Early October and the weather was fine. The SkiZer said to himself, “Why not squeeze in one more backpacking trip?”
Great decision. Six hours later, the SkiZer hit the Ozette Triangle trail to the Washington Coast. The 9-mile loop is popular in summer, but in fall, it’s empty. The wilderness coast once again becomes truly wild.
Streams start flowing again. The rainforest comes back to life after the dry days of summer. Seals outnumber hikers by at least 20 to one.
It was an incredible trip. SkiZer even squeezed in a day hike north to the Ozette River, where things feel even more remote. Not a soul was to be seen on a stunning beach that felt warm and friendly in 65-degree sun.
Those adjectives only go part-way to describing a rough week of backpacking deep in the North Cascades.
It was also a trip that challenged our spirits. High heat turned the forest into a biting-insect filled oven clouded by dense smoke from nearby fires in Canada and Eastern Washington.
It could have gone very wrong. But our group of five sturdy backpackers stayed positive and made the best of a wild experience along the north edge of the Picket Range at Whatcom Pass.
Over the course of a week, we saw only six other hikers. For three days, we saw nobody, save for a couple of shy black bears.
Our route took us on the “Beaver Loop,” starting on the Little Beaver Trail on the north end of Ross Lake. It took two days of hard hiking to reach the edge of the Pickets, on the shoulder of Whatcom Peak and within reach of legendary Mount Challenger.
Hot weather and smoke-filled skies cooked us, but we persevered. We spent a lovely day on the flank of Whatcom Peak and then camped high above Whatcom Pass at Tapto Lakes, as close as you can find to a perfect, backcountry camping destination.
Then it was an epic-two day push out on the Big Beaver Trail, with a final-day, 18-mile death march to Ross Lake.
What can you say after 60 miles of rugged hiking under such challenging conditions? It was exhausting, but rejuvenating at the same time. We were tested, persevered and experienced something truly wild and wonderful.
Originally published by The Spokesman-Review in Spokane. Read it here.
In September, something magical happens to the hiking trails on the northeast side of Mount Rainier National Park.
The crowds disappear.
As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial, there’s renewed interest in “America’s best idea.” Visitation nationwide peaked in late August when special programs celebrated the 100th birthday. At Mount Rainier, hour-long waits to get into the park were common.
While birthday parties are fun, it’s also nice when everyone goes home.
“Fall hiking is wonderful,” said Raphael Hagen, interpretation park ranger at Sunrise Visitor Center in Mount Rainier National Park. “The crowds drop off considerably.”
“You can feel the difference in crowds after Labor Day,” said Kindra Ramos of the Washington Trails Association. September hiking is great, she said, because “you have the fall color and there are no bugs.”
The clock is ticking for anyone interested in fall hiking on the high trails of Mount Rainier. Snow typically closes access to Sunrise (6,400 feet) by early October. Chinook Pass (5,430 feet) on State Route 410, the most direct route from Eastern Washington, usually closes in early November and so do the trails out of the White River entrance to the park.
You can still squeeze in some fall hiking on the scenic northeast side of the Mount Rainier National Park. From day-hikes to multiday backpacking trips, here are five sure-fire fall adventures before the snow flies.
Burroughs Mountain:Round trip: Up to 12 miles. Elevation gain: Up to 1,400 feet.
This might be the best day hike on Mount Rainier. Views are stunning and just get better the farther and higher you go.
Burroughs is a series of three exceptional mountain viewpoints that head from the Sunrise Visitor Center toward Mount Rainier. The hike can be done as a loop, connecting with a trail back to Sunrise on First Burroughs Mountain.
Starting at Sunrise, hike the trail clockwise from the south side of the parking lot. The first mile is flat, then climbs steeply up First Burroughs Mountain to an overlook of the White River and Emmons Glacier far below.
From here, climb to the top of First Burroughs and continue if you have the energy onto Second and Third Burroughs mountains. From the top of Third Burroughs, your views of the Winthrop Glacier and the Willis Wall on Mount Rainier’s north side are nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Backcountry camping option: Sunrise campground.
A backcountry camp above Spray Park on the northwest side of Mount Rainier.
Sunrise to Mowich, Wonderland Trail:Total distance: 22 miles. Minimum trip duration: Three days, two nights.
This journey is a classic for anyone wanting a taste of the Wonderland Trail. It follows the contour of the north side of Mount Rainier from east to west, exiting at the Mowich Lake Trailhead. (A car shuttle/hitchhike is necessary.)
Starting at Sunrise, hike the Wonderland Trail from the northwest side of the parking lot. The first two miles of the trail will be crowded; after that, day-hikers will be weeded out. At five miles in, a great first-night campsite is Granite Creek, set in a lovely subalpine forest.
From here, subsequent days are spent going around the Winthrop and Carbon glaciers, which reach far down the flanks of the mountain. A springy, one-person-at-a-time suspension bridge over the Carbon Glacier is a highlight.
From there, take the Wonderland alternate route up the northwest flank of Mount Rainier through gorgeous Spray Park to the Mowich Lake trailhead.
Climb to the most picturesque portion of the Wonderland Trail. Even better, spend the night at one of the sweetest campsites Mount Rainier has to offer.
Start at the Fryingpan Creek trailhead three miles from the White River entrance. One mile in, you’ll hook onto the Wonderland Trail and gradually climb through forest to Summerland, a backcountry camp in a beautiful waterfall-strewn basin just below Little Tahoma peak (11,138 feet).
From here, it’s a crime not to keep going 1.4 miles to Panhandle Gap, the highest point on the Wonderland Trail at 6,800 feet and deep in the Rainier backcountry. Many Wonderland Trail hikers call Panhandle Gap their trip highlight.
This trail follows the main climbing route up on the northeast side of Mount Rainier.
Starting at the White River Campground, follow the chalky White River as it tumbles from the Emmons Glacier. After one mile, the trail intersects with the Emmons Moraine trail; stay right and continue climbing through subalpine forest a little over two miles into Glacier Basin.
Consider continuing on a side hike up a climbers’ trail to the ridgeline below Mount Ruth (8,690 feet). The trail climbs steeply to the east, and if you can reach the ridgeline, you’ll be rewarded with mind-blowing views of the Emmons, the largest glacier in the Continental United States.
From kids to grannies, anyone can have a great time on this trail. It’s easy, but delivers with great views of Mount Rainier, flowing fields of wildflowers and ripe huckleberries in late summer and early fall.
Park a half-mile west of Chinook Pass at the Tipsoo Lake parking lot. Hike the route clockwise to Chinook Pass until it intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail, then head southeast around Naches Peak. Once you reach the high point on the southeast shoulder, you’ll intersect with the Naches Loop Trail back to your car and also have fantastic views of Mount Rainier.
Consider a short climb up Naches Peak (6,452 feet) for a picnic and pictures.
Tips for your Mount Rainier trip
Weekdays are best for exploring the hiking trails on the northeast side of Mount Rainier National Park.
Consider going during off-hours. Start early or late and you may find yourself completely alone.
The Burroughs Mountain trail is one of the most popular hikes in the park, but if you go at sunset, it will be empty.
Backcountry camping permits: You must have permits to camp in Rainier’s popular backcountry. Get a permit (they are free) up to a day in advance of a trip at the White River Wilderness Information Center, (360) 569-6670; 7:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily through Oct. 10.
Car camping: The full-service White River Campground is first-come, first-served with 112 sites just off the road to Sunrise and operates through September. The Silver Springs Forest Service campground is seven miles north of the White River entrance on State Route 410 and operates into October.
Lodging: Crystal Mountain ski area (crystalhotels.com; (888) 754-6400) and the Alta Crystal Resort (www.altacrystalresort.com; (800) 277-6475) offer the closest lodging to the northeast side of the park; the nearby towns of Greenwater and Enumclaw offer many more options.
I’ve been coming to this spot for the last three years. With the Perseid Meteor Shower in full swing, I decided to come back, take in the show and let the beauty of Mount Rainier wash over me one more time.
It’s high season on Mount Rainier right now. The parking lot was jammed and spots were scarce on the very busy dirt road coming into the lake.
The route to Echo and Observation Rocks starts on the very popular Spray Park Trail, and dozens of backpackers and day hikers were out enjoying the wildflowers and views of Rainier.
That all changed about four miles in. Taking a well-marked climbers’ trail, I headed to great camping spot — my happy place — that I discovered several years ago at the base of the Flett Glacier.
It’s in a wonderful, protected bowl with a view of the glacier stretching toward the Willis Wall on Mount Rainier and framed by Echo Rock on the east and Observation Rock on the west.
Once there, I saw one other hiker for the rest of the day. That evening, I had the mountain, the meteor show and a perfect camping spot to myself.
Getting your permit: You’ll need an overnight permit for backcountry camping on Rainier. To do this, you need to say the magic words at the ranger station: “I’d like a cross-country zone permit for Ptarmigan Ridge.” Cross-country permits are allowed in certain areas on Rainier, allowing hikers to camp outside of established backcountry camps.
It’s cold up there: Because you’re camping at 7,300 feet next to a glacier, you’ll be surprised how quickly things cool off at night. Pack warm clothing for the evening. I arrived to a 70-degree high, followed by freezing temperatures that night.
Blister rating: Three out of five stars. The Spray Park Trail is a freeway. It has a difficult climb about two miles in, and then once you’re at Spray Park, the route keeps going up. Near the camping spot, a bit of fairly easy boulder-hopping is necessary.
Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia
Total distance, plus side trips: 45 miles
When you hike to uber-popular Mount Assiniboine in the Canadian Rockies, expect to share the scenery.
Is that a bad thing? Not at all.
Hundreds of hikers joined us at the “Matterhorn of the Rockies,” but the crowds didn’t detract from the beauty of this very special place. In some ways, the diverse crowd — which included Japanese tour groups, American dirt-baggers, families with dogs, wealthy fly-in lodge lizards, and straight-up hard-core backpackers — seemed to add to the experience.
No bad actors ruined the scene, which felt a little like attending a backwoods good-vibes music festival filled with peace and love.
The best way to take this journey is point-to-point, from Sunshine Village ski area to the Mount Shark trailhead more than 36 hiking miles away to the south.
Our group — Dale Delong, Ken Sands, Doug Orr and the SkiZer — rendezvoused in nearby Canmore, Alberta, a popular mountain town just southeast of Banff. We left one car at the exit point at Mount Shark and then headed in one car to Sunshine.
You have to love a hike that starts with a gondola ride at a ski area. By taking the Sunshine gondola (open only on weekends in summer months), we saved ourselves about 3.8 miles of hiking and easily 2,000 vertical feet of climbing.
Exiting the gondola cabin, we did a short climb to Sunshine Meadows and started what would be a stunning first day of hiking mostly above-treeline along the Continental Divide.
It was all scenic fun for the first 6.4 miles, but when we reached Citadel Pass (elevation 7,700 feet) it got serious. We took a knee-buckling 2,000-foot descent over 2.7 miles to Porcupine Campground, our first night’s stop.
The campground was overrun when we arrived, but a friendly, help-your-neighbor vibe prevailed. We eventually found a place for the tents and settled in.
Day 2 was a 10.5-mile grinder to the base of Assiniboine. Much of the hike is done in the woods, but eventually we hit treeline near Og Lake and got a taste of what we were in for when we finally got a view of the great peak.
Mount Assiniboine (11,870 feet) is an amazing sight. Jagged, vertical rock, hanging glaciers, cascading waterfalls — the Matterhorn of the Rockies has it all. It stands above a gorgeous basin dominated by the high-mountain Lake Magog where we would spend our next three nights.
The Lake Magog Campground was our base for exploring the area on some excellent day hikes. It’s a huge place, complete with several cooking areas (including a covered shelter) and several pit toilets. The scene is festive and cooperative — everyone is there to enjoy the beauty.
Our journey out to Mount Shark would span 16 miles over two days. We stayed at Big Springs (10 miles from Assiniboine), an excellent forested campground with a frigid spring-fed river made for soaking sore feet.
The final day was a sprint for the car, followed by showers and a burger run in Canmore, the perfect end to a week in the Rockies.
Assiniboine Lodge “tea time”: The rich folks fly in and stay at Assiniboine Lodge, about 2 km (1.2 miles) from the Lake Magog Campground. From 4-6 p.m., the lodge hosts a popular tea/happy hour where cakes, tea, lemonade, beer and wine may be purchased. It’s fun (the SkiZer heartily enjoyed his three $7 beers) and quite a people-watching experience.
Helicopter services: If you don’t have the juice to make it to Assiniboine on foot, you can purchase helicopter transport. Many at the Lake Magog Campground were doing just that, saving their energy for day hikes around the area. In addition, if you want to lower your hiking weight, you can also send gear via helicopter (our group sent 30 pounds of food) and pick it up at the Assiniboine Lodge.
Best day hikes: We did two excellent hikes — “The Nub,” a beautiful 1,200-foot climb just north of Assiniboine, and Wonder Peak, a taxing 2,250-foot scramble to a spectacular viewpoint to the southeast.
Bear worries: Considerable time and energy are spent worrying about grizzly bears in this area. We saw none. That said, we carried bear spray and saw some hikers carrying air horns.
Blister rating: Five out of five. Doug can attest to the pain.
Roundtrip: 14 miles (with side trip to Grand Pass)
Elevation gain: 4,000 feet
This may be my favorite overnight hike. I’ve done it five times on various trips, and I never tire of the great views, excellent camping and wilderness bliss.
It’s a relatively easy five miles into a stunning alpine basin, with lovely waterfalls, wildflowers and snowfields right out of “The Sound of Music.”
The trail starts at Obstruction Point (6,400 feet), located 7.8 miles from the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center at the end of an at-times harrowing dirt road. The first two miles of the hike are spent on a rolling ridge with incredible views of the Bailey Range and Mount Olympus to the west. Not a bad way to start.
At a saddle overlooking the Grand Valley, you’ll hit a trail junction, with a rough spur continuing on Lillian Ridge. The main trail (to the southeast) begins a steep, 2,000-foot descent into the Grand Valley. As you bottom out, you’ll hit Grand Lake then begin climbing again into the upper Grand Basin.
Two more lakes with excellent camping — Moose and Gladys — are above Grand Lake: My favorite place to camp is Gladys Lake (5,500 feet) at 5.1 miles from the trailhead.
From here, you can set up a base camp and do additional hiking to Grand Pass (6,500 feet) through the upper basin. It’s a stunning side trip that rewards you tenfold for the extra effort.
Our group elected to return the next day on Lillian Ridge along a cross-country route that follows a faint trail accessed just above Gladys Lake. It gave us a picturesque, and strenuous, loop back to the car.
Zane with a pesky campground deer at Gladys Lake.
Ted and Zane day-hiking near Grand Pass.
Which lake: Grand, Moose or Gladys? All of the lakes are beautiful. If you want a more “civilized” mountain experience, camp at Grand or Moose, which offer swimming, fishing and nearby pit toilets. If you get off on high-alpine waterfalls, camp at Gladys, a shallow tarn.
When to go: Warm weather is nice, but it brings out the bugs in the Olympics. A cool spell kept the mosquitoes at bay during our mid-July visit. I have visited in warm weather and been confined to my tent by ferocious blood-suckers. If you visit in mid-August (as I did last year after a frost), you may get lucky and have completely bug-free camping.
Cross-country option: The Lillian Ridge return is possible if you are an experienced and confident route-finder. You’ll access the ridge just above Gladys Lake at a saddle about 500 feet above the main trail to the west. The ridge is rugged and requires one steep scramble up an exposed chute. You’ll rejoin the main trail about two miles from Obstruction Point.
Blister rating: Three out of five stars. Because you start high at Obstruction Point, much of your hike in is done on easy terrain. Your toes will take a hit on the downhill into the Grand Valley. The climb to Grand Pass is steep at times.
Little Tahoma and Mount Rainier from Fryingpan Creek.
Summerland is four miles away.
Summerland/Panhandle Gap, Mount Rainier
Round trip: 12 miles
Elevation gain: 2,950 feet
I can’t overstate how cool it is to watch the sun set over Mount Rainier on the longest day of the year from Summerland Camp.
Having the place to myself made it even better.
Earlier in the day, I hiked up the snow fields to Panhandle Gap, which may be the most beautiful place on the entire Wonderland Trail. I watched as snow buffeted the top of Rainier and broken clouds gave way to blue skies along Ohanapecosh Park south to Mount Adams.
This is one of my favorite hikes on Mount Rainier. Hit it in June, while there’s still lots of snow, and you may find yourself alone with the marmots as I did.
For overnight trips, you’ll need a permit to camp at Summerland. This is one of the most popular campgrounds on the Wonderland Trail, so choose your day to visit carefully. Snow on the trail in the early season dissuades the hordes, so go now before high season kicks in.
You’ll start at the Fryingpan Creek trailhead at 3,900 feet. The trail gradually climbs through a lovely, old-growth forest before breaking out and crossing the creek about three miles in. You’ve got about a mile of climbing up steep switchbacks to Summerland from here.
Summerland is a great place to camp. I arrived thinking I’d need to camp on snow, but found one of the sites melted out. I quickly set up the tent and headed to Panhandle Gap, about 1.5 miles up.
Mushy snow covered the otherworldly high-mountain basin, making the slog to the gap surprisingly easy. The final push up a headwall was a little bit of a nail-biter, but I stayed near a rock wall and far from a heavy cornice on the west side of the pass.
Boot-glissading back to camp was fast and fun as clouds parted around Columbia Crest and Little Tahoma.
Bring binoculars: The views from Summerland are exceptional. As the light changed, I made out the dramatic cobalt features of Emmons Glacier and the towering walls of Steamboat Prow. The wind and clouds swirling around the summit of Rainier danced in an ever-changing ballet.
Be strategic: This is an extremely popular trail, for good reason. It’s beautiful and not that difficult. Go early in the season and you’ll limit your exposure to a mob scene. If you do go during high season, choose a midweek day.
Blister rating: Two out of five stars. The forest hike is soft and forgiving. Once you get into the difficult hiking, you’ll have incredible views to push you upward.
If you’re a backcountry hiker at Mount Rainier, you may find a little more space than usual this year. You can thank a technological meltdown.
Last March, a power outage in Mount Rainier National Park led to a failure of the backcountry permit reservation system. This forced the park to scuttle all advance permits, and use a first-come system for backpackers and climbers this year.
In the past, up to 70 percent of the backcountry camping spots could be reserved through advance permits. Now, those backcountry camping sites — including those along the iconic Wonderland Trail — are up for grabs.
“For people in the area, it has the potential to open up space,” said Kindra Ramos, communications director of the Washington Trails Association.
To understand why the failure of the reservation system could be advantageous for regional hikers, you need to delve into the minutiae of the permitting process for backcountry camping in Mount Rainier National Park.
Traditionally, the park accepts requests for advance permits beginning in March. Prior to 2013, advance-permit requests were in the hundreds. Since then, demand has spiked into the thousands. This year, about 2,000 requests were received before the reservation system failed.
When the system worked, the advance permits guaranteed spots for people who wanted itineraries to hike in Rainier, particularly along the 93-mile Wonderland Trail. If you’re an uber-planner, or someone who simply needs to book vacation time for a multi-day trip, the advance permit system failure is nothing short of a disaster.
But if you live in the region and have a flexible schedule, you might be able to take advantage of this year’s walk-up, first-come system.
“It most impacts the out-of-state folks who are planning trips and need to buy plane tickets,” Ramos said.
Park officials agree. “Obviously, it’s a big disadvantage for people coming from a long distance,” said Kraig Snure, wilderness district manager for Mount Rainier National Park.
This year, permits will be issued up to a day in advance of a trip on a first-come basis at one of Rainier’s backcountry wilderness information centers.
“Now if you walk up, everything is available,” Snure said.
The failure of the reservation system will have the most impact on the popular Wonderland Trail, one of America’s true bucket-list hikes. About 13,000 hikers used the Wonderland for overnight trips last year, said Randy King, superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park. Of that number, King estimates 400-500 people completed the entire length of the trail last year. In addition, “hundreds of thousands of users” day-hiked along the trail, he said.
For most, hiking the entire trail takes between nine and 13 days, ascending the high ridges and descending the glacial valleys that ring Rainier. In all, hikers gain and lose 22,000 vertical feet, making the Wonderland Trail a test of endurance and strength.
It’s also beautiful.
“The scenery is spectacular,” said Matt Sparapani of Chicago, who hiked the trail in 2014 with his wife Alison Newberry. “You get to circumnavigate the mountain over the course of 93 miles and you see the mountain from nearly all of it.”
Sparapani, who chronicled the journey with Newberry in a blog and a subsequent book that was published this year (“Plan and Go: Wonderland Trail;” Sandiburg Press) also praised the backcountry campsites along the Wonderland.
“The campsites are delightfully small,” he said. “You’re rarely sitting around crowded in with a bunch of people.”
Sparapani and Newberry came to Washington without a guaranteed reservation when they hiked the Wonderland. They applied for an advance permit, were turned down, but took the chance on getting a walk-up permit.
“We walked in with the same itinerary that we had applied with and only had to change one campsite,” Sparapani said.
Sparapani’s success at scoring a walk-up permit for the Wonderland should encourage other hikers this year.
Cathy Farrar of Seattle is planning to hike the Wonderland Trail in September. She’s hopeful she’ll get the walk-up itinerary that she wants.
“It may discourage some hikers, so those who show up will have a better selection of routes and sites,” she said.
For hikers who try to get walk-up Wonderland permits, park officials counsel patience and flexibility. Hikers should be willing to change starting and ending dates of their hikes and consider different entry points, Rainier superintendent King said.
Park officials will monitor how the walk-up system works and consider adding people to help process permits in the event of long waits.
In the meantime, Mount Rainier National Park is working with graduate students from the University of Washington Information School to come up with a new online reservation system to replace the old mail-in, fax-based system for next year. The system will be beta-tested this summer, mainly to address security issues “to make sure it protects people’s information,” King said.
For now, the high-country is still snowed in. Trips along the Wonderland Trail could begin in late June or early July, depending on how fast the snowpack melts out.
On a busy afternoon in late May at the REI flagship store in Seattle, hikers were busy shopping for food, fuel and equipment for the coming season. As customers scurried around trying on backpacks, sales specialist Danielle Kean said most hikers she’s talked with are taking the Mount Rainier permit issues in stride. She’s looking forward to a better reservation system next year.
“To have a little hiccup now to get a better reservation system later is worth it,” she said.