Sunday, August 20, 2023

Girls Trip 2023: North Cascades and Mt Rainier Loop - Hiking, Camping, and Sightseeing

Hiker with a cloudy Mt Rainier behind.  Text reads Washington Hiking Road Trip - North Cascades and Rainier Loop

 It's that time of year again... GIRLS TRIP!  Leanne and I are far from "girls" its seems as 40-year-old women, but we still have been having this traditional trip since 2007!  With my parents in Portland, Oregon willing to watch the kids for a week, I looked for a trip that would be easily accessible from this site.  Never having been to North Cascades National Park nor Mt Rainier National Park, I decided to plan a camping/hiking trip that visited both parks with the bulk of the trip centering around some intensive day hiking in North Cascades.  As it seems to happen to us a lot, our plans were sadly changed when fires broke out the day before we entered the park and escalated - forcing us to evacuate and change our plans a bit.  We rolled with it and it still turned out a great trip.  Here's our *revised* itinerary.

Here's how to recreate this adventure....

Day 1: Pick up Campervan in Portland, Oregon and Drive to Olympia, Washington

We started by renting a camper van out of Portland, Oregon. Unfortunately, we didn't love the van so I'm not going to name drop (feel free to DM me on instagram for the name). But it had over 300,000 miles on it, broken hubcaps, dirty, and overall beat up. (Spoiler: it made the trip) However, I wasn't pleased.  Either way, we picked it up and drove north.  Our first night camping was at a private campground in Olympia that was meant to break up the drive. The campground was called Riverbend.  Tent sites were large, private, and had a great waterfront access.  There was a flush bathroom on site but it was a bit of a walk, however, each tent site had it's own porta potty too! We made dinner, enjoyed the river view, and spent our first night figuring out the van bed. 

Day 2: North Cascades - Visitor Center, Set up Camp, Short Hikes

We had a leisurely morning, then took off to North Cascades National Park.  We stopped at the visitor center near Newhalem, got a park map, bought some souvenirs, then took off to do a set of short hikes before reaching our campground.  Here are some great small hikes to do when you first arrive:

- Stirling Munro Trail: This short but scenic boardwalk trail is only 300 feet long.  It weaves through trees to a mountain overlook and departs directly behind the Visitor Center.

- Trail of Cedars: This short and easy 0.6 mile out and back trail weaves through Cedar giants, along the shores of the glacial blue Skagit River. 

- Ladder Creek Falls: Though only 0.5 mile loop, this trail is steep.  It crosses a bridge and climbs behind the Newhalem Gorge Powerhouse to Ladder Creek Falls - small, yet beautiful waterfall.

- Gorge Overlook Trail: This 1/3 mile loop trail climbs to give views of the Gorge Dam and Ross Lake.*Here we got our first glimpses of (at that time) a very small wildfire on the hill across.

After we finished these hikes, we checked into our campsite at Colonial Creek South Campground.  We booked this site exactly 6 months prior to arrival - the soonest offered.

Happy to be in North Cascades National Park!

Day 3: North Cascades - Maple Pass Loop and Rainey Lake

- Maple Pass Loop: Today was about a very special hike.  I was dying to hike Maple Pass Loop.  We woke up to a smoke campground and drove east, hoping to escape the bad air on our big hiking day.  We had read that this was a popular hike so we arrived at the trailhead around 8 am and found plenty of parking.  While the hike started smoky, we soon hike above the smoke and had clean air, blue sky, and perfect hiking weather.  We tackled the loop in a counter clockwise manner, which we were happy with.  The hike was moderately challenging, and extremely rewarding.  We got to back to the van around 2pm where we switched shoes and hit up one more little hike.

- Rainey Lake Trail: This trail is 2.0 out and back to the clear blue Rainey Lake.  The ADA trail meanders through flat forest, then emerges on a viewing platform.  We cooled our feet in the water before heading back to the car and campsite.

On the drive back to the campsite, we saw views of the growing smoke and fires erupting from the shores and Sourdough Mountain on Diablo Lake - just a couple miles from our campground.  It was eerie and nerve-wracking.

Maple Pass Loop Views

Leanne hiking along Maple Pass Loop in North Cascades

Day 4: North Cascades - Blue Lake, Washington Pass Overlook, Cutthroat Lake, and Winthrop

Again, we decided to drive east, this time, not only to escape smoke put also to end in the town of Winthrop where we could resupply on ice. The smoke had blown through the cascade valley and unfortunately our entire day air quality showed evidence of the fires back on Diablo. Our hikes and stops included:

Blue Lake Trail: This 4.6 mile out and back trail was a relatively easy to moderate trail that rewarded with beautiful forests, mountain views, and a beautiful alpine lake.  This trail was crowded and busy at the lake.

Washington Pass Overlook: This overlook was our picnic lunch spot, and also included a 0.3 mile steep, yet paved overlook trail that awards is stunning views of Washington Pass and the twisted road below.

Cutthroat Lake Trail: This 3.8 mile easy to moderate trail had views of rising peaks on either side and ended at a solitude lake.  We had to drive a bumpy forest road to get to the trailhead, but the van handled it fine. We started this hike at 4:30 pm and saw few other hikers.  The views were beautiful but the air quality provided a reminder that the park was suffering. 

From this hike we drove another 30 minutes from Cutthroat Lake to the town in Winthrop where we planned to sightsee, grab dinner, and resupply.  Shockingly, when we returned to "service" we discovered the campground and highway 20 had been closed due to the fire and we were suddenly without a campsite.  While the letter said we could get our "stuff" until 10 pm at night, at that point we were 1.5-2 hr drive from the campsite and it was already 7:30 pm.  We decided to abandon our items (laundry line, table cloth, and some food in the bear box) and stay put.  I got us a last minute waterfront tent site at the Winthrop KOA and we hit the town.  We enjoyed walking the cute western town, grabbed burgers at the burger bar, ice cream, and settled in - trying to figure out our next plan of action.

Observing Fire-fighting efforts.  Thank you firefighters!
Winthrop's Western theme was adorable!

Day 5: Drive Winthrop to Leavenworth to Snoqualmie

Unfortunately, now it was a Saturday and we were striking out on finding a campsite as we meandered south toward Rainier.  Fortunately, a family friend offered her home!  Even though they weren't in town, they gave us access to their house in Snoqualmie and we slept in the van on their driveway.  We took off from Winthrop in a cloud of horrible air quality which continued for hours into our drive.  Looking to make the most of this new roundtrip, we decided to stop in the Bavarian-themed tourist town of Leavenworth for lunch.  It was rainy when we arrived, yet still enjoyed sightseeing and window shopping.  We waited in line for about 30 minutes to get a bratwurst and pretzel at M√ľnchen Haus, followed by pastries at the Danish Bakery. We had planned to hike near Snoqualmie, but it continued to rain and we just weren't feeling it.  We settled in at our friends, took much needed showers, visited a local gem and rock shop, then made our camp dinner in their kitchen.

Leavenworth is a Bavarian themed town in Washington.  We loved it!

Day 6: Mt Rainier - Longmire Area

Since check-in at our Rainier campground wasn't available until 1 pm, we had a leisurely morning and had a short (and very steep) hike:

Snoqualmie Falls: This was a 1.4 mile out and back paved trail through forest descending from the top parking lot to the bottom of the falls.  AllTrails says its 331 ft elevation gain which isn't too bad but it felt steep!  

Snoqualmie Falls

We drove to our next campground - this was a delight!  Elkamp campground was small and wooded with mossy cedars.  A brook ran next to our tentsite with a meadow and mountains behind.  It was only 30 minutes to the Longmire Visitor Center in Mt Rainier.  After setting up camp, we drive through the Nisqually entrance and to Longmire.  We visited the visitor center and did the following hikes in the area for the rest of the day:

- Trail of Shadows- This 0.7 mile loop is an easy trail of packed dirt and boardwalk.  It passes through a large forest with nurse logs, towering trees and marsh.

- Comet Falls Trail - This 3.8 out and back trail leads to the beautiful Comet Falls.  The trail climbs 900 feet in elevation on packed trail, some rock, and even a ladder.  AllTrails rates it as hard.  We saw gorgeous waterfalls, pika, marmots, and deer!  We arrived at the falls (one of the tallest in the park) at 5:30 pm.  We enjoyed taking photos, soaking in the views, then headed back down.  

We saw the sunset as we drove back to Elkamp, had a late dinner and prepared for an early morning hike the next day.

Comet Falls in Mt Rainier near Longmire area

Day 7: Paradise in Rainier: Skyline Loop and more

Today's goal was to hike the Skyline Loop.  The weather continued to mess with us.  After weeks of clear weather, both days we were in Rainier had horrible rain/fog forcasts.  However, we decided to try anyway.  Nervous about parking, we got to the Paradise Visitor Center Parking around 7 am and scored a spot in the first row.  Woohoo!  Banked in thick fog, it seemed silly to start the hike. I snoozed in the van while Leanne packed a trail lunch.  Around 9:30 am, we donned our rain gear and set out on the trail, doing it clockwise.

- Skyline Loop - Skyline Loop might go down as one of my favorite hikes of all time.  I can see why it's so popular.  It has everything in summer - glaciers, mountain views, gorgeous waterfalls, and even epic waterfalls - all in 5.5 miles.  The first part of the hike was all in fog and rain - however, not far after the glacial vista turnoff, we got a few "peeks" of Mt Rainier.  A few more showed up (although Panorama Point was in the clouds), and got a few fun photos with the volcano.  As we hiked the downside, I loved the glaciers and flowers.  We got lucky that the opposite ridge cleared and we enjoyed gorgeous mountain views throughout our descent. With all the stops and crowded trail, we didn't get back to the van until 2:30 pm.  

Our view of Mt Rainier through the clouds.

Not wanting the day to end, we got ice cream at the visitor center cafe, rested in the sun, toured the visitor center, and headed out on another little trail.

- Nisqually Vista Trail - Wanting to continue our experience, we hiked the 1.1 mile Nisqually Vista Trail near the visitor center.  It traveled through lichen adorned forest and (had the mountain been visible) a a nice view of Mt Rainier.

- Reflection Lake - We packed up the van and made one last stop.  We hit up Reflection Lake about 30 minutes prior to sunset hoping the mountain would emerge out of the clouds.  It never did, but the lake was beautiful and we enjoyed walking the short trail around half of it.

We returned to Elkamp and crashed for the night.

Day 8: Return the van

We had to have the van returned to Portland at 10 am.  So, we got up early, packed up and drove back. Returning the van was easy.  I was incredibly relieved the van survived the trip.

In summary

Even with the rickety van, wildfires, and canceled plans - I really enjoyed this trip.  It was definitely "hiking heavy" which was the intention.  Maple Pass Loop and Skyline Loop goes down as top ten hikes of my life.  If you have questions about the trip or want to see more photos, visit my instagram and DM me on here!

Woman looking out at view of mountains in North Cascades National Park at Washington Pass Overlook.

Here are some other similar adventure trips you might enjoy:

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