“We’re going camping this weekend. I don’t know where, but I’ll figure it out and let you know.” That was the ultimatum I texted to Mr. Adventure on Friday morning. After what seemed like several weeks of deadlines and driving and pickups and drop-offs and more driving and more deadlines, I was overcome by a powerful urge to just get the hell outside. Preferably on a high trail, and preferably somewhere I could sleep under the stars. And — I can’t believe I’m writing this, but it’s true — I hadn’t been to Mount Rainier, my go-to park, my happy place, yet this year.
Pick a hike
I pulled Hiking Mount Rainier National Park: A Guide To The Park’s Greatest Hiking Adventures off the shelf and fired up the Washington Trails Association website. Somewhere high would be good, really good. The Naches Peak loop trail had been on my radar since last fall. It leaves from Chinook Pass, following the Pacific Crest Trail for a couple of miles before circling back into Mount Rainier National Park. According to recent WTA trip reports, the wildflowers were out in full force, as were the bugs. But at least a couple of trip reports remarked the crowds were not too bad.
Chinook Pass is a deservedly popular destination for park-goers. The Stephen Mather Memorial Parkway winds up, up, up to 4,675′ Cayuse Pass, then turns east to the even higher 5,430′-elevation Chinook Pass. Named for the first director of the National Park Service, the road is a classic national parkway, routing car tourists past photo-worthy sights. Chief among these is Tipsoo Lake, a small tarn just below the pass. Stand on its east shore and the water reflects the mountain. As we climbed toward the pass, we saw cars parked along the roadside well below the parking lot for the lake. Uh-oh.
All the way up to, and well beyond the pass, cars crammed the parking lots and road shoulders. People were everywhere, enjoying the views of Naches Peak to the south and Mount Rainier to the west. Despite the throngs, everyone looked to be having a grand time.
Find a campsite
“Keep going,” Mr. Adventure said. “Let’s find a campsite first, then we’ll come back.” We knew there was zero chance of getting a spot in one of the park’s campgrounds and focused instead on national forest options. West of Chinook Pass, everything was full. So we went east of the pass, descending the slope of the Cascades into drier, hotter realms. The very first Forest Service site, lovely Lodgepole Campground, had three non-reservable campsites. At 2pm on a summer Saturday, we nabbed one. Score!
We set up the tent and realized we should get gas before heading back to the pass for our hike. As we drove toward the small town of Naches, it occurred to us there was no reason to rush back to the trailhead. Most folks would be leaving as the afternoon waned, and the temperature would cool down. The light would last until at least 9pm. We could do the five-mile Naches Peak loop in a couple of hours, so why not start late, around 5pm? Seemed like a good plan.
On the trail
Fuel tank full, we headed back to the pass. Most of the cars were gone, and many of those that remained had a layer of dust on them signifying their owners were backpacking in the mountains. The mosquitos, on the other hand, seemed annoyed that there were fewer people around, and they focused their efforts on us. Still, something about that sticky layer of sunscreen and bug repellent makes me feel like, yeah, I’m finally in the mountains.
The Naches Peak loop trail starts where the PCT crosses the highway. The entrance sign to the national park is actually a bridge. Walk across and you’re on the flanks of Naches Peak, where the wildflower meadows explode with color. As I wandered along the trail, I thought about how people have described the flower parks of Mount Rainier. John Muir’s quote is inscribed into the steps leading up to the famed meadows at Paradise: “…the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings.” I couldn’t come up with anything better than thinking that when people talk about a riot of color, this is what they mean.
Purple broadleaf lupine, magenta Indian paintbrush, Sitka valerian, yellow broadleaf arnica, shaggy greenish-ivory pasqueflower seedheads like something out of Dr. Suess. And everywhere the buzzing of bees gorging on nectar, because while it’s summer at Chinook Pass now, the insects know it doesn’t last long. August brings berries to the high country and more marine air to the mountains, which hide above the cloud cover until the sun is high enough to burn it off. By September, the flower festival will be over and red huckleberry bushes and golden deciduous trees will light up the slopes. The first snow will dust the area in early fall. Sometime around Thanksgiving, the road to Chinook Pass will close for the season and the pikas and marmots that scurry all summer, squeaking and whistling at the human visitors, will have the place to themselves. But now all is crazily, frantically, audibly alive, taking advantage of long, warm days to grow and grow and grow some more.
Long views from Naches Peak
The close-up views are only half the story, though. Above the flower parks loom the rocky cliffs of Naches Peak, a scramble for those with the skills and time to attempt it. We admired the contrast between vertical walls and the meadows at their feet, scanning for mountain goats in the heights.
Shortly after starting the trail heading south on the PCT, we entered the William O. Douglas Wilderness, established in 1984. Douglas, the longest-serving Supreme Court justice, was a passionate environmental advocate whose conservation ethic formed during adolescent hikes in the Cascades, not far from his childhood home in Yakima.* As an adult, Douglas often summered at nearby Goose Prairie near the Bumping River, first at a ranch and later at his own cabin, where he wrote his 1950 memoir Of Men and Mountains.
A couple of miles in we passed the turnoff for Dewey Lake, another half-mile or so downhill and a popular destination for dayhikers and overnighters. The white bump of Mount Adams glowed in the far distance above the Goat Rocks, while Seymour Peak and Double Peak loomed close by. The trail curves west on the southern flank of Naches Peak, and as we hiked Mount Rainier suddenly filled the sky in front of us. The sun lowering in the sky backlit the mountain, bringing the peaks and ridges on its eastern side into sharp contrast. This was a dramatic view of Rainier, one I’d not seen before. We wanted to match our Mount Rainier map with the view, but the bugs were relentless so we snapped a few photos and continued briskly onward.
Back to the highway
Three-quarters of the way around Naches Peak, we could hear the highway noise again. Dropping down through the subalpine forest, we emerged about a half-mile below Chinook Pass and across the road from Tipsoo Lake. As we made our way down to cross the highway, we passed five elegantly dressed people. One carried a camera, another grasped a small notebook, but the one who commanded attention wore the dress blues of a Marine with a yellow rose pinned to his coat. “Looks like someone deserves congratulations,” I called out. “Him,” grinned a woman holding a mixed-rose bouquet, pointing to the uniformed young man. We thought it might be a graduation celebration, but 20 yards further along we spotted a young woman wearing a strapless ivory gown and holding another rose bouquet, hidden on a side trail with a friend keeping lookout. What a perfect place to get married.
From there, it was a short walk around Tipsoo Lake and over the ridge back to the trailhead. A few people still wandered around, reading the interpretive signage and admiring the view down the American River valley.
As we drove back to our campsite, we reviewed the day’s takeaways. First, don’t sweat not having a campsite reservation. There are plenty of Forest Service campgrounds along the Mather Memorial Parkway, and even if those are full, the Forest Service allows dispersed camping on any national forest road that doesn’t have an active logging operation. We saw plenty of dispersed camping along the way. This is perfect for last-minute travelers like us. Second, long summer days mean plenty of flexibility for hiking. Don’t start at 11am with everyone else. Get out early or wait until late afternoon. The light will be gorgeous and the crowds thinned. Having tried the late-afternoon option, we decided to head back to Chinook Pass early the next morning, this time heading south on the PCT. But that’s another post.
* In the 1960s, Douglas got involved in the North Cascades controversy, but you’ll have to read my book for that story.