LIFE LIST

Ven­ture off the trail to find soli­tude in one of Amer­ica’s busiest parks.

Backpacker - - Contents - By Ryan Wichelns

MT. RAINIER, WA

Find soli­tude in this busy park by cash­ing in on its lit­tle­known back­coun­try zones.

I SHOVE MY WAY

through one last patch of un­der­brush and the sky opens, re­veal­ing a dreamy meadow that un­furls like a run­way to the glis­ten­ing, white hulk of Mt. Rainier. A chain of green hill­sides dot­ted with blue tarns roll over each other all the way to the edge of a glacier on the moun­tain’s north side. Above, the 14,410-foot sum­mit wears a wispy scarf of clouds.

Mt. Rainier Na­tional Park is a busy place. Loom­ing above Seat­tle like a bea­con on the hori­zon, it drew more than 1.4 mil­lion visi­tors in 2017. Of those, more than 55,000 were back­pack­ers—mak­ing it the eighth-most pop­u­lar park for our tribe. With 275 miles of trail to go around, that’s 200 back­pack­ers per trail mile per year. The park has tried to smooth it over with a quota sys­tem, but the fact re­mains that Mt. Rainier’s back­coun­try camp­sites of­ten feel more crowded than the line at the in­for­ma­tion of­fices.

But here I am, ut­terly alone, scout­ing the per­fect spot to pitch my tent among post­card views of the Cas­cades’ crown jewel. No other tents perch on nearby knolls or on the edge of tree­line. No pots or cook­ware clang from the other side of the meadow. No peo­ple wan­der into my view­shed. Why? There are no trails.

Stuck in the com­plex maze of on­line per­mit reser­va­tions and wait lists for the park’s named camp­sites, I dis­cov­ered a lit­tle-known loop­hole: cross­coun­try back­pack­ing. If you’re up for routefind­ing through steep rain­for­est, bat­tling glacial scree, and wan­der­ing cir­cles in search of flat spots, your op­tions for camp­ing in the park are vir­tu­ally end­less. There’s one rule: You must go at least a quar­ter of a mile from any trail or road (plus 100 feet from wa­ter). That means pre­trip re­search, nav­i­ga­tion skills, and a lit­tle bit of grit are, of course, es­sen­tial to claim­ing your own cor­ner of the moun­tain, but any­one can do it.

Per­mits for the park’s 87 back­coun­try zones are avail­able for hik­ers with ap­pro­pri­ate ex­pe­ri­ence (yes, they check), so the morn­ing of my trip I snagged a golden ticket to the Up­per Car­bon River unit and, af­ter a short trip down a closed dirt road, headed out from the Ip­sut Creek Camp­ground. I linked the Won­der­land and Spray Park Trails nearly 7 miles just past Cataract Val­ley, where I left care­fully crafted sin­gle­track be­hind.

As I ven­tured deeper into Seat­tle Park, each grassy patch or rip­pling glacial stream I passed seemed like a bet­ter place to pitch my tent than the last. I wan­dered the un­tram­meled soil in search of per­fec­tion un­til it was nearly dark, fi­nally de­cid­ing on a hill­top over­look­ing it all, a mile from where I started.

It’s strange to feel alone in such a pop­u­lar place, and I’m still half-ex­pect­ing to hear

an­other hiker stum­ble in as the last light fades. But tonight, it’s just the moun­tain and me.

On the still-lit mas­sif, a house-size chunk of ice falls from the steep Wil­lis Wall, throw­ing up a cloud of white and a rum­ble that takes a few sec­onds to reach me. I look around in­stinc­tively to see if any­one else saw it. But of course, there’s no one there.

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