Sunday, July 23, 2017

Indian Henry's Hunting Ground

Avalanche lilies along the trail in Indian Henry's Hunting Grounds
11.5 miles round trip, 3600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Mount Rainier National Park entrance fee required

Indian Henry's Hunting Ground is a remarkable wildflower meadow to the southwest of Washington State's Mount Rainier that is perhaps one of the most underrated hiking destinations in Mount Rainier National Park. While lacking the name recognition of Rainier wildflower parks such as Paradise, Summerland, or Spray Park, the Hunting Ground puts on an equally colorful and lush wildflower show and as a bonus, typically sees only a fraction of the visitors that trample to those other spots. What the Hunting Ground lacks in wide, open grassy spaces, it makes up for in wildflower density, pretty ponds, and a historic ranger cabin along the Wonderland Trail. This hike is absolutely phenomenal when avalanche lilies bloom; visit during mid-summer to catch this unrivalled show of Northwest natural color. The catch? The Hunting Ground is a substantial day hike in from either Kautz Creek or Longmire, a much tougher destination to reach than many of the other previously mentioned wildflower hotspots.

I hiked this trail with a friend on a reasonably nice July day; although we had initially made plans to head to the North Cascades, overcast weather in the Sound and the promise of clear skies in the Paradise webcam drove us south to Mount Rainier. From Seattle, we took State Route 167 and then SR 512 south to Puyallup, exited onto SR 161 and followed it south past South Hill, Graham, and Eatonville to the junction with SR 7; we turned left and followed Highway 7 to Elbe and continued on Highway 706 from Elbe towards Mount Rainier. Passing Ashford, we entered the park and came to the Kautz Creek Trailhead, on the right side of the road, about 4 miles from the park entrance. There were maybe 40 or so parking spaces at the trailhead, which was ample considering that trail traffic was fairly low.

From the parking lot, we crossed the road and started off on the Kautz Creek Nature Trail boardwalk; following the boardwalk for just a few yards, we came to a trail junction to the right for the trail to Indian Henry's. We took the right fork, leaving the boardwalk for a wide, gentle trail through the forest. The first mile of the trail was nearly flat as it cut through the forest adjacent to Kautz Creek. At the end of the first mile, the trail descended slightly to cross through the sandy creekbed of Kautz Creek, crossing the creek itself via a well-built log bridge. Here, we caught our first view of the mountain (and our only view of the mountain uncloaked- Rainier decided to at least partially hide beneath the clouds for the rest of our hike).

The first mile of the hike illustrated the power of flooding and mudflows: Kautz Creek is perhaps best known for a massive 1947 mudflow triggered by heavy rains that buried the Longmire-Paradise Road. Sections where the creekbed is threatening to undercut the trail underlines the fickle nature of the creek and the fast-paced geological change that occurs in the park. Mudflows and floods play an active role in the park landscape and park access: in recent years, multiple glacial outburst debris flows have charged down Tahoma Creek, causing the long-term closure of Westside Road, and a 2006 flood on the Nisqually River destroyed a campground at Longmire. When Rainier erupts in the future, volcanic mudflows known as lahars will pose a major threat not just within the park but also to communities along the rivers leading out from the mountain such as Orting and even major Puget Sound cities like Tacoma.

After crossing Kautz Creek, the trail delved into an old growth forest (one cedar was almost four feet in diameter!) and began a steady uphill climb. Soon, reaching the base of Mount Ararat, the trail embarked on an at times steep switchback ascent through the forest.

Massive cedar on the climb up to the Hunting Grounds
There's little to comment on here; the climb was relentless, with only occasional flat breaks, as it continued from one uphill stretch on to the next and then the next, cramming 2000 feet of elevation gain into the next two miles. At a little over three miles from the trailhead, at a sharp switchback, we found a small spur path that led a hundred paces off the trail to a southward view, the first real view of the hike. We spotted Mount Adams in the distance; closer in, my friend and I could see the pointed summit of High Rock and the jagged line of Sawtooth Ridge, where we had been just a week earlier.

High Rock and Sawtooth Ridge
Not long past the viewpoint, the trail flattened out a bit and we made three almost simultaneous discoveries: first, Mount Rainier appeared before us, mostly cloaked in clouds, for just the first time since crossing Kautz Creek; second, a small patch of snow lay on the trail, giving us a perfect spot to lie down and cool down after the long uphill; and third, both sides of the trails were lined avalanche lilies in full bloom. We had managed to nail the timing for our hike on the head and catch avalanche lilies in peak bloom along the trail.

Avalanche lilies
Past this brief flattening in the trail, we began an uphill climb again; but this time, the trail broke out into a semi-open slope at the base of an imposing rock ridge. As the trail attacked this slope with a switchback climb, good view of both Goat Rocks and Mount Adams emerged. The meadows here were bursting with color: I spotted phlox, tiger lilies, columbine, beargrass, arnica, valerian, and lupine.

Mount Adams comes into view
Then, very suddenly, at about four miles from the trailhead, we emerged into an open meadow atop a ridge. Innumerable beargrass and stately spruce were spread throughout the meadow; Liberty Cap and Point Success made brief appearances to the north as the clouds drifted in and out. Although we were still the better part of two miles from the end of our hike at the patrol cabin, this meadow marked our entry into Indian Henry's Hunting Ground.

The fields of beargrass were followed by dense patches of alpine daisies. My friend and I, who were been joined by a solo fellow hiker, made our way slowly through this most sublime of subalpine gardens.

Field of daisies in the Hunting Ground
I've visited many incredible subalpine wildflower meadows in the past; although Indian Henry's is perhaps not the best known, the wildflower show here is surely an equal to the blooms at Paradise and Spray Park. Mount Adams, Goat Rocks, and occasionally Rainier formed a snowy and majestic backdrop to boundless fields of beargrass, Indian paintbrush, lupine, arnica, and daisies.

Mount Adams rises above Indian Henry's Hunting Grounds
The mixed meadow-and-forest summit of Mount Ararat soon appeared before us. Downhill hikers informed us that they had spotted a bear on the slopes of Ararat, but we missed the ursine residents on our hike.

Mounts Ararat and Rainier rise above Indian Henry's Hunting Grounds
Pasqueflower (also known as Western Anemone) was rare but we spotted some along the trail that had already bloomed and gone to seed, leaving behind its distinctive, Dr. Seuss-like seedheads.

Pasqueflower seedheads
Reaching the foot of Mount Ararat, we started the final substantial uphill climb of the hike. The trail reentered a sparse forest interspersed with ridiculously colorful wildflower meadows: valerian, columbine, arnica, lupine, monkeyflower, and daisies dotted the switchbacks as we made our final 400-foot uphill push.

Approaching the top of this climb, magenta paintbrush and avalanche lilies began crowding the trailside. Then, cresting a small hill, we saw the extraordinary sight of Mount Rainier, with Liberty Cap and Point Success just poking out from above the clouds and the Tahoma Glacier plunging down the Sunset Ampitheater, rising above a lush display of avalanche lilies.

Indian Henry's Hunting Grounds
Soon afterwards, the trail emerged onto an open slope on the east side of Mount Ararat, ascending gently through a meadow of beargrass and valerian with stunning open views of the Tatoosh Range, Goat Rocks, Satulick Mountain, and Mount Adams.

Tatoosh Range and Goat Rocks
At the end of the sloped meadow, the trail flattened out and then began its descent into the very heart of the Hunting Ground. While avalanche lilies earlier along the trail had been impressive, here they became absurd and overwhelming: the six-petaled white flowers with dainty golden hearts crowded every meadow on the last half mile through the Hunting Ground to the patrol cabin. Although not exactly colorful, to me there is something especially bright and optimistic about these early-blooming alpine flowers that make them one of my favorite of all alpine flowers.

Avalanche lilies
So many lilies!
Never in my life have I seen so many avalanche lilies blooming at once. My friend and I made estimates on how many were blooming; surely there were tens to hundreds of thousands dotting these slopes.

A carpet of avalanche lilies
The only thing more numerous than the avalanche lilies were the bugs. Mosquitoes and flies that had made the Hunting Grounds their home set upon us as if dining at an all-you-can-eat buffet; although we applied plenty of bug spray, both my friend and I were more or less eaten alive.

The Patrol Cabin at the Hunting Grounds
Luckily, we looked ahead and spotted the patrol cabin at the end of a long meadow, near the foot of Copper and Iron Mountains. Mount Rainier played peek-a-boo for a last time, with Point Success making a brief appearance before disappearing completely behind the clouds for the rest of our hike.

Indian Henry's Hunting Grounds
At 5.7 miles from the trailhead, we came to the junction between the Kautz Creek Trail and the Wonderland Trail. The 93-mile Wonderland Trail circumnavigates Rainier, passing through many beautiful alpine meadows- like Indian Henry's Hunting Ground- along the way. To reach the patrol cabin, we turned left at the Wonderland Trail junction, following it clockwise a hundred meters to a marked spur trail for the cabin and then following that spur trail to the cabin itself. The wildflowers were still just as spectacular here, with valerian and avalanche lilies contributing two different sources of star-like white dots on the green meadows and magenta paintbrush and lupine adding a dash of color.

Patrol Cabin
Indian Henry's Hunting Ground is named for So-to-lick, a Native resident of Mount Rainier who befriended many European visitors and guided many early climbers to the base of the mountain's glaciers; So-to-lick never attempted to summit the mountain as most regional Native peoples held the mountain, which they knew as Tahoma, to be a sacred peak. So-to-lick was bestowed the name "Henry" by a European American mail-carrier, Henry Windsor, who decided that learning someone else's three-syllable name was too difficult. The patrol cabin is a century-old log structure that is still currently staffed by park rangers who monitor the Wonderland Trail. We sat on the porch of the cabin for lunch, chatting with our new friend and the resident ranger. Our stay was unfortunately short, as the accumulation of bug bites on our arms and neck became a persuasive argument for starting our return.

Flowers at the cabin

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