Labor Day Weekend 2017 goes down in the books for the longest backpack trip for me to date. Yeah, we did 3 nights in the backcountry two weeks ago but in terms of mileage and elevation gain, this was the biggest one yet. Bryan and myself joined seven others on a two-night and three-day trip for the Eastern Loop at Mt. Rainier. What we were slightly dreading in terms of work and fatigue really paid off in views and experience. Darn glad to be back in Seattle though!
Our group decided not to leave early and car camp at Rainier, which was a good decision for us all. It allowed Bryan and I to get a good dinner, spend time getting a few items at REI (new boots, socks and a map for Bryan), soundly pack our bags and get a good nights sleep in our own bed. Fortunately, Ewelina had driven all the way to the rangers station Friday morning to secure our trip with the necessary camping permits. We were good to go.
Plan was for everyone to meet at the Grove of the Patriach’s parking lot on the southeast corner of Rainier Saturday morning at 8:30 am. Philipp was riding down with us and met us at our house at 6:15 am. We were on the road by 6:30 am and pulled into the trailhead parking lot at 8:20 am. Everyone was on time, Bryan and I met the three we hadn’t met before, we finished packing up and hit the trail just before 9 am. We started out joyful and happy. We took the short half mile detour to see the Grove of the Patriach’s, a nice short forest walk around some very, very large old growth trees. Back on the trail we had many flat miles through the forest ahead of us. Around noon, after three hours of hiking and about 5.5 miles in, we all broke for “lunch” along the side of the creek. Some of us soaked our feet to refresh them. After this break we had all of the 3,500 feet of climbing ahead of us to get to Tamanos Creek Campsites, the location for our first night of camping.
We were moving by 1 pm and were persistent through the switchbacks. Fortunately the forest was still thick and we were mostly shaded because the temperature was certainly increasing. We were making good time at keeping a steady pace and finally reached the top of the climb and our first alpine meadow on the hike. We had the Cowlitz Chimneys to our west and continued moving back into the forest and found Tamanos Creek Campsites around 4 pm. We took the farthest back campsite and all began setting up our tents. We had five tents total and managed to fit those, two hammocks and our kitchen within one site. The toilet at the campsite was one of the cleanest I’ve ever experienced at a campsite. Unfortunately, the creek, from where we were to get all of our water for cooking, cleaning and drinking left much to be desired. By 6 pm we were finishing cooking dinner. For the non-vegetarians ( we had three veggies in the group) Bryan and I cooked Thai chicken curry with vegetables and jasmine rice. The veggies had pesto pasta with sun-dried tomatoes. Dinner was delicious and everyone was full and happy. We ended the night with the usual hot drinks, stayed up and talked for some time and then settled in to our tents some time between 9 and 10. The sun is certainly setting earlier now.
What early birds we camped with! Our group wanted to be up at 6 am, the sun doesn’t even come up until 6:30 am right now. Regardless, friends woke us up at the crack of dawn and we began tearing down camp and making breakfast. Philipp made us all eggs with hashbrowns and bacon bits. This hit the spot but did take some time to clean all the pots. We finished packing up and hit the trail just before 9 am. The first stretch of today’s hike was a good ways downhill. We had just under 4 miles of downhill hiking before we hit the White River Road where we then had about half a mile to walk on the road to route up with the popular Summerland/Wonderland Trail.
We hit this trail at around 10 am, took a short break at a nice break spot, and then continued on the well-groomed trail. After only seeing two others on the trail the day before we saw considerably more on this day’s trail. We had about a 2,000 foot climb ahead of us and the first 1,000 feet came in the forest. We had a few stops for views of the nearby rapids but continued on until we got to a creek crossing where we stopped for lunch. Most everyone soaked their feet in the icy cold creek this time and we enjoyed the good break. The sun was starting to get hot though so at around 1 pm we moved on. We had about 800 feet more to climb to reach the camp and this was all in a mile. Fortunately, again, this stretch was shaded but it was still a short and sweet climb up switchbacks which broke out into a beautiful alpine meadow with our first great views of up-close Mt. Rainier. We were already to camp and it was only 2 pm.
Summerland Camp was our stay for the second night and we had the stellar group camp site overlooking Summerland down below. We had a shelter, where we slept, two prime spots for our two hammocks, an outhouse and a glorious creek down below. We all set out to the creek after claiming our spot and dropping our bags. Many of us got our full lower half in the creek to wash ourselves. Shockingly cold but also feeling so good. We picked some blueberries and laid in the grasses. We spent the afternoon doing some yoga stretches up on our perch and Bryan and I spent a lot of time lounging in the hammock. We were off kitchen duty for the night so we ended hammock-time just in time for dinnertime, again like at 5:30 pm. The non-vegetarian dinner for the night was Spanish rice and beans with summer sausage and manchego cheese. It was delicious and filling but the vegetarians needed some help to finish their three freeze-dried meals that were also very good. Literally stuffed we spent some time walking around the now-quiet meadows, saw some friendly marmots and one mountain goat. We had our hot drinks and a ton of chocolate before Bryan and I watched the rising full moon from the hammock. By the time we came back to camp at 9:30 pm everyone had retreated to their tents. Bryan and I were the only ones that chose to sleep without our tent on the sleeping platform. I enjoyed this very much, once I could sleep with the full moon shining down on us.
Monday marked the dreaded day of many miles to get back to the car. It was also going to be the most scenic day and possibly the hottest day. Our group again woke at 6 am with hopes to get out of camp early. We quickly packed up and did hot-water-only breakfasts of coffee and oatmeal and were on the trail before 8 am. The sun wasn’t even really on the valley yet when we began our ascent up to Panhandle Gap. This portion of the hike was beautiful offering great views of Rainier. We reached Panhandle Gap with the group moving pretty slow. We were all in agreement that we needed to start moving a little faster. Next up, we had our steepest descent, and boy was it steep. Countless steps, yes, it was literally a never-ending staircase, down to another campsite called Indian Bar. We picked the abundant blueberries on the way to distract us from all of the negative movements we were doing at the expense of our knees. We found the group shelter and took a good break to fuel up, hydrate and re-motivate ourselves. We had only finished a little over 4 miles for our 12-14 mile hike for the day.
After the break we had our last big ascent and this was taxing and un-shielded from the hot sun. BUT, it was beautiful. To me this was the prettiest part of the whole trip. Looking back, towards Rainier, the views were just so impressive. Even with the smoke settling in everything was just beautiful. We broke in the shade to make sure that everyone made it up and then continued mostly downhill along the crest to the Olallie Creek turnoff. There we took our last break to wait for the group to make sure everyone knew how to get back to the cars. We had five miles left and 2,500 feet to descend before we were home free. We mentally prepared for the last bit ahead and Bryan and I were both in agreement that there was no more stopping for us. And that we did not do. We pushed on, and went fast. I was ready to see the car. All five miles were through pretty thick forest and all was downhill. Some parts I felt like I was nearly running. The forest was hot and humid, with the air trapped by the smoke and not letting in any breeze. After about an hour and a half we hit the road and we were so happy to see the road. We took the last 2/3 of a mile on the road until we could see the trailhead and our cars. YES!!
We immediately dropped our bags, found any remotely clean clothes we had and set out, in flip flops, for the large creek just off of the trailhead. Bryan and Philipp went full-submersion while I got most everything wet except for my hair. Feeling the dirt, dust and sweat rinse away felt so good. I felt even better with a baby wipe shower and clean clothes after. We then waited a full 40 minutes for the rest of the group to arrive at the trailhead. We piled into our cars and set back towards Seattle, finding a liquor-license Mexican restaurant in Auburn that could accommodate our group of 9 for dinner. Chips, salsa, Negro Modelos, margaritas, and a seafood chimichanga for Bryan and a pollo a la crema for me, we were satisfied and in good spirits to finish the 40 minute drive home. We said good night to Philipp, put our gear away, took showers, and settled into our real bed.
We are both sore and stiff from our trip and it literally looks like it is snowing here from the ash from the nearby wildfires. It’s a bit surreal and it’s also hot outside. Fortunately it is going to be cooling down after tomorrow. Hopefully the wildfires go away too, but from what I hear they are currently 0% contained so that might be a dream.