Continuing my just-concluded trip to Rainier National Park in Washington, I’ll describe a few of my favorite hiking destinations in the park, including a new one I found that I’ll be sure to return to. I must, because it presents one of the best photographic opportunities of this iconic Pacific Northwest peak I know of. But this isn’t really a secret (a trail goes to it) and I don’t really believe in secret spots anyway. I do have an actual secret spot in the park, one well away from any trail, a paradise where the wildlife looks shocked to see a human being. But I can’t bring myself to write about it. Maybe that’s because there was a time when I believed in secret spots. Uh oh, I believe I feel a tangent coming on…
There was a special (“secret”) fishing hole we knew as young teens. I had just gotten my driver’s license, and at 16 found myself with a fast silver Pontiac. We were exploring the rural parts north of my hometown, Baltimore, Maryland. Sadly, most of it is housing tracts now. There is a reservoir called Loch Raven, and we had always caught a few crappie, bluegill and maybe a smallmouth at the standard spots near the road, or out in canoes. It was my uncle, me and a good friend. My uncle was the same age as me – my mom and grandmom were in the same hospital at the same time – and we were like brothers. I miss him greatly; he passed away too young a couple years ago.
One morning, on the advice of a relative of my our friend, the three of us arrived before dawn, parked in a questionable place, then hiked in by flashlight. We were going off verbal directions, and soon were not sure where we were. But we followed a creek downhill, and soon arrived at a misty cove. Dawn was just breaking. I can still see in my mind that mysterious water through the trees, just as the fog was lifting. It was one of those views of water that shouts out “Great Fishing Here!”. It was beautiful, peaceful and exciting at the same time.
We picked a spot along the shore of the lonely cove, realizing how lucky we were to find it. It could only be reached by boat or overland via bushwhacking; no trail. We proceeded to have the best fishing morning any of us had experienced, and it still ranks in the upper two or three of my life. We caught about two dozen bass each, both large and smallmouth. It was a bite & a fight on every cast. Releasing all but a few, we proceeded to make a fire and cook them up. Now I’ve had riverside fish that probably had a better taste than these (Alaska on the King Salmon River springs to mind), but nothing can come close to the taste I remember. Delicious!
Needless to say, this fishing spot remained a closely guarded secret among a very small circle of friends. That is, until one day we arrived and found a boat already there, with several loud fishermen cracking beers. The place was never the same, and I believe I only visited once more, catching only one sad looking bluegill. It was one of my first realizations that change in life, and in this world, is part of its very fabric. And you tend to notice the changes that aren’t welcome.
Now if you’re still reading, Mount Rainier has some pretty special spots, reachable by hiking of course. Few are secret, but many can be enjoyed all alone if you plan well. Some involve hiking off-trail, but most are accessed by simply following relatively unpopular trails. The park can be crowded on weekends, and it’s worth having a good topo map and a sense of adventure if you visit at these times. I was there during the week before Labor Day, so I headed over to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, a series of meadows on the mountain’s SW side.
This area can be reached via several different trails, but the shortest (and oddly the least hiked) route is to park at the gate across the West Side Road and hike up Tacoma Creek trail. This trail is not maintained, so it gets a bit rough in spots, but there are absolutely no serious obstacles. It is a direct route up to the Wonderland Trail (which circles the mountain), where you take a right and hike a couple miles up to the meadows. All told it is a bit over 4 miles tops, one way.
I had a busy time there, shooting pictures of wildflowers and the mountain reflected in numerous ponds, all the while fighting a losing battle with legions of mosquitoes. The lupine and paintbrush were near perfect, and even the early-blooming aster, bistort and beargrass was still in fine form. From this angle, the mountain shows off a very rocky face, with little evidence of the glaciers that dominate most other viewpoints. I stayed until sundown and then hiked back by headlamp, camping where I had parked.
It’s technically illegal to just park and camp anywhere in a national park, but I do it often. The high-profile parks like Yellowstone, which actually have night-patrolling cop-rangers make this strategy difficult. But thankfully Rainier gets nowhere near the funds to field many of these police masquerading as rangers. They actually rely heavily these days on volunteers, so don’t believe everything you hear from those in uniform; they often hand out misinformation. But I like them because the first thing out of their mouths is not a rule or regulation.
Next, I hiked up to one of my favorite polar bear swimming spots in the park, Snow Lake. While the weather was a bit too cool to jump in this time, I made the mistake of looking beyond the lake, at a peak called Unicorn. Unicorn lies in the Tatoosh Range, a line of jagged peaks that run along the south side of the park. A long time ago I climbed this peak solo, and I remembered it was not an easy task. From the lake, it starts out up a steep rocky chute, and then just gets steeper, finally ending with a 5.6 or 7 scramble up the summit pinnacle.
I wandered up that way this time, feeling that familiar magnetic pull of a high peak. On the way up, a mountain goat appeared (left). I wanted to see how with all the years I had accumulated it compared in difficulty. In other words, did I still have it? Well, I wound up getting up to the summit pinnacle, where one single move, the crux, stymied me. I was less than 50 feet from the summit. I felt I could do it easily enough, but then coming back down would be a bit dicey, and if I fell there…
Nobody else was anywhere nearby of course, and nobody knew I was there. Night was coming on fast, and the weather was beginning to turn ugly. In fact, on my way down, (in no way ashamed I might add), I became confused when the weather quickly socked in and visibility went to zero. I couldn’t find the correct route, descending the wrong way on two occasions, only to catch myself and race huffing and puffing back up the mountain to try again.
All this while dusk was descending. At one point, the clouds cleared for a few seconds, and I happened to be in just the right position to briefly glimpse the way down. It was hand over hand, facing the mountain, with the rocks slick from a light drizzle. I tried not to hurry too much, but knew I was nowhere near prepared to spend the night out in weather like that. Hypothermia was on my mind as I slid and stumbled down the steep talus slopes.
Just at full dark I finally found the trail near Snow Lake, and relaxed a bit – but maybe too much. I crossed a log bridge slick with the rain and in the darkness slid right off, gashing my shin and twisting my wrist in the fall down to the creek. I thought I would be crawling and feeling my way back along the 2+ mile trail, but the moonlight seeped through the cloud cover enough to allow me to walk, carefully, back to the van. My first bit of luck all evening. Once back and changed out of my damp clothes, I shivered for an hour or so while hugging my little dog, trying to warm up. I feed him, so I figure he ought to provide some kind of service for that! A close call once again. Never again will I forget my headlamp. Wait a minute, shouldn’t I be promising to never put myself in that position in the first place? Oh well, the headlamp is easier to remember.
I went to Sunrise after that, on the northeast side of the mountain. This area is like Paradise, with some short hikes, nice flower meadows, and a lot of people. If you come to this area, and especially if it is September, make sure and hike out the Palisades Trail, which leaves from Sunrise Point, a few miles before you get to road’s end at the visitor center. On the park map you’ll see two areas, Green Park and Bear Park. Head to one or both of those areas and you are sure to see elk, rutting and bugling in autumn. Bear also frequent this area. It’s one of the park’s premiere wildlife areas, and you’ll see few other people.
The picture below was taken from this trail, at Clover Lake. A picture in the last post, above the clouds in the moonlight, was taken from Sunrise Point, where I camped for two nights. This is Washington’s highest paved road, built by those angels of the 1940s, the Civilian Conservation Corps. We need something similar in this day and age I think. It’s funny because the week before, I was on Oregon’s highest paved road. Must be high summer.
I have to apologize. I said I’d share a great photo spot at Rainier, and I will. But it’ll have to wait ’till tomorrow’s post. This has gone too long already. How’s that for suspense, eh? Thanks for reading!