Monday, August 31, 2009

East Side Trail, Mt Rainier (August 30, 2009)

East Side Trail (Mount Rainier National Park), August 30, 2009

The East Side Trail has been frustrating us for some time. We had been unsuccessfully looking for the “upper” trailhead on Highway 123 based on data in mainstream hiking books. On our way to other hikes, we’d looked several times for the unheralded trail but never managed to find it. Yesterday we tried again – and did not find it.

Failing to find the upper trailhead we continued driving and parked at a lower trailhead for the Silver Falls Loop/Laughingwater Creek trail. (For the lower trailhead you can also park at Ohanapecosh and find a link to the Silver Falls Loop/East Side Trail). We opted to park on the highway instead.

The trail drops in a short stretch to a signed junction; hence we followed signs to Silver Falls and followed that trail to the next junction (always following signs for the East Side Trail). Silver Falls is pretty quiet this time of year but it’s always worth a stop – if nothing else to ponder the water-scoured depressions in the cliffs and the pick-up-sticks piles of downed trees that come to rest perhaps forever.

The East Side Trail crosses the Stevens Canyon Road and the main parking area for Grove of the Patriarchs. The East Side Trail continues on the Grove of the Patriarchs Trail then splits off again a short ways before the suspension bridge crosses the Ohanapecosh River (the East Side trail does not cross the river).

The East Side trail begins a long, gentle climb through mostly forest, some of it ancient and spectacular with ferns, moss and thimbleberry. The vine maples are beginning to get a faint tinge of fall color but the real color is yet to come. The trail is lined with vanilla leaf, some of the leaves mottled with age, reminiscent of the hands of octogenarians.

Several streams and tributaries are crossed on a variety of bridges, ranging from recently-rebuilt bridges with a single hand-rail to broken bridges that are still passable and other than presenting the opportunity to fall on your butt, not a danger.

We planned to hike the entire trail to the upper trailhead on Highway 123 (that way, we knew we’d finally find the “hidden” upper trailhead). That would be about a 7-mile hike one-way with roughly 1,000 feet of elevation gain.

Our hike ended at the Ohanapecosh River where a narrow bridge with handrails spanned the chasm where waterfalls roared like lions and the distance between the bridge and the cataracts was a little too narrow for my comfort. The bridge seemed sturdy enough but the supports that held the hand-rails were a little too far apart for my comfort level. Everyone has an Achilles heel when it comes to hiking and mine is crossing on high bridges above water without “significant” railings. I’ve been known to ford rivers rather than cross on high bridges.

In order to “get over” my dread of such contraptions I crossed the bridge twice but there was no getting over it. We had the stamina to finish the hike and hike back down to the car but I simply didn’t have the gumption to hike all the way to the upper trailhead then face another crossing of the bridge again.

Head (mine) bowed in defeat, we retraced our route, not meeting another hiker until the turn-off to Grove of the Patriarchs.

Since we had time to kill we continued on the suspension bridge to the Grove; Silverback had never been to the grove and it was fun to see it through his eyes. We spotted a nurse log there so large that several good-sized trees had taken root and were thriving. The vine maple there is still a young, vigorous green – these trees are an experience that cannot be captured by writers or photographers.

On our way back we were determined to find the upper trailhead for the East Side trail and stopped at several likely spots where an unmarked, obvious trail might be found. No dice. Until we figured out (finally!) that the “upper” East Side Trail is accessed from the plainly signed Owyhigh Lakes trail. Had we stopped at the Owyhigh Lakes trailhead in the first place we would have read the small sign informing hikers that the East Side Trail (and Deer Creek Camp) was .4 miles away. It would also be helpful to hikers if the guidebooks explained that the “upper” East Side trail starts out on the Owyhigh Lake trail on Highway 123.

The Green Trails maps are of little help; (Packwood Lake and Mount Rainier East). The trails in that part of the park are all squished together in a hard-to-read tangle at the edges of the maps.

We’ll be going back this week to “finish” off the East Side Trail.

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