Posted by: pointlenana | August 2, 2015

The Northern Loop Trail – Mt. Rainier

Abstract:  An old guy and a not-so-old guy do a portion of one of last year’s Ultrapedestrian Challenges.  Just a portion. (!!!!)  About 36 miles with 10000+/- feet of climbing.  12 hours car to car.

Key Conclusions:

– “I wouldn’t call that an easy run” – Charlie.  “That was UTMB-like” – Mark.  “I hope UTMB is more runnable when I do it in 4 weeks.” – Charlie

– When packing for a trip to Rainier, there is no need to pack words like “small” or “mundane”.  Extra synonyms for “large” and “magnificent” will be much more useful.  Take plenty of “Wow!”


We were on our way from the Sunrise parking lot by 8am.  At 8am it's easy to park.  Later, on a summer weekend, it's not so easy.

We were on our way from the Sunrise parking lot by 8am. At 8am it’s easy to park. Later, on a summer weekend, it’s not so easy.  That’s Mt. Rainer (14411 feet) on the right, and Little Tahoma (only 11138 feet) on the left.

The Wonderland travel is a 93 mile loop around Mt. Rainier.  We met some hikers who are spending 13 days hiking it.  The fastest known supported time is about 19 hours, run a month ago by one of those fast people up in Vancouver.

The Wonderland trail is a 93 mile loop around Mt. Rainier. We met some hikers who are spending 13 days hiking it. The fastest known supported time (FKT) to do the whole trail is about 19 hours, run a month ago by one of those fast people up in Vancouver.  The FKT unsupported is just under 26 hours.


Charlie running down the Wonderland, with Skyscraper Mountain in the distance. A nice runnable section here, one of few during the day.


The trail traverses around from left to right and then takes us up over the saddle in the middle.


Looking back at the way we’ve come. That trail curving up in the bottom left is the end of the Northern Trail, which we will climb up many many hours later in the day.


Just a few miles into the run, and we’re already struggling to come up with something other than “wow!”  The summit is about 3 horizontal miles and 8500 vertical feet away.


The river crossing near the bottom of the Winthrop Glacier, which is the headwater of the west fork of the White River.


Looking up Winthrop Creek. That gray ridge running left to right in the middle is the Winthrop Glacier, covered in rocks and dust. The rib running down/right in the middle of the north face of Rainier is Liberty Ridge. I wanted to climb that for a while, until I noticed that every year a couple people seemed to die up there.   As I crossed this bridge, I heard the river moving boulders in the water underneath me.  This started my mental trouble with crossing rivers on narrow bridges during the day.


Just a run in the woods.


Crossing another dry bed of Winthrop Creek. Notice that the stream bed has been scoured of big rocks. This place must be howling in the spring. When we crossed back, further downstream and about 20 miles later, a ranger told us the river had taken out the bridge this spring, so we had to cross on a log. Charlie had no problem walking across. The tree felt like it was shaking to me and I eventually settled on sitting and scooting.


A fair amount of this during the day, but usually with more roots and rocks.


Mystic Lake, about 10 miles into the journey.


Looking past Mystic Lake to Old Desolate.


More “wow!” From left to right 1) Curtis Ridge with the Winthrop and Emmons Glaciers on the skyline beyond. 2) The Willis Wall, which is a nasty loose north face with overhanging seracs that no one in their right mind would climb, but which has been climbed a few times, mostly by NW climbing legends. 3) Liberty Ridge running straight down the middle. 4) Ptarmigan Ridge on the right. The Carbon Glacier is that big dirty ice patch underneath the entire north face. A few years ago the Carbon River completely destroyed the road and bridges further down the mountain, so now there’s no vehicle access from that direction.

Here’s a video of an avalanche coming down the Willis Wall, taken from Liberty Ridge.


Looking NW from above Mystic Lake. We’ll descend down this valley. That gray strip in the valley is the (rock-covered) Carbon Glacier.


That marmot on the sunny rock asked me to take his picture.


Down, down, down into the valley.


Looking back up, along the Carbon Glacier.


And down some more, with the mid-summer Carbon River on the left. Not a fast downhill trail, unless you are fearless. By mile 8, Charlie and I had each gone down. I actually made an “oomph” sound when I hit. Fortunately, no injuries of note for either of us and we stayed upright the rest of the way.


Charlie coming back over the suspension bridge over the Carbon River. Crossing this is a very wobbly experience – more mental psych-out that led to my sit-and-scoot over the log later in the day.


A very big tree, next to a very big cliff. Not quite Yosemite, but sort of like that.


Finally on the Northern Loop, about 17 miles in, starting a 4 mile 3000 foot climb that had exactly 0 level spots to recover in.


Charlie about to turn the corner in the distance. This was up, but easy relative to everything else.


Ascending underneath the Yellowstone Cliffs. We came out of the woods and both simultaneously said “wow, it’s hot.”


The wildflowers were a bit past prime, but still there.


Looking up at the Yellowstone Cliffs.


Looking back – we started way down in the Carbon River valley.


Looking across to Crescent Mountain.


We took a side trip to Natural Bridge. There’s a band of rock from bottom right to top left, and underneath that is a hole looking down the hillside. Very southwest.  The cool thing to do is stand on the arch but we weren’t cool.


Looking up Winthrop Creek (which we crossed 3000 vertical feet ago).


Grand Park. Charlie has been there when the wildflowers are blooming. At least 5 miles from a paved road.


I took this picture in the morning, but after leaving Grand Park we traversed behind Skyscraper Mountain to the left, and came up this valley. A really nice trail, but not so runnable uphill after about 30 miles of travel.


Smelling the barn now, but taking time to look over our shoulders.


One more look over our shoulders. It’s almost 8pm but I still count at least 2 hikers on the trail just below the ridge. It must be a highway during the day.


Looking north into Huckleberry Basin.   We made it back to the car a few minutes later.

The Garmin activity showing route, (pathetic) paces, etc.:


  1. thanks for all the pics Mark, it’s been years for me and never did that northern loop. spray park & mowich area is also spectacular and always drew me there. but what a treasure that whole park is! i met a ranger the other day and we talked about the carbon road to ipsut a little. he said they spent a million and it just got washed out again. we both ended up agreeing it was no problem to just close it for good! one time we went to sunrise and hiked up towards burroughs. i was eating a sandwich and gesturing something and one of those jays just grabbed it right out of my hand! it was too heavy and the bird dropped it off a cliff! with no more food that day ended early. anyway even though i havent been there in a while it’s just as magical without me. thanks for the pics & story and glad you got a good view this time!

    • That’s a funny story about the camp robber jay. We did a family hike starting a Mowich Lake once, when the road still existed. It is an amazing place.

  2. great pics, mark. makes me think i should head out west and do that trail sometime. hmm…

  3. Great pics and write up. Thanks for including the Garmin link. I always wonder how accomplished/advanced runners like you pace runs like this.

    • Hi Eileen – I kind of laughed when I read your comment. The way we “paced it” was we shuffled along at the beginning, we tried not to fall down much on the downhills, we stopped for a while at creeks to refill our bottles when they were empty, and we walked up the hills as quickly as we could. There wasn’t any real pacing, other than knowing that 34+ miles is a long way and odds were high that we’d go too fast at the beginning so we tried to go really really slowly. It mostly worked. If you want to look at the pacing of someone who is actually advanced, check out this strava link for the same loop. Olga is quite fast.

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