Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Summerland and Panhandle Gap

12 miles round trip, 3000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous due to distance; really just a long moderate hike
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Mount Rainier National Park entrance fee required.

The barren alpine landscape of Panhandle Gap and the luxuriously green meadows of Summerland combine to make this hike one of the most enjoyable in Mount Rainier National Park, a park with no dearth of jaw-dropping hike options. Hikers can choose to travel either four miles to the flower gardens at Summerland or continue an additional two miles to the extraordinary view of Rainier and the southern Cascades at rocky, oft-icebound Panhandle Gap. The trail through Summerland is straightforward, with the elevation gain sufficiently spread out such that the trail is never very steep; the final climb to Panhandle Gap involves slightly steeper areas on loose rock and snow that may be slightly more difficult to handle.

I hiked to Panhandle Gap on a beautiful summer weekend day with three friends. The skies in Seattle were overcast when we headed out, but the clouds cleared out by the time we passed Greenwater on Route 410. Although we tried to leave early to beat the inevitable Saturday traffic at Mount Rainier, we still encountered a 20-minute wait at the Sunrise entrance station and packed parking at the Summerland trailhead, which was just 5 miles down the White River/Sunrise Road from the entrance station. The limited number of actual parking spots were all taken when we arrived, so we parked on the narrow shoulder along the road.

The trail departed from the south side of the road and immediately plunged into an old-growth forest. A few hundred feet from the trailhead, the trail joined up with the Wonderland Trail; we went straight through the junction, which took us towards Summerland on the Wonderland. In the first two miles of hiking, the grades were constant but fairly gentle as we followed the wide, dirt-packed trail within earshot of the tumbling waters of Fryingpan Creek. Along the way, we found a remarkably bent tree just off the trail and wondered how it could've grown into the shape that it assumed.

Curved tree in the forest on the trail to Summerland
After hiking about two miles in, the trail began to offer the first hints of views. We caught peekaboo glimpses of the snowfields, rock faces, and tumbling waterfalls on Banshee Mountain. At one point, the trail neared a small waterfall on Fryingpan Creek, but unfortunately the waterfall itself could only be heard and not seen. Wide, well-built wooden bridges carried the trail across a number of feeder streams dropping down to Fryingpan Creek from Goat Island Mountain.

Fryingpan Creek
At roughly three miles in, the wide trail ended as the we came to the rocky riverbed of Fryingpan Creek. Here, we crossed the creek via two narrow but well-built log bridges.

Fryingpan Creek
Beyond the river crossing, the trail entered some semi-open meadows with the first substantial wildflowers and views of the hike. Mount Rainier and Little Tahoma Peak came into our field of view; from this perspective, Little Tahoma seemed to be equivalently tall as Rainier itself, although it's a full 3000 feet shorter.

Rainier and Little Tahoma from meadows along Fryingpan Creek
Past the creekside meadows, the trail delved back into the woods and began a stretch of substantial uphill climing, switchbacking up the south slopes of the Fryingpan Creek valley. At the halfway mark of this ascent, the forest thinned out slightly and the trail entered a meadow slope that was bursting with wildflowers. Lupine, sitka valerian, heather, paintbrush- numerous blooming, bright colors dotted the green meadows.

Heather in the meadows
The switchbacks ended when the trail meandered into a verdant, lush meadow coated with lupine. Summerland Camp- a backcountry campground- lay at the far end of this meadow. We passed by a toilet and a shelter by the camp area.

Lupine in the meadows
We glimpsed a marmot roaming through these meadows, munching happily on lupine and other flowers, fattening up for its upcoming winter hibernation.

Marmot in Summerland meadows
The trail continued onward into an even more expansive and verdant set of meadows. The open views of Rainier, Little Tahoma, and the surrounding snowcapped alpine ridges were enhanced by the nearby scene of green meadows, blooming heather, and tumbling streams.

Rainier at Summerland
Past the meadows, the trail entered a rocky alpine wonderland. Milky glacier-fed streams plunged down barren rock, snowfields dotted our surroundings, and far off views of the Stuart Range emerged. The trail, which had been on a comfortable, soft tread prior to reaching Summerland, became rocky and occasionally steep.

Waterfall below Panhandle Gap
After crossing a log bridge, the trail became progressively difficult to follow. Cutting at times across small snowfields and crossing precariously over snow patches that had been hollowed out by streams flowing underneath, we came to a pair of starkly beautiful blue-green lakes at the foot of Panhandle Gap. The larger of the lakes was still partially frozen almost seven weeks after summer solstice.

Meltwater pond below Panhandle Gap
The last climb was through steep sections of loose rock and snow. While we worked our way up through the snowfields, Mount Rainier returned to our field of view. We could see the lip of the volcano at Columbia Crest, the sharp pyramid of Little Tahoma, and the heavily crevassed Emmons Glacier pushing its way down the mountain's east slope. The final snow slope crossings were exposed and thus more difficult, though in each case, there was a relatively safe runout in case of a fall.

Rainier from Panhandle Gap
At the end of the last snow crossing, we found ourselves atop the ridge and suddenly face to face with the stunning views to the south. The meadows and snowfields of Ohanapecosh Park lay at our feet; in the distance, glaciers and late-summer snow lingered on the Goat Rocks, Mount Adams, and Mount Hood. Looking back the way we came, we could see Rainier itself, the turquoise lakes we passed en route, and the back side of Goat Island Mountain. The green meadows coating the southern slopes of Banshee Mountain lay to the east.

Adams and the Goat Rocks from Panhandle Gap
After enjoying the views and our lunches, we retraced our steps. We did find that the snowfields near the gap were both steep enough and in appropriate condition to do two short glissades, each with a drop of roughly 40 vertical feet. The fun of sliding down a snow slope in August was a perfect way to cap off an extraordinarily beautiful hike at the base of Mount Rainier.

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