Completely Alone Backpacking Mount Rainier’s Northern Loop

By Michael Lanza

“There’s absolutely no one out here.”

I was just a few hours into a solo backpacking trip around Mount Rainier National Park’s 32.8-mile Northern Loop when that realization hit me. It was a cool, clear day in October 2003. None of my usual hiking partners had been available to join me. So I decided to do the trip alone, something I’ve done more times than I could count and felt comfortable with. I had no idea that this time I’d face the kind of situation that solo hikers think about but can never anticipate: a threat that shrinks the margin of safety in the wilderness down to nothing.

When I picked up my backcountry permit that morning, a ranger told me a snowstorm had hit the park just two days earlier. “You’ll probably run into at least a foot of snow on the ground at higher elevations,” he said. That didn’t dissuade me; I was prepared for snow. Neither of us, however, knew about the much bigger storm brewing out over the Pacific Ocean as we spoke, collecting moisture as it barreled toward the Cascade Range.

Mountain goats on Yellowstone Cliffs, along the Northern Loop in Mount Rainier National Park.

That conversation came back to me as I walked past the rippling water of a tiny tarn in a meadow on my way to Windy Gap. Just a few tiny patches of white remained on the ground at 5,600 feet. Sun and mild temperatures had evaporated the recent snow. But apparently no one had been out there since the storm, because even the rangers had no idea what trail conditions were like.

That’s when it hit me: With backcountry rangers warning anyone considering a trip that they would encounter deep snow, I would probably not see another person out there.

Autumn can be the finest time to head into the backcountry. The foliage changes color, brightening the landscape. There are no bugs. The weather often achieves something close to meteorological perfection: skies clear and dry, affording hundred-mile views, and temperatures not too hot during the day, not too cold at night. I’ve enjoyed some of my best days in the mountains in the fall.

But autumn exhibits a bipolar personality. And in October, you are as close to the mountain winter as you are to its summer. In some respects, it is more dangerous than winter because in fall it’s easy to get lulled into trusting the weather. But really good can turn really bad, really fast.

Looking back, I think that most if not all of my hardest, most wretched experiences in the backcountry have occurred between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. On Mt. Rainier National Park’s Northern Loop, I was about to add another to my list.

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Approaching Windy Gap on the Northern Loop in Mount Rainier National Park.

That first afternoon, I watched two mountain goats step nimbly across the crumbling face of Yellowstone Cliffs. Then, perhaps inspired by them, I scrambled off-trail from the little, unnamed tarn just before Windy Gap up a talus slope to the saddle between Crescent Mountain and Sluiskin Mountain. There, under a mostly clear sky, forested hills sculpted by ancient volcanic activity undulated away from me to the always improbably enormous, white mass of Mount Rainier (see lead photo at top of story).

Three of the biggest glaciers on “The Mountain,” as western Washingtonians affectionately call Rainier, pour off the northerly aspects I saw from that overlook: the Emmons, Winthrop, and Carbon. On my third day out there, I would walk past the toe of the Carbon, the lowest river of ice in the contiguous United States.

That night, I found myself cocooned in extremes of quiet and darkness, camped below giant firs, pines, and cedars. I could hear only the wind’s occasional perambulations through the treetops, and sank into a sleep as deep as the surrounding silence and blackness.

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Lake James along the Northern Loop.

My second morning brought partly cloudy skies—nothing to suggest what was headed my way. I packed up early and headed downhill through cool forest, crossed the silt-gray West Fork of the White River on a log footbridge, then made a 2,500-foot climb up onto a plateau. The meadows of Grand Park sprawled out more than a mile across. A little while later, I reached the cirque of Berkeley Park, where dense copses of conifers mingle with fields of grasses and wildflowers. Though it was long past wildflower season, Berkeley’s rich hues of green give the impression of a meticulously landscaped park.

By afternoon, I was following the Wonderland Trail west across more high meadows. Rainier migrated in and out of clouds, but patches of blue sky let the sun through periodically. The scale of everything felt magnified by a powerful sense of solitude: On one of the country’s most famous backpacking trails, I saw not another human.

But more than that, by that point I had no expectation of seeing anyone else; and once you’ve crossed that mental threshold, you see your world differently. Instead of chatting with a hiking partner or wondering how many backpackers will be sharing the next camp, you are keenly tuned in to every nearby movement or noise, every change in the play of light or shift in the air temperature and wind. It’s not fear so much as a hyper-awareness that we rarely find in everyday life, as if a third eye suddenly sprouted on the back of your head.

Even in the wilderness of many national parks, seeing absolutely no one for days—conjuring a sense of this country’s wild edge before Western settlement—is a rare experience. Most parks, Rainier included, are popular enough that backcountry permit numbers are restricted, both to prevent resource overuse and to preserve some sense of solitude. But that only regulates the numbers of backpackers, of course, not dayhikers. While the number of people you encounter generally corresponds to factors like proximity to major population centers (Rainier’s Nisqually entrance is 85 miles from Seattle) and a trail’s difficulty and distance from the nearest road, during the peak hiking season, you usually cannot walk very far without running into other people.

The Northern Loop of Mount Rainier National Park is a sort of miniature version of the Wonderland Trail, the 93-mile-long footpath encircling Rainier that draws backpackers from all over the planet. The Northern Loop delivers the same Wonderland-esque experience of hiking from temperature rainforest to sub-alpine meadows bursting with wildflowers—in fact, the loop overlaps with a stretch of the WT. But because it’s not nearly as well known, getting a permit for it does not involve the level of competition that you’ll face trying to plan a summer trip on the Wonderland.

By the time I pitched my tent at the Mystic backcountry camp on my second evening, I felt like I’d hit the trifecta. For two clear, crisp autumn days I had basked in complete solitude with jaw-unhinging views of The Mountain and its meadows.

Then the rain came.

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Above the West Fork White River along the Northern Loop in Mount Rainier National Park.

Throughout that second night, wind and water lashed at my shivering tent. In the morning, I ate breakfast inside my cool, damp little nylon shelter, packed up as quickly as I could as rain drummed onto me, and set out in conditions approximating a category one hurricane.

I’ve plodded down trails through biblical-scale rains from New Zealand to Vermont’s Long Trail. On the latter, I was attempting a thru-hike—also in an October several years before this Rainier trip, also solo (yes, I’m a patient learner)—but aborted it after two weeks and 10 inches of rain, heading home with waterlogged boots and spirits.

But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen rain like I saw that day on the north side of Rainier. The unrelenting downpour was punctuated by wind-borne sheets of water that hit me as if hurled from a barrel. Miserable as it was, though, it was hard to not feel awed. Following the Wonderland Trail around the shore of Mystic Lake, I watched the bizarre phenomenon of atmosphere impersonating ocean as visible waves of water rolled one after another through the air above the choppy lake surface. The rain fell torrentially and without pause; I could often see no more than one or two hundred feet before everything bled into a blank wall of battleship gray. Midday was as dim as dusk.

It became clear that I needed to get back to my car as quickly as possible that day—not just because the trip had ceased being fun, but for my own safety. I crossed a rain-slicked log bridge over a creek so bloated that its white teeth gnashed at the 10-inch-wide platform beneath my boots. Had I arrived there an hour later, the bridge might have been gone.

I hurried the miles to my car, anxious to be dry—but not fully aware of the urgency of escaping quickly.

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Berkeley Park along the Northern Loop.

That October 2003 tempest would become the second of four storms within just 12 years to cause 100-year or bigger floods in the Pacific Northwest, from Mount Rainier to the North Cascades and the Olympic Peninsula. Scientists now know that the warming climate is incubating larger, more destructive storms—in part simply because air can hold more moisture as it warms.

The third storm in that series, in November 2006, dropped nearly 18 inches of rain in 36 hours—the equivalent of getting 15 feet of snow. It triggered record floods in Mount Rainier National Park—destroying roads and trails, burying one backcountry campground beneath a massive lahar, or debris flow (no one was there at the time), washing away at least two dozen log bridges over creeks along the Wonderland Trail, and closing the park to motor vehicles for an unprecedented six months.

That 2006 storm would also swell the Carbon River sufficiently to erase a huge swath of the trail I was hiking on my last day on the Northern Loop, and the road I would drive out to civilization. (The trail was repaired; the road no longer exists.) It’s not hyperbolic to say that, had the 2003 storm begun a little earlier or stalled a little longer over the region, I might have ended up as the subject of the kind of brief accident report that parks issue now and then, which dryly explain that no trace of the missing person was ever found.

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None of that transpired, of course. I made it safely to my car and drove out of the park, happy to be dry, warm, and safe. I told my wife what happened, but otherwise, almost no one knew how close I came to being a grim statistic.

Absolute solitude in the wilderness is a precious stone that should always be handled with care. It sometimes arrives gift-wrapped in circumstances magical and enlightening, or challenging far beyond what you expected—or both in the same trip.

And sometimes what transpires is mostly just a matter of timing and luck.

Tell me what you think.

I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons below, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

NOTE: I write more about Mount Rainier National Park’s climate-change story in my book, Before They’re Gone–A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, from Beacon Press. See also my story about a three-day family backpacking trip in the park, “Wildflowers, Waterfalls, and Slugs at Mount Rainier.”

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16 thoughts on “Completely Alone Backpacking Mount Rainier’s Northern Loop”

  1. Great little read Michael, thank you. I was supposed to do the Wonderland Trail with my daughter this year but we didn’t get permits. I did the JMT a couple years ago and started out with a friend but he only made it eight days, it was way harder than he anticipated. And I spent the entire second half after Muir Trail Ranch alone. I was completely alone the entire time as I did meet a few people in camp with a few as well. I did however spend a week barely seen a soul other than a quick pass. I experienced the full range of emotions and thoughts. I found it quite interesting I handled it and was able to get through it. I learned a lot about myself for sure. I also experienced on a couple occasions the incredibly extreme quiet you mentioned. I found that more difficult than the solitude. Unlike you I am not a writer and so I did some video selfie’s and kept a few notes. Love to share more let me know if you’re interested.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Richard. I also applied for but didn’t get a Wonderland Trail permit this year; it’s a popular hike, for sure.

      I can relate to everything you describe. Solitude changes the experience significantly and in complex ways that can make you discover things about yourself. I wish you the best with all of your adventures, and be careful out there.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement for the Northern Loop via your article here. We did the full Wonderland Trail last summer, clockwise. The Cascades are so beautiful. Lush with berries on the west side trail portions.

    We intend to do the Northern Loop this year to enjoy more of that country. Its part of the Great Pacific Northwest that so few take the time to enjoy. Best regards.

  3. Wow, a beautiful read. I have been plugging into this site for about a year, even though I’m a British and will likely never make it to a fraction of the places you describe. To my mind you are the American Chris Townsend, one of our finest writer-hikers. You certainly brought this to life. Thanks.

    • Hi Sierra, yes, I hiked a clockwise loop from the Carbon River trailhead (this was before the Carbon River Road was permanently closed, after a similar but more destructive storm in November 2006).

      • I made my first trip to Rainier this past summer, and fell in love. I did the loop through Spray Park and back up over Ipsut Pass…. with a side trip up to Yellowstone Cliffs camp. A evening hike up to Windy Gap was the highlight of the trip. So the Northern Loop is on my menu for next summer.