Some travelers seem to blast through the Wonderland Trail as a test of will and endurance, a daily torture trial of miles and elevation gained. For me, though, with some extra days to make the trip it was the long lazy warm afternoons at certain special camps that really made the experience. Klapatche Park Camp is one of those, and one where the afternoon idylls can be accompanied in September by blissful hours of blueberry grazing.
Klapatche Park is tucked into a high bench at 5500 feet on the southwest side of the Mountain. Set back enough to provide excellent views, but close enough to feel like you can reach out and touch the looming snowfields of the Puyallup Glacier you can also feel the warm glow of the dazzling sunsets off the Sunset Amphitheatre another 5400 feet up. From the four small camps tucked away in the woods just west and uphill from the Wonderland Trail, the view stretches east across an expansive meadow, filled by Aurora Lake in the early season and often just a small brackish pond in the late season. The lake, when it makes an appearance, affords amazing reflections of the peak above. To the north, the bench (and the trail) drops precipitously into a gorge feathered with multiple waterfalls dropping to the North Puyallup drainage below. To the south, the Wonderland climbs a ridgeline that culminates three quarters of a mile and 800 feet above Klapatche with the larger, incredibly scenic St. Andrews Lake and the surrounding meadows of St. Andrews Park, dominated to the east by moraine walls stepping up toward the Puyallup Cleaver and punctuated by 7684′ Tokaloo Spire. The Spire, a vertical multicolored pinnacle, can be seen all the way from Interstate 5 once you know where to look.
Klapatche Park is one of the many places on the west side of Mount Rainier National Park that was made more difficult to reach (and therefore, perhaps, more precious) by the long-ago washout and closure of the Westside Road. Still, in a state where many of the most breathtaking places are now 15 miles or more from vehicle access points due to regular washouts on our backcountry roads, Klapatche is only a 9-11 mile walk in (depending on your access point), albeit demanding of quite a lot of sweat equity on the way.
The shorter way in starts with a three-mile winding walk along the gravel of the Westside Road to the crossing of a trail that goes west and south to Gobblers Knob lookout, and east and north along the South Puyallup river to join the Wonderland. Turn east and ascend gradually for two well-forested miles to the South Puyallup camps at 4000 feet elevation right along the river. Chances are you’ll also spy the beautiful andesite columns called the Colonnades (you might also know them as Postpiles) through the trees on the south side of the trail just before you reach the camps. The after-work crowd and those less ambitious may choose to camp here; otherwise, follow the trail across the river and turn north to take on three miles of relentless switchbacks. After about 2.5 miles and 2000 feet of intense cardio, you are rewarded (weather permitting) with breaking out into expansive views across talus slopes and glacier ice of the Tahoma Glacier to the right and the Puyallup Glacier to the left, and the Rainier summit still far above. Traversing flower-fields and rock outcrops just begging you to sit awhile and bask in the views, a southerly tributary of St. Andrews Creek will soon babble its way across your path and downhill to the west, and shortly thereafter you’ll come to St. Andrews Lake (3.1 miles from South Puyallup Camp, 8.1 miles from the car) with good prospects for a foot- or whole-body dip and meadow nap if you’re blessed by a warm afternoon. (This isn’t a given though – the Lake basin is usually snow-covered through July and often well into August but might be a good bet on a September afternoon). As the light begins to wane, there’s plenty of time to roust yourself for the last three-quarters of a mile downhill to the camps at Klapatche.
Alternatively, the stout of heart (or those with an extra day or two) may choose to add three to four miles and a few more Rainier westside highlights by following the rougher but still easily followed Tahoma Creek trail, departing eastward from the first big bend of the Westside road about 1.2 miles from the carpark, and following the creek for 2.1 forested miles to the junction with the Wonderland trail. Here, just a few steps to the south, is the renowned and always exciting Tahoma Creek suspension bridge, one of two on the trail (the other one spans the Carbon River just below the toe of the Carbon Glacier), and continuing just 1.2 miles and a stiff 1000 foot climb beyond, the stunning parkland of Indian Henrys Hunting Ground stretching around its picturesque Patrol Cabin. Lovely wilderness-zone camps are available by following the Mirror Lakes trail for a mile northeast from the cabin, in secluded meadows below Pyramid Peak.
Otherwise, turn left on the Wonderland just north of the suspension bridge, and climb steeply, at first through forest, then traverse high moraine slopes for about two miles to reach the crest of Emerald Ridge at 5600 feet elevation. This is one of the closest incursions of the trail into the high rocky, icy skeleton of Rainier herself. Emerald Ridge, like Panhandle Gap on the east side and Skyscraper Pass to the north, is a stark and stunning place to sit and soak in the view from your front-row seat at nature’s Big Show. Then, from the ridge, a descent of another 1.7 miles takes you to the South Puyallup Camps and the climb up and over past St. Andrews Lake to Klapatche Park.
On a recent late-September three-day weekend, a group of friends and I took a chance and stopped in at the Longmire Wilderness Information Center and nabbed backcountry camping space for two nights at Klapatche. Amazingly enough, it was a bluebird weekend and no one else was signed up to camp there. We ascended Emerald Ridge in the piercingly clear early fall light, then descended to the South Puyallup River and climbed the quad-burning switchbacks to St. Andrews Lake. Conditions were perfect for a mid-afternoon swim and a drip-dry on the rocks before winding down to our camps at Klapatche. After setting up at our pick of the camps with the best views across to the Sunset Amphitheater, I set out into the meadow with my Kindle to read, look for wildlife and watch the evening slide in. Before I could go a hundred yards, it was clear that every tiny four-inch-tall blueberry plant in the meadow was loaded with luscious, silvery blue-black, sweetly ripe fruit. So lickety-split, it was back to camp for a zip-loc, and then a two-hour blissful crawl on hands and knees across the meadow – handfuls of berries, two to the mouth, one to the bag, repeat. With all the cares of a modern life it’s amazing how one’s focus can narrow to a one-foot square of meadow and the gathering of its bounty, for hours at a time. Finally the light ebbed to a pink glow high on the glacier and then winked out as we watched, bundled in our layers of down and merino. The next day would be an exploration high above St Andrews to the base of Tokaloo Spire, a straightforward class 2-3 scramble, then back to the meadow for more berry-picking and another breathtaking sunset. Then, finally, we had to break camp and take ourselves out to the Westside Road via the South Puyallup trail, our faces and hands stained slightly blue and our souls far richer for having spent this short interlude in the company of the Mountain.