Wonderland Trail - Mowich to Longmire, Wonderland Trail, Sunrise to Mystic Lake, Indian Bar - Cowlitz Divide & Stevens Canyon Waterfalls — Monday, Aug. 19, 2013
Mount Rainier Area
93 miles with a baby. This was probably the hardest thing I've ever done. I'm post-dating this trip report for now, since the people I ran into might like to see it. The actual trip was 8/3-8/17. If I remember, I'll go back and change the date later. I'm not sure what inspired us to change our goal from a single overnight backpacking trip to the entire wonderland. I think that after a few early season hikes we decided that hiking with a baby was not as difficult as we expected. Also, I'd wanted to do a long trail for a couple of years, and we knew that this was probably our last chance before our daughter got too heavy to carry, and too slow and tired to walk long distances. My wife bought me a book about the Wonderland Trail for Valentine's Day, and I was pleased to find that the trip seemed within reach. We did a leisurely 14 night itinerary, starting and ending at Box Canyon. This allowed us to use 3 food caches, and also allowed us to complete the less scenic southern section first. We went clockwise, and the scenery just kept getting better. The trail and campsites were in remarkably good condition. We only ran into 2 blowdowns on the entire loop, and most campsites were level. Quite a different experience than the backpacking trips we had done previously in the national forest, or even the Olympic National Park. The trail also boasts a surprising variety of scenery. It was not uncommon to travel through 3 different type of forests in a single day. I was surprised by how cold some of the camps were relative to the sites that we'd been at in the national forest, but we got used to the night time temperature within a couple of days. I was also surprised how social the trail was. There were a couple of occasions when we'd meet up with a group with a similar preference for distance, and end up at the same camps for several days in a row. We also became minor celebrities on the trail, and people doing faster counter-clockwise loops would greet us as they passed us a second time. ===== Box Canyon - Maple Creek We started with a short 2-3 mile walk into our first camp. We called the ranger and requested a late pickup of our permit, and then took our time driving to Rainier and having lunch and Longmire. Maple Creek was a little buggy. Most of the camp sites are in the forest, but the last one was on the edge of a meadow. We spent a little time relaxing at the water source - a nice stream. ===== Maple Creek - Paradise River This was a nice walk through the forest. One section was washed out, but there is a good path across it. It was really interesting to look across the valley and see Stevens Canyon Road from this angle. I didn't realize how impressive this road was until I saw all of the supporting beams. We stopped at Narada Falls, and then continued on to our camp. Again, we spent the afternoon relaxing at the water source, playing with the baby. ===== Paradise River - Pyramid Creek Another nice walk on good tread through the forest. At times the path was wide enough to walk side-by-side with my wife and baby. When the path narrowed, my daughter pulled herself around the side of my wife in order to keep looking at me. This was one of the best moments of the trip, and I felt very loved. We picked up our cache at Longmire and the trip began feeling like more of an adventure. 5 days worth of food added considerable weight to our packs. We had a slow lunch at Longmire, but unfortunately the baby wouldn't permit us to have any huckleberry cobbler. After washing some laundry in the sink and attaching it to the outside of our packs, we headed back into the wilderness. The bugs were bad enough that we couldn't sit and have a second lunch, so we had to settle for energy bars while hiking. ===== Pyramid Creek - South Puyallup This was our longest day, and we made it longer with a side-trip to Mirror Lakes. We'd read that Devils Dream was buggy, and this was confirmed by a couple of counter-clockwise hikers a few miles before we got there. We took care to eat well before we were hungry, and agreed to just run as fast as we could uphill past the camp as soon as we encountered the bugs. The bugs were terrible, but there was also an amazing waterfall just before the camp that I felt compelled to stop at. We soon broke out into beautiful meadows, but the bugs didn't let up. We again left our cheese, sausage, and crackers in our packs and opted for energy bars that could be consumed in motion. The bugs let up slightly by the time we got to Indian Henry's Hunting Ground, but it was so beautiful that we couldn't help but linger. This was also the first time that we got a view of the mountain that you can't drive to. Since we didn't want to leave, and we couldn't stop, we made the side trip to Mirror Lakes. "Lake" is a stretch - these things are more like puddles. We got to them and didn't recognize them. The trail keeps going, and so did we. Eventually we got tired of following that unofficial trail and returned to the Wonderland. We headed down to the suspension bridge, which was awesome. Then we hiked up some steep, hot, and rocky tread up to Emerald Ridge. The forest gave way to an awesome moonscape and more excellent views of Rainier. The bugs remained, and it continued to be common to kill 5 flies or mosquitos with a single slap. The bugs let up a little bit on the descent to our camp at South Puyallup, but the rocky tread continued to make the hike difficult. We ran out of water a mile or two before camp. We rolled into camp late, and it was beginning to get dark by the time we completed all of our camp chores. Despite all of these troubles, this was one of my favorite days on the trail. ===== South Puyallup to North Puyallup I woke up feeling terrible, and puked twice before leaving camp. I was slow to pack up, and slow on the trail. I probably only made it another few hundred yards before puking again. My wife came to my rescue and swapped packs with me, reducing my load by 15-20 lbs. We'd gone through our first aid kits and gotten rid of some expired stuff, but had forgotten to replace it with newer versions. Luckily, some nice ladies on the trail had some spare Peptobismol for me. This helped a little, but I was still having trouble eating much. I was able to nibble on some bland pilot bread crackers and make it up Klapatche Park. A nice couple with a ukulele gave me some homeopathic stuff, and it worked well. I was able to start eating a little more, and that evening I was able to eat most of a dinner. Through out the whole day I sipped water, and I think this was pretty important in being able to make it to the next camp. This section of the trail was quite scenic. There were blankets of glacier lilies so thick that they looked like snow from a distance. The lakes provided nice reflections of Rainier. I'll probably more fully appreciate this section of the trail when I go through the photos from the day. Toward the end of the day, we met a family of 8 on the trail. We'd seen their blog when we were researching the Wonderland with kids, and it was pretty cool to meet them in person. Their youngest child gave our baby a small rock as a gift. Very cute! ===== North Puyallup to Golden Lakes My wife woke up in the middle of the night sick with the same stomach illness. Unfortunately, most medicine says "if pregnant or nursing, consult your doctor before use". I took all of my wife's gear that I could fit in or on my pack, leaving her with just the sleeping bags, diapers, and the baby. We hiked slowly, and again we were fortunate to have a low-mileage day. By dinner time she was able to eat again. This section of the trail was reasonably pretty. There is a nice section through bear grass, and if you look behind you there are some decent Rainier views. The huckleberries were amazing - probably the best of the trip. ===== Golden Lakes to South Mowich 6 miles downhill provided us a nice post-sickness recovery day. As usual on our trip, the footlogs were in place. I'd read that they often wash out here. It would have been a tricky crossing if they were gone - the water moved fast and you can't see the bottom because it's so cloudy. We got to camp early and I took a nap while my wife spent some time at a nice stream. We had dinner on the banks of the river, and listened as it pushed large rocks along the riverbed. Boom, boom, boom. You could hear them from camp. That night we experienced more thunder and lighting than I've ever seen before. The lightning was so frequent that we couldn't correlate individual lighting flashes with the matching thunder. We were concerned that we were camped at the confluence of two rivers known to flood. The camp used to have 5 sites, but two of them had been washed away and the flood damage stopped 10 feet away from our tent. We took comfort in knowing that this site had survived 2006, and that we would probably not receive anywhere near that much rain. If a lahar came, there was probably nothing we could do. We agreed to make a run for the shelter - there was no way we'd make it out of camp, in the dark, across the river, with the bridges likely washed out, with a single head lamp. We were soon distracted by our baby spitting up in the tent. Our Ridgerest did a good job containing things, but we did go through a couple of bandanas that night. ===== South Mowich to Eagles Nest This was probably the low point of the trip. The forest wasn't that interesting, the weather was hot and humid, and when we picked up our food cache we received a weather forecast that called for several days of rain. I was also kind of bummed about all the sickness and mess that we had been dealing with. We debated an early exit from the trail, but it would have been pretty time consuming to arrange that. We decided to press on. We had invested a lot of time and energy to get here and it seemed unlikely that we'd have another opportunity like this in the near future. It seemed like the worst of our problems were done, and that the trip would just get better. I rationalized the bad weather by noting that my motivation for this trip was not beautiful photos - it was to have a "long trail" experience. I think that a well chosen weekend backpacking trip with a good weather forecast will produce more photos per mile than the Wonderland Trail. I willed myself into a good mood by stepping through the trip in my head and thinking of one thing that I enjoyed from each day. We brought more food than we needed, so we left some good stuff in the free-food pile. I hope someone enjoys that chocolate! It was also interesting to see what people had left there. I guess someone got tired of carrying a full honey-bear around the mountain :) Eagles Nest was a pretty cool camp. It's perched on the side of a hill, and we got a pretty nice camp site. The water source is really beautiful there, and the act of collecting water really turned my day around. I enjoyed watching the fog come and go as I ate dinner. We went to bed without seeing the rain that had been threatening all afternoon. ===== Eagles Nest to Cataract Valley I'd heard that the Spray Park section of the trail could be exceptionally beautiful, so I planned a really short day through this section. This was our first day of rain. I'd heard that Spray Park is often foggy or rainy, so I wasn't too disappointed. We used our umbrellas and stayed reasonably dry. Navigation across the snow fields wasn't too bad, though there was one time when the fog was so thick that you couldn't see from one cairn to the next. Even in the fog, this section of the trail was really interesting. The trail really got beautiful once we descended out of the snow into Seattle Park. There were waterfalls and wildflowers everywhere, and the light rain only made it more beautiful. With our umbrellas keeping us dry, we took our time through this section. This was another one of my favorite sections of the trail. ===== Cataract Valley to Mystic Lake This was supposed to be another one of our hardest days. I don't know if we miscalculated elevation gain, or we were in good shape, or the cool morning temperatures allowed us to knock out much of the climbing easily. Whatever the cause, we were mentally prepared for a much harder day than we actually had. We got up reasonably early and hiked quickly downhill on good tread to the next suspension bridge. This one was not nearly as impressive. We then began climbing on the trail alongside the Carbon Glacier. The trip to Mystic Lake and then on to Granite Creek blend together a little for me. I think it was on the way to Mystic Lake that I encountered one of the most beautiful waterfalls that I've ever seen. Shortly after that, the trail headed gently up through a nice park alongside a small stream. This was one of my wife's favorite sections. Eventually we reached a large meadow. The flowers were past peak, and the mountain was partly clouded, but I'll bet that this section of the trail is amazing under more favorable conditions. We did a short but steep climb, and then descended to Mystic Lake. The 0.8 miles to Mystic Lake was probably the longest flat sections of trail that we encountered. ===== Mystic Lake to Granite Creek We made good time until we reached the Winthrop Glacier. The views just kept getting better as we descended, and they were behind us so we had to keep turning around. The glacier looked similar to one that I had seen two years ago on a trip to the summit, so we got out our map and checked. Indeed, it was the same one that I had enjoyed looking at previously. We reached camp pretty early, and investigated the sites. There was a pretty nice one with a river view, and a sunny one that was a surprisingly long distance away from the rest of the sites. We opted for the site with the view. We threw the tent up quickly to escape the bugs, and played with the baby for a while. Later on we discovered that our site was a good 5 or 10 degrees cooler than the sites uphill. I pitched the rain fly nice and low on the stream side of the tent, but it was still pretty cold that night. We had enough warm stuff to wear that we were ok, though. ===== Granite Creek to White River Another climb in the cool morning temperatures. We saw a grouse on this section of the trail, and enjoyed partially clouded views of the mountains. At least half of the people we encountered on the trail were excited to see the baby, but this was the only time when another group of hikers expressed their enjoyment by breaking out a harmonica and playing a tune for her. She enjoyed the initial songs, but has not yet acquired a taste for the blues. We'll have to work on that. We hopped off the Wonderland for a short distance to do the burger-bypass at Sunrise. It was pretty strange to be indoors, surrounded by people, exchanging money for burgers, salad, and ice-cream. We gave my mom a call to let her know that we were doing fine and would need a few more hours on our last day due to panorama-paralysis. This trail was just too beautiful to hike fast. The trail down to White River went pretty quick. We saw 4 grouse bathing themselves in sand right on the trail. The food cache at White River is down by the camp entrance, quite a distance away, surrounded by orange caution tape and guarded by a gigantic bees nest. We sorted our food back at the camp site, and had just finished putting it into stuff sacks when a neighboring hiker came over to let us know that there was a bear in camp. 30 seconds later, there was a bear 50 feet away from the tent. If he had stumbled and fallen, he would have rolled right into our tent. I picked up the stuff sacks full of food and stood with the other hikers. Bears generally don't go after groups larger than 3 or 4 people. We cooked dinner away from our tent at an unoccupied car-camping site. My wife needed a break from the baby, so I grabbed her and walked around the camp ground for a few minutes. Our baby loves people and smiles whenever anyone walks by. This is a great conversation starter, and a nice woman from a neighboring camp site came over to say hi. She was surprised to hear that we were doing the whole trail, and asked if she could offer anything to help. That night we feasted on fresh cantaloupe and nectarines. Thank you Terry! ===== White River to Summerland The first few miles of this trail were flatter than expected, so we made pretty good time. We ran into a ranger and reported the bear sighting. We showed him a picture, and he informed us that the bear's name was Scruffy, and they were trying to catch him up at Sunrise. The trail began to climb steeply, but there were plenty of blueberries along the side of the trail to distract us. It seemed like it could start raining soon, so we grabbed an early lunch. A few minutes later we opened up our umbrellas for the second time on the trip. When we arrived at Summerland, it was windy and foggy, and there was no view. We evaluated several of the camp sites and found a decent compromise between scenery and shelter from the wind. That night or the next morning we saw more grouse and a deer. We set up the tent in the rain, and managed to keep it reasonably dry. Then, while unpacking in the tent, we set something on the unlocked bite-valve of one of our water bladders. We went through at least two bandanas to mop up the puddle. The baby blew-out a diaper that evening. We used a hybrid reusable/disposable diaper system, with two of the reusable outer pieces. It seemed unlikely that we'd be able to wash the diaper, pants, and onesie and have them dry before we got off the trail, but we decided to give it a shot anyway. We shook out the diaper, pressed it in a dry camp towel, and hung it on a clothesline inside the tent. The next morning the rain and fog had been replaced by a blue sky, a beautiful mountain view, and a very hot sun. We were able to dry all of that stuff before we left camp, but we kept it our packs just to be sure. ===== Summerland to Indian Bar This was supposed to be another highlight of the trip, and I had an aversion to high-mileage days when I planned the itinerary, so we ended up with a mere 4.4 mile hike this day. Good thing - within a mile or two of camp I found a waterfall covered by a partly broken snow bridge and spent a good 40 minutes having fun with the camera before my wife let me know that she was no longer interested in sitting and resting. The scenery continued to be unique and awesome most of the way to Indian Bar. There was a nice green lake just below Panhandle Gap. The snow up to the gap was not too bad. There was a short steep traverse, but there were good steps kicked in, with plenty of dirt for traction. We ate lunch at the gap, enjoying the view of Mt. Adams and several mountain ranges. Beyond the gap, most of the snowfields were fine. There was one that had some water running under it and was thinner than I'd have liked. I don't know how thin it was, but I know it's not a good sign when you can hear the water through the snow below you. The descent down to Indian Bar was pretty steep. The lower section had plenty of berries. We were lucky enough to have the group shelter for our last night on the trail. We pitched our tent inside the shelter, and left the rain-fly off. The 3-sided stone shelter stayed nice and warm, and sheltered us from some wind and probably some rain. The view from the shelter was amazing. ===== Indian Bar to Box Canyon Our last day on the trail. Day 15, of what I'd been referring to as a 14 day trip for the last few months. Technically, it was a 14 *night* trip. With our illnesses behind us, I was really getting into the trail. If someone had agreed to continue providing buckets containing 5 days worth of food, I think I would've kept hiking. The valley was foggy in the morning, and we enjoyed watching the fog swirl around us as we hiked out of the valley. We saw occasional mountain views. The forest on the way down to box canyon was pretty nice. At higher elevations, it was pretty open and there were plenty of berries. My wife points them out to me so that I'll slow down to her pace. I began to worry that we'd be late for our 4:00 pickup due to berry delays. At lower elevation, the forest thickened and the berries became more sparse. We got to the trailhead a few minutes before my parents showed up with the car and a bunch of watermelon. ===== Frequently Asked Questions Do you take turns with the baby? At camp: yes. On the trail: no. I'm not very good at breast-feeding. In contrast, my wife is able to nurse while hiking. Also, we have our pack weights distributed based on baby weight. Because of these issues, it would be really slow to exchange the baby while we're hiking. What do you do about diapers? We pack them out. We have a hybrid reusable/disposable system that generates a little bit less weight in diapers. If I was doing a lengthy trip again, I'd consider bringing 3 of the reusable outer diapers instead of 2. This is because it can be difficult to dry your laundry when it is raining outside. Does your baby enjoy it? Yes. She loves being close to us and spending time with us. She also loves being outside, seeing the trees, and especially the water. There are times when she wants a break from being carried, and at those times we'll take her out of the carrier and play with her. It was during one of these play sessions that she learned to pull herself up. She also loves being in the tent. Hiking and camping gear is surprisingly interesting to a baby, and we only had to bring a single "toy" for her. The rest of the stuff that she played with served some legitimate camping purpose. Candy bar wrappers, stuff sacks filled with sleeping pads, rolled up Velcro, etc. How much weight do you carry? Including 5 days of food, 2 liters of water each, and the 16 lb baby, our peak weight was 45 lbs each.