Mt Rainier National Park 2014, Paradise Side: Camping at Big Creek, High Lakes Loop Trail Hike
I love Mt. Rainier National Park. There are just so many good easy day hikes with incredible views. There is also no shortage of challenging hikes for more experienced and in-shape hikers. This trip we went camping to celebrate our anniversary, and had time for one hike in the park. We chose the High Lakes Loop Trail and it was a good one.
We left Seattle around 1:00 PM on a Friday, headed towards Big Creek Campground just outside the south west corner of the park. Traffic was a little sluggish, but not too bad. The worst part of this drive is getting through the town of South Hill, which is just one big long strip mall with a million stop lights. That stretch of the 161 is particularly infuriating, but once you break through it is pretty smooth sailing from there to Ashford.
We pulled over to check out the swim beach area of Alder Lake off the highway in Elbe. The lake is a beautiful blue-green color and the water seemed nice for swimming. Another trip, perhaps.
We arrived around 3:30 and set up camp. We’d reserved and picked out our site online back in May, and it ended up being the same site (number 22) that we’d camped in back in 2012. It had mediocre privacy, but plenty of trees and shade. We like Big Creek because of it’s close proximity to the National Park entrance (only 5 miles), and the woodsy natural setting. The campground has only pit toilets, and several water spigots with potable water.
There are some trails off of the forest roads in the area that we’d like to check out sometime. The campground has a large billboard map of them. One leaves from the campground itself–the Osborne Mountain trail #250. It looks pretty difficult. You can find more information about these trails here. We are curious about Bertha Lake and Granite Lake, which can be accessed off of a primitive forest road near the campground. Next time.
After setting up camp, we relaxed and read books in the tent for awhile. Unfortunately, the family across from us kept growing in size throughout the afternoon. With about 10 kids (all with bikes and skateboards), multiple tents, two giant RVs, babies, dogs, etc……the noise level in the camp wasn’t exactly relaxing.
We tuned them out and cooked our quintessential first night camping dinner: baked beans, hot dogs, and corn on the cob. All these things seem to taste so much better while camping.
There had been a camping dessert recipe going around on Pinterest lately for chocolate campfire cake baked in an orange. I thought we’d give it a try. I pre-mixed brownie batter at home and kept it in our cooler in a plastic container. To make the orange campfire cakes, we hollowed out a couple oranges, filled them with brownie batter, covered them in two layers of tin foil, and baked them on the grill.
I have to say, they turned out pretty awesome. A new camping dessert to give the s’more a run for it’s money.
We went to bed pretty early as we planned on getting up early to hike. I was glad I brought ear plugs, since our neighbors with the giant family blared country music until about 2:00 AM.
I set the alarm for 7:00 AM, and we got a pretty early start. After making coffee and granola and getting some hiking clothes on, we headed into the park at about 8:00 AM. There was little traffic, and we breezed right through the Nisqually entrance. The entrance fee for a vehicle for one week is $15.00.
After about 30 minutes of winding roads (if you get carsick like me, I’d recommend being the driver, not the passenger), we reached the Paradise Visitor’s Center parking area, which was already full. Fortunately, we were headed to the Reflection Lakes parking area just past Paradise, so this wasn’t an issue.
**Note: If you are visiting Paradise on a weekend in July or August, shoot for getting there by 8:00 AM. The lot fills up fast and there are parking spaces down the road for several miles, although I wouldn’t want to have to walk that distance and then hike afterward. There used to be a shuttle service between Longmire and Paradise on the weekends, but the National Park website mentioned budget cuts and I couldn’t find any information on it, so it might be discontinued.
We arrived at the middle Reflection Lakes Parking lot (there are three) and were pleased to see many spaces still open. Our guidebook recommended the middle parking lot for the High Lakes Loop Trail.
Reflection Lake is an easy roadside stop for a great postcard-worthy photo of the mountain. Most people seem to do just that– stop, take photos, and move on. Swimming or fishing in the lake is prohibited, but I read that neighboring Lake Louise allows fishing and swimming.
We were hiking the Reflection Lakes/High Lakes loop trail, a relatively easy 2.7 mile loop. Our book recommended hiking counter-clockwise for easier elevation gain, and we would definitely agree.
The High Lakes Loop Trail starts from the left side of the lake facing Rainier, and heads towards the mountain. “Easy” wasn’t exactly the word coming to mind while I huffed and puffed up the steep side of the hill, but it wasn’t so bad. There were a lot of steps built in and the trail is well maintained. Fortunately, Paddy is patient with me while I take frequent breaks on the long hills.
After about 0.75 mile of hill and steps, there is a big reward. We reached Faraway Rock, a clear lookout that provides great views of the Tatoosh Mountain Range and Lake Louise directly below.
We continued on, checking out Fairy Pond to our right as we left Faraway Rock.
There was a little more uphill after that, but not as steep. We soon turned west through beautiful sub-alpine valleys, with peeking glimpses of Mt. Rainier through the trees. The trail was relatively level for the westward portion.
It was August, and the wildflowers were in full bloom, peppering the hills and valleys with little splashes of color.
We continued through more gorgeous valleys and over dry creek beds. We intersected with a trail leading back up to Paradise for one mile, but opted to continue on the High Lakes Loop Trail.
After the trail fork, we began our descent southward back towards Reflection Lake. The trail had some water erosion causing a large rut in the middle of it for a ways, and it was quite steep. There were no steps built into the trail on this side. We were really glad we followed our guidebook’s advice and hiked counter-clockwise. We left the valleys behind and descended through the forest.
The trail leveled out a short distance before Reflection Lake.
As we got closer to the parking lot, more and more people were milling around, taking photos, and starting out on the trail. The parking lot was completely full by then, and we were glad we got up early. We made sandwiches and sat by Reflection Lake and had a picnic.
On the way out of the park we made a quick stop at the Longmire Visitor Center to pick up a couple souvenirs at the gift shop and use a real bathroom (with sinks, soap, and water) before heading back to camp. We saw some backpackers getting ready to set off on the Wonderland Trail, which circumnavigates Mt Rainier. I’m sure it’s amazing, but is way past my athletic ability.
It was about 1:00 PM, and cars were lined up at the park entrance, pouring in at a steady rate. Parking at visitors’ centers and trail heads is pretty cut-throat by the afternoon. I have to wonder if they all know that.
Back at camp we rested in the tent for awhile. I attempted a nap, but our neighbors with the giant family were playing a homemade cornhole game with metal discs instead of bean bags filled with corn, right in front of our campsite. It pretty much sounded like someone throwing horseshoes at a brick wall every 30 seconds for about three hours.
For dinner Paddy made some sausage gnocchi with mushrooms and onions and pre-made pasta sauce. We cooked garlic bread on the fire and made a salad. It was a satisfying meal after a good hike.
The next morning we weren’t feeling the granola, so we packed up camp early and drove about a mile back up towards the park entrance to have breakfast at the Copper Creek Inn. We noticed a large amount of cars parked outside of it the morning before so we figured it must be good.
I had the Sunrise Breakfast, which came with two eggs cooked to order, crispy hash browns, and homemade toast. The homemade bread was fantastic. Paddy had biscuits and gravy with a side of scrambled eggs. Service was good, and the place is cute. They also have some nice looking cabins for rent there as well, and is open year-round.
We headed home to Seattle, and made good timing with little traffic. There is so much to see at Mt Rainier, and so many great hiking trails. We will keep coming back. The High Lakes Loop Trail is a great one, and pretty easy. We’d recommend it.