A national park has a way of imprinting itself on you. Maybe it’s the first place you went camping as a kid. Or it was your introduction to whistling marmots. Maybe the first time you saw an alpine meadow covered by an avalanche of avalanche lilies?
I was born in Seattle and never much wanted to leave the state of Washington. Mount Rainier National Park had a lot to do with that. When you live somewhere with a place called Paradise, why live anywhere else?
Last summer, it was time to be sure that my own offspring knew that feeling. My 21-year-old daughter and I backpacked five days on the northern tier of the Wonderland Trail, the famed 90+-mile loop around the iconic peak that decorates our state’s license plates. We’ve done father-daughter trips all over the world since she was 10, but this ended up near the top of our best-ever list.
We didn’t have the two weeks we’d need to tackle the whole trail in one go, and to me — more boater than backpacker — the Wonderland’s reputed up-and-down grind sounded daunting. So we planned a 24-mile, four-night trip. We’d stop at trailside camps with names such as Eagle’s Roost and Cataract Valley, following the Wonderland’s spectacular Spray Park alternate route. Our hiking days would be short enough to allow plenty of packs-off exploring.
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We faxed in our permit request in March 2013 — at that time a record year for the Wonderland, with more than 1,450 requests. Confirmation came in May. We’d hike the third week of August.
From the park’s Mowich Lake, on the northwest side of the mountain, it was only a couple miles to the first night’s campsite. It gave us time to set up camp and then amble up the trail with just fanny packs to see Spray Falls — for my money, one of the more spectacular alpine cataracts anywhere — and continue on to lupine-festooned Spray Park.
Through the week, our days averaged four to six miles with well-stuffed packs (even five days’ worth of food adds up). Our route ranged from deep forest to flowery, fairyland meadows, to treeline snowfields that felt like we were on the way to Valhalla. Always looming above or peeking through breaks in the woods: The Mountain (which Every Washingtonian Capitalizes).
We had time to sit by creeks and play our pennywhistles — my daughter is skilled at getting tunes from these Irish flutes, and I stumble along with her. We perched at meadow’s edge to paint watercolors of Rainier or of rock gardens bursting with magenta monkey-flowers and gentian blossoms of the deepest blue. Along the trail we found time to pause and inspect myriad clumps of curious fungi, some shaped like tiny castles, others resembling lumpy lobes of cauliflower.
We saw pikas and marmots and bear poop (but no bears), and a couple of up-close glaciers. Chatted with other hikers each night as we gathered with our water filters around campsite streams or hung our food on bear poles.
We started slowly, but by week’s end we were almost charging up hills. And hills there were: Along one memorable stretch between Moraine Park and Mystic Lake, the trail builders needed to get us from 4,500 feet to 6,000, and they decided to do it quickly. “It’s like they just pushed the ‘up’ button,” I bellowed unbelievingly.
But in the end we were strong, and a little proud. And despite the Wonderland’s reputation for being booked heavily in summer, at times we hiked for hours without seeing another human, with plenty of time to just chat amiably, or sing trail songs, or play 20 Questions about favorite old movies, speaking up to be heard over splashing, fern-framed streams.
The Mountain’s challenge, the beauty and the bonding nourished our souls.
Brian J. Cantwell: firstname.lastname@example.org