Thursday, July 21, 2016

Around Mt. Rainier: Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to Sourdough Gap

While books, movies, and social media have drawn thru-hikers to the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail from all over the world the last few years, here in the Pacific Northwest we've been day hiking and backpacking the PCT for decades.   

One of my favorite day hikes on the PCT is the section from Chinook Pass just north of Mt. Rainier to Sourdough Gap and a bit beyond. The visual feast along the trail is spectacular. (Volcanoes! Craggy peaks! Alpine lakes and meadows! Wildflowers!) Just driving to the trailhead along the Chinook Scenic Byway offers magnificent scenery and close views of Mt. Rainier.

Because the trailhead starts over a mile high (elevation 5,400 feet), as soon as you start hiking, bam! You're in gorgeous alpine high country, with lush greenery and wildflowers lining the trail during the summer.

Initially the trail parallels Highway 410/Chinook Scenic Byway, but the road quickly descends down the valley toward eastern Washington. Colorful and delicate wildflowers like scarlet and magenta paintbrush, subalpine lupine, and bear grass line the trail. By September they'll be done, but now a splendid display is happening.

Scarlet paintbrush

Bear grass

This far from Seattle (it took us about 2 hours to drive here on a Sunday morning), the crowds aren't quite so heavy as the PCT at Snoqualmie Pass. But the first leg, about 1.5 miles, to Sheep Lake is well-traveled. This lovely alpine lake is an easy backpack destination for families with kids because the trail is fairly flat.

Sheep Lake
After stopping at the lake to shed layers, we continue upward into increasingly beautiful alpine meadows and views. Although the grade steepens a bit, it's still an easy ascent.

This early in the season, before the masses of PCT thru-hikers pass through in August/early September, there's not as much traffic past Sheep Lake. Maybe the weather forecast for afternoon thunderstorms in the Cascades kept some hikers away.  

We reach Sourdough Gap (literally a gap in the rocky ridge) and drop down to traverse a talus slope toward the next saddle. A couple hundred yards on we reach the PCT junction, where the PCT starts descending. We stay high.

Sourdough Gap, looking back toward Chinook Pass.

We continue to the saddle, where the trail drops down toward Crystal Lakes.  Just below the saddle we enter Mt. Rainier National Park, where Tahoma finally reveals a glimpse of herself behind the gathering clouds. (Factoid: Tahoma/Rainier is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.)

Here in the national park, dogs aren't allowed. As we settle for lunch on a knoll overlooking upper Crystal Lake, an unmistakable canine howl reverberates across the basin, not too far away (OWOOOOOOOO). Pretty soon a whole chorus starts calling to each other, echoing all around us.

It's primal and awesome.

I'm momentarily thrilled that it might be wolves, but another hiker above us says, no, just coyotes. (Howl not deep enough and yipping.) So that bucket list item is not yet checked off.

Lunch spot view not too shabby. Upper Crystal Lake.
With a car shuttle, you can continue down beyond the Crystal Lakes to a lower trailhead, but today we turn back at this point, making it about 7 miles roundtrip.

Back at Sourdough Gap, we meet the first PCT thru-hiker I've seen this year. Friendly "Connecticut" (his trail name) is happy to share trail stories as we scramble to keep up with him.  I always love to talk to thru-hikers about their journey and where they came from. Connecticut, who's doing the less common north-to-south thru-hike, started his journey about two weeks ago.

Connecticut, going all the Mexico.
Back at Sheep Lake, we notice the clouds are turning bruised dark, and then a sharp crack of lightning and the deep rumbling of thunder rolls overhead. I do not like being in the mountains during a thunderstorm.

With little spits of rain possibly threatening a downpour, we pick up the pace. I figure our hiking poles are little lightning rods. By the time we reach the car, we shaved about 30 minutes off our ascent time.

Lucky us, just as we're pulling out of the parking lot, it starts raining. All in all, a great hike. We drive away with that endorphin-fueled mountain high I always get after a good day on the trail.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go
The trailhead to the PCT is about 1/4 mile beyond Chinook Pass if you're coming from the west side of the Cascades. You'll need a Northwest Forest Pass to park since the trail starts in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest before entering Mt. Rainier National Park. From the Seattle area, it's about 150 miles roundtrip drive (more if you're coming from north Seattle like we did).


JoJo said...

Really gorgeous pics. I wish I hadn't been such a bonehead and not gone anywhere cause it was 'too far to drive'. I lived in Bonney Lake for 12 years and only got up to Sunrise once. Never made it all the way to Chinook and Cayuse passes. Would love to have seen Whistling Jack's too.

Lainey Piland said...

I could sit and stare at those photos all day! What GORGEOUS scenery, with rocks and snowy mountains and trees and green everywhere! The wildflowers are so pretty too. I saw my first beargrass blossom while hiking Mount Si - those are almost alien-looking. Very lovely up close though.

This sounds like a very enjoyable hike without the strain of too much uphill slogging (that's my kind of hike when most of the elevation gain is taken care of on the drive to the trailhead!), so I might have to venture south and try this one out sometime!

jill said...

Hey JoJo, sorry you didn't make it out to Chinook Pass, but hope you can vicariously enjoy through my blog!

Lainey, Yes, this is a great hike, lots of bang for your hiking buck. Also Ruby would be welcome for much of the hike. The people behind us had a black lab - they ventured to the knoll like us just inside the park boundary and then turned back. Hope to see you on the trail!