Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Summerland, Mount Rainier National Park, August 26, 2012

Summerland (Mount Rainier National Park) Summerland is one of the most popular hikes inside Mount Rainier National Park and suffice it to say you will know why this is a popular destination once you get there. Here are a few reasons of our reasons this hike is a favorite - first off, the views. For starters: views of the Fryingpan Glacier, the Emmons Glacier, Little Tahoma, Mount Rainier and Panhandle Gap. Add to that a herd of 30 (we counted) mountain goats and scads of wildflowers still blooming at Summerland – these are just a few delights you’ll experience on this trail. Get an early start (the trailhead is not large enough to accommodate many vehicles). Also add an extra layer to your pack - it’s getting to be that time of the year when mornings are chilly though it will feel like summer as the day progresses. The trail gets off to a mellow start as it climbs through sheltered forest the first couple of miles before coming to a switchback with a view of Fryingpan Creek where the creek drops through a gorge. A little further are more switchbacks with even better views of the creek. In the morning these switchbacks are usually in the sun and are good places to stop for a drink or a snack before continuing to Summerland. Next you’ll cross a couple of streams and as you approach Fryingpan Creek late-summer wildflowers make their appearance including fireweed, asters, mountain daisies and pearly everlasting. After crossing Fryingpan Creek on a sturdy bridge with a railing the trail meanders through meadows that in late August are a purple haze of asters and fireweed before the trail commences its climb to Summerland on a series of steep switchbacks. There are still enough wildflower displays to stop you in your tracks, especially the closer you get to Summerland. Between pockets of forest the hillsides are covered with wildflowers. Between Fryingpan Creek and Summerland we saw lousewort, lupine, asters, mountain daisies, magenta paintbrush, bistort, valerian and we couldn’t help but notice the swirled leaves of hellebore were already threaded with strands of gold. When you get to Summerland take time to check out the shelter; also an outdoor toilet (signed) is located uphill from the shelter should you need one. Hikers are not allowed to camp inside the shelter but it’s a great place to hang out if you’re backpacking and would prefer to prepare your meal under a roof rather than a dripping tarp. Summerland is far enough for many hikers though strong hikers (or backpackers) can continue on to Panhandle Gap – even beyond. An ice axe or poles will come in handy if you are climbing to Panhandle Gap as there is still snow up there. Mornings are getting cold and that means the potential for hard, steep snow. Though wildflowers are fading between Fryingpan Creek and Summerland from Summerland on up toward Panhandle Gap the wildflowers are still going strong, especially pink and yellow monkeyflowers. If you don’t want to hike as far as Panhandle Gap another option is to continue on the trail until you come to two tarns below the gap (right) that are ideal for a turnaround or a leisurely lunch. Here there are even better views of Panhandle Gap (as of August 27 there was still a cornice at Panhandle Gap) as well as close-up views of wildflowers and the abstract shapes of melting ice in the tarns. The flowers at these higher elevations included Elmera, Tolmie’s saxifrage and Alpine buckwheat. Note that the flowers at these elevations are small and grow close to the ground, their adaptation to inclement weather. At the higher tarn where we stopped to eat we were at first puzzled (then amazed) to spot a herd of mountain goats descending a snow-field toward the tarn just below “our” tarn. They were far enough away that at first we couldn’t figure out what we were seeing but when they got off the snow and onto the dark moraine we could see they were mountain goats. Seeing mountain goats is always a bonus but never have we seen so many. We extended our lunch time just for the pleasure of watching them before they headed back up the mountain. On our way back to Summerland we noted views of the Emmons Glacier that we’d missed hiking up as the glacier was behind us then – the view was almost disquieting, the crevasses so close together that it was hard to tell where one ended and another began. Just above Fryingpan Creek we met a hiker who said a bear had gotten into her backpack when she’d left the trail briefly for a “party separation”. Be extra vigilant when it comes to bears – if you venture off trail for any reason don’t set your pack down, take it with you (if you are camping hang your food). We didn’t see the resident bear but just after crossing Fryingpan Creek we did see blue gentians beside the trail. We call gentians the “goodbye flower” because they herald the end of summer. While we enjoy these poignantly-beautiful flowers we don’t look forward to the end of another summer, especially after this summer got off to such a late start. To get there: From the White River entrance of Mount Rainier National Park (via State Route 410) continue about three miles to the trailhead on the Sunrise Road – the trailhead is on the right-hand side just past the Fryingpan Creek road bridge. No facilities. A pass or a fee is required to enter the park – for details refer call 360-569-2211 (Park Headquarters) or 360-569-6575 (Park Information). Additional Information: The hike to Summerland is 7.25 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 2,100 feet. Map: Green Trails No. 269S, Mount Rainier Wonderland. Add mileage and gain accordingly if you venture beyond Summerland. Karen Sykes