If you love Spray Park but want to venture farther, Seattle Park beckons just over the horizon. It offers more scenery, more adventure, and more solitude. But be advised that the descent into Seattle Park can be tricky, especially early in the summer before the permanent snowfields begin to melt, and should be taken with proper precaution.
Start at the trailhead near the vault toilet at the Mowich Lake campground and follow the well-marked Spray Park Trail. The first mile is mostly rolling and downhill, but you’ll begin climbing just before Eagle’s Roost. At the 2-mile mark, a short spurt trail (0.1 miles) leads to Spray Falls, which makes for a scenic place to rest and take a photo or two.
Then continue climbing. After nearly a mile of switchbacks, the trail spills out into Spray Park, a lovely collection of alpine meadows bursting with wildflowers that usually peak in mid-summer but continue blooming into fall. You’ll likely be too distracted by the idyllic scenery to notice, especially if the skies are clear and Mt. Rainier is looming due south, but the climbing continues all the way to the top of Spray Park.
At 6,400 feet, the high point arrives at about the 4 mile mark and is marked by a cairn.
From here the trail begins a long descent. Roughly the first half-mile of the descent can be tricky to negotiate due to permanent snowfields that linger even into fall. Your route-finding skills will also be challenged by a rocky moraine, where the trail and the terrain are nearly indistinguishable. Inexperienced hikers can easily wander off course here and become lost. Watch for cairns, some small, some big, that mark the way. Yellow paint, too, is visible on some of the rocks.
Just after the rocky moraine's terminus, you’ll enter verdant Seattle Park, which, with its babbling brooks, stunted alpine evergreens, and heather-filled meadows, is reminiscent of Spray Park. But here you’re much less likely to see other hikers. The skyline is dominated by Mother Mountain to the north. Along with feeling more remote, the landscape just seems wilder. The trail is narrower, less manicured, and more challenging as it plummets toward Cataract Valley.
Where to turn around? If daylight is scarce or you’d like to save your knees from more downhill hiking, turn back as soon as you’ve gotten a taste of the Seattle Park scenery. You’ll be looking at roughly a 10-mile hike round-trip.
If you’ve got a detailed map handy, continue on to the Marmot Creek crossing, which comes at about the 5.5-mile mark. This makes a logical turnaround point, since from here the trail leaves Seattle Park proper and descends below the treeline. Those with both daylight and energy to burn can continue all the way down to the campsite at Cataract Valley, which will make for a 13-mile hike round-trip. However far you go, keep in mind that you’ll be climbing all the way back to the top of Spray Park, so although this hike officially gains 1,500 feet of elevation, you’ll be climbing nearly twice that after you make up the elevation you lost.
WTA Pro Tip: Bring those hiking poles (or that walking stick) to help you cross the permanent snowfields. And take your time through the rocky moraine. In addition to watching for cairns and yellow-painted rocks, orient yourself by registering notable landmarks. That will be easier when visibility is good. In mist and fog, the trail is at its most treacherous.