I have often referred to the Northern Loop as the mini Wonderland Trail. It has a little bit of everything as far as scenery goes. The only thing it is missing the the moonscape high alpine rocks of Panhandle Gap. And Amy and I were not disappointed in our four and a half day visit there just a few weeks back.

After having had to move the permit a couple times due to conflicts, we were left with a less than ideal trip for Amy, so we decided to head out late Tuesday and try to change the permit at the office. The plan had been flexible, and we were ready for car camping that night if needed, but we ended up getting our second choice of sites. What we ended up with is this:

Day Distance Elevation Gain Elevation Loss Campsite
Tue 3.5 mi 200 ft -1200 ft Berkeley Park
Wed 9.2 mi 1300 ft -2400 ft James Camp
Thu 8.3 mi 1800 ft -3100 ft Carbon River
Fri 4.8 mi 2800 ft -300 ft Mystic Lake
Sat 9.4 mi 2500 ft -1800 ft Sunrise Parking Lot

Time of Year: Late June / Early July

Recommended Maps: Green Trails (for planning)

We were still a little worried. Wednesday was a long day for Amy, and she was carrying more weight than she’d ever carried before (we had 6 days of food, partially prepared for the need to extend to Sunday based on permit availability, but also conveniently a perfect test for our trip to the North Circle at Glacier National Park later this summer). And Saturday was longer still with more elevation (albeit with much of our food gone by then). Still, we left confident that all would be well.

Unfortunately, as fate would have it, our trip ended up landing on one of the hottest weeks of the summer. With temperatures in the city reaching the mid to high 90s, we were in for some uncomfortably warm days.

Day 1 (Sunrise to Berkeley Park)

Frozen Lake on our way in
Frozen Lake on our way in

We arrived at Sunrise parking lot around 16:30, and began shuffling our gear and getting out of work clothes. With a final check, locked the car and hit the trail at about 17:00. The day was beautiful, and we enjoyed the cooler evening temperatures. (Little did we know how much we’d yearn for them in the next few days). Our first hike was short and almost all a gradual downhill, making it a perfect start. We climbed the 200 feet up Sourdough Ridge and headed out to Frozen Lake. What remained of the ice there made me feel like it was late October, not early July.

Young marmot hesitantly crossing our path
Young marmot hesitantly crossing our path

On our descent into Berkeley Park, we were quickly greeted by wildflowers galore. Purples, whites, and reds dotted the deep green grassy landscape, filling our eyes with color and our noses with a pleasant potpourri.

We were even lucky enough to see a family of marmots playing and gathering flowers in the late afternoon shade. As we would later discover, much of the wildlife was resting during the hotter hours of the day, so early morning and late evening were ideal times to find these little furry creatures.

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Berkeley Creek

As we continued down, the wildflowers continue to surround us, their smell pleasantly relaxing as the sun sank. And soon enough, the babbling Berkeley Creek filled our ears with pleasant sounds as we followed it down the narrow valley. The combination of flowers, greenery, and the gentle brook made for a picturesque final descent into camp. Although the sun no longer reached down into the valley we walked, I was still able to capture some late day shots of these subalpine meadows.

Berkeley Camp has several sites, all very close to the trail. There is not much room to expand in the narrow valley that sinks down to the West Fork of the White River.

Day 2 (Berkeley Park to James Camp)

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Rainier towering about Grand Park

After a late night the evening before, we allowed ourselves to sleep in the next morning—a mistake as we would later discover. We were on the trail out 9:30. The morning was largely descent with some small elevation gains up to Grand Park. Once at Grand Park, Amy broke out her hammock and I dropped my pack for an hour excursion down the Grand Park trail towards Elizabeth Lake. Although the hike was pleasant, in the end, a mere 15 minute hike out and back would have gained me all the best views of Rainier over the rolling grasslands. You get mere glimpses of Rainier walking along the Northern Loop Trail here, but walking just a short way out into Grand Park, the mountain looms out above, yielding some breathtaking landscapes.

Amy and I at a view point below Grand Park and above Firecreek
Amy and I at a view point below Grand Park and above Firecreek

By the time I returned from my short side hike, the sun was in full heat and Amy and I decided to hike on to Firecreek where the trees would provide cooler temperatures and the river would provide some good drinking water. On our way down, we crossed some pleasant sub alpine meadows and met several hikers at a vista overlooking the mountain and the climb up Windy Gap that awaited us tomorrow. We had lunch at the Firecreek intersection, and I took the half mile hike down to Firecreek to tank up on H2O. From there it was an uneventful descent down to the West Fork of the White River. The first crossing was a cake walk, but the second was out. A small detour had already been marked by the Park Service and a large log gave us a good crossing.

After a short break at the last crossing, we filled up water one last time for our final ascent to James Camp. This was a long hike for Amy. Near the end of a long day, and carrying a heavy load, it took longer than expected, with a couple unexpected stops on the way up. But, we finally rolled into camp around 19:00. James was a pleasant camp, though definitely not the most beautiful of the sites we had seen and would see ahead.

Day 3 (James Camp to Carbon River)

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James Lake Ranger Cabin

Having learned our lesson from two very late nights, and knowing we had our largest, 3100 foot descent awaiting us today, we woke up and got an early start down the trail. Leaving camp around 7:00, we began the climb up to Windy Gap. About a quarter of a mile from James Lake, I took a short excursion to check out the James Lake Ranger Cabin. It was quite picturesque, with a nice area for relaxing and a beautiful meadow with good views of the mountains above.

As I was exploring the cabin, Amy continued her climb, and I met up with her again still in the protection of the trees. The majority of the climb was in the trees, which was nice, and due to our early start, we hit the final part of the climb largely in shade as the sun was still so low in the sky. As the trees thinned, we encountered a few beautiful meadows and a big boulder field before finally leaving the trees for the well laid stone steps up to the Gap.

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Nearing the top of our climb up Windy Gap

Windy Gap was one breathtaking panorama after another. As my good friend Harold always warned, I was at risk of developing blisters on my trigger finger. 360 degrees of beautiful everywhere you looked. We huffed up the final climb, the sun beginning to beat down on us, and meandered our way through the wildflowers and meadows of this gem. All the while, the great mountain just peaking around the corners of the granite peaks of the Gap. Once we finally summited the Gap, I was immediately taken by the lack of snow. This same time a few years back, I had been up here and the entire Gap was covered in snow. We didn’t see a lick other than the mountain glaciers to the South.

We wandered our way over to the small lakes atop the gap and found a corner of shade to rest, fuel up, and refill our water supplies. I explored the first lake a little, finding a climbers path that likely took potential summiteers up to one of the less commonly use routes up the mountain, especially with the Ipsut Creek road now closed. We took a look at the maps, and I saw a small trail that followed two other lakes up in the gap and hooked along a ridge line to the North. Wanting to get some glimpses of Baker, Shuksan, and Glacier, I took yet another side trip as Amy continued down to Yellowstone Cliffs.

Rainier towering above a lake in Windy Gap
Rainier towering above a lake in Windy Gap

I walked about 20 minutes out, getting some amazing pictures of Rainier towering above these alpine ponds. The haze prevented any good pictures North, but I was able to make out Baker and Shuksan in the distance. Had I hiked a bit further, I might have gotten a view of Glacier, but more aware of time today, I turned around and began our great descent to Carbon River.

The descent began easily enough, and with lots of beautiful wildflowers and views to Yellowstone Cliffs. There, I filled up again on water (the heat had me drinking 150% of normal). We had some lunch and rested a bit before continuing our descent. The next 3 miles and 2000 feet of elevation loss is a hit to the psyche. It begins as a gradual descent through the subalpine and into the valley wall, but then turns into an endless line of switchbacks to the valley floor below. But, we managed the way down, and felt better about our descent as we crossed hikers going in the other direction. Not envying the task ahead of them, we set our minds to continuing one foot after another down to the Carbon River.

After the long switchbacks finally came to an end, our tired feet struggled to carry us the final mile to the Carbon River suspension bridge. Though not set and not long, it was the end to a long day, and we were eager to get to camp.

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Suspension bridge across the Carbon River

The suspension bridge is a fun feat of engineering. Although evidence of boards being replaced in recent years, the bridge holds strong, well above the valley below. It is bouncy, so those who are nervous beware, and listen to the signs that advise one crossing at a time. It’s not for fear of the weight, but concern over the bounciness of the bridge. We made it across and the final half mile to Cataract Creek, just inches from camp.

Here, we had our final, but pleasant challenge for the day: fording the creek. The icy cold water felt wonderful on the feet, though it did send tendrils of brain freeze up my spine when I finally left the water and let the feeling return to my toes. We had settled on fording as soon as we saw the river. The boulder hopping options were sketchy at best. Though it could be done, the sharp edges and wet rock was asking for a good dunk. And after making it across, we learned that most other hikers did try boulder hoping and did end up wet.

When we finally arrived at camp at an early 15:30, the first two sites were uncharacteristically without labels. The other sites were either taken or closed due to the dance of tree fall, and I recognized one of the unlabeled sites, having stayed there before. So I’m assuming some tree fall took out the signs and they had yet to be replaced. The camp had clearly had a lot of tree activity this winter season. Although not particularly scenic, this site had perhaps some of the best hammock hanging (short of Mystic Lake), and it was splendid to have the time to relax after a long hard day.

Day 4 (Carbon River to Mystic Lake)

Carbon Glacier in the early morning light
Carbon Glacier in the early morning light

Knowing that the climb up to Dick’s Creek was largely exposed, we once again opted for an early start in an effort to avoid the blistering heat, despite this being a relatively short day. It began as the prior day ended, dipping our feet in the cold Cataract Creek, a wonderful way to jump start the body in the early morning (though Amy may disagree with that). After crossing the stream, Amy taped up for the climb ahead. Crossing the bridge again, we turned right, beginning the steep ascent alongside the melting Carbon Glacier. Intense views of the glacier and the mountain matched the intense climb. The glacier has receded in the years that I’ve been coming here, and it’s harder to access now that the Ipsut Creek road is closed 5 miles out. But it is still beautiful and still dangerous.

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Marmot gathering flowers in Moraine Park

Thanks to our early start, we completed the exposed part of the climb between the bridge and Dick’s Creek before the sun hit us. Given how sweaty we were even at that early hour and in the shade, we were grateful for that. But by the end of our hike, we were hearing regular rockfall coming off the warming glacier. Sobered by the recent events at the Big Four Ice Caves, we were reminded of the constant danger presented by these giant bodies of rock and ice. Too many times, I’ve seen hikers hanging out near the small cave at the base of the Carbon Glacier, a dangerous and foolish risk. Though as far as the glacier has receded, it’s much harder for hikers to get all the way to the base of the glacier.

Rainier towering about the heart of Moraine Park
Rainier towering about the heart of Moraine Park

We enjoyed the view from a distance, and continued on our climb. After Dick’s Creek, the steep climbing continued, but in the protection of trees and shade. With grit and determination, we pushed up the final bits of the steep climb and climbed into the beautiful Moraine Park. Here the trail grows more gradual, with short climbs followed by near flat terrain. Here the views also become more breathtaking with every step and over each new ridge. A short way in, we saw a lone marmot gathering flowers in the subalpine meadow. Taking in the views, we continued on. Moraine Park has always been fruitful for me in it’s abundance of wildlife, so we were surprised to see so little. The heat likely drove them to more shaded areas and inactivity. But the landscapes did not disappoint, and we continued on our way, encouraged by each beautiful landscape after the next.

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Norm, the gray jay

As we made the final 300 foot climb out of Moraine Park, Amy found herself with a new friend. Code named “Norman,” Amy’s little gray jay followed us for a half mile or so as we climbed out of Moraine Park and made our way to Mystic Lake. Norm flew from branch to branch, with us, even jumping to Amy’s trekking poles at several points. Eventually he gave up on getting anything of value from us, though we enjoyed sharing our hike with him for a short while.

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A stitched panorama of Mystic Lake

As each turn presented another vista, we finally found ourselves climbing down into the Mystic Lake basin. This lake is a much desired spot in the backcountry. I took picture after picture as we meandered around the lake. Another spot that I oft expected to see wildlife, though the heat still seemed to be driving them away.

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Mystic Lake ranger cabin with a breathtaking view

Reaching the lake at about 12:30, we stopped for a good hour or so, taking a swim in the cool waters and washing our clothes. I went on ahead and grabbed us a good campsite below the lakes, and returned to bask in the sun, hide in the shade, and then go exploring around the lake. We encountered many Wonderland Trail hikers while we sat there. I took the opportunity to go visit the Ranger Cabin up above the lake. I’d been there several times in years past, but am always awed by the epic Rainier vista the lucky rangers get from the front porch.

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Skittish deer at Mystic Lake

Finally, we packed up and headed down to the camp that I’d prepped. There we enjoyed spending the rest of the afternoon napping and reading in our hammocks before beginning our evening rituals. After dinner, I took one last jaunt, first down the trail and past the group site, and then back up the trail to Mystic Lake, on the hunt for wildlife. I did come across a lone deer. Startling it, and grabbing a few shots before it slipped away into the woods. Though the resident bear never did make it’s appearance.

I did get the opportunity to chat to a nice couple from Winthrop who had decided to do the Wonderland to avoid the heat at lower elevations. I admired their grit and hoped I would be like them 30 years from now. I also chatted to a group that were not lucky enough to get a Wonderland permit, but were up at Mystic for a couple nights to enjoy the area. Satisfied with my day, I headed back to camp and settled into for the night.

Day 5 (Mystic to Sunrise)

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Elevated trails down to the Winthrop crossing

Our last day would be our longest and with significant elevation to boot, so we once again made for an early start. Unfortunately, most of our morning hike would be under the cover of trees, while the afternoon would be fully exposed, so the early start worked against us today. But the other option was a very late exit, and we didn’t want that. So leaving about 7:30, we headed down the path towards the Winthrop River crossing below. The morning went quickly, and we were soon at one of my favorite features of this trail: the winding elevated path. There is nothing to quite describe it, but a strange phenomenon—partly natural and partly added to by trail design—has resulted in an elevated, winding trail down to the Winthrop crossing. It is a hard thing to capture, and the picture here does not do it justice.

Panoramic views from Skyscraper Pass
Panoramic views from Skyscraper Pass

The Winthrop crossing brought with it refreshing gusts of cold air. As I posed for several pictures, I found myself actually feeling chilly—a welcome relief to the hot temperatures on our trip. Sadly, all good things must end, and the crossing was followed by a steep and relentless climb, first to Granite Creek, and then to Skyscraper Pass.

Jon up at Skyscraper Pass
Jon up at Skyscraper Pass

Luckily, most of this path is in the woods, until the very end. We stopped briefly at Granite Creek to refuel, rest, and tank up on water, before making the final climb to the almost 360 degree panoramic view from atop Skyscraper Pass. We saw climbers slowly make their way up to Skyscraper Mountain, and met and chatted with a friendly ranger while up at the pass. But we had miles to go ahead, and the heat of the day was already taking it’s toll.

So we turned the corner and came face to face with our first snow patch—aside from frozen lake and the glaciers—of the entire trip. Although unlike in years past, we did not have to cross this patch to continue down the trail, it did sit mere inches from our feet as we walked by it.

Frozen Lake, four days later
Frozen Lake, four days later

We meandered our way above Berkeley Park, the exposure giving both majestic views and sweltering heat. We had one final climb back up to Frozen Lake and were shocked to see how much had melted in the mere four days since we had been here last.

As expected, we were also suddenly surrounded by day hikers some asking us questions, others awed by our overnight gear, and yet others avoiding the stench :-). We stopped to talk with a couple of volunteer rangers before heading the final mile and a half back to the car.

Satisfied with a trip well planned, we limped our sore bodies into the car seats, and began our final journey home, a smile on both our faces.

 

 

To see more photos or buy some prints or digital copies from this trip, checkout the gallery at Jon Anscher Photography.