- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 13, 2003

MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash.

The woman lies near a clear creek of melted snow, her face obscured by caked blood, an elbow bent at a disconcerting angle.

As a ranger tends to her, her friends relay that she fell on the way to Little Tahoma, an 11,138-foot peak on Mount Rainier. They gingerly carried her here, just above the campsite at Summerland, on the east side of the mountain, elevation 6,000 feet.

My companions and I see there’s little we can do, but we offer anyway before continuing across the ash-and-snow moonscape with cold air in our nostrils. A few steps later, we’re startled by whoops and hollers descending from Panhandle Gap.



Three backpackers — exuberant during their final day on the Wonderland Trail around Rainier — are sliding down a steep snowfield on their butts.

“We decided to take the easy way down,” one says.

The two scenes — injured climber, joyous backpackers — are a reminder of the perils and rewards of spending any time in Rainier’s backcountry, as thousands of people do every year.

The 14,410-foot summit is the biggest draw: About 10,000 people try to climb the volcano annually. Another 8,000 or so take trips like ours, spending at least a few days on the Wonderland Trail, one of the most breathtaking backpacking trails in the nation.

Established in 1915, the trail rings Rainier in 93 miles, traversing a seemingly endless series of ridges and valleys that radiate from the summit. Up a ridge, down a valley, repeated for 23,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. It’s tough on the quads.

The constant changes in elevation provide variety, from the carpets of wildflowers in subalpine meadows to gushing gray rivers of glacial melt, crossed by log bridges. You’re likely to see deer, bear, elk or mountain goats.

“You can get into the philosophical stuff, the solitude. But it’s also the sense of wonder,” says backcountry ranger Daniel Keebler, who has been at the park for the past six seasons. “It sounds corny, but it is the Wonderland Trail.

“You break out of the trees, and it looks like you’re on the moon, and the upper mountain is talking to you in a sense. You’ve got the low forest, the animals and this high alpine area just busting with flowers. It’s a pretty magical place, really.”

An estimated 5,000 people hike the whole loop every year, typically taking eight to 13 days. A few thousand others do two-, three- or four-day sections.

We — myself and housemates Ryan, Anna, Adam and Marie — started our 23-mile, 3-day trek on a Thursday after work. Thanks to some brutal traffic south of Seattle, we didn’t get hiking until 9 p.m., in the last remnants of daylight (“Sunrise by sunset,” we dubbed the trip). We didn’t have far to go, just 1.3 miles from the Sunrise visitor center to the Sunrise campground northeast of the mountain.

We pitched our tents and were rewarded at that unlikely hour with the first of many stunning views. Armed with headlamps, we followed a trail leading up from the camp to a lookout over the White River valley.

Towering above us was Rainier in full view, its glaciers and crags eerily magnified in the white light of the nearly full moon. It’s so rare to see a mountain by moonlight, I remember thinking — so much more intimate than seeing Rainier through the clouds from downtown Seattle.

The next morning, Ryan woke us up at 4:30, wanting to see how Sunrise got its name. We returned to the lookout.

As it climbed, the sun outlined the peaks to the east in silhouette. Finally, it peeked over them, and its first rays gleamed off Rainier. From the top down, the summit turned fuchsia.

Eight hours into the trip, I had seen two of the most outstanding nature scenes of my life — and we hadn’t even started hiking in earnest.

By all accounts, awe is a common reaction along the Wonderland Trail.

“We all thought it was great, especially after doing a lot of hiking on the East Coast, where a lot of times you have to spend a lot of energy hiking up to one viewpoint,” said Trent England, 25, of Washington, D.C., one of the three backpackers we met below Panhandle Gap. “It’s just constant scenery — perpetual views of glaciers, and Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams. You don’t get that in a lot of wilderness settings.”

Mr. England did the entire trail with two friends, Charlie Hagadorn and David Fenner, in 7 days — two days quicker than they had expected. Along the way, they encountered a mink, a black bear with cubs and people from around the country with whom they recounted trail conditions and observations.

Among Mr. England’s observations: The National Park Service does a fantastic job maintaining the trail, and some of the trail’s “facilities” — such as they are, lacking walls or other frills — offer mighty impressive views.

True enough. When you’re listening to songbirds and watching waterfalls gush over cliffs thousands of feet above you, who needs the newspaper?

Because the trail is so popular, reservations are recommended.

Beginning April 1 every year, the park accepts reservations for 60 percent of its campsites, with the latest reservations on Sept. 30. The remaining 40 percent of the sites are available first-come, first-served. July and August are the most popular months — that’s typically when the wildflowers bloom — but also the buggiest.

Though the trail is popular, that doesn’t mean it’s overcrowded. Because backcountry permits are required and because most of the 18 camping areas can accommodate just a handful of two-person tents, there’s a limited number of people on any given stretch of the trail.

On our last day, on the eight-mile stretch from the Indian Bar campground to Box Canyon, where we left Ryan’s car, we saw only one other party of backpackers.

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