Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tahoma Creek, Emerald Ridge, September 16, 2009

Tahoma Creek, Emerald Ridge (Wonderland Trail), Mount Rainier National Park
September 16, 2009

We met up with Craig Romano on the West Side Road for this loop on a perfect September day. After parking at the road closure we hiked to the “trailhead” for the Tahoma Creek Trail (about a mile from the gate). The trail starts at a switchback in the road and is marked with a trash barrel (right). As soon as we stepped off the trail we came upon a “trail not maintained” sign but that was not a deterrent - it was more like an invitation to what promised to be an alluring, enigmatic route.

The West Side Road and the Tahoma Creek trail have been so badly damaged by floods in recent years the park had no choice but to “abandon” this trail in principle, at least until funding is available to repair it (if it can be repaired). I’d hiked the trail years ago and it was in bad shape then – the trail is still in bad shape with missing stretches marked with ribbons or cairns. The route ventures out onto ever-changing river bars; hikers with discerning eyes should be able to follow the flagged route, at least until the next series of storms sweep in.

Eventually the trail leaves Tahoma Creek for good and ¼ mile from the Wonderland Trail we ran into a group of SCA volunteers working on the trail. They explained the upper stretch of the trail will link to a higher point on the West Side Road (this will make it easier to access the Wonderland Trail from where the road is gated). As it is now hikers must either hike the West Side Road (or take a mountain bike) or wrestle with the Tahoma Creek Trail.

While the Tahoma Creek trail may be too challenging from some hikers it is fascinating to see the changes nature has wrought - one wonders where the line between creation and destruction can be found.

When we reached the Wonderland Trail we took a short side trip to the Tahoma Creek suspension bridge. Craig walked across, I walked out far enough to get photos. At first glance the bridge looks like something you’d see in “Outside” magazine but the bridge is safe. You can also get to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground from here - cross Tahoma Creek and continue hiking on the Wonderland Trail.

Instead we followed the Wonderland Trail toward Emerald Ridge and Klapache Park. After a steep stint through forest we were out in the open, contouring above a moraine with views of Saint Andrews Rock and Glacier Island. Craig had gone ahead (Craig is a very fast hiker) and picked a lunch spot; we were glad he finally stopped hiking. As we gasped for breath Craig pointed out Tokaloo Rock above the Puyallup glacier – apparently there is a scramble route.

As we approached Emerald Ridge we enjoyed displays of Western pasqueflower dotting the scrappy meadows below the ridgeline. Once you are on the ridge you can follow a way trail (right) to a viewpoint or continue (left) on the trail along the crest of the ridge. Here the trail is narrow but not intimidating. From the edge look down into the kaleidoscope of colors from moraines and sluggish glaciers; the hues are amazing. Gold-colored rocks vied with purple-hued rubble, all flowing downhill so slowly you cannot see them inching along. At the head of the moraines the Tahoma glacier splits to spill (slowly) over a dark outcropping, the blue-green glacier slashed with crevasses and streaked with grit, looming over the moraine like some monster being born.

Gradually the nature of the terrain changed; subalpine evergreens gradually replacing the boulders perched at the edge of crumbling moraines. Sedges, partridge foot and harebells bordered the still-narrow path, even a flicker of Indian paintbrush now and then. The long, slow gradient of the trail morphed into switchbacks and grew more forested.

We left the Wonderland Trail where the trail crosses the South Puyallup River on a thank-God footbridge, continuing our hike on the South Puyallup River trail. After crossing the river the Wonderland Trail continues to Klapache Park and beyond. For a view of the South Puyallup River the bridge is just a short side trip from the junction.

As we passed South Puyallup Camp we stopped to gaze at andesite columns formed by geologic processes thousands of years ago. These are not a few columns, rather an entire cliff composed of these columns (God’s hardware store, we called it – the tubes of rock reminded us of giant 2x4s). Some of the columns are gracefully curved (Craig likened the formations to spaghetti). The late Harvey Manning referred to them as colonnades in his “50 Hikes, Mount Rainier” guidebook. However your eye interprets these remarkable formations, you will certainly never forget them.

To get back to the West Side Road we climbed to Round Pass (about a 400 foot climb), that additional elevation was nothing to Craig but Silverback and I were happy to get the 400 feet behind us and take a break on the West Side Road near the Marine Memorial before the 3.8-mile hike back to the cars.

We were all dreading the last miles back to the car on the West Side Road but lively conversation made the miles fly, if not our feet.

Our GPS data doesn’t match up – Silverback’s GPS read 12.4 miles whereas Craig’s read closer to 14 miles. Well, it was a lot of miles any way you look at it. The elevation gain (Silverback’s GPS) reads about 3,141 feet of gain.

It was a lot of work but well worth it.

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