Mount Rainier National Park – Mowich Lake Spray Park Loop
Distance: 17 miles
Elevation Gain: 5,273 feet
Date: September 5 – 7, 2014
Hikers: Groucho & Harpo + Kate & Doug
Duration: 3 days, 2 nights
Harpo Sez: Thank you thank you thank you mother nature for providing so much unimaginable beauty. Last weekend we enjoyed the absolute privilege of tagging along on a 2 night trip with Groucho’s sister and bro-in-law who had secured a permit to backpack in the Mount Rainier National Park. These buddies are the best. They not only did all the trip planning, they also are a kick to hang out with. We love them a lot. The itinerary was a 17 mile loop over 2 nights. We began at the Mowich Lake Trailhead Friday afternoon and headed south, just 2 miles, to camp at Eagle’s Roost for the first night. We got to camp mid-afternoon which provided us the leisure setting up, then taking a short afternoon side-trail (about 1/2 mile roundtrip) to Spray Falls – a gorgeous waterfall ending in a rapid river. We cooled our feet in the glacial water and told jokes in the sunshine. After dinner at camp, we hiked back toward the trail head about 10 minutes, to a viewpoint of Rainier that we had passed on our way in. In the surreal dwindling sun, the mountain looked like a postcard backdrop. Her power is epic and her magic so obvious when you are so close. Right before dark, the moon began to rise, seemingly right out of the mountain’s tip-top.
Saturday we woke to tackle the 5 mile journey to our next campsite, through the celebrated Spray Park and Seattle Park. We began with a short but hefty climb 1600 feet or so, but once at the top, we were rewarded with relatively flat terrain, very well maintained trails, consistent and ever-beautiful views of Rainier, and the joys of the flowers, meadows, rock morraines, snow fields, bugs and cool streams that make up the Spray Park trail. At Seattle Park we were graced with a far-distant view of mountain goats, and some nice big rocks to take a lengthy snack break.
On our descent to Cataract Valley (our next camp) we began passing prolific huckleberry bushes which we collected for later use in Groucho’s new alpine purple drink concoction (recipe coming soon.) At Cataract Valley Campsite we set up our tents next to a Talus field populated with adorable and noisy pikas. When alarmed, pikas make a call that sounds like a high pitched “beep”. They are alarmed a lot. Groucho decided that he wanted to go trail running, and set off to knock off another 7 miles or so. I climbed up the talus field to hang out with my new pika friends and knock out a few chapters of Star Trek Unification. Kate, Doug and I enjoyed some lengthy social camp time – hanging out, chatting, eating huckleberries – a luxury that I only recently realized I so rarely provide myself in our thru-hiking-style backpacking. Groucho returned at dusk and we ate our cold-hydrated ramen, watching the pikas scurry around gathering greens and berries for their dinners. We went to sleep with pikas still sounding their little beeps into the night.
The next day was our biggest trek of the trip – 10 miles back to the parking lot… first dropping 1500 feet down to Carbon River for 2 miles where we said farewell to Kate and Doug (they had planned to stay at the Mowich Lake Campsite this last night, whereas we had to get back to the city.) After the initial descent, we traversed several flat miles along the river passing scores of Sunday morning trail-runners. Then we turned up the mountain to face a rigorous 3.6 miles to Ipsut pass gaining several thousand feet of elevation. Though difficult, the climb was pretty – traveling through wet, green forests with questionable mushrooms and berries everywhere. Eventually we popped out of the trees and spent another half hour switching back and forth up the mountain side to the pass. For the second day in a row, I was grateful for our umbrellas as sun protection… it was too hot to keep sunscreen on! The last mile down from the pass to Ipsut Lake was cool and shaded. When we got to the lake we found a short path to the lake shore where we took a refreshing dip (30 seconds tops) and then hiked the last 5 minutes back to the car. Gorgeous weekend, gorgeous views, gorgeous people. Thank you Doug and Kate for planning this trip and inviting us along. I completely recommend this itinerary for anyone who is interested in a leisurely, beautiful, 2-night backpacking trip. The 3.6 mile climb to Ipsut on the last day is the hardest part, but it’s all about the big finish, right!? While it’s tough, I do think it is manageable if you take plenty of breaks and pace yourself. The other days are fairly easy with grand rewards. (For athletes or thru-hiking types – the round-trip 17 miler would be a great challenge for a day hike – but if you have the time to spare, you might as well get a permit and say out a night. You can see from this map that the Ipsut Campsite and Carbon River Campsite are both adjacent to other trails where you can get in a few more miles if you just aren’t tuckered out enough when you get to camp.)