Hiking the Wonderland Trail: Days 7-9

Day 7

Mystic Camp to Sunrise

8.8 miles

Everything was frozen. Nikki’s rain jacket was frozen in place, my boots were crusted with ice and a sparkling sheen covered the damp logs.

You know what it’s like putting your lukewarm feet into ice cold boots at 7am after being not-quite-so-warm all night? It’s not the best way to wake up, let me tell you.

Ranger Paul Harrington the 3rd (alright alright, we added the part about “the 3rd” but come on, isn’t that a name that sounds like it’s been passed down from generation to generation of gunslinging rangers?) came to check on us as we gathered up our gear, looking rather warm and well-rested after spending the night in the ranger cabin. This man was an absolute gold mine of information, even taking the time to point out popular climbing routes on Rainier. Rock on, Mr. Harrington.

We walked for about a mile in sullen silence, each of us digesting and processing our situation. In my case, I kept running through how many dry layers I had left, developed a game plan for if it rained that day, and kept willing blood into my frozen fingers and toes.

We finally came up to a rather abrupt cliff, facing almost due east into the glorious sun that was burning through the thin wisps of clouds. I convinced the other two that staying and laying out our wet clothes and building a makeshift shantytown for an hour or so would do us good. This was, surprisingly, one of my favorite moments on the trip. With the river rushing below us, we put out our wet clothes on rocks and logs, watching the water start evaporating almost instantly. We slowly drank our breakfast and pointed our feet at the sun, the numbness warming into tingling before finally giving way to feeling again. It. Was. Glorious. Never had I been so grateful for blue skies, sunshine and dry clothes.

After this wonderful morning, we crossed the river and into a shady forest on the other side. Moving quickly to find sunlight again, we crossed through and came out to a stunning view of Rainier in the sun’s full glory.

Side note: in this picture, on the far left-hand side, you can see Steamboat Prow. This is part of the second-most utilized route to reach the summit. There is actually a ranger station situated below the prow where many climbers camp, right where the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers split.

We ate a huge lunch, thanks to our Dutch friends who gave us their extra dehydrated meals as they were exiting the Northern Loop Trail this day.

We powered uphill after lunch, reaching Skyscraper Pass at over 6700 feet. There were more clouds coming in, which made us all incredibly nervous, but they held off on precipitation, giving the area a darker, more sinister and impressive look.

This basin, which looked to our untrained eyes like an old crater, was absolutely beautiful. I didn’t realize I had been here before until we descended down into the bowl. I then realized I had done the Burroughs trail last year and seen all this from the other side! I love hiking and the different perspectives it continually brings.

We arrived at camp, quickly made dinner, and then escaped from the biting chill of the breeze into our tent. Yes, the time had come again to put 3 of us in a 2 person tent because of the elevation and nightly temperatures. It was so warm and cozy; we even coordinated our midnight pee breaks!

Day 8

Sunrise to Summerland

10.8 miles

We woke up to sun rays hitting our tent, the first morning on the trip where we had a direct east-facing view that was not obscured by trees or high ridges.

The rays of light warmed us quickly in the morning, slowing our packing-up pace considerably as we just enjoyed our time in the beautiful meadows near Sunrise. But we had an appointment to meet my dad for our resupply in 3.3 miles; imagining hot coffee and fresh food quickened our pace.

The morning light was hitting Rainier just right as we descended slowly down through forested slopes towards White River and it’s campground.

We arrived with plenty of time to spare and made good use of the water fountains and flush toilets, even finding time for a modeling pose or two.

My dad arrived right on time! Unbeknownst to us, the campground was closing for the year (!!) two hours from when we planned our meet up. How lucky was that?! We enjoyed hot PSLs, muffins and news from the outside as we sat and chatted.

After exchanging our clothes (read: handed my dad a plastic bag of nasty, sweaty hiker trash), we continued on our way, 36 hours from the finish line! We crossed over another raging glacier-fed river, this one accompanied by many warning signs. A tourist from France mistook me for Ellen DeGeneres, so in my newfound fame I was forced to take a trail selfie. There’s a first for everything!

We spent the rest of the day powering through flat, pleasant forest, taking sun breaks, and enjoying the fall foliage pressed up against the flank of the mountain. It was a glorious fall day and we were enjoying the fruits of our labor.

The last half mile brought very steep switchbacks, but it was a fair price to pay for the best campsite we had on our entire trip. Set up on a cliff, facing Panhandle Gap on one side and the mountain herself on the other, we discovered we had the group shelter for the night. This historic rock and wood structure was well-maintained and provided a nice respite from the wind and cold for our last night on the trail. It was an epic campsite, giving us a special treat for our bid farewell.

We spent the waning hours of daylight in the famous meadows of Summerland, reminiscing on our trip, watching the sun disappear behind Little Tahoma. It was a powerful ending to a powerful trip.

Day 9

Summerland to Box Canyon Trailhead

11.9 miles

We woke up as the sun came streaming directly into our tent, the warmth spreading quickly with its rays.

Our itinerary originally called for 10 days, with one 4.5 day. We decided to add that mileage to Day 9 so we could exit the trail and have a shower!

The morning alpenglow on Rainier was absolutely stunning, and an invigorating start to the day. How lucky were we to wake up in this beautiful backcountry?!

The morning’s itinerary called for ascending to the highest point on the Wonderland Trail, Panhandle Gap, with its stunning, sweeping views of the Goat Rocks Wilderness, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood.

We climbed through an eerie, post-glacier landscape, with the beginnings of glacial lakes starting to form surrounded by differently and vibrantly colored rocks, the leftovers of the powerful retreat of the glaciers.

It was frigid in the shadow of the ridge, so we climbed fairly quickly towards the fringe of light we could see in the distance. Even though one member of our group had been here before, I still don’t think any of us were prepared for the view that greeted us on the other side.

We were quite literally surrounded by volcanoes and beautiful mountains.

We excitedly took in the view, relishing our last morning on the trail.

Our path for the next few hours took us up and down the paths of old glaciers, revealing valley after valley.

View after view was revealed before us. The views were so good, Taylor and I almost ran into a bear. Nikki spotted it before us (even though she was in back) and we looked over a cliff to spot it running down below us, having bounded over the trail before us in one leap. We were more vigilant after that!

We steeply descended into the river valley, heading towards Indian Bar for our lunch break. The colors of fall broke out over the hills, and with the sun shining, it felt like heaven.

After a leisurely lunch break enjoying the views, we continued on our way along the ridge, the rollercoaster up and downs making my weary legs cry out in protest.

Again, we were treated with views of several volcanoes shining in the golden sunlight. We felt incredibly lucky.

In the early afternoon, we began hearing the eerie call of elk rutting. After determining we didn’t like the sound of that, we set out to finish our last 4 miles downhill through old growth forest blocking out the glorious sunlight.

I practically ran downhill, eager to reach our car snacks and a warm shower!

We hadn’t seen more than 3 people all day, and as we inched within a half mile of our destination, we were secretly disappointed that no one would witness our triumph.

We heard the cars first, then saw them passing on the road below. We were so close! Finally, we saw the sign.

We had done it. 93 hard, rough, beautiful, incredible miles. We cheered, we threw our hiking poles, we hugged.

We crossed over to the parking lot, where a cute elderly couple were resting after a day of hiking.

“Did you just do the whole thing?” They asked.

We sure did.

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