British Columbia is on fire and Washington State is in a haze. We spent several miserable hours on Saturday pouring over WTA trip reports, hiking groups on Facebook, and geographic tags on Instagram. Ultimately, the eastern side of Mount Rainier seemed to be the least smoky in the state. Reluctantly, we set our sights on Summerland and Panhandle Gap as our destination.
Living in Washington, I forget how lucky it is to reluctantly choose a hike like Summerland and Panhandle Gap. This area is magnificent. It has some of the best wildflowers I have ever seen, in-your-face views of Mt. Rainier and high rocky moraines that feel like Mordor. The contrasts from different ecosystems were stark and the views from Panhandle Gap–the highest point on the wonderland trail–were gorgeous. So why were we reluctant?
This summer seems like it has been all about the east side of Rainier. Our last backpacking trip at Cispus Basin passed through the east side of the park to Goat Rocks Wilderness, just past Rainier. Before that, our most recent dayhikes was one ridge over from Summerland at Glacier Basin. We had our hearts set on another beautiful national park in Washington; the North Cascades National Park. Unfortunately, the NCNP’s proximity to Canada made it an impossible choice for the weekend.
It did not take very long to realize that it is impossible to tire of Mt. Rainier. Each day in Mt. Rainier National Park feels different, and the smoke gave the hike a dramatically different vibe. While I feared it would be too similar to Glacier Basin, Summerland and Panhandle Gap was an entirely different experience.
After a mostly sleepless night, worried about whether I picked the right trail for Sunday’s conditions, we started on the route to Sunrise (again). We arrived at the trailhead at 9:30 and edged ourselves onto a narrow shoulder. As soon as we made it a mile in, I began to relax and felt my entire body exhale. I was thrilled to be in the woods after spending the previous day at the zoo.
The trail winds through an old-growth forest. Flat, wide and compacted, this trail was the perfect grade for long, easy walking. Fryingpan Creek runs along the trail, difficult to see through the trees, but provided a gentle roar. This is what white noise machines aspire to. Given the heat wave Seattle has experienced, the shade was a welcome relief. Unfortunately, biting flies swarmed my legs when we stopped, which meant we didn’t stop for more than a few moments at a time. After multiple backpacking trips, a mostly flat trail with light daypacks felt like freedom and a literal lifted weight.
We rounded gentle switchbacks and the roar of the creek became louder. A careful peek over the ledge showed a large waterfall, and venturing slightly further up the trail revealed more of the rough and tumble creek. Cold air radiated from the icy creek and it was marvelous to leave the humid heat of the forest for a few brief moments.
Before I knew it, the forest opened to smaller alpine firs and incredible views of the valley. Mt. Rainier began to poke through gaps in the trees. The trail intersected the creek we had followed with a narrow bridge. The milky torrent of water was exhilarating to stand over and I enjoyed finally getting close to the creek. Shortly after crossing the bridge, the wildflowers began to appear.
I adore open landscapes, so watching the trees give way to meadows made me very excited. The sun beat heavily as our shade was lost, and the air was filled with a humid, heady perfume. With Mt. Rainier beckoning us, we pushed through the wildflower meadows and began to climb rapidly. The steep slope contained wildflowers of every color and the excitement for Summerland built.
Eventually, the switchbacks ended, the trees faded and we found ourselves in rolling meadows where Mt. Rainier loomed large in the hazy distance. It was impossible to determine where to point the camera; at the abundant wildflowers painting the rolling grass a myriad of colors, or the dramatic glaciers and rocky peaks that make up Mt. Rainier’s eastern flank? I reveled in both!
Walking on the trail through the meadows in the summer sun, a heavy perfume fills the air. I don’t often consider the scents of a hike, but the wildflowers were impossible to ignore. Even the hazy views down the valley on the opposite side of Rainier were beautiful. We continued climbing past Summerland to a rock accessible by the trail and sat for lunch. Big Tahoma (Mt. Rainier) and Little Tahoma looked incredible and it felt nice to rest after 4 miles and 2000′ of elevation gain.
After a bit of sandwich and a rest, we rounded the corner to see a large, gushing waterfall. The trail contained meltwater and was composed of rocks and snow. Unlike the gentle trail below, we needed to watch each step carefully to avoid falling. We crossed several snowfields and admired an icy blue tarn below the peaks. Eventually, we reached the area above the waterfall we had seen earlier and crossed on an easy bridge.
As we continued upwards, the amount of snow on the trail increased until we were primarily walking on snowfields. Most of the snowfields were not terribly steep, and the exposure wasn’t too bad, so it felt fine to do it without microspikes.
It was time for the final push. This section was steeper, and microspikes would have been nice, though we made it to the top without any falls. This section tested me a bit, as I have not tried anything this difficult since my shin splints started. After summoning my courage, we made it to the top. The view was spectacular over the ridge with interesting rock formations on all sides.
As we sat admiring the views, giant flies circled our heads. Much larger than the deer and horse flies that pestered us the whole way up, these flies circled our heads repeatedly. We made our way down the steep section, hoping to leave the flies behind, but instead, they circled as we continued down the most exposed section of the trail. Eventually, we lost them and continued on unimpeded. Michael glissaded down the moderately steep sections, and seemed to have a glorious time. I was wearing running shorts, and it only took about 5 feet of glissading to determine it was most certainly not going to work while wearing shorts. Luckily, on a hot summers day, a handful of snow down my shorts was quite refreshing. I attempted the next snowfield using Michael’s sit-pad, but the snow was too wet and grade not quite steep enough to actually slide.
We continued down the rocky and snowy trail on foot and stopped to rest at the water. We dipped our bare feet in the icy water and it felt amazing on our tired feet. Inhaling deeply, I attempted to soak in every last wildflower scent before we left the meadows. Then we finished the trail in one push.
A short 2-hour drive and we were back home, ready to eat a big post-hiking meal of…salad. It was so hot that the only food that sounded good was big bowl of raw veggies, and it was great. After 12 miles, I fell asleep at 9:00 and dreamed of nice bears in a field of flowers.
I just finished The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier by Bruce Barcott earlier that week, so I was grateful to sit in Mt. Rainier’s shadow and contemplate what I had read. Primarily, when I read about Mt. Rainier, it is about mountaineering and climbing, routes and accidents. Between the Barcott book, and this article by the Mountaineers, I have been thinking more about the history of Mt. Rainier and controversy over its name. Rainier is named after an English naval officer, Peter Rainier, Jr., by George Vancouver. Dear Pete never made it past the East Coast, yet holds a distinct honor on a volcano considered sacred by most pnw-ers. Countless attempts to restore the Puyallup tribe’s name for the volcano–Mount Tahoma–have been rejected on the grounds that Mt. Rainier is too established in local vernacular.
It certainly has me reconsidering the use of Mt. Rainier. Unfortunately, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names has a point, it is easier to refer to Mt. Rainier as her given name, rather than her historical name if you want people to understand you. When most people say Mt. Tahoma, others assume you are confused and mean Little Tahoma. But hey, they managed to restore Denali; if Alaskans can do it, can’t we? The Mountaineers are pushing an effort to rename Mt. Rainier to Mt. Tahoma and I am on board. There is loads more information about the history in Barcott’s book and the Mountaineers literature, if you are interested, I highly recommended checking it out.
I believe W.D. Lyman says it well in the Mountaineers first newsletter (1907):
“Rainier was an insignificant English naval officer and his name was attached to the sublimest object on the American continent by the doughty and self-opinionated Briton Vancouver…Tahoma, was the Puyallup name from immemorial time, meaning, according to some, the mountain, the Supreme Mountain…”