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 live in Paradise. There is an embarrassment of riches in Washington State, and simply not enough days to go everywhere there is to go, let alone to return to where I’ve been already. Yesterday I reluctantly eschewed the backside of Skyline Trail at Paradise—the only place I regularly go back to (photo essay here)—and went on a new hike: Tolmie Peak Lookout at Mowich Lake.
I’m used to solitary hiking, often not seeing more than half a dozen other hikers. (Well, except at Paradise.) “Beautiful day,” “Thank you [for stepping aside],” “Enjoy your hike.” That’s the extent of the conversation. Not so this hike. For a Monday, there were a lot of people. And they were chatty, needy if truth be told. It was nice, though it took time and I did need to be home to cook dinner.
The first conversation was at the fee station, 11 miles in of the 16 miles of washboard, potholed Forest Service road. (I didn’t have to pay the $25 fee, of course, thanks to my lifetime Senior Access pass that cost $10.) “Have you been on this road before?” asked the driver of an SUV full of non-English speaking passengers. She approached me carrying a Mt. Rainier National Park map. “Once,” I said. “I think I’m on the wrong road,” she said.
I knew right away she wanted to be at Paradise. I hated telling her she couldn’t get there from here. In Spanish, she explained to her passengers. I don’t know where she had come from, but it would take her three hours to get to Paradise from where we were. I got my road map and showed her how to get there. Told her I was sorry. “It’s okay,” she shrugged, resigned to the change in their day.
I rattled my way on up the road, narrowly missing a grouping of three Volkswagen-size potholes when I glanced up at the view then back to the road. One section was not unlike that tilting board marble game, trying to keep first the right then the left tire out of randomly scattered potholes, hard to distinguish from shadows on the sun-dappled road.
I scored a parking place along the road at the trail head at 9:30 (90 miles and three hours from home), saving a round-trip mile walk from the parking lot. Right away I could see the trail was not going to be easy, full of roots and boulders. But the lake was sparkling through the trees, reflecting the snowy mountains; and, well, you just can’t take a photo of the smell. I was practically dancing in exultation. Okay, I did dance.
It is an 1100 foot elevation change in 2.8 miles to the lookout, and the first mile was more down than up. This could be trouble. Trekking poles out of the pack.
Eunice Lake. Beautiful blue water, spectacular white mountain, blue lupine, red Indian paintbrush, pink heather, white bear grass. The mosquitoes and deer flies I had read so much about didn’t seem to like me. I was happy not to converse with them. Then I spotted my destination, a dot perched atop a stone cliff. I decided to eat my lunch at the lake and gather my strength, skeptical but determined I would get there. Voices and laughter wafted down from the lookout. I hoped the people attached to them would leave before I arrived.
The climb wasn’t so bad, no worse than where I had already been. And the view. Oh. My. Before the lookout came into view, the trail popped over the ridge to the vista. I read you can see Seattle from there. It was hazy, I only thought maybe I could see Puget Sound; but then, maybe not. The Olympics were just visible where there was still snow.
I had met lots of college age people heading down. I was hopeful that was it. Rounding the curve to the tower there were eight more young women. Leaving! I took a photo for them and I was alone. Two minutes later, a bearded man came up the trail. I took the steps up the tower. He took a picture on his hefty camera and left. Really? Maybe he had to get home for lunch.
I walked around the catwalk of the locked station. 360 breathtaking degrees. Mt. Baker, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens. And Mother Mountain. A handful of people straggled up. There were two beds in the tower, I bet they could make a lot of NP money renting out the extra. Can you imagine the sunrise and sunset? (Lightening storms might be beyond the pale.)
I wanted to stay for hours, but I already wasn’t going to make my 2:00 on-the-road time, to be back in time to shower and sit a bit before dinner. I headed back down. “Do you know what to do about the deer flies?” No. That was the next conversation. “Are we halfway there? A quarter?” the other young woman asked. Maybe halfway. “There’s going to be an elopement here next Saturday,” she said. “We thought we should check out the trail.” I guess! I was unsure what about a planned ceremony with apparent guests made it an elopement.
“Do you happen to have any bug spray?” was next. The teenager had welts on her legs. I handed it over, apologizing that it was probably well-past its shelf-life, but hoped it would help. Not saying that everything I’d read said it didn’t help. Mom used it too; dad said they weren’t eating him. They were from Pennsylvania, never been out here. Trying to decide where to go this summer. France? Well, how about Seattle? Lots you can see in a week. They were kind of blown away.
I read on Facebook about friends going to far off lands, and I’m a little envious—I will probably never see them. But truly, from my centrally located small town, I could go someplace new here every day and not hike every trail I want to hike. And that doesn’t count an overnight or two and adjoining states. There aren’t ancient ruins, but it is ancient. There aren’t man-made cathedrals, but there are heavenly ones.
Back at Eunice Lake I met a woman and three pig-tailed teen girls in short shorts and tank tops. Whining. The woman—with more skin covered and appearing to be carrying everyone’s bags—asked me if there were fewer bugs after leaving the lake. Uh, yeah, sure. That’s what she wanted me to say. “We’re going back,” one girl whined while all three slapped at mosquitoes. “I want to go the top,” the woman insisted. “Noooooo,” another moaned. “You go,” the other said, “we’re going back.” “It’s really worth it!” I said, “You should go.” “Did you hear that?” the woman said. “We are going back,” they said firmly. “I want to keep going,” the woman said. I moved on.
I didn’t think the overweight elderly man with braces on both knees and both elbows, shuffling with a cane as his grandson helped him step over roots, was going to make it, but who am I to say “nay” to the determination of the human spirit. They asked if it was beautiful at the top; said that’s where they were headed. I said it would take a thesaurus to describe it. I said I hoped they enjoyed their day.
I may not need to go to Paradise again. I found one by another name. But there is the Base Camp Grill in Ashford. I sure could have used a beer and a salmon burger at the outdoor tables at the end of the day. Instead there were the 16 clunking, elderly-car, bone-chattering miles. I slammed on my brakes at the brink of the sink hole I didn’t see coming, turned to say goodbye to her majesty, and went home.
I was only an hour later than planned for dinner.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: “It was paradise at Paradise. The best day there ever!”
Because I live here again, I can decide to go to Mt. Rainier the morning I’m thinking about the possibility. I check the forecast the night before, and the webcams the morning of before I make a final decision. (I also sort of know: if there’s fog in my valley, with a promise of clearing, it most likely will be paradise at Paradise.) Hence, every time I go is the best day there ever.
I arrived just before 10. Gorgeous, with drifts of fog hanging in valley crannies under blue skies from Morton on up. Forty-five minutes from the gate—where I flashed my $10 Senior Access Lifetime Pass and sailed through ($20 per visit for less fortunate youngers)—I entered Paradise.
“How did that work out for you?” you might be asking. Well, not that well. I took 182. In five hours.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist, so I made a deal with myself: only photos of fluid scenes. If I “need” a static one, I can comb the 1000s of them around the house: in my computer, my photo albums, my mother’s photo albums, my father’s slides, the boxes of photos, the envelopes, the unsorted stacks. There are pictures of Mt. Rainier and the Tatoosh range in all seasons, in all weather, in all decades. (Here’s a classic. That’s me stylin’ in the kerchief.)
“But,” I hear you saying, “you don’t have any from THIS day.” True. But really? The differences can’t be seen in a photograph. It’s not like the mountain has erupted. (I pray I’m gone when that happens. It will break my heart.) Water is fluid. This is a legitimate shot. There are many fewer streams this year.
I’ve walked the High Skyline trail three times in the four summers I’ve been back here. I had never done the whole loop before, at least that I remember. It’s a little kick ass, but the view is distracting. And the trekking poles make such a difference. (But still, I am sore.) I out-paced just one couple in the 4.5 miles (had to take the Golden Gate shortcut, knocking off a mile, to get home for dinner duty). I didn’t count how many parties passed me, because who cares? As three guys from Lon Gisland said, “It’s not a race.” (Two of the passers were young women with strapped on skis. I wish I had asked where the heck they were going.)
The Goddess Cairn Field (that’s my secret name for it) at the apex, above Panorama Point—which is where most hikers turn around (more’s the pity, the other side is best)—was not filled with cairns like it was last time I was there in autumn. There were a few, but in 2012 there were hundreds. This is my 2015 offering.
Below is my 2012 creation. (You can read about that visit here.)
In the uncountable number of times I’ve been to Paradise in my life, I’ve never seen one of these snowy creatures. I zoomed in, though it was not too far from the trail. I hope it was just resting. Can a mountain goat break a leg? Seems unlikely, though they give it every opportunity.
Her Majesty disappeared into a cloud as I finished my hike; but frankly, this time of year, in her nakedness, she is not the main attraction. Especially this year. A bad wardrobe year, you could say, after a mild winter and and a long, hot, very dry summer.
This was the only snowfield near the trail. Very unusual. Crossing it is a shortcut from or to Panorama Point from the east and west sides of the loop, cutting off the Goddess Cairn Field. (Several years ago—meaning to do the loop—I had to turn back; not realizing there was an up and over, and not about to go across. I also went counter clockwise that year, which I do not recommend. Much easier to go clockwise.)
The trail (or rather the trail it interrupts) is closed this year. I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would cross it without crampons and ski poles. But, anyway, it’s usually much, much bigger than this. As in, if you lost your balance you would take a quick trip nearly all the way to the Inn. Now one would just take a precipitous fall to a quick death.
Once home, I pared my 182 photos down to less than 40. Back in the day of film and developing, one would have only taken one or two rolls, and hoped they chose well and held steady. It’s too easy now.
It was kind of a spur of the moment adventure. I had to take Elliot back to Seattle. Rebecca had just told me about a northern access to Mt. Rainier National Park she had been to years ago. I had been doing double caregiving duty for three days: the very old and the very young. I deserved a break, right? Well, one doesn’t have to deserve a trip to the mountains, one just needs to go when they call.
Mowich Lake is accessed from the north; and just two hours from the city, it is a popular destination for Seattlites. But I was coming from NW Seattle, so I had to leave either at 6am or wait until 9. Not that traffic is hugely better at 9 than at 7 or 8, but I waited. Clearly the optimistic two hours was from the south end.
After the 20 miles on a washboard, pot-holed Forest Service gravel road—that I had to return over—I didn’t figure there would be time to hike. I had promised Rebecca I would be home to cook dinner for Mama, and it was a three-hour drive.
Because I wasn’t going to hike, I had looked only at the directions to the lake on the Washington Trails Association website. And I hadn’t packed my trekking poles. (They are going to live in the car from now on.) So I started down the trail with no idea of the destination, without having seen photos or read trip reports. I set the timer on my phone for when I thought I needed to turn around in order to be home by 6:00.
I was disappointed that the mountain is not really visible from the lake, though there were beautiful views from road. So I was thrilled to come to a sign pointing the way to Eagle Cliff Viewpoint—surely a mountain view. And there she was. I could turn around and return happy. The little platform was populated by lunchers, though, and I wasn’t inclined to stay. I checked the timer. I still had 15 minutes.
I walked a little ways, and heard water. I checked my clock. Still seven minutes. It wasn’t so much a waterfall, as a tumbling stream with a little foot bridge over it. Lovely. I still had three minutes and I still heard water in the distance.
I arrived at the next faster running stream, still not really a waterfall, just as the timer went off. Two women who must have been 80 were just leaving. God, I hope I’m still doing this when I’m 80. The “falls” were beautiful, though not spectacular, but I wondered what was around the next curve. I wasn’t sure if this was “the waterfall”; the sign a tenth of a mile back just said “water.” A few more minutes wouldn’t hurt. I could haul ass when I got to paved road. And no more stopping to take pictures of bugs.
I’ll just go across that talus field, I told myself; maybe there was another view of the falls. There wasn’t, but I heard water again. I’ll just go to the top of that hill. Okay, one more curve. If I find this water, I won’t have to come back here to see it. There are so many places to go in this state, it’s hard to justify returning because I didn’t see it all the first time.
I was nine minutes past my drop-dead-must-turn-around deadline when the trail split: Spray Falls to the right, Spray Park to the left. I was pretty sure the trail to the left was serious upshit, and I didn’t have my poles—or any more time. 100 feet to the Falls. The sound was thunderous, but I had no idea what I would find. I hadn’t seen any photos.
I had no idea, no idea. I came to the end of trail and looked left. Looked up. Looked way, way up. Thunderstruck. Speechless. Blown away. This World, this Creation, is a flat-out wonder.
I kind of got lost going home, road signs were not clear and Siri was out of commission. I was an hour late. After dinner—which, in a misunderstanding, Rebecca had thought she was responsible for, so I didn’t even have to rush—I looked at the WTA description of the destination .8 of a mile (up) beyond the Falls. I have to go back.