While the 92 mile Wonderland trail that circles Mt. Rainier is the centerpiece of the park, there are many other trails as well as two other shorter loop trails which branch off of the wonderland trail. One is the eastern loop, and the other is the 40 mile 9900 foot elevation exchange northern loop, which was what we did.
I love loop trails for the simple reason that your end point is the same as your starting point and there's little in the way of hiking the same area twice. We did this loop in a bit of a leisurely pace of roughly 8 miles a day for the first 4 days and the last day being around 5 miles as we wanted to get off-trail early enough to make the longish return trip back home.
Now to hike within the park you need a permit and there are two ways to go about getting your permit. The first is to try reserving your camp spots of choice well in advance for a fee of $20.00. 70% of the available campspots are reserved for advanced reservations. The other 30% are left for last minute same-day or no more than 24 hours in advance registrations, and this method is free. We chose the latter as all reservation spots were taken by April or so. Another nice thing with a loop trail is that it gives flexibility to go clockwise or counter-clockwise which changes what nights are available for your campsites in case one way doesn't work, hopefully going the other direction will as far as securing your campsites.
We decided to start at the sunrise visitor area on the SE corner of the wonderland trail and was also a fitting place to begin the northern loop. We fortunately got the campsites we wanted at the White River Ranger Station which was on the way to Sunrise.
This year I decided to pack light and managed to keep my pack to around 30lbs including food and water. That makes travel so much easier than the some 50lbs I lugged around on last year's loop hike.
An excellent book resource for the Wonderland trail as well as both the Northern and Eastern loops is "Hiking the Wonderland Trail" by Tami Asars. The following map was taken from that book.
First view of Ranier from an upper parking lot called "sunrise"
At sunrise itself there is a Visitor center and a cafeteria and is a very popular area with tourists. Our trail begins here, which starts out as a kind of trail highway.
Somebody put alot of work into this section!
Once we got to a pass and frozen lake, the Wonderland trail is taken up for a short time to get to our turn-off. Incidentally we found that anything called a "park" on the signs is actually a meadow.
Once we got to our junction, we began a slow and steady descent through flower filled meadows down to Berkeley Camp
After Berkeley Camp came an ascent to Grand Park, which is a huge flat meadowed mountain top.
Soon after came a wonderful view of the West Fork White River valley below
Bittersweet though because with this view comes the realization that we had to hike down to the bottom, cross the river and then hike all the way back up the other side. Fortunately we were spending the night at Fire Creek camp which is 1/3 of the way down towards the river.
It's fire creek, but no fires allowed.
Now a note about these camping spots. first, they are all treed; no official backpacking camps are high in the alpine. Second, almost all of these camps have only 3 sites. The one exception we encountered was Mystic Camp which had 7. No wonder the spots are filled so quickly.
A continuation of a steady descent to the White River. Fortunately the trails out here aren't all that steep.
We met a younger couple who were also trepsing around the area but they had a pass that allowed them to camp off-trail. The guy was an athelete for Eddie Bauer, which I didn't know there was such a thing. Anyway, we introduced them to Hawkins Cheezies at our lunchspot along the river [8D]
The White River is heavily laden with glacial silt and not something that you'd want to try filtering. Fortunately just off the trail at valley bottom is a clear running creek with a pretty waterfall that is easily accessible.
Trudging back up the other side now, eventually reaching James Lake
Continuing up we eventually break back into alpine and finally a bit of flattish hiking ground through Windy Gap
Looking back at our first viewpoint of the White River which I posted earlier in this TR:
Having crossed Windy Gap we see what for some reason is called the Yellowstone Bluffs. Our second camp is near the base of these bluffs.
Time to begin descending another 3300 feet again, this time to the Carbon River. Once again our camp is part of the way down at Yellowstone Bluffs.
My Spootula...part spoon, part spatula
Many more ripe huckleberries along the valley floor. Nice old growth in the carbon river valley too.
Hikers from Spray Park crossing a suspension bridge over the carbon river. We are back on the Wonderland Trail
Now we head back up again towards the foot of the Carbon Glacier and continuing to climb towards Mystic Lake and Camp, our third stop for the night.
This one still had that new bridge smell
Back into the alpine at Moraine Park. Views of Rainier return
Placing a ladybug in memory of our daughter Janna
After a little headwall climb and a bit more hiking we arrive at Mystic Lake
There is a Ranger stationed here at a patrol cabin and the campsites are a few hundred yards past the lake down a steepish hillside...humph! This camp is a very popular spot.
Shorter day today to get to our next camp which is Granite Creek; only around 5 miles, but we have a 4 mile round-trip side hike in mind to Skyscraper Summit to help fill out the day. Today our hike takes us around the toe of the Winthrop Glacier
Big washout from a few years back:
Winthrop Glacier headwall
Granite Creek camp is a little 3 spot hillside campground with Granite Creek running happily nearby. After setting up camp and having dinner we take an evening stroll up the trail to a pass and then the short hike to summit Skyscraper Mtn which has some great 360 degree views.
Skyscraper Mtn in the distance.
Looking down towards the first pass where we originally branched off from the Wonderland trail to begin the Northern Loop.
Looking down toward Grand Park, the huge mountaintop meadow
Sunbeams to the north
Boiling up some water for hot apple cider. We used a popcan stove for the entire trip.
Mt. Rainier pano:
Not much to tell here other than by the time we returned to that first pass where the Northern Loop branches off it was getting pretty crowded with dayhikers. Back at the car by 11:00am followed by a lunch at the Rogue brewery in Issaquah. No beer shots on this trip as I took no beer along; yes shocking indeed. The 12 year Glenfiddich though was a nice accompaniment.
Definitely alot of varied terrain in this loop with plenty of ups and downs. If you have any thoughts about doing the Wonderland trail, the northern loop is a good starting point to see what kind of terrain you can expect; although the northern loop is a bit more rugged than the wonderland.