Belia was in from the get-go, and our friend Lisa joined in the day before, so we had a great little group. Two is more than good for a run, but on bigger adventures having 3-4 people feels just right to me. Fortunately the weather was looking good and the rangers confirmed trail conditions were snow-free, though a bit wet. We readied our gear for the 7+ hour trek and headed out at 5:30 on Saturday morning!
The loop we took goes around Mother Mountain on the northwest side of Rainier, hence the name Mother Mountain Loop. Some people refer to the loop as something like the Mowich Lake to Spray Park to Carbon River to Ipsut Pass to Mowich Lake loop, which is a bit more of a mouthful!
We started our journey at 8:45 am on the Spray Park Trail, heading south from Mowich Lake. The trails around Rainier are jaw-dropping gorgeous, but many sections just aren't running friendly for people without a ton of technical trail experience. We ran when we could, hiked when we could, and it was a good pace for all of us.
Lisa, me, and Belia at the start.
Within a mile or so we passed some hikers who asked us if we had seen the bear (Yikes! We hadn't.) we made our first stop at the Eagle Cliff Viewpoint. Rainier was "out"! Lisa gave us a quick lesson on clouds, explaining the circle above the summit was a lenticular cloud-- meaning it was very windy at the top!
Belia and the mountain.
We then pushed on towards Spray Falls.
Spray Falls. Much more impressive in person!
After Spray Falls it was time to start climbing up to the Spray Park. I imagine that in the Spring/Summer it is gorgeous covered in wild flowers, but at the end of summer the flowers were gone and the foliage was starting to turn deep reds and yellows.
Lisa hiking up to Spray Park.
Mt Rainier from Spray Park.
Belia continuing up!
This next section was my favorite. I am not sure the exact name, but heard it referred to as "the rock garden" and that exactly describes it! Last time I was on Rainier, heading up to Panhandle Gap, we went through a similar section. My friends explained that you had to follow the cairns, which are stacks of rocks, that mark the trail. Fortunately I had this piece of information to share, as that was the only way to pick your way through the rocky section.
The biggest stack of rocks!
Extremely happy me!
Looking for the trail. It's in there somewhere! Like a game of Where's Waldo.
The rocky section in this photo is where we were in the pictures above.
After the rock garden we went down, down, down towards the next landmark, which was Cataract Valley camp. We stopped there for a little break, the continued down even more to the Carbon River. As we descended, so did the clouds. The previously sunny skies turned ominous and we were all worried it would start to rain. Thankfully we never got more than a few sprinkles, but the clouds stayed put for the rest of the day.
The whole morning I had been looking forward to going over the suspension bridge at Carbon River, but it was actually kind of scary! The bridge rocked as you walked across it. I went straight across and waited. Belia and Lisa stopped in the middle to enjoy the view.
Waiting at the end of the bridge.
Enjoying the view.
After the bridge we stopped and sat down for a snack. I had been thinking about heartier, savory foods to carry with me (sugary running-friendly food gets old fast!) and thought I would try out an Amy's frozen vegan burrito. It was delicious! I put it in my pack frozen at 5:00 am and by the time we sat to eat, maybe around 1:00?, it was thawed and perfect.
Once we were on the other side of the suspension bridge we began to follow the Wonderland Trail for the rest of the way. The trail was fairly runnable for the next section as it followed along the banks of the Carbon River.
Approaching Carbon River again.
A mile up the trail we had to go back across the Carbon River.
Crossing another section of the Carbon River.
My favorite part about the section of trail along the west side of the river was watching for mushrooms. There were so many different kinds, close to a couple dozen that I spotted! This was probably my lowest point, physically and mentally (there was a lot of yawning!), which thankfully wasn't actually too bad, but I kept myself alert with my mushroom searching.
This section was extremely green!
From Carbon River the Wonderland trail gradually heads down to Ipsut Creek campground, then it begins climbing again. As I watched my Garmin I thought we didn't have far to go, and knew it would be a climb up to Mowich Lake. We had no idea what we were about to get in to, however! The climb to Ipsut Pass was, in a word, intense. We all looked up at what felt like a wall of rocks on all sides, knowing we had to somehow get over or around it, but not seeing any way that it was possible! There were 2 1/2 miles left. Two hikers came towards us and we asked them how to to get to Ipsut Pass. They pointed up high on the rocks. Deep breaths all around, and we went on our way. We were all pretty tired, this loop already a stretch for all of us to complete, so throwing in that climb at the end felt like almost more than we could take on! However, we soldiered on. Everyone was in good spirits and laughing and talking despite the fatigue we each felt. At many points during the day I felt grateful for the company of Lisa and Belia, but during that climb I couldn't have asked for better companions. When we finally, finally!, got to the top it felt like we had summitted the mountain itself (which is something Lisa has actually done, twice!)!
A bit over half way up to Ipsut Pass.
Almost there! We came from the bottom!
At the top of Ipsut Pass.
We stopped to enjoy the moment, but knew we had just a mile left to get to Mowich Lake, and that it was down hill. Willing our legs to run, we took off down the trail. It was a beautiful trail, very soft dirt with some roots here and there. Down, down towards the lake. We ran up alongside of it as we pushed towards the parking lot where our post-run food was calling our names!
Lisa took this, it cracked me up. Yummy food!
We made it to the car and grabbed our food. I learned from my trail companions the last time I was on Rainier that there is nothing better than great food post-run. It all tasted so good as we ate and rested down by the lake, tired and happy.
A quick change of clothes and we were off to head home.
I can not wait to go back!
A few notes on the run: I was extremely bummed that my Garmin died at 15 miles, two miles short of the end. I don't have the exact data from my watch, but I think the total elevation gain was over 5200 feet, and the climb to Ipsut Pass was half of that! The loop is 17 miles. It took us about 7 1/2 hours, as we enjoyed lots of stops and moved at a comfortable pace, walking all uphills and carefully maneuvering over the technical downhills. I brought far more food with me than I consumed-- which is a good thing! I always want to have extra food. Despite carrying my water filter, we never needed it. My 1.5 L water bladder was not quite empty when I finished, so I probably should have drank more. There were plenty of places on the trail to filter water had we needed up, until we veered away from Carbon River, about 4 miles from the end.
If you want to attempt this route, and I highly recommend it!, there are a couple of things I suggest you should do: first, check to make sure the road to Mowich Lake is open. The park closes it mid-October or at the first snow, whichever comes first. If the gate is closed, which is five miles out from the lake, you can run/bike in, but it's up hill to the lake. Also call the ranger station at Carbon River and ask about trail conditions. Snow can often linger at Spray Park well in to the summer, and though we saw a patch near the trail, we didn't go through any. For me, snow might have been a deal-breaker, as I have no experience trail finding or hiking through snow.