Thursday, September 10, 2009
Mount Rainier National Park: Beating the rush to Tolmie Peak
Where there’s a fire lookout on a peak in the Cascades, there’s sure to be amazing views in every direction. If you want a moderate hike through lush green forest, past fresh alpine meadows and lakes, and with stunning close-up views of Mount Rainier, you can’t do much better than Tolmie Peak fire lookout. But with all this splendor, is it a tad crowded on a nice weekend?
The Trip There
We leave Seattle around 8 a.m. on a foggy Sunday morning. I just know we’ll clear the fog by the time we get to Mowich Lake at almost 5,000 feet on the northwest flank of Mount Rainer. Since it takes about 2 hours to drive there, we’ll be lucky to find a parking space and share the peak with the masses, as guide books suggest.
En route to the Carbon River park entrance, we go through the increasingly small towns of Buckley and Wilkeson, passing forest-fringed pastures where horses and livestock roam. After crossing the fragile-looking old bridge over the narrow Carbon River gorge, the last 17 miles or so is unpaved road. Much of this is through extensive clearcuts that resemble a barren war zone of denuded ridges—or what I think a war zone might look like. When we hit the entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, thankfully the forest returns.
With Julie’s good parking karma, we score a spot near the lake. True, lots of cars are already here, but it’s also the trailhead for the Spray Park hike. When we find the trailhead and start skirting around the translucent blue waters of Mowich Lake, it’s about 10 a.m. We lose the crowd as soon as we leave the parking area.
Soon we’re in forest, where the trail winds up a gentle grade and drops on the other side of a ridge. From there it’s another 30 minutes of fairly level traverse. The hiking is pleasant and easy here. We pass a few large columnar basalt outcrops along the trail, reminders that we’re on the fringes of a massive volcano.
At 1.6 miles, we reach a junction and cut off toward Tolmie Peak instead of continuing to Ipsut Pass on the Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates Rainier. “Wait a minute! We’re not supposed to be going down to go up to the peak are we?” I kvetch as the trail heads downhill. We drop about a hundred feet and then the trail resumes climbing steadily through the mostly Douglas fir and spruce forest.
After another 20 minutes or so we emerge from the forest into a series of rolling alpine meadows, with wildflowers like purple lupine and bright orange Indian paintbrush sprinkled through the native grasses. Beyond the dwarf fir trees I catch a glimpse of another sapphire blue lake. “That must be Eunice Lake,” says Julie. “And that must be the fire lookout.” I squint upward and see a square, two-story wood building at the top of the rock ridge almost 1,000 feet or so above the other side of the lake.
At first the thought of climbing up there seems daunting, but it’s really not bad at all. We angle up a few long switchbacks past the meadows and weave in and out of forest. As we ascend, the views down to Eunice Lake and across to Rainier just get better and better.
We scramble up the last incline to the fire lookout, expecting a crowd, only to find there’s nobody else up here.
It’s about 11:30 a.m. on a beautiful late summer weekend. Julie’s hiking book wrote almost derisively about the gobs of people to expect here.
“Hey, where is everybody?” I ask Julie, as if she knows.
Although the wooden steps up to the wraparound lookout balcony look a bit dicey, we clomp up anyway, drop our daypacks, and sit down, legs dangling over the edge.
I can’t believe I’ve never been here before. Mount Rainier is so close that the waterfalls coursing down its crevasse-scarred glaciers are visible. Spectacular!
Within 15 minutes, a couple tromps up and joins us on the balcony. Then another older couple shows up a few minutes later…then a few more.
By the time we’ve relaxed a bit, taken lots of pictures, reveled in the glorious views, munched our lunches, and head down there’s maybe a half a dozen others up here. We beat the rush, but it’s really not that bad anyway. In fact, it’s great.
When You Go
The round trip hike from Mowich Lake is about 5.6 miles (the distance varies on maps, but figure between 5.5 and 6 miles round trip) and climbs a little over 1,000 feet. Go early if you can on a weekend to have the place to yourself. The entrance fee to Mount Rainier National Park is $15/day, which you have to stop and pay at an unmanned entrance pullout. Remember to bring insect repellent since bugs love alpine meadows and the potential sources of food (you) traveling through them.
Thanks to hiking/kayaking/skiing buddy extraordinaire Julie for letting me use a few of her shots on this post!