Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mildred Point, Mount Rainier National Park

MILDRED POINT (MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK) We’ve been like chipmunks dashing about on last-minute errands these last golden days of fall. Like them we are also driven by shorter days and a dwindling supply of high-country delights. We lose a little over three minutes of daylight a day this time of year so put a hike to Mildred Point on your calendar before winter sets in. The Comet Falls trail used to be the most popular approach to Mildred Point but the Comet Falls trail is closed about 1.6 miles due to trail damage. Fortunately you can still hike to Mildred Point from Longmire by starting out on The Wonderland Trail. The trail system is well signed and the park has placed signs indicating where trails to Comet Falls/Van Trump Park are closed. The Wonderland Trail at Longmire crosses the Nisqually-Paradise road in about ½ mile and begins to climb through the forest. The trail is in good condition, even a prehistoric stretch of puncheon that crosses a boggy area below the junction with the Rampart Ridge Trail. At the next junction we left the Wonderland Trail, turning right onto the Van Trump Park trail which continues to Mildred Point. As we hiked bright-eyed Canadian jays (often called camp robbers – guess why!) darted from tree to tree, their eyes sparkling as they perched on trees above us in an obvious bid for hand-outs. Eventually the forest transitions to parklands where fall is making a dramatic entrance as blueberry/huckleberry shrubs turn every hue of orange and red imaginable. We were surprised to see many gentians still in bloom in these quiet meadows where subalpine evergreens have quietly taken root as if to anchor the meadows in place. At 4.5 miles we came to the last junction signed Van Trump Park, another Comet Falls trail closure sign and a second sign pointing toward Mildred Point. The trail crosses meadows as it makes its way toward Mildred Point but make no mistake, this is a steep trail. Take a break and look to the west for a view of Pyramid Peak. Though few hikers visit Mildred Point the trail has been hiked often enough that the trail is deeply embedded in the meadow, in places a knee-high ditch which tempts hikers to hike beside the trail rather than in the ditch (this is never a good idea as over time hikers create a “new” trail to avoid the ditch). That first view of Mount Rainier when it breaks out of the forest never fails to incite awe. Though there was no wind where we’d stopped to look at The Mountain we watched lenticular clouds racing toward the summit, like ships without captains. The trail is out in the open and the last stretch is dusty and steep (carry plenty of water, this is a dry trail). If not for the haze from forest fires there are great views of Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens to the south (we could barely make out Mount Adams through the haze). The trail ends at the edge of an abrupt cliff where a sign warns hikers they’ve reached the end of the maintained trail (as if there could be any doubt). This is one of the most scenic vistas inside the park but don’t get too close to the edge. We were spellbound by a series of waterfalls plunging from the Kautz glacier – in such a setting it is hard to decide where to draw the line between creation and destruction as Mount Rainier goes about her geologic business. You can explore a little further on game-trails that contour the ridge-top – we followed one through a few small, subalpine trees where we were startled by the sight of a mountain goat’s head peeking at us over the lip of the void. Before we could say “camera” he’d dropped out of sight. We spotted more goats in the distance as they traversed an almost vertical meadow. Turnaround time always comes too soon and soon we were back in the forest, grateful for the occasional cool breeze that wafted our way. Additional Information: the hike is 10 miles round trip with 3,750 feet elevation gain. For updates on fees, rules and regulations, current conditions, and weather, call Mount Rainier National Park (360-569-2211) or visit their website at . Map: Green Trails (Mount Rainier Wonderland Map 269S). . Karen Sykes

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