I was seriously itching to get back on trail after getting home from our California road-trip after completing the John Muir Trail. I had unfortunately had some complications with the foot pain I’d endured along the JMT and my physiotherapist had issued a “no hiking” mandate for a few weeks.
By Labor Day weekend my feet were feeling much better and we’d promised ourselves a while back that we’d get to the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier, which is only open for a short time through the summer season.
We got our gear out of storage and threw together 5 days worth of backpacking meals. Our plan was to drive to the park Thursday morning, pick up our permit for the 33 mile Northern Loop and head about 4 miles down the trail.
The Ranger who processed our permit was very helpful, and even though we didn’t get our first choice of campsite locations, we still felt pretty good about the itinerary:
Sunrise Trailhead to Berkeley Park – 3.5 mi.
Berkeley Park to Yellowstone Cliff – 11.2 mi.
Yellowstone Cliffs to Mystic Lake – 8.7 mi.
Mystic Lake to Sunrise Camp – 10.6 mi.
Sunrise Camp to Trailhead – 1.5 mi.
The weather forecast was only so-so, with Thursday and Friday being the worst of the days for the weekend. We figured a little bit of rain wouldn’t dampen our spirits, as long as the temperatures held.
Unfortunately the temperature plummeted as we climbed up to Sunrise, settling at a measly few degrees above freezing. We got ourselves geared up and hit the trail by about 2:30 p.m.
There are a whole network of trails in the Sunrise area and we had a bit of trouble sorting them out, ending up on a service road for the first mile or so before joining up with the Wonderland Trail above Sunrise Camp. From there we climbed about 400 feet to an overlook of Frozen Lake and then dropped down towards Berkeley Park.
Even though we couldn’t see Mt. Rainier, we were still enchanted by the swirling clouds on the nearby peaks and in the valleys. We also pretty well had the trail to ourselves, a rarity in the summer at Mt. Rainier.
We made it into Berkeley Park campground and hurried to set up our tent and get some shelter. We were quite chilled and it took a long while to gain some warmth to our bodies. We were quickly realizing that we weren’t as prepared as necessary for rain and such cold temperatures. We likely would’ve been able to tolerate one, but not both together.
We enjoyed a warm dinner of pad thai and then snuggled into the tent, with a discussion about evaluating our options in the morning. We both slept somewhat poorly, distracted by the rain on the tent and the cold night air.
The rain had thankfully let up by morning and the worst of the puddles had disappeared. There were blue patches in the sky, but still lots of thick, dark clouds around. It didn’t take us too much discussion to come to the conclusion that we should turn around and head back to the trailhead and our car full of front country gear.
For me, the biggest influencer was the prospect of hiking over 10 miles that day in miserable weather, with a moderately heavy pack and re-injuring my foot. For Dan, it was the cold weather, as he hadn’t planned clothing for freezing temperatures.
We had absolutely no regrets as we reached the high point on the trail, a pass above tree line at around 6700 feet. By that point the rain had started up again and we had the wonderful addition of sleet and ice pellets to push us onward to the trailhead.
The last couple miles to Sunrise passed quickly, and we did at least have the pleasure of spotting a Cascade Red Fox running through the rainy meadows.
We made it to the trailhead just after 10 a.m. and then rested for a spell in the cafe, enjoying a hot coffee and time building a puzzle, before we straggled down to White River Campground.
While I was certainly disappointed to not be able to backpack, we weren’t giving up on the park and would still be able to enjoy some day hikes, returning to a tarp shelter, a hot fire and a cozy wool duvet back at camp. We got a brief taste of the Northern Loop Trail, and it will remain on our list of hikes to do in the near future!