Friday, November 6, 2009

Rampart Ridge Trail, October 27, 2009

Rampart Ridge Loop (Mount Rainier National Park) October 28, 2009

These hikes at Mount Rainier National Park were only a week apart but as different as night from day. Rampart Ridge felt like a winter hike, Eagle Peak Saddle (to follow) a fall hike.

Hikers who hike year round sometimes refer to late fall/early winter hikes as “snowline probers”. Would we need snowshoes on Rampart Ridge or not? Where was the snowline? The snowline in November rises and falls on a daily basis; no two days in November are alike. Sometimes the only way to find out is to head for the trailhead. We gambled we wouldn’t need snowshoes for Rampart Ridge at Mount Rainier and left them behind.

As it turned out snowshoes were not needed but Yak Trax sure would have come in handy. Fresh snow had fallen but we were not expecting ice.

To find the trail park at Longmire and cross the Nisqually Paradise road to “Trail of the Shadows”, a popular nature trail where this hike begins. We hiked clockwise hoping the gray skies would clear – it’s about a 2-mile climb to the ridge-crest and you’re better off hiking toward Mount Rainier rather than away from it. Turn left and start out on the nature trail. In a few paces you’ll come to a bridge; there was no snow on the bridge but the trail was plastered with fallen leaves, the wooden bridge icy and slick.

The Rampart Ridge trail is well signed and starts on the uphill side of the nature trail. The trail begins to climb immediately at a moderate grade through forest and is in good shape except for icy patches here and there. The iciest patches are along the lower elevations of the trail. Long, lazy switchbacks through the forest lead to an opening in the trees where there is a good view of the Nisqually River.

Signs of fall are just about gone; the oak ferns and bracken are pale, the vanilla leaf thin and mottled, mushrooms have emerged, some of them dusted with snow, others shattered and lying in pieces beside the trail. The huckleberry bushes that hung heavy with fruit not so long ago have lost most of their leaves.

As we climbed fresh snow replaced the ice and at about 4,044 feet we reached a junction where a spur descends to an overlook of Longmire, foothills and the Nisqually River.
After enjoying the view we continued on the main trail to a high point (4,093 feet). The trail is level for a half-mile or so through the forest; here, the snow was 2-3 inches deep.

This is a pretty trail and we delighted in the ice-sheathed branches of shrubs and snow-dusted evergreens, the subdued tones of shrubs and fallen leaves. When we stopped for a break we were immediately surrounded by gray jays (camp-robbers); it is just about impossible not to be delighted with these birds, they are plucky and seem optimistic as they dart about in their endless quest for food. In logging camps they hung around mess-halls, hence camp-robbers. They eat insects, seeds and berries; they are also meat-eaters (better keep an eye on your lunch!).

As the trail levels off there is a good view of Mount Rainier on a clear day but we were denied the view. Given the overcast it was hard to tell the snowy mountain from the white sky. The trail reaches a junction for the Wonderland Trail at 3,912 feet; here we turned right to continue the loop. You’d turn left if you were bound for Indian Henrys Hunting Ground (5 miles further). We turned right again at the next junction where another trail continues to Van Trump Park and Mildred Point.

The Wonderland trail descended toward Longmire; as we descended the snow disappeared and we were on bare dirt for the rest of the hike. We noticed and stopped to admire several grand old-growth conifers on the way. We did slip and slide on a stretch of icy puncheon before coming out on the Nisqually-Paradise road. The trail crosses the road, enters the forest and in less than ¼ of a mile comes out again at Longmire.

We’d had enough of hiking in the cold but weren’t ready to leave Mount Rainier so extended our visit by driving to Christine Falls an attraction we’d driven by many times without stopping (you can see the waterfall from the road). However, to get the best view of the waterfall park on the far side of the stone bridge where a short path descends to a better view of the waterfall, framed by the graceful bridge.

Stats: 4.6 miles round trip, about 1,800 feet of elevation gain.

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