Most people come to Las Vegas for vacation…I leave Las Vegas for mine. I hiked the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier a few years ago and my favorite part of the trail was the northeast side of the mountain. I decided before I returned home from that trip that I would hike the Northern Loop Trail the next time I came back. The Air Force changed my plans for me two years in a row and I finally got my opportunity this year.
I took four days, 30 July – 2 August, and split it up into four reasonable days that would allow me to go as slow as I wanted and not miss anything. My Wonderland itinerary was pretty aggressive and I think I missed quite a bit because of it….head down, pushing through, hardly any pictures. Ten-ish mile days seemed to be perfect for this one and I didn’t miss anything this time. A sub-30 pound pack made the 7,000+ feet of ascent/descent reasonably painless. The weather was incredible the whole time too. An absolutely amazing trip from start to finish.
I kept my GPS on (and tracking) while I was hiking and stuck to the trail for the most part. The distances you’ll see below do not match the map or trail markers. I think both of those distances are off even after taking into consideration any exploring and moving around to take pictures. Just FYI.
Day 1: Sunrise to Fire Creek Camp. 8.32 miles. 792 feet of gain. 888 feet loss.
Took the Sourdough Ridge trail to Frozen Lake and west to the intersection to Berkeley Park and the Northern Loop Trail. Tons of dayhikers and marmots up to that point and some great views of Rainier. Didn’t see anyone the rest of the day after descending into Berkeley Park. The wildflowers were in full bloom so Lupine, Indian Paintbrush, Avalanche Lilies, Yarrow, etc were literally everywhere along the trail. Didn’t see on blueberry the whole trip though. Only 90 minutes into the trip and I almost walked up on a black bear. He was in the bushes in the shadow of some trees and I saw him start to move when I was about 10 meters away. I backed up a bit to give him some space and he slowly came out, crossed the trail and hung out in a field while I took some pictures and video. The next highlight of the day was Grand Park, a HUGE open field covered in wildflowers. A few more views of Rainier through the trees and the rest of the day’s hike was tree cover and switchbacks down to Fire Creek camp. About 1200 feet of loss in that last mile and a half. Combine that with years of jumping out of airplanes and I quickly realized I had knees again. Fire Creek Camp was great. All sites were hangable. Hawk Vittles Bison Stewfor dinner, man that stuff is good. Fell asleep at 8:30 and didn’t wake up until 6:30. I have not slept that long or as good for as long as I can remember. 41 degrees when I woke up. My Phoenix underquilt and Shenandoah top quilt were perfect for the temps.
IMG_0460.jpg Lupine with Rainier in the background.
IMG_0474.jpg Black Bear.
IMG_0484.jpg One of the many creek/river crossings on puncheon bridges.
Day 2: Fire Creek Camp to Yellowstone Cliffs Camp. 10.2 miles. 1815 feet of gain. 1999 feet of loss.
About 20 switchbacks to start the day…1275 feet of loss over the 3.3 mile descent to the White River. I could hear the river about a mile out of camp but it wasn’t as raging as it sounded when I got down to it. Still a really cool place with some great views. Two puncheon bridges and a few cairns made getting to the other side and picking up the trail very easy. And then….more switchbacks. 1300 feet of gain over the first couple miles. I’d like to say a special thank you to the person who figured out the “rest step”. My calves send their appreciation. I stopped at Lake James for a lunch break and water refill. Great place to cool off and eat. Too bad there’s no camping allowed there. More uphill after Lake James and lots of snow crossings the rest of the way to camp. I slipped, broke through a lot (knee deep once) and made up some new cuss words but somehow didn’t fall once. The next cool spot was Windy Gap. The trail crews do an amazing job of maintaining that place and it almost has a Japanese garden feel to it. As soon as I crested the gap I could see clouds in the valley below that were coming up almost to the the gap. Really cool to see. 600 feet of descent and I was at Yellowstone Cliffs Camp. Another great camp (site 2) to hang. There was a bald eagle flying around when I went to hang my food bag at the bear pole so I sat and watched it fly around for about 30 minutes, an amazing sight. This camp gave me the best view from the hammock for the whole trip. Had Packit Gourmet’s Big Easy Gumbo with sausage for dinner. Another great one.
IMG_0637.jpg Coming down from Windy Gap toward Yellowstone Cliffs.
IMG_0697.jpg View from my hammock at Yellowstone Cliffs Camp.
Day 3: Yellowstone Cliffs Camp to Mystic Lake Camp. 10.7 miles. 2350 feet of gain. 2380 feet of loss.
Toughest day of the trip elevation gain/loss and distance-wise. Had the trail legs kick in that day and having my shoe-sock combo (Salomon Speedcross 3 Trail runners and SmartWool PhD Outdoor Light Mini socks) dialed in made a big difference. I was anticipating some foot issues that day but I didn’t have one issue with my feet the whole trip. Ain’t gonna lie, the first 3.5 miles of that day sucked. I stopped counting the switchbacks. The picture of my elevation profile tells it all. As soon as I got to the Carbon River it was all good though. Lots of cool waterfalls and the highlight of the day, the Carbon River suspension bridge. There was a group of four ladies crossing one at a time when I got there. Each of them looked like a Chihuahua “passing” thumbtacks as they came across. One actually tried to hold her breath the whole way across and almost fell out before she made it all the way across. Hilarious. Hard to tell from the pictures but that things sways quite a bit. Lots of fun to cross though. From there it was, you guessed it, 2000+ feet of gain and a lot of thick overgrowth to fight with. Some of the best views of the mountain were along that section though. Carbon Glacier was cool then Moraine Park was the next big view. More wildflowers and amazing views. One last climb and then it was a nice descent into Mystic Lake Camp. This was the first place that had a “crowd” in it. Eight people total but the sites are spaced well so there was still some solitude. Took a dip in Mystic Lake to wash the funk off of my clothes and myself. It’s shallow so it was bearable. Checked out the Ranger station there too. I hope the Rangers in that park fully appreciate what awesome jobs they have! I met an enormous blue grouse on the way back to camp. I’m not sure who was more startled during that encounter but I’m betting it wasn’t the bird. I’ve never made a girl noise quite like that before. Packit Gourmet Texas State Fair Chili and Lemon Cheesecake for my last night’s dinner. Went to sleep faaaaaaat and happy.
IMG_0789.jpg Carbon River Suspension Bridge.
IMG_0823.jpg Entering Moraine Park.
IMG_0832.jpg Descent into Mystic Lake.
Day 4: Mystic Lake Camp to Sunrise: 9.76 miles. 2180 feet of gain. 1870 feet of loss.
Woke up early and excited about my last day. 39 degrees when I woke up, coldest temp of the trip and that made for an exciting time putting on my (still wet) trail clothes. Lots of climbing and photo ops on that last day. Winthrop creek, Winthrop Glacier, Garda Falls, Granite Creek and Skyscraper Pass….all part of one looooong climb. Well worth it for all of those views though. Got mobbed by dayhikers as soon as I got back near Berkeley Park and caught a park ranger, creepy little dude, taking a picture of me. I asked why he was taking my picture and he said he takes pictures of everyone he sees on the trail. Not sure I believe that but whatever. Despite having to weave in and out of the groups of people who “just don’t get it” and all stop in the middle of the trail oblivious to those of us who would like to keep moving on that trail, I was still in my happy place as I made it back to (near) civilization. Finished the trip with one of the famous Sunrise Snack Bar Cheeseburgers and a Rainier beer and all was well in my world.
IMG_0917.jpg Happy guy with Rainier in the background.
IMG_0986.jpg Elevation profile.
Lots of little lessons learned but my biggest take away will be giving the Sawyer Squeeze a shot. My pack was light but that Katadyn Hiker, though a good filter, will be replaced with a lighter option before my next hike.
Feel free to hit me up if you want more details on the trip or have any questions.
Thanks for taking the time to read this.