Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Mt. Rainier and the Wonderland Trail

Sitting at the laptop to write my recap, I am simultaneously attempting to ignore and appreciate the incessant itching of bug bites, the tight ring of sunburn around my neck and shoulders, and the dull ache in my quads. All three physical reminders of Saturday's adventure on Mount Rainier.

Without a hint of exaggeration, this run (well, mostly hike due to it's difficulty) was one of the most amazing adventures I have ever been on. It easily rivaled the Sun Mountain 50k as far being a total package of fun, difficulty, and jaw-dropping views. I feel incredibly lucky to live in the shadow of Mt. Rainier and have relatively easy access to it's trails. And even more lucky to be getting to know some seriously badass trail running mamas who were kind enough to invite me along for this experience. 

My Garmin consistently spits out data that is shorter in mileage and lower in elevation gain than anyone else's GPS watch, Garmin or otherwise. My on-going joke is that my next watch will be the vanity version (longer mileage, higher elevation). 

Here's what my watch said:
Here's what Callista's watch said:

So, I'm going to go with the more impressive data. Obviously. Both of us left our watches running the entire time, so that isn't just moving time.

Because I am a bit of a data geek, I checked Garmin Connect to compare this run to the Sun Mountain 50k. This one took almost as long and held about as much elevation (that one came in at 5,416 ft on my watch), but was much shorter in distance.

The run was planned by Ellen, who became a friend over this section of the Wonderland Trail, and I was invited along by Wendy, who I have had the pleasure of running with several times previously. Callista, who I have met at HHRG runs, and I rounded out the group.

Wendy, me, Ellen and Callista at the start of the run. 

The original plan, before the heat and intensity of the day sunk in, was a bit more elaborate, but here's what we all ended up doing: We left one car at Box Canyon, where we would finish the run, and carpooled up to Frying Pan Creek where we started the run. 

Click on map to see it larger. Map from nps.gov

The Wonderland Trail is pretty straight-forward, at least I know that it is on this section. There is just one trail, nowhere to get lost. I bought a fancy map to carry with me, but the only map I ever looked at was a print out of the map above to get a sense of where we were on the trail. 

The trailhead we started from was quite popular but the trail didn't feel overly crowded. We started at 9:15am and already there were dozens of cars parked along the narrow mountain road. Apparently the hike from Frying Pan Creek up to Summerland/Panhandle Gap and back down is a popular day hike. 

That section, up to Summerland, was beautiful. It started going up almost immediately! The first part of the trail was wide and tree covered. We stopped in a couple of spots to check out Frying Pan Creek, which was more of a raging river! Eventually the trail opened up to meadows.

The view from the first section of trail. 

The first bridge crossing. It felt very exciting!

One of our first glimpses of Mt. Rainier from the trail. 

We gained almost 3,000 feet of elevation in about 6 miles to Panhandle Gap, which was just beyond Summerland. 

Callista filtering water from the creek. 

The view at Summerland.

All of us at Summerland. 

Callista (in purple) climbing from Summerland up to Panhandle Gap. 

The trail and a log bridge.

Callista waiting, me walking, Ellen taking photos. Photo by Wendy.

This one might be out of chronological order. Ellen mentioned that green water behind us was frozen over last August. In fact, there were spots on the route last year that required them to wear yaktrax to navigate! Photo by Wendy.

Callista climbing up, up, up.

The view south from Panhandle Gap. The mountain peak in view is Mt. Adams. We could also see Mt. Hood but it didn't really show up on the pictures, sadly. 

Once we continued on past Panhandle Gap the crowds were gone. I would guess we passed about 12-15 people in the next 11 miles. This section of trail is a commitment! There is no road access anywhere until Box Canyon, 17 miles from Frying Pan Creek.  

As we continued on we climbed a little more, then it was down, down, down to Indian Bar. Unfortunately it wasn't an easy downhill. There were water bars across the trail, which were essentially chunks of log crosswise along the trail creating steps and were put in to help with erosion. Some of the steps were very high, almost up to my knees. So instead of the trail being a long, windy, downhill, it was a clunky step-step-hop as we navigated along. It didn't feel like it was any easier than going up the other side! I was glad we weren't doing the trail in reverse, however, as those steps would have been a pain to go up.

Wendy and I. Mt. Adams in the background. Photo by Ellen. 

Callista and Wendy navigating a creek crossing. 

These waterfalls looked like trickles but sounded HUGE.

At the bottom we reached Indian Bar and the Ohanapecosh River. We stopped for a break and to soak our feet in the icy water.

Ellen and I resting at Indian Bar. Photo by Wendy.

Pearl Izumis and Injinjis hanging out. This water was FREEZING.

Our view of Indian Bar from the spot we stopped on the river. That building is a shelter, I believe for camping. And we had to hike straight up that! Photo by Callista. 

On the bridge as we made our way out of Indian Bar. That shelter in the photo above would have been straight in front of me. Photo by Callista. 

After Indian Bar it was time to climb again. I think I speak for everyone when I say this next section felt really hard. My elevation map indicates it wasn't anywhere near as big of a climb as the first one up to Summerland, but it felt like it! The trail was mostly exposed for the next 3 or so miles and the heat was getting to us. 

This is my favorite shot of the day. Ellen climbing up out of Indian Bar.

Ellen and I. Photo by Wendy. 

Found a flat section of trail! The views felt surreal up here. 

A ridge trail laid out before us.

Running! Photo by Ellen. 

Wendy, me and Callista. Photo by Ellen. 
This picture cracked me up because we are all standing the same way! 

I love this shot Wendy got of Mt. Rainier. Much more detail than my phone was picking up!

The section from Indian Bar to our next point on the map was about 4.6 miles. Once we hit about 3 miles the trail started mercifully going back down. We were able to run a bit! The trail was quite narrow, however-- barely wider than both of my feet next to each other-- and had many roots and rocks, so we had to be extremely careful. There were a few little stumbles, but luckily none of us fell. Whew! Eventually the trail wound under tree cover and we spent the rest of the run in the woods. It was a nice break from the full sun. No pictures from this section as I just wanted to keep moving forward as quickly as possible!

We were all pretty tired by the time we hit the next spot on the map. It was just an intersection, where you can turn to go to Olallie Creek, but it was a milestone. Unfortunately when we stopped there the biting flies descended on us! At that point I also realized I was going to run out of water, but the other ladies had a bit of extra water on them, as well water filters, so I didn't worry too much. 

From Olallie Creek it was about 1.8 miles to Nickel Creek. This was more downhill in the trees. I didn't stop to take any pictures, it just felt good to keep moving. All I could think about was my bottle of Coke in the cooler at the car-- and not falling. It is easy to start dragging your feet when you get tired on the trails and dragging feet means tripping over roots and rocks. I did not want to fall! Callista stopped to offer me use of her water filter at Nickel Creek but all I wanted was to just keep going to the end. I didn't even want to drink, or eat, anything. 

Another half mile or so later we came to a river. I can't exactly tell on my map what river it was, though my guess was Muddy Fork. We were all so excited! First Callista walked in to it, wearing her shoes. I thought it was a good idea and went in, too. Soon we were splashing water on ourselves and eventually just plopping right down for a rest in the river. It was the most amazing feeling ever. I could have sat in that river all afternoon! 

Pearl Izumis taking a bath. 

Messing around at the last bridge crossing. Photo by Wendy. 

The bonus to soaking here was it got off a lot of the dirt and dust from the day's run. From here it ended up being only about half of a mile to Box Canyon. Despite sloshy shoes, I just wanted to run. I took off, and a bit down the trail I heard "squish squish squish" behind me and up came Callista! We were so excited to be so close. Hearing the people and traffic at Box Canyon was a sweet sound, food and cold drinks were within reach! 

We tumbled in to the parking lot and grabbed food and drink out of the car. My running companions clearly have done this before: they came seriously prepared with delicious post-run food and drink. My baggie of pretzels, Pop Chips and Coke paled in comparison! Now I know exactly how it's done. After eating, checking out the bridge over Box Canyon, and stretching tired legs, we headed out. We had to pick up the other car and make our way out of the park to get some dinner! A big plate of cheesy Mexican food never tasted so good. 

I absolutely cannot wait to go back and explore the rest of the Wonderland Trail. Maybe this group will ready for part two soon . . . hmmm. Even when it got hard I loved every moment and embraced the gratitude I felt for being strong and healthy enough to take on something that was quite difficult. There were many, many points where I thought "I can't believe I am out here doing this!" 

When I finished the run I decided my new motto would be Do. Epic. Shit. And the more I tip toe in to what I consider Epic. Shit. the more I realize I am capable of not just imagining, or wishing for it, but getting out there and actually doing it. 

One other thing I wanted to mention: while I was out there I kept thinking of Gary Robbins and the recent Fastest Known Time (FKT) he just set at the beginning of July running the entire trail. He went the same direction we did, clockwise, and traversed that same section in the final third of his run (he went about 17 more miles further to Longmire to finish). He ran the 93 mile trail in just under 19 hours. Incredible and insane.


  1. I could not love this more!! I hope to have a similar experience one day. So happy you got to do this. LOVE. :)

  2. This looks amazing Sybil! I wish I was in shape enough to do this with you. I will get there :)


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