For the record, there aren't any better camps in Mt. Rainier National Park than Summerland. I know this because I asked just about everyone we ran into, including a volunteer ranger, what was comprable. While this is a bit of an ominous setup, I suppose I ought to say that we had a great time at Berkeley Park on the northeast side of the Mountain.
Clara, Lilly, and I started at Sunrise on Friday a bit before noon. The weather was decent. The Mountain was partially visible. We struggled up Sourdough Ridge under the weight of our heavy packs while dayhikers passed us. Well, some of them. The ones that looked like this wasn't there first hike ever.
Remembering the kind words of others on this same trail, I did my best to talk up the wonders of Frozen Lake to a little boy and his parents that were having a hard time. I told him to look for marmots and even if he didn't see any, to look for their holes.
Actually at Frozen Lake, we were treated to a far more rare sight than marmots. Goats were on the hill above the lake. Too far to be easy to see or even get a super clear picture, but definitely goats. While I was intently looking at the little white dots, a marmot popped up not more than a few feet from us. He might as well have been domesticated or a honey badger. He didn't care that we were there at all.
Although we've been to Frozen Lake many times before there was still one trail we'd not taken from the confusing intersection. We'd been up to the Fremont Lookout and First Burroughs. We'd even been down the Wonderland Trail toward Sunrise Park, though I wouldn't recommend that to anyone unless they want to walk the road back to Sunrise proper.
This time our route took us on the Wonderland to the northwest toward Skyscraper Pass. We'd only follow it a short way before intersecting the Northern Loop trail, but it was great seeing all the truly hardcore hikers on their 93 mile journey. Clara keeps talking about it and maybe we'll give it a shot someday.
The Northern Loop intersection was just a little way down the hill made quick by the girls' jogging. Under a 70 pound pack I wasn't in any mood to jog so they got a chance to wait for me occasionally. We branched down into Berkeley Park and I started to have some doubts.
The way ahead was clearly heavily treed. The valley between Skyscraper and Fremont got narrower and narrower. The grass and flowers were pretty and all that, but it wasn't going to be the open marvel that Summerland was.
We charged down the trail, but then began to tire. There was little variety and it just seemed to go on and on. A woman approached us asking if we'd seen her partner. No. But had she seen the campground? (I was really worried we'd passed it, though that seemed terribly unlikely given the wealth of signs we'd passed for everything else.)
The campground? Literally around the corner. (And I mean "literally" in the old fashioned literal sense, not the new-fangled figurative sense. Shame on you dictionary people for caving to people that couldn't figure out when to use literally and figuratively.)
When we picked up our permits for Henry's trip to Snow Lake the ranger was very specific that we shouldn't set up in the Group Site. Because of this, I stayed away from the group site. Site #1 was taken and so was #2. Where was #3? Hm... Another quarter mile down the trail revealed nothing. We certainly hadn't passed it. The only other trail was up to the toilet. I wouldn't want a site up there.
I dropped my pack to decide if I should try to boot out one of these obvious interlopers. Then I noticed the permit clearly read, "Group Site." That's probably why the ranger didn't tell me to stay out of the group site this time.
We had our tent mostly set up by the time Eric and Paula arrived just before dinner. They backpacked with us last year at Summerland and have hiked with us on other trips, too. Eric is one of the TNAB torch bearers and makes my Mailbox schedule look like just an occasional visit.
We decided we would head up to Grand Park the next day, rain or shine. Though we were really hoping for shine. Just in case, I had brought a tarp, which isn't part of my normal load. It worked great as a doormat, albeit a pretty heavy one.
I drifted off to sleep remembering that the first night in Summerland was cloudy and misty, too. Could we get that lucky twice?
Although Eric teased me with a tale of crystal clear skies at 4am (don't ask me why he was up at 4am), it was socked as we had breakfast.
And what a breakfast it was! The first meal of the day has always been tough. I really don't like oatmeal and REI was out of freeze-dried eggs. What REI did have, though, was Bacon Jerky. I KNOW! BACON JERKY! REALLY! There it was, right next to the register as I was checking out. If it had been anything other than BACON JERKY I'd have accused them of tempting me inappropriately. As it was... BACON. JERKY.
In our family, bacon has a special place. We buy a four pound package of bacon at Costco and somehow only two pounds makes it into the freezer after it's all fried up. I mostly blame Lilly, but a child of that size couldn't eat it all herself. Or could she?
Lilly definitely tried to abscond with the BACON JERKY after she'd had her first taste. Clara chased her down and I threatened her stuffed animal with destuffing if she didn't return. I think half the bag was missing. At least she got some protein. And.. uh... fat.
I supplemented my meal with the standard Camp Mocha (Swiss Miss and Via) and a new bar called "Smooth Caffeinator." In addition to clearly being full of caffeine, it claimed the same carb to protein ratio as my much beloved Accelerade energy drink. Plus, the label proudly read, "It's freaking science, dude." Clearly, I was ready to go.
Unfortunately, nobody else was. The lack of views was somewhat disturbing and nobody relished the idea of a three mile hike to Grand Park if the Mountain wasn't going to be out. I convinced Eric and we both convinced the girls that it might burn off. (Yeah, right.) Regardless, we saddled up and headed out.
Although we were down in a valley, we started descending further. This meant we'd have a climb on the way back. Bummer. Then we started climbing out of the valley toward Grand Park. Bummer. Grand Park itself was nice, but totally shrouded in clouds. Having seen a photo on a clear day since then I'm sure it was worth the outside possibility we'd get lucky, but at the time it was pretty demoralizing.
We had a quick lunch and then headed back. There was a bit of exploring as we looked for Affi Falls, but succeeded only in getting to the top of the falls. The bottom was in the bottom of a tight gully we had no way to get to.
However, it was in this area that Clara took a really strong interest in taking photos. She shot most of the pictures as we followed the other three back to the camp. After settling in, she and I crossed Lodi Creek and made our way to a huge rock field. Pikas chirped, but were generally hidden. Clara really wanted a picture so we sat. And sat. It may be the first time I've seen her sit for a full hour. In the end, we got a couple of distant pictures.
Returning to camp, Lilly declared she wanted to go pika hunting. We followed the main trail south to another rock field and set up shop there. Her patience wasn't what Clara's was and we saw nothing more than a couple of fleeting movements among the rocks.
Why this fascination with pikas? It's one of the actual SCIENCE projects we're contributing to through Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. We report sightings of pikas including pictures and recordings if possible. We're so official we have patches and everything!
Although our first night's dinner was hot dogs and Pringles we returned to tradition with Macaroni and Cheese for the second night. As a group, we returned to the pika field, but had little luck. I think our vast numbers (five) spooked the little guys. Lilly, Paula, and Eric wandered off into the woods while Clara and I sat on the rocks a little forward of our first observation post. Nothing.
The others returned, said they saw a cool cave, and then passed through on their way back to camp. The pikas were silent.
Clara and I decided to check out the cave since all the pikas had gone to bed. We started up the left side of the rock field when a couple burst out of their hiding spots and tore through the rocks. Then, miraculously, one returned and stared right at us.
Clara snapped a few pictures and we carefully, quietly swapped the little lens for the big one. She raised it up and got a great shot. Looking back, she reacted far better than I had with Henry's bear. She didn't leap into the rocks to chase the pika and she actually took a well-framed photo. I always knew she'd grow up to be better than me. I just didn't think it would happen so soon.
When our model did call it a night we explored the cave and the woods on the other side. Pretty cool, but nothing spectacular. Back to camp and into bed. I told Eric to wake me at 4am if he was up and it was clear again. At 10pm he woke me, but the moon was up so the photo ops were limited. I went back to sleep hoping the clear skies would stick around all day.
On our hike out the next morning, Clara commandeered the camera pretty much the entire trip. Lilly commandeered Eric and Paula. We had so many photo breaks they quickly outpaced us, but promised to wait at the intersection with the Wonderland Trail. We took our time and got some spectacular views of the bouquets of flowers surrounding each and every water source. Clara also got lots of compliments for carrying a big pack. (Mine was still bigger.)
When we joined up we had snacks and Lilly got the camera for a bit. She finally got her pika shot and Clara got a bonus marmot photo. We had a partial view of the Mountain so we took advantage of it to shoot our group shots, then continued on. Lilly was on a tear so she was out of sight pretty quickly. Luckily, Eric's the kind of guy you can trust to save your kid before his own. Heck, they didn't go through the cave the night before because he was sure a cougar was going to jump them and Lilly would be eaten.
(We had wisely decided to skip a planned detour on the Wonderland to Skyscraper Peak. The weather was turning, the kids were tired, and it's a trip best left for a different time.)
Clara and I took more photos and talked with a volunteer ranger. Yes, the volunteer ranger that told me Summerland was about as good as I was going to get. Though Klapatche Park might be close. The biggest problem is that the Westside Road is closed before the trailhead so it's a long hike to get there.
We arrived back at Sunrise just as the others were returning to the car from the day lodge. Clara and Lilly wanted to get their Junior Ranger Badge (otherwise Henry would have two and they only one) so we bid adieu to Eric and Paula. The only requirement we had left was to tour the visitor center and go on a guided walk. I learned that Rainier used to be 16,000 feet before an event a few thousand years ago. I must admit I'm thrilled it's only 14,000. I don't know if I had another 2,000 feet in my... uh... feet when I climbed it in 2010.
Badges awarded (and announced to all in the visitor center) we grabbed chips and headed for ice cream at Wapati Woolies in Greenwater. In addition to tasty frozen treats, we also grabbed a letterbox hidden there. From Greenwater home there's not a ton that's special so we made great time.
Berkeley Park was not even close to being as epic as Summerland was, but it was still a quality trip. Most importantly, I got quality time with my girls and got to share a little bit of the nature I hold so dear. Permits will open up in February, I think. I wonder if they're ready for a three night trip. We could do Klapatche Park in three days...