In the spring, I was disappointed to hear that my Wonderland Trail Trip requests that I submitted in March did not earn me a reservation for this summer. I had gone through the same disappointment in the spring of 2019.
I felt lucky that I had been granted a permit back in 2017 to backpack across the north section of the Wonderland Trail. Regardless, this one still hurt.
To my complete surprise, I received an email on May 22 congratulating me on my reservation confirmation! Mount Rainier suspended their walk-up permits for the summer of 2020 opening up about 1/3 of sites that typically are not considered for reservations in advance. This allowed for one of my reservations to be accepted!
Trouble Before the Trail
I could not foresee the wildfires, road closures, and smoke that would put the trip in jeopardy and add to the events of this crazy year. The first change came with the permit.
The permit was for:
- 6 people
- Entry Trailhead: Longmire
- First night at Olallie Creek Camp
- Second night at Indian Bar
- Exit Trailhead of Summerland Trailhead
This assumed a 16-mile first day from Longmire-to-Olallie Creek Camp. This was not the original request but it was the one that we were given. This was too long for the first day so we changed the entry trailhead to Box Canyon, effectively shortening the first day to 4-miles.
Six-days before the trip started wildfires broke out in different areas of the west and in Washington state. This closed down our entry road (SR-410) doubling our drive into-and-out of the park.
Furthermore, the smoke from the fires in Oregon and California blew into Washington. Two of our companions canceled due to the conditions. The outlook didn't look good, but there was enough hope to continue the trip.
Things looked dire on Saturday—the first day of the trip—but by Sunday it was a consensus that the trip was well worth it.
Two nights (Sept. 12-14, 2020)
Total Mileage: ~18.8 miles
Entry Trailhead: Box Canyon Trailhead
Exit Trailhead: Fryingpan Creek Trailhead (Summerland)
- Wilderness Permit $20/per reservation request (not guaranteed a permit with reservation request)
- Mount Rainier Single Vehicle Fee ($30 per vehicle) unless you have an annual pass or America the Beautiful Pass
Camps: Olallie Creek Camp, Indian Bar
Day 1: Box Canyon Trailhead to Olallie Creek Camp
- 3.99 miles
- Elevation: +1,865 ft. -982 ft.
- Weather: Smoke
Typically, parking at the Fryingpan Creek (Summerland) Trailhead is impossible. There is very little parking there. However, the road closures and smoke made it easy for us to drop a car off at the trailhead.
We tried to start the day late to avoid our exposure to the smoke. The whole drive to the mountain was depressingly smokey. We had hopes that Sunday would be better, but it was tough to avoid the limited visibility, smell of smoke, and orange sun.
We didn't really wear masks. The smoke was bad and I noticed my throat getting a little sore, but it wasn't enough to warrant a mask, yet.
Surprisingly, there was still a decent amount of hikers on the trail. The trailhead holds about 30 cars and about half of the lot was full.
Getting back to the trail, it quickly goes up and across Nickel Creek. The Wonderland is well maintained so we had no quarrels with directions.
Climbing up-and-over the Cowlitz Divide worked up a bit of sweat. The turn off to the Cowlitz Divide Trail was well marked and detailed a 1.3-mile diversion down to Olallie Creek.
The most enjoyment I got from the Day 1 hike was the size of the trees that were visible from the trail.
Olallie Creek Camp is not that far from the Grove of the Patriarchs. This area is full of giants that will catch your eye.
After about two hours we arrived at Olallie Creek Camp and were happy to see the creek still holding plenty of cold and clear water!
Olallie Creek Camp
We had the group site at Olallie that sits just across the creek before the individual sites. It's right next to the bear pole and the closest spot to the toilet.
The picture below was a small panorama of the group site, but my cousin Brent was moving so his body is a bit deformed.
We were the only campers at Olallie Creek Camp that night. It made for a quiet night, aside from the water flowing by in the creek.
Day 2: Olallie Creek Camp to Indian Bar
- 6.03 miles
- Elevation: +3,131 ft. -1,905 ft.
- Weather: Partly sunny
I woke up at 6 a.m. and crawled out of my tent to get a better glimpse at the waning crescent Moon. I could see terrestrial objects, which meant that the smoke had decreased! We had a sixish mile day ahead of us with no rush to hit the trail, but plenty to be excited about.
We checked out the other sites at Olallie (maybe 2 or 3 others?) and broke camp around 9 a.m. It was 1.3 miles—and around 800 ft.—back up to the Wonderland Trail. It went by quickly. I think we all felt better than the day before.
I loved our hike along the Cowlitz Divide. The trees slowly thin out and meadows grow in size.
Surprisingly, we got service around 5,500 ft on the divide. However, I was much more preoccupied with trying to spot the mountain. We were excited to see blue skies to the northwest because that's the direction we were going!
I sent up a cheer when I saw the snow line on Mount Rainier with spots of massive exposed rock. It was all I could see through the trees, but not soon after, the whole mountain came in to view.
I'd challenge anyone that said they had a nicer view than us on this day. The smoke opened up right where we needed it to.
Everything to the east was still covered in smoke and remained covered in the smoke for the duration of the trip.
I started to feel the elevation as we approached the highpoint on the divide (5,900 ft). We stopped on a rocky ledge that had a view to the south and west to eat some lunch. It sits just southwest of the divide's peak.
I think you can barely make out the Tatoosh range in the back right of the photo. The smoke was pretty thick. That was O.K, we had the view of the mountain.
The descent to the Ohanapecosh started a few hundred feet after our lunch break. In the distance, I pointed out the valley that held Indian Bar and where I thought the Panhandle Gap was. Again, gorgeous views abound.
There's an enjoyable stretch of trail that levels out between the highpoint on the Cowlitz Divide and the steeper descent into the valley. It can be steep here, whether you're approaching the valley from the north or south you have to deal with a long string of stairs.
It's a long way down into the valley. We missed the wildflowers by a few weeks, else we would have been swimming in them. The Indian Bar valley is sandwiched in between the Ohanapecosh Park on the north slope and the Cowlitz Park on the south slope.
After a few more steps we saw our little house, which marks the group site for Indian Bar.
The Ohanapecosh River slides through the giant rock field that spills from the west side of the valley. The size of the rock field makes you think the entire valley floor floods in the spring, and I think sometimes it does.
Instead of a massive river, the silty water from the Ohanapecosh glaciers above rumbles between the river rock at a fraction of the size.
The trail splits right before the river crossing. The group site on the south side of the river includes the shelter. According to Tami Asars, in her guide book Hiking the Wonderland Trail, the shelter, "...was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1940s and features a fireplace and sleeping platforms suspended by aging, rusted chains".
The fireplace is filled with rocks and you are not permitted to have a fire. The platforms seem old, may support your weight, but are a little too small to sleep on.
The group site also has its own bear pole, toilet (up on the hillside behind the shelter), and quick access to a clear water stream flowing from Cowlitz Park.
A note in the shelter informs 'group-siters' that they can set up camp inside the shelter on the platform, in the dirt space outside the entrance, or on a cleared dirt patch to the east of the shelter.
Two of us set up outside the entrance (we eventually moved inside as the wind picked up late at night and blew dust into our tents) and two of us set up inside on the wood platform.
It was 'really cool' to have the group site at Indian Bar. The shelter provides a place to sleep if the conditions get bad, there's room to layout in the sun if it's nice, set items on the bunks like they were shelves—or hangs thing up, and there is one hell of a view.
Furthermore, the clear stream (previously mentioned) that is nearby and great for filtering water. The Ohanapecosh, although said to filter underground, still looks pretty milky for filtering. Therefore, we opted to filter from the small creek.
Northside of the River
The Wonderland continues on the northside of the river crossing a little bridge above the Wauhaukaupauken Falls. There are four individual sites on the other side.
Only one other group of three was camping in the individual sites on Sunday night. This made it seem like we almost had the entire Indian Bar to ourselves.
The privy sits way back by site four, but the bear pole is up by site one. There are views east down the valley, as it drops away from the mountain, and some sites can glance through the trees to Indian Bar.
We arrived at Indian Bar around 1:30 p.m. and fell in love with our situation. It had not only been a tough day hike but a long week of watching the smoke, checking the roads, and uncertainty about the safety of the conditions.
The afternoon was spent laying in the sun, reading by the river, and taking plenty of pictures staring up the valley.
If you guide your eyes along the Cowlitz Divide ridge you see enormous cliffs boxing-in the south side of Indian Bar. The rock is cut by spring runoff in dark stripes. Dust clouds appear where boulders fall from a suicidal height.
At the valley's origin are thousand-foot tall waterfalls that look motionless from your vantage point. With the mountain out of sight, the landscape feels like an entirely new destination. Still, above the waterfalls, there are glaciers bending out of sight.
The Wonderland Trail exits Indian Bar through a satisfying meadow high up on the northwest side of the valley exposed by rising elevation on Ohanapecosh Park. The trees get thicker further down on the north slope as the valley levels off closer to the bar. A meadow, begging for wildlife, covers the area between where the trees on the northside end and the edge of the river bed. Taking space in the foreground is the shelter, looking like it's been there since the 17th century and another sparsely treed meadow behind it.
And then there is you: listening to the sound of the river, sitting on the end of Indian Bar before it drops steeply off and heads back towards the rest of the world.
That evening, we saw elk creeping back into the valley from the north slopes. They ran down into the trees at the bottom of Ohanapecosh Park. You can see the picturesque Ohanapecosh Park in the picture below. It was taken from the trail that leads up to the group site toilet.
It got windy that night, and fairly cold, being that it was almost mid-Septemeber. However, we had enough gear and the shelter proved useful.
Day 3: Indian Bar to Summerland Trailhead
- 8.80 miles
- Elevation: +2,628 ft. -3,973 ft.
- Weather: Mostly cloudy and smoky
The climb out of Indian Bar was as difficult as we thought it was going to be. Unfortunately, the smoke moved back in and covered up our extended view east.
There was a nice breeze coming over the top of the ridge as we neared the top. The actual trail couldn't decide if we should use steps or a gradual slope to ascend. At some places on the trail, park rangers place sticks guiding hikers to the steps. It wasn't clear here, and for the sake of ease, we used the gradual slope instead of the steps.
It was another day of challenging our bodies with the elevation gain. Today we were crossing the Panhandle Gap—the highest point on the Wonderland—at ~6,800 ft.
We entered a subalpine region of the trail and got a better look at the Ohanapecosh waterfalls. The trees shrunk, grouped together, and different flowers and mosses appeared.
The trail on the south side of Panhandle Gap holds a few streams that run down through the rocks providing filterable water. We saw our first marmots and stopped to observe them as they observed us.
It took us a couple of hours to get up and over Panhandle Gap.
It was smoky, but we could still make out a herd of goats on a green slope in the distance.
Panhandle Gap is windy, cold, and extraordinary. It was late in the season so the crossing didn't require any special equipment because there was no snow on the trail.
The mountain, and that magical teal lake, greeted us on the other side. The north side of the gap has large boulders in comparison to the south side.
It's another shocking landscape. New waterfalls spring from Fryingpan Glacier above and feed down to Fryingpan Creek. You don't get tired of looking around. Even the marmots would agree.
The little guy in the picture above didn't seem too concerned with our presence. The mountain was veiled by smoke, which was a little disappointing, but we had plenty to look at right in front of us.
There are boulders that are teal in color, like the lake. The dirt looks purple in some places on the trail. Completing the interesting color mashup is the bright green moss crawling over the rocks in scattered locations.
We stopped for lunch on the shores of the glacier-fed lake but needed to put on our jackets before resting and having lunch.
It's a rocky descent down to Summerland. The trail crosses over the Fryingpan runoff by way of logs and rocks.
There's even a section where water runoff takes over the trail.
It's odd and slightly humorous how quickly the trail transitions from rocks to nice grassy meadows.
It's easy to see why Summerland is such a coveted backcountry camp and hiking destination. Summerland is a node of trees between a steep valley, subalpine meadows, and a direct view of the mountain.
Additionally, clear and cold veins of water can split the meadows.
A bear and two cubs got into someone's food earlier this summer so every camp had warnings of bear activity at Summerland. It was the middle of the day, so the camp was pretty quiet. As a side note, Summerland has a composting toilet that works like a conveyor belt for your solid waste.
We took one last look at the mountain—begging for a smokeless view—but unable to clear the sky around the peak.
Even without this final view of Rainier, we got more than we expected this trip. We were a bit behind schedule so we started our trek to the exit trailhead about 4.5 miles down the valley.
The trail descends quickly from Summerland utilizing an array of switchbacks. It wasn't long until we were hiking along Fryingpan Creek.
After a couple of miles, the trail becomes wide, with a gradual slope, and is well maintained.
We saw very few people on the trail between Fryingpan Creek Trailhead and Summerland. Typically, this trail is very busy. The few people we saw were mostly other backpackers on their way up to Summerland. A combination of the lack of other hikers, wide trail, and gradual slope allowed us to make a good time during this stretch.
It had been a long day with thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss. Therefore, we were excited to see the small parking lot as we branched off of the Wonderland towards the trailhead. We spent about six hours on the trail from Indian Bar to Fryingpan Creek Trailhead.
We got to the car around 2:00 p.m. and celebrated the successful trip!
Includes pictures by Chase Pierson, Jarrett Retz, and Reilly Retz.