2 days, 1 night / 13.6 miles round trip / <2800′ elevation gain
The early bird gets the worm, or in this case the first-come, first serve wilderness permit. My husband and I arrived at the Carbon River Ranger Station just after 8:30 am in hopes of obtaining a wilderness permit for an overnight backpacking trip in Mount Rainier National Park. After discussing the perfect conditions of Spray Park Trail with the park ranger, we decided to spend the night at Cataract Valley backpackers camp. After a slow, bumpy 20+ mile drive down Mowich Lake Road, we arrived at Mowich Lake campground where trailhead parking was available.
As soon as we started hiking, the trail started to slowly dip down making its way through a small forested valley. With fresh legs and an easy downhill hike, it wasn’t difficult to become complacent with the ease at which we were travelling. Complacency didn’t last long once we started climbing our way up towards Spray Park. We made our way through the forest switching back from time to time. After a while of hiking uphill, the trail started to flatten out and open up more and more. It wasn’t long until we were surrounded by large green meadows speckled with fields of late season flowers. Once the trees parted, glorious picturesque views of Mount Rainier start to appear. As we made our way over the top of the mountain pass I felt an anxiety thinking of the two snow fields ahead.
My husband and I carefully maneuvered our way down towards the snow fields through the rocky mountain pass trail. Each step we took had the sound of walking on top of broken plates. Once we reached the edge of the snowfields my anxieties were washed away by the sight of a well worn path through a fairly flat field of snow. By the second snow field my confidence had grown allowing me to feel comfortable and safe as I made my way down.
We stopped for lunch at the top of the mountain pass taking in views as far as the eyes can see in every direction. The sky was so clear that Mount Baker was in plain sight to the North with Mount Rainier hovering over us to the South. Once we were well rested and refueled we were ready to start making our way down towards Cataract Valley. A rocky trail turned to a dirt path and open skies turned to forested surroundings as we switched back and forth down into the valley. A few times my husband and I exchanged jokes about passing up the camp because the descent seemed to continue on and on.
After around five hours of trekking along Spray Park Trail, we had finally made it to the Cataract Valley backpackers camp. After checking out all of the sites, and a small tip from a group of backpackers we met at the mountain pass, we decided Site 6 would be our home for the evening. We spent some time resting on the rocks above camp listening to the pikas warn their friends of our arrival. As the sun started to dip below the mountains, we decided it was time to set up camp and get dinner started. Once twilight made its way to camp we found comfort in our tents for the night. After a little paranoia caused by curious mice just outside our tents, we fell fast asleep to the faint sound of barking pikas and nearby creek.
The next morning began with the usual camp routine. As we cleaned our dishes from breakfast, my husband noticed something rustling in the bushes near the rocks where we were resting the day before. As soon as I looked up I knew immediately that it was a black bear – and it seemed to be coming right for our camp. I instantly remembered to “make myself large” and I yelled “Hey bear!” It stopped moving towards us and started to slowly make its way up the rock valley eating berries at every opportunity and turning over logs. A few moments later we heard more rustling in the bushes and learned that the bear was not alone – she had two bear cubs following her! They followed their mothers path a little more slowly also enjoying sweet huckleberries along the way. The family of bears made their way out of sight leaving us with only a few photos and the memories of their visit.
Still excited from our morning visitors, we packed up camp and began to prepare for another day of hiking. Reluctantly, we put our packs back on our now sore bodies from the previous days’ hike. Although our muscles ached, we were ready for the challenge of trekking back up Spray Park Trail. The familiarity of the trail gave me a sense of comfort as we hiked back towards the trailhead. The first few miles are strenuous heading back up towards the mountain pass but we were rewarded with another cloudless day and abundant views of Mount Rainier.
The anxieties I faced the day before had turned into excitement as we crossed snowfields and rocky terrain once again back over the mountain pass. We took several small breaks along the way making sure to take lots of photographs. We enjoyed the ease of the downhill for the last few miles before having to make the last push up towards Mowich Lake. After losing the weight of our packs, we enjoyed a moment watching the stillness of the lake.