Standing high above the White River, I gazed up at the looming heights of the Willis Wall, a vast snow encrusted cliff of black rock towering over verdant mountain slopes. Every now and again, a stream of ice would come tumbling down its flanks, adding to the frozen river that is the Carbon Glacier. Despite the magnificence of our location, the view was not so lovely as to lessen the trepidation brought on by the lateness of the hour and the length we had yet to go to reach that night’s camp. That our campsite was visible, only a few miles’ distance as the crow flies, did not lift our weary hearts. For though the waters of Lake James sparkled tantalizingly in the distance, between us and its azure surface lay the shadowy depths of the valley below.
The Wonderland Trail is world-famous – a glorious, symphonic meld of deep jungle and high meadows. What the throngs of hikers on that trail do not realize is that there is another trail, the Northern Traverse, hidden among the crags of Mt. Rainier’s Northern Wilderness. Here, one may stroll into the ranger’s station at the White River entrance and obtain a permit on the day of departure and not worry much about reserving campsites along the way. This is a far cry from the Wonderland Trail for which reservations must be made months in advance! The Northern Traverse is difficult, wild, beautiful, and, above all, a lonely trek.
Finding the trailhead is an adventure in itself – it’s not officially acknowledged by the park, and is marked only by a bullet-riddled sign on which may vaguely be read the words “Eleanor Creek.” From this elusive trailhead, the trail skulks from dark forest to woodsy Lake Eleanor, to the great, flat expanse of Grand Park. Aptly named, the meadows here seem to extend to the horizon, upon which Rainier floats like a great cloud. All too soon this gentle stroll ends, and one is faced with a great chasm. Thousands of feet of precious elevation are lost in the descent to the river – thousands of feet that must be instantly and painfully regained to reach the safe haven of marshy Lake James.
There are no good designated campsites along this trail; each is sunk deep in dark woods, where the sites have been hacked from the temperate jungle. Spend your time exploring finer places and relegate the campsites to sleeping only.
Beyond Lake James, the trail climbs a rambling series of switchbacks and stairs to the lofty and rarely seen gardens of Windy Gap. Linger, if you have the time, by the numerous heather-rimmed tarns beneath crags and wooded hillocks. Venture north along a high ridge to a natural arch hidden in the cliffs high above Lake James. Unfortunately, you will soon have to leave this paradise for yet another long plunge to the valley below, and yet another campsite shrouded in forest gloom; though this location is mitigated by the presence of a nearby waterfall.
On the last day, you must once again make a wearying climb to the fabled fields of Seattle Park and Spray Park. Here, as at Windy Gap, you must control the impulse to linger amidst tarns and flower-filled meadows if you are to reach Mowich Lake before dark. By evening, the trail will dip down into the forest, with the ephemeral cascades of Mist Falls and the final vista at Eagle Rock being your penultimate farewell to the wonderland that isn’t.
I am a great believer in taking the road less traveled, and such a road is often fraught with difficulties. Perhaps if one of my companions hadn’t developed back problems that caused me to have to carry her pack in addition to my own, the valleys and ridges of the Northern Traverse would have seemed less pronounced, and I would have had more time to enjoy the quiet beauty of this lesser known side of Mt. Rainier.
Someday I hope to return, to perhaps hike the “Northern Loop,” which begins at Sunrise and combines both part of the route I have described and the Wonderland Trail. I might also go to explore even more remote and trackless places: Crescent Lake, Chenuis Mountain, Old Desolate and the Elysian Fields. To the intrepid explorer, the wilderness beckons, and none more strongly and strangely than that which is most difficult to achieve.