Monday, July 25, 2016

Spray Park

Mount Rainier rises over a carpet of avalanche lilies at Spray Park
8 miles round trip, 1900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Long and bumpy gravel road to trailhead, $25 Mount Rainier National Park entrance fee

The open meadows of Spray Park are one of the most dazzling subalpine wildflower gardens in the shadow of Mount Rainier; the mist coming off 350-foot tall Spray Falls is literally dazzling when lit by sunlight. Although the trail to Spray Park from Mowich Lake is relatively tame, staying in the forest for the most part, the two destinations visited by the trail are undeniably spectacular, making Spray Park an extremely worthwhile hike in Mount Rainier National Park. The hike delivers many close-up views of the mountain's northwest face both at a viewpoint along the trail itself and at the sprawling meadows of Spray Park.

I hiked to Spray Park on a perfect sunny day in late July weekend when my parents and some family friends were visiting Seattle. We arrived a little too early in the year for the peak wildflower bloom but came just in time to catch the early-blooming avalanche lilies carpet many of the higher meadows. At least a half million other Puget Sound residents settled on a similar decision to make the drive out to the trailhead at Mowich Lake that weekend, resulting in cars parked along the side of the road for a half-mile out from the actual parking lot at the trailhead. We made our way down to the trailhead from Seattle by taking Route 167 south to Sumner, then Route 410 east to Buckley, and finally Route 165 south through Wilkeson and across the ricketty Fairfax Bridge to the fork between the roads to Carbon River and Mowich Lake. The road to Mowich Lake was a long and bumpy 16 mile drive through endless fields of potholes, but was doable for a sedan; on the plus side, the road was easily wide enough for traffic heading both directions. Trailhead parking was more or less impossible on a sunny weekend day nearing peak wildflower times.

The trail left from the Mowich Lake walk-in campground, immediately delving downhill into the forest and reaching a junction in a fifth of a mile. The right fork was the Wonderland Trail; the left fork headed towards Spray Park. We followed the left fork. The trail went across a series of gradual ups and downs, crossing a set of streams on log bridges as the trail made its way through forest and an open creek valley. At times, colorful fungi adorned the forest floor. In general, the trail trended downhill here, reaching the lowest point of the hike just before reaching a talus slope.

Trailside fungi
From the talus slope, the trail began climbing, gradually winding its way uphill through the forest to reach a short spur trail to a view of Mount Rainier at Eagle Cliff at about 1.5 miles. The brief detour led downhill to a good view of Liberty Cap and of the Mowich Glaciers flowing down the mountain's slopes.

Liberty Cap from Eagle Cliff
Past Eagle Cliff, the trail stayed relatively level as it followed the steep side of the mountain through the forest until coming to a confusingly signed junction. A trail sign at the junction pointed downhill to the Eagle's Roost Camp and straight to "Water"; the appropriate path to Spray Park was to stay on the path going straight ahead. Shortly afterwards, about two miles from the trailhead, we arrived at a fork with the spur trail to Spray Falls. We left the falls for the trip back, opting to take the left fork for the ascent to Spray Park.

The next mile consisted of a steady ascent up tight switchbacks to the meadow. Towards the top of the ascent, blooming lupine and beargrass began to line the trail. After crossing a creek on a log bridge, the trail came to the lower meadow of Spray Park, a small grassy clearing with Mount Rainier looming to the south.

Lower meadow at Spray Park
Past this idyllic introduction to Spray Park, the trail re-entered the forest. We made our way through another uphill stretch to emerge at a second meadow, this one substantially larger and dotted with beargrass and paintbrush. Avalanche lilies were past their peak in the lower meadow, which gave my mom, who had come for the avalanche lilies, some momentary distress despite the otherwise gorgeous surroundings.

Blooming beargrass
The trail wound through the meadow past a small pond and then began a gradual ascent through the grassy Spray Park. It's tempting to stop in the lower meadows, savor the views and the small ponds, and then turn back. I'm glad that we didn't: about halfway up the meadow, we finally came to the first patch of avalanche lilies in full bloom, the white petals of the lilies waving in the meadow like twinkling stars in the night sky. As we hiked higher and higher up, the patches of lilies turned into fields of gorgeous splotches of white and gold.

Avalanche lilies at Spray Park
Just when we thought the wildflower show couldn't be any more beautiful, we emerged at the flat high meadow that formed the upper end of Spray Park. Paintbrush and avalanche lilies were splashed across the grassy meadow in a dazzling display; to one side, rocky Mother Mountain rose above the meadow while to the other, Observation Rock and the glacier-crowned Mount Rainier rose imposingly.

Blooming avalanche lilies in the upper meadow
Spray Park
We decided to stop and turn around towards the end of this high, flat meadow, where a small spur trail led off to the left to a cliff viewpoint at the edge of the meadow. From this vantage point, we had a view north into a meadow-filled cirque with Mother Mountain rising behind it; we could also see Glacier Peak, the I-90 peaks, and the Stuart Range in the distance.

Mother Mountain view from Spray Park
After enjoying the spectacular views and wildflowers at our turn-around point (while simultaneously battling the numerous mosquitoes intent on eating us alive), we retraced our steps to the trailhead. Along the way, we took the short spur trail for Spray Falls. This brief detour required minimal elevation gain and took us across a creek and through a talus slope to the base of Spray Falls in a tenth of a mile. The end of the trail unfortunately only provides a view of half of the falls, with the other half of the falls blocked by creekside trees. In order to see the falls in their entirety, I crossed the creek flowing down from the falls, which was a bit of a challenge due to the fast current and lack of good rock-hopping spots. The view of the 350-foot cascading waterfall from the other side was certainly worth the effort to get there and capped off a hike filled with extraordinary natural beauty.

Spray Falls

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