Friday, October 2, 2015

Naches Peak Loop

Mount Rainier above wildflowers on the Naches Peak Loop
3.2 miles loop, 600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no pass required; in most years, the trail is snowed in all months save July to October

The Naches Peak Loop provides one of the highest return on investment for any hike in Mt. Rainier National Park. The trail is not at all difficult, with some uphills and downhills that are manageable for hikers of most abilities, but provides stunning views of Mt. Rainier, many lakes and tarns, and a wealth of wildflowers in season. Starting from Tipsoo Lake, the hike circumnavigates Naches Peak, passing through mountain slopes with views of the Chinook Pass peaks, meadows of lupine, and viewpoints above Dewey Lake in the William Douglas Wilderness. The hike ends with nearly constant views of glacier-capped Mt. Rainier towering up its attendant mountains.

I hiked this trail in late June during a low snow year, coming at just the right time to see the peak wildflower bloom. My friend and I drove down from Seattle by taking I-5 south, then Route 18 east to Auburn, then Route 164 south to Enumclaw and Route 410 east through Greenwater to the entrance of Mount Rainier National Park. Once in the park, we continued on Route 410 to the parking lot for Tipsoo Lake, which was just before Chinook Pass.

From the trailhead at Tipsoo Lake, we followed the trail leading to the lake. Prior to looping around Naches Peak, we looped around Tipsoo Lake itself, taking the trail that followed the lakeshore. There is a maze of trails near the lake; any trail that appears to circle lake probably does. Once by the lake, we were astonished by the field of lupine and other wildflowers that bordered the lake itself. Wildflowers of all imaginable colors were densely packed in the lush green meadows.

Lupine at Tipsoo Lake
We circled the lake clockwise, coming to a great view of the lake with Mt. Rainier rising behind on the far end of the lake. To the north, we observed an interesting peak with a castle-like summit.

Tipsoo Lake
After circling the lake and returning to the junction for the path back to the parking lot, we headed off on the Naches Peak loop clockwise. The trail began to climb through lupine-covered meadows on the north side of the lake and soon entered the forest, where there were still plenty of wildflowers in small pocket meadows. After a short ascent, the trail popped back out by the road at Chinook Pass coming to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. We took the PCT south (to the left), crossing Route 410 on a bridge. From here, there was a good view down into the canyon that led up to Chinook Pass from Yakima.

After crossing the pass, the trail followed a forested slope with occasional views of the mountains to the north, soon entering the William Douglas Wilderness. This section of trail was actually a little unpleasant: we found ourselves surrounded by bugs. Even after an ample application of bug spray, we were still continuously swarmed, with mosquito bites all over our arms, legs, and neck by the end of the day.

This was somewhat made up for by the patches of avalanche lilies that we found along the trail. These beautiful white flowers are usually the first to pop out after snowmelt and were at the end of their bloom in a low snow June.

Avalanche lilies
As we continued onwards, the bugs didn't let up; luckily, the wildflowers stuck around, too.

Fields of lupine
Western anemone, lupine, paintbrush
We soon passed by a small tarn on the left of the trail, with plenty of nice picnic rocks in a meadow. The entire area around the tarn was surrounded by wildflowers as well.

Tarn on the north side of Naches Peak
The trail soon crossed a small pass, leading to a view of more peaks to the east. At one point, the trail entered a clearing overlooking Dewey Lake, a sizable lake in the William Douglas Wilderness. Just after the viewpoint, we came to an intersection with the Naches Peak Loop heading to the right and the Pacific Crest Trail turning left to head down to Dewey Lake; we stayed to the right.

Dewey Lake in the William Douglas Wilderness
Soon after crossing the intersection, we came to one of the most magical spots of the hike: the trail crossed a wide, green meadow packed with wildflowers of every color. At the far end of the meadow we could see a small tarn; rising behind it all was the massive Tahoma. The flower-filled meadows stretched far up the slopes of Naches Peak, which occupied the north end of our view.

Tarn on the loop
From here on, the trail continued to flirt with meadows and views of Rainier; soon views of the Ohanapecosh valley opened up as well and Mt. Adams was barely visible to the south. The rest of the loop was a gradual descent through forest back to Tipsoo Lake punctuated by occasional views of Rainier. The trail soon brought us back to Route 410; to wrap up the loop, we crossed the road and hiked along the lakeshore back to the parking area we started in.

Mt. Rainier, viewed near the end of the loop
Tipsoo Lake and Mount Rainier
This easy loop is highly recommended for anyone who visits the park but lacks the time or energy to do hikes such as Burroughs Mountain, the Skyline Trail, or Camp Muir. The 3-mile hike visits some of the beautiful alpine meadows for which Rainier is well known and is particularly spectacular during the peak wildflower bloom. The timing of that bloom is unfortunately a little unpredictable: while I caught the lupine and avalanche lilies in June of 2015, a low snow year, a previous June visit to Tipsoo Lake in a normal snow year found the area covered in as much as three feet of snow. In a typical year, July would likely be a better month for the loop; check conditions before hiking.

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