Last weekend we decided to check out a longer hike in Mt. Rainier National Park. Now that we live in the South Sound, the west entrance is less than an hour from our house so we’re looking forward to spending more time in the park. We arrived around 7 a.m., breezed through the gate thanks to our annual pass and the complete lack of traffic, and thought we were free and clear to head to the Comet Falls trailhead for our hike to Mildred Point.
However, we arrived in Longmire to find a big gate across the road with a sign noting it didn’t open until 9 a.m.! We pulled into the nearby parking area where a few other people were drinking coffee and waiting in their cars to rethink our plans.
Our original hike was going to be 7 miles roundtrip and around 3,000 feet of elevation gain with a stop at Comet Falls – a pretty hefty hike. Starting from Longmire would add both miles and elevation gain to our hike and we wouldn’t be going by the falls. That said, we just couldn’t see waiting two hours while more and more cars arrived to stick with the original plan. Comet Falls looked really cool and we’ll do that hike next time – this time we decided to focus on the out-and-back hike to Mildred Point!
Long story short, we ended up hiking a section of the Wonderland Trail to the Van Trump Creek Trail to Mildred Point and back, which was 9.25 miles roundtrip and 3,282 feet of gain. It took us about 6.5 hours with just under an hour of stopping time, including at the point. I was wiped out when we finally got back to the car, but it ended up being worth it!
The first sections of the hike were all in the woods and there was no one in sight – so peaceful and beautiful as we would catch glimpses of the mountains around us through the snow-covered trees.
While there were no people, the snow on the trail displayed evidence that we weren’t entirely alone – we followed deer tracks for a while, which was fine, but I got nervous when the deer tracks were suddenly accompanied by giant cougar tracks!
As we climbed up to the split where we needed to catch the Van Trump Park Trail toward Mildred Point, the cougar tracks continued straight ahead while we veered right. Before I could feel too relieved, we noticed we were following new sets of tracks – rabbit and bobcat! Thankfully the tracks were as close as we got to wildlife on this hike. My huffing and puffing up the hill probably made me an easy target, and I’m not sure I had expendable energy to fend off a wild beast if it wanted me for lunch!
Once we reached somewhere around 4,000-4,500 feet we moved out from under the main tree cover and the trail disappeared under several feet of snow. A couple who had caught up to us went on ahead and I was happy to have them take the lead in plowing a path through the drifts! While that worked for a little while, they were soon out of sight and seemed to be heading in a different direction than where we wanted to go.
Thankfully Brian was tracking our progress on his Gaia app, which also showed us where the trail was supposed to be – we kept checking it to course correct as we climbed higher and higher. In addition to the trail being buried, we were hiking in a thick cloud. The trip instructions had indicated you could usually see Mt. Rainier’s summit by the time you reached the open fields, which would have served as an easy guide post, but the summit was no where in sight!
As we approached Mildred Point, the breeze picked up, the clouds cleared, and suddenly we could see blue skies and Mt. Rainier’s summit towering overhead!
It was stunning, and I couldn’t believe that after several hours of hiking it cleared at just the moment we were arriving!
As it turned out, that “moment” was literally as long as it lasted – by the time we climbed the last brief stretch to the bluff at 5,900 feet, the cloud was back and we were completely socked in – we couldn’t see a thing, including the massive mountain summit we KNEW was straight ahead!
We stayed at the point for a little while on the off-chance it would briefly clear again but no such luck.
Our trek from Mildred Point back to the tree-covered section of trail was dicey, and we were grateful we had packed our ice trekkers to pull on over our hiking boots for some additional traction as we half hiked / half slid through the snow. In the pictures below you can see Brian was half skiing with his hiking poles and trekkers down the steep incline toward the tree line!
Once we were back under tree cover we encountered a handful of other hikers. I would say half were masked and making attempts to stay apart on the trail, which was about what I expected. We kept our masks on, moved to the side to let people pass, and tried to get back to our car as safely as possible.
Longmire was packed with people circling the lots trying to find parking. I couldn’t believe it was that busy until I noticed that the gate was still closed – it had said it opened at 9 a.m. As it turned out, a guy had gone missing while snowshoeing and there were multiple teams out looking for him. I found the final story online and it’s AMAZING. He was found and taken to Harborview where he was pronounced dead – heart stopped for 45 minutes – only for the team to work on him non-stop and bring him back.
We often talk about the fact that no one really knows where we are when we’re out hiking and while Gaia helps us navigate, we never have cell service or any way to call for help if something were to go wrong. As we continue pushing ourselves to do more advanced hikes in more complex environments (Mt. Rainier Summit 2021!), we’ve decided we probably need to invest in personal locator beacons to help search teams find us if we’re somehow off trail.
I’m drawn to the mountains, including Mt. Rainier – they remind me how small I am in the grand scheme of things, they are full of beauty and surprises – there’s almost no place I’d rather be. I think we have a right and healthy respect for their dangers as well. I’m glad we keep learning and adjusting our approach, gear, etc. so we can keep exploring in the safest way possible.