The Northern Loop
After our move to Washington, Apryle and I began scheming and planning for all the amazing hikes, climbs, and kayaking trips we were going to undertake for the year. As is typically the case we had to make concessions for other things in life that take precedence. One of the plans that had to go by the wayside was my attempt at an assisted speed attempt around the Wonderland Trail. Because we unexpectedly moved to eastern Washington, we were unable to do much hiking on the west side of the Cascades, therefore, my would-be pacer Adam Braddock and I decided to do a 30-40 mile trail run at Mount Rainier. We settled on the Northern Loop and joked that we would be setting an FKT because we were unable to find record of anyone else completing the loop for time.
So Apryle dropped us off at the White River Campground Trailhead to avoid the ten-mile drive to the traditional Sun Rise Campground starting point. We started in the late morning hours when the sun was already engulfing the area and heating up our surroundings. The loop would end up looking more like a lollipop with our modified starting point, but we had not anticipated how much this additional lollipop stick would add to our day. When Adam and I reviewed the trail description it said around 33 miles and about 8500ft of vertical; which we thought would be a solid 6-6.5 hours of running. However, our new starting point and challenges we encountered en route would tack on an additional 6 miles, 5000ft of vertical and 4 hours of movement (depending on whose watch).
Chapter 1: White River Campground to Wonderland Trail
The first leg of the run was more of a power hike, with over 2000 vertical feet in just over 4 miles, the trail certainly does not ease you into it. We wanted to be conservative early because we knew we had a lot of ground to cover and that too quick of an effort early could cause problems later on in the run. Once we started on the looped section we were greeted with sweeping views an alpine landscape.
Chapter 2: Wonderland Trail to Northern Loop Trail
The second leg of the journey included some faster rolling alpine miles that were completely above tree line. The alpine sections are always my personal favorite because I enjoy the views that are unobstructed by trees. I have always loved to trace the slender outline of a trail winding among the mountains and upland vegetation in the distance. These sections never last long enough, as soon as we reached the 6500ft it was back down into the forest we went. We kept a solid pace and Adam told stories of the Seattle running scene in the 2000’s until we popped out at a Mystic Lake (or so the sign informed us). From Mystic Lake we continued along Moraine Creek and made the most our most dramatic descent (3000ft over 5 miles) of the run all the way to the Carbon River Suspension Bridge.
Chapter 3: The Northern Loop Trail to Windy Gap
What goes down must come back up; and we knew that would be the case on the stretch of trail to Windy (Winded) Gap. In this case we ascended around 2700ft in about 3 miles up a switchback tree-covered mountain side. When we reached the top we assumed this would be the last big climb of the day (based on total vertical gain calculations) and were quite excited about our pace. We were once again in my favorite place – the alpine. The wildflowers were spectacular, the trail was runable and the views were breathtaking. I made good use out the lifestraw in the crystal clear mountain streams, while Adam captured the scenery with his camera-phone. Life was good and we were just remarking about how we missed our wives and were ready to pick up the pace and get home.
Chapter 4: Windy Gap to White River Crossing
We ran at a solid clip down the hill from Winded Gap until we made a half mile error near Lake James. It was at this point when the trail markings got very sketchy. Prior to Lake James we were confident about our sub seven hour effort, but this juncture marked the only the beginning of our troubles. After getting back on trail we were slowed to a walk by a constant barrage of fallen trees. We could not go ten strides without having to hop over or climb under fallen logs that made trail finding a challenge. After we emerged from the obstacle course, we arrived at Van Horn Creek and saw a spectacular waterfall, but it seemed that the obstacles were only beginning. From here the trail stopped, we followed sporadically placed cairns to the West Fork of the White River. The cairns indicated that we must cross the raging knee deep water. Adam made quick work of the crossing but I was quite scared, one slip might send me down stream to get caught on a log jam. I feared getting stuck under a log and drowning, but I knew if we turned back we would undoubtedly be hiking in the dark, so I pressed forward.
Chapter 5: White River Crossing to Berkeley Park
After we made it safely across the river we had to find the trail, luckily we saw an old red hat and a few other clues that lead us back to the trail. Once back on the trail the fallen trees continued to hinder our pace and we also saw the final climb that was assured to slow us to a hike. The last climb once again followed up a 4 mile tree covered mountain side that switch backed over 2400 vertical feet. We passed a few others that were tackling the loop and were reassured that it was all downhill from there.
We finally reached a clearing that offered one last view of Mt Rainier and then emptied into another upland meadow. At this point we were able to open up the stride once again for about 3 miles before steadily climbing another 1200 vertical feet. We were surrounded by beautiful mountain streams and wildflowers, the temperature was cooling off and we were so close to finishing one of the most challenging looped trail runs either of us had ever done. It was in this stretch where we also spotted our first and only black bear on the trip and here where we realized that the run was going to run drastically over the time that we were hoping for.
Chapter 6: Berkeley Park to White River Campground
This section skirted along the alpine where there were still remaining strongholds of snow and eventually led back into the forested switchbacks that would lead us back to our destination. Here Adam and I really picked up the pace and finished strong. I was trying to keep up as the pace reached a quick 7:30 over roots and rocks on the ever dimming trail. We made it to the finish as darkness was falling around us. It ended a long and arduous journey that consumed every inch of our energy. The run was beautiful and exhilarating but I could not help but be overwhelmed with guilt for arriving so late the night before Apryle’s White River 50 miler.
Depending on what site you find there are a lot of different measurements for distance and elevation gain of this loop. I have seen this distances ranging from 33 miles to 40 miles and elevation from 8500-9500 total feet. Even Adam and I came up with different final results despite never more than 100 feet from each other the whole time. At any rate, to provide some beta from our most recent journey the stats are listed below:
Moving Time: 8:34:11
Vertical Gain: 12,079 feet
Total Trip Time: 10:35:21
Miles: 38 miles
Moving Time: 9:06:11
Vertical Gain: 13,125 feet Total Trip Time: 10:35:21
Since we were unable to find another documented FKT; Adam and I will take credit for this one in a time of 10:35:21… should be easily beaten when logs are cleared off the trail and river is shallower.
As a side note Apryle went on to do a spectacular job in her race the next day; here is a link to her race report