I may not pass this way again, but when I am old and living in the home, this is the day, this is the place I most hope to remember. And if my brain forgets, surely my heart and soul will hold it always.
The hike from Longmire to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground—so named for a Native American mountain guide who lived in the still-existing cabin (or so I thought, but now I realize it was built as a patrol cabin, the year my mother was born and on the National Register of Historic Places since 1991)—was a real butt-kick for this 65-year-old. It is the most strenuous, and at nearly 14 miles round trip the longest, hike I have tackled to date, and with the most elevation gain at 3200 feet.
I was on the trail at 8:30, an hour later than I had hoped on a day that was to reach 87 degrees at the mountain: a bit of a late start, phone communications at Morton before I lost contact for the day, 20 minutes of road construction delay at Mineral, donning knee straps and bunion guards, bathroom, stopping in at the ranger station to make sure of the route.
Very shortly into the hike, the trail begins its relentless climb, sometimes with switch-backs and lots of steps (which I find most difficult) for the first two miles. Oddly, I took no photos of the steps.
It levels out some then between the ups, before going steeply down to Kautz Creek (which is a river by most standards, at least in early summer, now a maze of fast creeks). And you know what down means: up on the return.
The river was interesting, necessitating several crossings of it and its tributaries, sometimes with a foot bridge and some rock hopping. There was also the path at the base of landslide area. (Just before I got there on the return, I heard what sounded like rolling rock or a falling tree, and arriving above the edge of the river, I saw a dust cloud very high up. Yikes.) And then a distance of boulder hopping with the route marked by a series of cairns, which I didn’t notice until I passed the last one. Oh, did I mention the trail follows a not-quite-dry creek bed part of the way? I followed the footprints of others, or I might have lost the path. Wilderness survival.
After the river, yep, steep upshit again. What comes down must go up.
The trail is seven miles of the Wonderland Trail that circles the mountain. It was a dream of my father’s to hike the Wonderland. I thought of him often. I read that it is considered more strenuous mile-for-mile than the Pacific Crest. Take that, Cheryl Strayed. I figured I did two miles an hour going up, knocked off an hour or so coming back.
Three hours in, Devil’s Dream Camp, with a toilet! And a bear pole. I was almost there.
The ranger at Longmire had given me a map. She wrote “Devil’s Dream Camp” on it. The next point on the map is an arrow pointing to Indian Henry’s. Not specific enough for me, as it turned out. I hiked on.
Finally I arrived at a small meadow, and a hint of the mountain. I walked on.
Another meadow, bigger. This might be it. Nice, not Spray Park, but sweet. But wait, where’s the cabin? Maybe this isn’t the destination? I should have paid more attention to the trip logs and photos. I walked on.
Finally, I came to a pond-filled meadow. It snatched my breath away, such enchantment! That Indian Henry was a lucky dude. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place. (The photos are just not enough to convey.)
I slowly traversed the trail past the lakes, Mirror Lakes as it turns out, stopping several times to drink in the extravagant beauty with its crystal clear waters. But there was still no cabin; could there possibly be more? It seemed hardly possible.
I ate my lunch on a rock next to water tumbling over small boulders. I swear what went through my head was that it was like a Hollywood set: too perfectly perfect to be real. I hope it doesn’t sound snobbish if I admit that the fact the vast majority of the population will never see this, made it even more attractive. I know how lucky I am: lucky to live here, lucky that my body allows me to stretch it this far, lucky that my parents instilled love for the wild places. I told myself over and over, “Someday you won’t be able to do this. But right now, this is the moment. You are here. Remember.”
As I sat, I imagined the meadow in three months, covered in snow, silent. So, so silent.
I walked on. Another meadow. No cabin. Kept going. Another meadow. No cabin. I was getting confused. Really should have paid more attention to the WTA website. I climbed up out of there, through a bit of woods and bear grass, into yet another meadow. No cabin.
I walked on in search of the elusive cabin. Thank goodness I knew to look for it, at least. I could tell from the open sky beyond the next copse there might be another meadow. It was more up, more darn steps. I really wanted that one to be it, prayed it would be; I was tired. It was a bigger meadow; so beautiful! I really thought this one was it and I just couldn’t see the cabin.
But I had to be sure. I knew I would flagellate myself if I got home and found I hadn’t gone far enough.
I continued across the meadow and up a rise, imagining Julie Andrews and the helicopter-toting camera swooping up the mountain and over the top into the magnificent vista. I could feel it, something was coming.
I topped the open-meadow hill, through the lupine and paintbrush and abundance of the Sitka valerian. What a tease. More meadow. More trees. A gateway, as it turned out.
Oh. My. Goddess. I stopped. And stared. And wept. And whispered the best prayer I know: “Thank you.” Here was the meadow. Here was the blue canopy sky. Here were more flowers than I thought possible. Here was Herself in full glory.
There was the cabin.
There were also the bugs. I had applied repellent and left it in the car. Mistake, especially since I had long sleeves on then. If the cost of admission was a tablespoon of blood, though, it was well under-priced.
I sat on the cabin porch, discovered another toilet up the hill in back, with a lovely view out the door, wandered to the edge of the meadow until it started down, overlooking another meadow.
I wished I never had to leave. The ranger was away, the shutters locked, but couldn’t I just stay there? Forever? There was firewood.
I don’t know if I will do this hike again: so many hikes, so little time. And it was really hard. But, like childbirth, you kind of forget when the payout is so great, so maybe I’ll return if body allows. And, by the way, thank you body.
A woman in the meadow told me she had been there many times, and never had she seen such a floral show. Maybe I don’t want to go back; I just want to hold this one glorious day. Some things are best left alone in singular splendor.
And at the end: Base Camp Grill.
A few days ago someone wrote in the guest register on the cabin’s porch bench: “If Paradise is next door, surely this is heaven’s gate.” Amen. For the record, I was there. If this place is not in my heaven, I don’t need an afterlife.
Now I understand why the ancient Jews’ name for God was the unpronounceable YHVH: sometimes there are no nouns big enough to name a thing. (I know that’s not why God had an unpronounceable name, but it makes sense to me so I changed the reason.)
There are no nouns, or verbs or adjectives, to describe Spray Park. It’s More. More than everything. I think I’ve never seen so beautiful a place. The photos come no where near its grandeur.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Mishaps preceded my hours in paradise.
I wake up later than I wanted to, but I’m still on the road before 6, venture latte in hand. I get lost on the series of state highways in the small towns where the highways change direction. I have the sequence written down, but even as I wrote them they didn’t feel complete. I got confused the other two times I’ve been to Mowich Lake (last year to Tolmie Peak), why should this time be any different? And Siri, of course, wants to take me via the interstate. Even with my rudimentary understanding of geometry, I know the hypotenuse is shorter than the two sides—though in this case, not necessarily faster. Mostly I just want to stay off I-5.
After one quickly discovered wrong turn, I finally stop in Eatonville to see if I can get it right before I make a lengthy error. I was glad when the road construction truck that had been slowly lumbering ahead of me turned off the route. I was all too eager to move to another road, until I began suspecting I should have followed the truck.
I pop the clutch and kill the engine when I stop, and just leave it off while I search the Washington Trails website then Google Maps. Still not being sure, I decide to follow the long-gone truck. I know that won’t be wrong, just maybe not my preferred route. Except the battery is dead. I hadn’t turned off the ignition, or the lights, or the CD player, or unplugged the phone.
There is a guy smoking across the street. I ask if he could jump the battery. He would, he says, if only he had some cables. “I have cables,” I say. You don’t drive alone all over the country in an elderly car without battery cables, coolant, and a AAA-Plus membership, all of which I have used. (I really need to get a can of tire repair stuff. I’m lucky I haven’t needed it. Yet.)
When the car starts, I ask him which road goes to Mowich Lake. He looks blank. “No idea,” he says. I want to say, “Ever heard of Mt. Rainier?” but I don’t. “How about Buckley,” I ask. That he knew. The way the truck went. I drive off, only then realizing, eyes rolling to the heavens, I could have looked at a paper map.
There is no denying the 15 miles of washboard gravel road up to the lake. But there are no potholes, which makes it a super highway compared to forest service roads I’ve traveled off the beaten path. And it keeps the crowds down. Paradise may have a paved road, but winding up the snaking road behind a line of cars—often held up by inevitable road construction—hoping to arrive early enough for a spot in the parking lot, is no advantage. Then one must share the trails—some of it paved—with the hoards, some of whom hike in flip flops, some visitors never leaving the lodge. I’m such a snob. At least they are enjoying the view and, hopefully, the scent.
I’m on the trail at 9:30, not bad considering. The trail through the forest to the park is “only” three miles. The first 2.2 is up and down, the variety making the trek easier. I’ve done that much of the trail before, to Spray Falls, which is incredible. I don’t stop, eager to get to the park. Last time I was here I had to get home to fix dinner for my mother. Today I feel an expanse of time that stretches for hours.
The last .8 miles is all up. I’m grateful as always for my poles, and aware I am in better condition than I was when I moved across the country five years ago. Or maybe it’s just not the most difficult trail I’ve been on. I think that one belongs to Skyline Divide on Mt. Baker. (You can read about that adventure here.) And I’m in better shape, let’s just go with that.
At the two hour mark, the trail breaks out of the trees to a small meadow, which leads to a bigger meadow, which leads to another. On and on it goes to the edge of the world. I’m pretty sure every alpine wildflower that ever blooms in the Cascades is blooming. Every one. I don’t know all the names; I’ll quiz my mother, give her capacity for listing flowers a workout. Herself, the Mountain, in all her magnificence, takes a back seat.
I wander through the glory, greeting other hikers—many of them solo, some I meet and greet multiple times—but never staying near any of them. I am alone and not alone.
I wander a side trail to the edge and look way down into another park. I want to go there. I wonder what it is and if it’s accessible. I like imagining that it isn’t; that there’s only the view from here and it belongs to the wild creatures. Mt. Baker—Koma Kulshan—sits on the far horizon; but Herself hugely rules this piece of paradise. I eat my lunch on a rock overlooking the wonder.
I’m near the end of the park, but see no reason not to climb some more. I know what’s off the side to the northeast; I want to know, if I possibly can get there, what’s below me to the southwest.
I spy a marmot on the way up. My day is complete. I watch it a while until something startles it and it thunders across the trail in front of me, its magnificent tail flying behind. Who knew they could make so much noise, or move so fast? It pops up over a rock and looks around before returning to its foraging.
I cross well-traveled snowfields still on the trail and climb higher and higher, until I find what I’m looking for.
Then I go higher, until I’m satiated, finally ready to head for home. But first, back through the meadows of flowers, a lake I didn’t notice going up, and Herself going incognito, which she does when she tires of the attention.
The .8 down is not so fun. My knees start to ache. I decide to skip the falls on the return too. (You can see photos from two years ago here. It is magnificent.)
I’m really ready for the car, and wishing I had backed it into the parking space. I’m anxious about it starting. It does. I change my shoes and walk down to the lake, but skip the foot soak. My whole body is aching (the eight hours of yard work yesterday is making itself know too). I want to be home.
After I rattle down the 15 dusty miles, I miss a turn again somewhere and end up heading into Puyallup. I surrender and drive the interstate home, refusing to let the traffic ruin the day.
I won’t go so far to say that Spray Park will replace Paradise in my heart. High Skyline Trail is still the only hike I will return to again and again, if only because it has Base Camp’s salmon burger and a beer, al fresco dining, at its end, just outside the park. (And I can tell you, I am longing for it today. I have popcorn and a beer—and ibuprofen—for dinner; all I have energy for.) There are too many places to hike to go back to the same ones. I will take hardy guests to Spray Park though, especially in July.
I have made my peace with the likelihood that I will never see the Swiss Alps, the ruins of Rome, the English countryside (though there is some chance of that; I know people), but I have a never-ending—almost embarrassing—wealth of adventure and beauty outside my door. Next week: camping. Until then, body rest.
I haven’t spent much time at Sunrise, the other side of Mt. Rainier National Park. For one thing it’s a longer drive. And it’s not Paradise. It’s also hotter. But I went there yesterday and hiked down into Berkeley Park. It’s not my new favorite place, but I love going into new territory—and around here there is a lifetime of it to explore.
It was foggy at 6:30, really foggy on Hwy 12. Until the yellow sun ball started burning it off. It was a magical start to a trip to Sunrise.
Hiking at Sunrise is very exposed. Lots of full-on sun and rocks. It’s hot, did I say that already? I chose Berkeley Park for my hike and was not sorry. It took a while to get there through the full-on sun and rocks, but oh my goodness. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen so many alpine flowers. Surely it was peak of the peak. I think every alpine flower (except avalanche lilies, they are first and long gone), was blooming.
Berekely Park is short on Rainier views, long on flowers and a babbling brook. The trail descends into a bowl and into trees.There’s a backpacking camp down there, but I didn’t go quite that far. I did talk to five women, forever friends about my age, who hike together a lot. They were headed to the camp for five days. They live a bit south of me on I-5. I almost asked them if they needed another friend; they looked like my people.
I took the “long way” home, via Paradise. Though I didn’t actually go to Paradise, next time. Stopped at Reflection Lake to stretch my legs, and take a photo of four young women who had backpacked from the other side—Day 6, 56 miles—then on to my favorite mountain food venue in Ashford—Base Camp Grill—for a salmon burger and a beer. Had to settle for Rainier beer, but it was a new pale ale and not half bad. Too bad I didn’t get one of the Rainier logo glasses.
Here’s the thing, though: I forgot FORGOT! my camera. My iPhone just didn’t measure up. Okay, my “real” camera is an albeit relatively expensive but still basically a point and shoot, but still, better than the phone. I’m also not sure it was possible to capture the expanse of grandeur and the gloriosity of the flowers. Here is what I got.