Klapatche Park, 07/24/10-07/25/10

When I first flipped through my copy of 50 Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park and saw Ira Spring’s photograph of Klapatche Park, the destination shot to the top of my to-hike list. And like most locations on my to-hike list, it just stayed there. I was reminded of it again last year, while watching The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, which briefly flashed another Ira Spring photograph of the same location, this one from many years earlier.

The problem is, Klapatche Park isn’t all that easy to get to. In the not-too-distant past, one could park their car within three miles of it, but the road washed out twenty-one years ago and left the western side of The Mountain more isolated than most of the rest.

After walking the more recently decommissioned Carbon River Road earlier this year, I decided that it was time to walk the Westside Road and visit the fabled Klapatche. The weekend’s weather would be perfect, and from what I’d read on the Mt. Rainier National Park website, snow levels seemed pretty favorable, too.

This trip would be solo.

I packed my bag Friday night, but ended up transferring everything into my bigger pack early Saturday morning, when I tried in vain to add my full water bladder to a bag already breaching its capacity. I left West Seattle at 06:15, a little later than I would’ve liked, but still early enough to miss most traffic. The rangers at Longmire happily issued my permit for Klapatche Park, and told me that the campsites were all snow-free. I was glad that there were permits available so I didn’t have to change my plans.

At 08:55, I left my Subaru parked just outside the gate on the Westside Road, 2900’. A couple jumped on their bicycles and headed up the road just before me. Bicycling the road is completely acceptable, and it definitely makes some of these destinations easier to get to. Unfortunately, I don’t have a bike suitable for such trips, so I’d be walking the whole way. With the weight of my backpack, I doubt I could’ve kept a bike upright anyway. As an aside: to my untrained eye the road seems like it could be easily repaired and is in great shape for most of its length.

The Westside Road initially follows Tahoma Creek. There are glimpses of the creek’s namesake glaciers, but the road quickly turns away and The Mountain is hidden from view for much of the trip.

At 1.2 miles, there’s a small spooky viewpoint/picnic area/trailhead called Tahoma Vista. I halfheartedly looked around and didn’t see the viewpoint—I didn’t feel like exploring. Instead, I kept walking the uphill road until 10:15, when I reached Round Pass—4000’ and 3 miles from the gate. I was surprised to see a pickup truck and three or four tents and a gazebo set up in front of the trailhead to Gobbler’s Knob. The trailhead was very well marked; there were about 50 arrows etched into the gravel road and several helpful messages in stone. It was so well marked (<- <- <- TRAIL!!!) that I briefly wondered if it was perhaps the only trail on the entire road. But I walked a hundred feet more and saw both a second trailhead and a Marine Memorial, placed within sight of the South Tahoma Glacier where 32 Marines died in a plane crash in 1946.

At this point, I hadn’t yet decided on the route I’d take to Klapatche. I could either continue on the road until I reached the St. Andrews Creek trailhead or take the South Puyallup trail to The Wonderland Trail through St. Andrews Park. The Puyallup route would be more scenic, but would be a bit more difficult and I’d probably run into snow at the higher elevations. I decided on leaving the road anyway, figuring that I’d take the road on the way back.

So I stepped off of the road onto the Round Pass trail, which—after a brief 3/5ths of a mile and 500’ of elevation loss—turns into the South Puyallup trail. It was nice to be in the shade of trees and have the soft earth below my feet instead of the hot gravel. The trail was in good shape; it seems like it’s been/is being worked on. Just before South Puyallup Camp I stopped to photograph the columnar andesite formations along the trail.

Geologic pipe organ on the South Puyallup trail.

Columnar andesite.

I reached the intersection with The Wonderland Trail at 11:45, 2.1 miles from Round Pass (5.1 miles from the road closure). I crossed the bridge over the muddy river and took a long look up at The Mountain before I started climbing the constant switchbacks toward St. Andrews Park.

The day was heating up. The load, mileage, temperature, elevation gain, and lack of a decent breakfast were wearing me down. Progress became slow. Eventually, avalanche lilies appeared at the side of the trail. Their presence inspired me. I could see a patch of blue at the end of a long westerly switchback. At 01:25, I reached the ridge-top, exhausted. I could see Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens to the south and the Olympics in the west. The trail turned east now; patches of snow appeared, and—after post-holing several times through to the trail—I shuffled atop the snow aside the trail, following a set or two of footsteps.

I looked up from one such footstep to see a beautiful cinnamon-colored black bear run across the trail in front of me, followed immediately by a cute little cub. I stood in silence for a moment, then struggled to hold back a cheer of pure delight, only partially successful. I immediately thought of Nicole, who would’ve loved the moment as well.

Concurrently, my quads had begun to cramp up. I worked my way over to a patch of dry ground—by now it was hard to find one—and collapsed for a few minutes. But I knew I had to continue, and after eating my third bar-shaped snack of the day, I did. Where the path turned from the ridge and began across the St. Andrews basin, I met a ranger, only the second person I’d seen since leaving the South Puyallup. We spoke briefly. My permit led him to believe I’d be exiting via the White River the next day. “It says that?!” I said. I wasn’t looking forward to even my road walk out, at this point. “I think you’ll have Klapatche all to yourself tonight,” he said. I hoped so!

The trail traverses the east side of the basin, crossing several patches of snow. I took advantage of the ranger’s fresh steps all the way to St. Andrews Lake, elevation 5891’.

Mt. Rainier above a mostly-frozen St. Andrews Lake.

There, I met the couple that had left on their bikes just ahead of me—they’re the only thing that kept me from another controlled collapse. They were just in for the day. I was jealous of their bikes, they were jealous that I’d be spending the night. I agree with them. I snapped their picture, declined when they offered to take mine, and continued on, knowing I was very close to Aurora Lake, Klapatche Park, and taking off my backpack.

Klapatche Park view: Mt. Rainier and Aurora Lake.

At 3:15, I was there. I took a look at the lake and The Mountain and stumbled in to a campsite. After a nice long rest on the ground, I found the toilet and took a look at the 4 campsites at Klapatche, choosing beautiful #3. I set up camp, fetched water, and made myself some mashed potatoes. I was starving. But, on my hike in I remembered that I’d left my spoon at home (in addition to my compass and knife, which stayed in the first backpack). I made use of my time walking to brainstorm up an eating utensil, and decided I’d use a piece of crescent plastic that’s part of my water filter. It worked alright…

Avalanche lilies in Klapatche Park.

The Mountain from Klapatche.

More flowers.

I wandered around in the late afternoon, scouting locations I’d return to after a brief rest on the sleeping pad. Then, after that rest, it was photos until the sun set and the mosquitoes came on stronger.1

The wind calms as sun sets.


Sunset on Mt. Rainier's Sunset Amphitheater.

Looking west from my camp at Klapatche Park.

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! It was everything I hoped it’d be, and it was just me and The Mountain. I fell asleep easily, wishing—to a tune—that Nicole were there with me.

In the early morning I woke up to the sound of a hooting owl and the silver glow of the trees in the full moon. If I hadn’t been so tired, I might’ve snuck out to the lake to see if The Mountain was glowing in the moonlight, too. I’m sure it was, but I’m thankful that I can at least imagine it…

At 07:30, I started down the St. Andrews Creek trail. I was content with my time at Klapatche, and ready to head home. I gradually descended 1700’ from camp to the road, which I reached at 08:40. Aside from the route out being an arguably easier walk, it gave me the opportunity to take a small side trail to Denman Falls. Adding an extra 1/2 mile to my day was worth it. It’s a beautiful waterfall viewed from an overgrown overlook. I don’t know if it’s possible to reach the base of the falls, but I’d love to see it from that angle.

St. Andrews Creek just before Denman Falls.

A portion of Denman Falls.

I left the falls at 09:15 and slowly worked my way out of the wilderness. After reaching Round Pass at 10:45, I saw a handful of people, then a handful more as I approached the gate. My boots and socks were off at noon. My gear was in the car, and I was on the road. Once back on blacktop, I could see that the park was going to be very busy. I was amazed at the solitude I’d experienced at a popular location in the middle of summer.

I had a hamburger in Ashford and was back in West Seattle by 14:30.

Klapatche: goal achieved.

07/24: ~9.1 miles, ~3500’ of elevation gain (~1000’ loss), ~6:00 from car to camp.
07/25: ~12.0 miles, ~3100’ of elevation loss (~500’ gain), ~4:30 from camp to car.
Trip: ~21.1 miles, ~4000’ of gain/loss.

As always, more photos at Flickr.

1The bugs were pretty bad at dawn and dusk, but respected the DEET, and weren’t terrible otherwise.

One Response to Klapatche Park, 07/24/10-07/25/10

  1. sarah says:

    stunning photos!

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