the snow did not make things easier.

   I finally spotted the roof of the Paradise in about three and a half hours after my family had dropped me off -- a half hour longer than I estimated. Considering the setbacks, I felt pretty good about it. A red fox sitting along the trail just off the road watched as I left the trail and crossed the parking lot to meet my family.

   After finding my wife and son in the lobby of the Paradise Inn, I dropped off my pack in the car, we had lunch while we shared our experiences of the previous few hours, I changed my clothes, and we headed for home. On the way out we saw several hoary marmots near the side of the road.

   I made note of three major differences between Mt. Rainier and the Olympic Mountains on this trip. The first one I talked about: there are a lot more people at Mt. Rainier. Also, the trails where we were seem to be a lot less isolated. In the Olympics you can literally walk for days without coming up on anything more than a rustic ranger outpost or a small, primitive camping area with a pit toilet, maybe bear wire. On Mt. Rainier (at least in the areas we saw), unless you head toward the summit it seems rare to go a mile or two without coming across some car-accessible attraction. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I tend to prefer a more secluded experience. Last, the terrain at Mt. Rainier seems to be more extreme. The Olympic National Park has more than it's share of steep hikes and scenic vistas, but it also has many trails that are more mild with relatively little elevation change. My family has enjoyed backpacking and hiking these less extreme areas. We were hard pressed to find trails that weren't strenuous for my wife and son on Mt. Rainier.

   For myself, I still want to hike the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that circles the mountain. Maybe next year...

1 comment:

  1. I'm so with you on the observation that few hikers seem to take even bare min. gear or clothing on their hikes. From what I've been reading day hikers are the worst at it. My family and I just about learned that lesson the hard way, also just recently in the Tennessee National Forrest. My daughter had us on a hike she'd done before (but failed to tell us how many roots n rocks there were the entire way on the trail - and I have some medical issues that aren't helped by constant strain). It was ok the first 1/2 hour, but then I got worried if it were to rain we'd be out of luck. Have been reading just how quickly hypothermia can set in and how little it takes. Thankfully lots of luck was on our side. But never again will I trust anyone's assessment of an "easy" hike to chance. We're packin' "STUFF" next time, for sure! Enjoyed your wise post.