Summerland & Panhandle Gap, 08/31/08

With late-August weather signaling the end of an already-abbreviated summer, and with the glaring omission of Mt. Rainier National Park (hereafter, MRNP) on our yearly itinerary thus far, we set our sights on Summerland.  Ever since we’d driven along the Sunrise side of Mt. Rainier en route to Mt. Aix earlier this year, we’ve been anxious to return to the area.  Since it was the weekend of Labor Day, we decided to forgo any backpacking plans, opting instead to wake up early in an attempt to beat out our fellow dayhikers.

We were out the door by 05:00 and driving in the dark down a road that I doubted.  Google Maps set me along a different road than I’d taken previously, but we ended up on WA-410 nevertheless.  Clouds hung heavy over the highway, and while I did my best to will them off, windshield wipers were necessary–briefly–on the east side of The Mountain.  I often forget just how close Mt. Rainier is to Seattle–we pulled into the Sunrise/White River entrance at 06:45.  Since it was, as previously stated, the first time this year inside MRNP, we added the $30 annual park pass to our credit card bill (7-day passes are $15, and we know we’ll be coming back more than once in the coming calendar year).   Unfortunately, our success in early arrival meant that no one was manning the entrance booths and instead of a flesh-and-blood annual pass, a machine spit out a receipt that could be exchanged for the real deal.  In the pocket it went, and up the road we drove.

In a few minutes, we crossed Fryingpan Creek and noted our trailhead and the positive parking situation along the road–we’d read the designated spots fill fast and the roadsides soon after, but there were plenty of spots for us.  We were heading up to White River Campground to empty our bladders before we hit the trail.  Though it was cold when we’d left Seattle, here in the park the Explorer returned a temperature of 39° at the campground.  At 07:10, we were back, and on the trail.

The trail to Summerland (alternately, Summer Land) and Panhandle Gap is actually a small portion of the ~95 mile Wonderland Trail, and it’s signed as such.  (We met a small group of very nice folks on day nine of the clockwise circuit on our way back down from Panhandle Gap.  Goal: I will do the Wonderland within the next five years.  I digress.)  The first mile or so of the trail is so wide, soft, and flat that it verges on qualifying as handicap accessible.  There wasn’t a word of complaint from either of us as we walked alongside Fryingpan Creek in the cool, quiet morning.   In no time at all, there were views of Tamanos Mountain (6790’), with its head in the clouds across the creek on the left.  At 07:50 the trail met up with the creek again, which was flowing through a beautiful gorge below, and then turned away to begin gaining elevation a bit more seriously.  But just a bit.

Tamanos Mountain from the lower Summerland trail.

Tamanos Mountain from the lower Summerland trail.

The next ~two miles take you through more of the forest, crossing small streams occasionally and gaining elevation gradually, until it eventually bursts out of the forest to cross Fryingpan Creek via a small one-log bridge (w/ handrail).  As if to reward you, it’s shortly after the crossing that you get your first great views up the valley to Mt. Rainier and Little Tahoma.  We were extremely fortunate to have clear blue skies at this point: 08:45 and the best weather of the day–though we didn’t know that yet.

Mt. Rainier in the clear, blue distance.

Mt. Rainier in the clear, blue distance.

All trails lead to Little Tahoma.  Not literally.

All trails lead to Little Tahoma. Not literally.

We snapped a few photos and left Fryingpan Creek behind us as the trail turned uphill in the final ~1 mile to Summerland proper.  The only real switchbacks of the hike are sandwiched into this section of the trail, which is fairly steep but zigzags through some still-blooming patches of wildflowers and offers views across the creek to Goat Island Mountain’s green meadows.

Goat Island Mountain on the initial side of Fryingpan Creek.

Goat Island Mountain on the initial side of Fryingpan Creek.

By 09:25 we’d reached Summerland, the clouds had moved in, and it was quite cold without trees to shelter us.  It should be said that we saw zero people the entire hike up to Summerland.  At the camps we swung in to use the toilet, and then had to wait more than a few minutes for two backpackers ahead of us.  (Don’t hesitate to utilize this toilet–Nicole and I both marveled at its condition.)  We broke out the granola and crackers and eventually we were on our way again.    Summerland is a beautiful green meadow interspersed with rocks and streams.  Had the sky been clear, I’m sure the views would’ve been outstanding; unfortunately, the clouds kept on coming.  I held out hope that if we continued the ~1.4 miles to Panhandle Gap, the time would pass and we’d be blessed with better weather.  So onward we went.

Cold and lonely marmot sentinel.

Cold and lonely marmot sentinel.

The view back over Summerland.

The view back over Summerland.

The greens of Summerland quickly give way to the rocky, barren beauty of the Panhandle basin.  Just as the terrain changes there’s a nice waterfall, and shortly after, you’re crossing over the stream on another log bridge (sans handrail).    As I’ve previously said, it was cold–cold to the point of snow flurries.  Shortly after leaving Summerland camp, it had begun snowing lightly and intermittently (and would continue to do so until we dropped back down into the trees on our return).  Our hands and ears and faces were quite cold, so we’d collapsed our trekking poles so we could keep our hands in our pockets; Nicole pulled up her hood, while I stubbornly refused to do so…so far.  The trail isn’t difficult, so we didn’t miss the trekking poles, and we would’ve made excellent time if I weren’t stopping every moment or two to look over my shoulder and down the valley to assess the cloudcover.  In spite of the weather, it was a beautiful landscape.  I loved the variation in rock color.  There was also a picturesque turquoise tarn along the way.  Pictures, pictures, pictures–my camera was cold:

Waterfall at the end of summer.

Waterfall at the end of summer.

Brrr.

Brrr.

Tarn along the trail in Panhandle basin, with Meany Crest in clouds.

Tarn along the trail in Panhandle basin, with Meany Crest in clouds.

A rainbow of rocks.

A rainbow of rocks.

At the far end of the basin, the trail runs up to a wall of rock and turns up to traverse the slope to Panhandle Gap itself.  Here there were some small patches of snow that were easily handled, though we did see some evidence of post-holing (e.g. a footstep three feet deep).  At this point we had our trekking poles out again, which helped with stability.  Up and to the right, you’ll see the gentle saddle structure of the gap–having so visible a destination helped us push through to attain it.  Just before the gap there’s a very short section of the trail that crosses a very steep snowfield.  On the way back down from the gap, it took a bit of care to cross it.  At ~11:00 we stepped out onto Panhandle Gap, and were met with freezing gusts of wind followed by even more cloudcover.  Visibility dropped dramatically, and we turned tail to descend into what had been friendlier territory.

Up to the gap.

Up to the gap.

The clouds come rolling in.

The clouds come rolling in.

Nicole retreats from the wind and cold of Panhandle Gap.

Nicole retreats from the wind and cold of Panhandle Gap.

But stops for a cold pose near the steep snow.

But stops for a cold pose near the steep snow.

On our way down from the gap, we met several groups heading up, but it wasn’t until we reached Summerland that the trail population began to expand exponentially, culminating in a group of at least a dozen down near Fryingpan Creek.  But back to Summerland: in addition to more humans, the marmot community must’ve been roused from their rest, as we must’ve seen ~20 of them on our way through the greenery.  Honestly, anywhere you looked, you could spot a marmot (or two, or three).  We stopped briefly to eat, and then left Summerland behind us at ~12:15.  By 14:15 we were back to the car, with the majority of the descent uneventful, aside from letting a family know that they probably had ~two miles to go until it would be possible to see Mt. Rainier, if the weather cooperated.

A bridge at the top.

The path down through Summerland.

The path down through Summerland.

And a bridge at the bottom.

And a bridge at the bottom.

With boots off, we decided to drive up the scenic road to Sunrise, since we hadn’t been there before.  We were thinking of restrooms and warm food.  Up the road the snow started again, sometimes surprisingly heavily.  No views.  At Sunrise the shopping-mall-sized parking lot was full of annoying people with annoying dogs.  I looked around at the trails that left from sidewalks and all the people on each one.  No doubt a beautiful area, but it may take me a while to stomach sharing a trail with so many, especially so many ignorant to courtesy and leave-no-trace principles.  But enough of that, we were there to use the bathroom, check out the restaurant, and ask someone if we could exchange our receipt for a genuine Mt. Rainier National Park annual pass.  Inside the visitor center, our request was met with a complete inability to understand what we were asking for.  “You’re in the park…”  Yes, I merely wanted to know if you could exchange this here receipt, which clearly states it can be exchanged for an annual pass, for said annual pass; or, if you’re unable to accomplish this personally, could you point me in the right direction?  We turned around and fled from the ineptitude and $2.50 hot chocolate and stinky toilets and barking poodles and were home enjoying the warmth of our home and the memories of a surprising amount of solitude on the trail to Summerland.

Overall, a great hike.  Wish the weather would’ve been better, but it was beautiful in any case, and I hope to see it again, perhaps as part of a larger trip around The Mountain.

Distance: ~11.4 miles round-trip from the trailhead to Panhandle Gap and back.  The gap was the high point, at ~6800’, while our starting elevation was ~3800’.  A quick bit of math and we’re at ~3000’ of elevation gain along the way.  It took us ~2:15 to reach Summerland, and another ~1:00 to reach Panhandle Gap.  Total time, car door-to-car door, with several long stops and a multitude of glances over the shoulder: ~7 hours.

As always, more photos at Flickr.

Advertisements

One Response to Summerland & Panhandle Gap, 08/31/08

  1. Pingback: The Year in Review « Don’t Look Down

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: