| Washington Eye-Opener
As we have become more obsessed with mountains in the last couple years from the vantage of our midwest river city, our preoccupation has generally focused on Colorado. Apart from the limitless options for activities once we arrive in CO, the relatively cheap and easy flight (or drive) from Saint Louis is a big draw for us. However, our interest had been growing in destinations further West and North - the Pacific Northwest. We considered a Rainier summit attempt, with RMI or a similar outfit, but other events got in the way...
When a work meeting scheduled for early September in Seattle showed up on the calendar, we quickly planned a weekend trip around it. Using the incredible website from Washington Trails Association (wta.org) we tried to narrow down the options. I was certain we wanted to head to Mt. Rainier to hike to Camp Muir, but then were torn between heading to the Olympics or the North Cascades since we only had two free days. When I injured my foot playing soccer with a midfoot sprain playing soccer just 2 weeks before the trip, it seemed the North Cascades offered more options with varying mileage depending on how my foot felt. Below are the details of our trip…
Mt. Rainier - Hike to Camp Muir from Paradise
8.7 Miles RT via Skyline Trail/Panorama Point and Muir Snowfield
4,817 feet elevation gain
6 hrs - (~4hrs up, ~2 hrs down)
We woke up around 4am in Seattle, having landed around 8:30 the night before and heading straight to the hotel. We were off by 5-ish, so the first hour and a half or so of the drive was in the dark. Daylight began to illuminate the drive just about the time we were getting to Ashford, giving us glimpses of the incredible tree-lined roads. As the sun rose, we were struck for the first time how much greener the PNW is than Colorado or the Midwest at this time of the year - something that hit us over and over during the trip. The desaturated greens and browns of late summer we were used to were instead deep green as we approached the Nisqually entrance to the park.
If you haven’t been to Mt. Rainier National Park, it will knock your socks off before you even step foot on a hike. The mountain, set apart from any other range and with enormous size and prominence, is staggering.
About 10 min after the Nisqually Entrance...BAM!
We pulled into the parking lot around 7:30am, and after a quick gear organization and bathroom trip, we set off on the Skyline Trail from Paradise. This trail is a ~5 miles loop with a high point of Panorama Point, and is paved for a good portion of the hike. To continue on to Camp Muir, you just advance further up the mountain instead of continuing on the loop. We thought this would be a good choice in case my foot began to be a problem (since the doctor’s orders were to wear a “boot” and generally stay off my feet!). While the trail is often crowded (and certainly was later in the day), at this hour we only saw 2 other parties our entire time on the Skyline trail.
Not usually a fan of filters, but my wife's instagram looks like a painted set...
The views on the trail are staggering, and as you move beyond the paved trail to a very well kept gravel trail, things get incredible. It is not long before you begin to see views of the Tatoosh range and rugged, sawtooth mountains very close behind you. Ahead of you, Rainier takes up your entire field of vision. It really feels on a different scale entirely than anything else we have hiked. Starting ~5,000 feet (instead of >10,000 for most 14ers), we were blown away. This.thing.is.big.
L to R: Mt Adams, Mt Hood (barely visible), Mt St. Hellens
We were a little late for wildflowers, but the meadows, glaciers, rock, and waterfalls all around us were still breathtaking. Actually, it was nice to be at such a low elevation where you actually can breathe! At this point, the weather was completely clear, with only occasional whispy passing clouds.
Wilson Falls, a 300ft waterfall off the Wilson glacier, appeared far off to the left, along with crazy patterns of melting glaciers.
Wilson Falls below Wilson Glacier
Sometime around and hour and a half after starting, we came to Pebble Creek - the high point of the Skyline Trail and the beginning of the trek up to Muir. We felt great, and my foot wasn’t giving any problems, so we decided to push ahead. We weren’t sure exactly what route to take to get on the snowfield, but the only other group (2 guys) that we had seen so far in the day went on ahead and we followed their path. Essentially, follow the rocky rib on climber’s left of Pebble Creek up to the snowfield, then just go up. and up. and up.
You don't have to make many routefinding decisions when there is good visibility. Every now and then there are rocks that you have to decide whether to go over or around, and we tried different strategies for best traction on the snow - in glissade paths, in others’ footprints, in fresh snow. We used microspikes and trekking poles, and I certainly wouldn’t attempt the hike without at least the latter. At times, the incline is quite steep. You also hear over and over to wear sunblock due to the sun and the reflection off the snow. As a fair skinned, red haired guy, I slathered multiple times with SPF 50, and emerged unburned.
Every now and then, we would see wands in the snow. I assumed they were reinforcing the route, but on the way back down we realized they were indicating small crevasses!
The last ¼ of the hike is the steepest, which can be discouraging. Our encouragement was the giant landscape behind us with views of Mount Adams, Mount Hood, and Mount Saint Helens, and eventually the man made structures at Muir came into view. The final steps had a great sense of accomplishment, that is until we saw how much of the mountain is left for those who are continuing on a summit attempt. The day we arrived, we were told no one had been able to make it to the summit in nearly 2 weeks due to weather.
About 30 min from Muir
Muir is cool, and there were several other friendly people at the camp. We looked further on to the glacier where others were practicing, and saw a giant crevasse as well. We snarfed some “bars”, Shotbloks, a turkey stick, and gave the precarious bathrooms a try.
Finally at our destination
One heck of a crevasse in the Cowlitz Glacier
After about 20 minutes, we began our descent. At first, the boot skiing took some getting used to to make sure we stayed in control. As we descended, we passed multiple groups of people. At this point it was around noon, and there were thick clouds approaching the base of the snowfield. We wondered if we had looked as discouraged as all the people we passed on the way up!! Countless people asked us “How far is it from here?”, and at some point we almost felt bad telling them about the 30 minutes, then 1 hr, then 2 hrs of hiking left before they reached the summit. There was even a crying ~10 year old being led up with his parents!! We also passed 3-4 guided groups with giant packs beginning a hopeful trip to the summit.
We hit some of the glissade trails, and had no problem going down them with our softshell pants. That is, except for the super wet and cold butt. We made quick time back to Pebble creek, and were happy to be done slipping and sliding on the snow. However, once below Pebble Creek we had to deal with the non-stop crowds on the skyline trail. Our advice: If you are going to do this trail, GO EARLY. It wouldn’t surprise me if we encountered over 500 people in our 45 minutes on the Skyline Trail descent.
At this point, my IT band and Suzanne’s hip flexor began to bark. While it was very rewarding, this is a LONG hike. Over 4,800 feet of elevation gain in 4.5 miles is relentless on the ascent, but then relentless joint-banging on the way down. We were walking like 80 year olds by the time we got back to the Paradise lodge for a hot lunch.
Overall, this was a great hike. The time on the snowfield is a plodding, somewhat boring couple of hours, but it was a great sense of accomplishment. We can’t wait to HOPEFULLY Lord-willing give Rainier’s summit a proper assault next year.
Planning for this hike:
We made our way out of the park, back through beautiful scenery, and into downtown Seattle for a Sounders game. This was the loudest, most tuned-in sports crowd we’ve ever been a part of - and we come from Cardinals Baseball country! After the game, we drove the ~90 miles to Bellingham for a quick night of sleep before hitting the North Cascades…
Table Mountain/Artist Point
2.72 miles RT from the end of Mt. Baker Highway
3 Hrs (Including ~1 mile Artist Ridge)
We had hoped to do the Hidden Lake Fire Lookout from Aubrey’s Trip Report (this trip was partially inspired by Aubrey's Cascadian trip reports!), but after my IT band/foot and Suzanne’s hip flexor were still sore the next day, we decided on our low-key backup of Table Mountain. We left Bellingham early, and made the beautiful drive out Mt. Baker Highway. The route winds through beautiful forests and eventually climbs past Mt. Baker Ski area, into the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie Forest. Mt. Baker Highway literally dead-ends into the parking lot for this hike. While we didn’t see many other people on the road, once we reached the parking lot around we found out that there would be a bicycle race ending in the parking lot later in the morning.
We were dragging a bit from the previous day’s hike/drive/lack of sleep, but got our stuff together and set off. I had read that this hike feels like “cheating”, since you are immediately hit with gorgeous views, and this is truly the case. Within 10 minutes from the parking lot, Mt. Baker, Mt. Shuksan, and a valley with a sea of clouds are all around you.
The parking lot is right.there. Shuksan on the Left and Baker on the Right
This trail is very well kept - very wide - and the deep greens, tans, and browns again provided contrast that look like late spring elsewhere in the country. Apparently Mt. Baker Ski area holds the record for the most snow in a year (1,140 inches!!), and there is lots of precipitation in the area. Thankfully, it was cool, sunny, and dry for our entire hike. There are several switchbacks that provide safe but fun exposure, and pretty soon you have ascended the vast majority of the vertical relief of Table Mountain. Hiking across the “top” (do they call it a mesa here?) of the mountain, we received closer and closer views of Mt. Baker’s glaciers and non-stop lenticular cloud. About halfway across to the far end of the broad summit, we found a spot to have lunch, and eventually turned around for the quick hike back to the parking lot.
North East side of Mt Baker
We decided to include a very quick 1 mile loop from the same parking lot called Artist Ridge. It takes you around the side of Mt. Baker to a small lake at Artist point, where you can take great reflection shots of Mt. Shukan’s rugged peaks. There is little elevation gain, but is well worth taking.
Relaxing at Artist Point with Table Mountain behind
East side of Mt. Baker
Closer view of Shuksan's glaciers
Planning for this hike:
After driving down and out of the Forest, we stopped for lunch and made our way back to Seattle. With a work meeting early the next meeting, we relaxed for the afternoon before grabbing dinner on Capitol Hill and walking down to Pikes Place. The extra 2 miles of walking through downtown Seattle (which is surprisingly hilly) put our exhaustion over the edge, and we stumbled into our hotel for an early bedtime.
This trip was nearly perfect. We had to drive ~500 miles and go on minimal sleep to get it all in, but it allowed us to get a lot of bang for our buck in only 2 quick days. We want to come back soon for more (maybe to include the Olympics?). We are already trying to think through how to balance our Colorado trips with a new trip destination...
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):