I love camping. The packing up of all your gear, getting out all of your ‘ugly’ clothes, the loss of cell coverage; it’s magical. I love that it doesn’t have to cost you a lot of money or require a week’s stay. It’s like playing house in nature’s backyard where all you have to entertain you are trees, rivers and rocks. This past weekend we decided to play house at Mt. Rainier National Park along a beautiful stretch of the White River.
The Pacific Northwest, as most know, is a rather damp place. Campgrounds at higher elevations don’t usually open until late May due to the presence of snow in the upper hills and valleys. One thing I love about the people in our region is that as soon as campgrounds open, they’re booked full. Rain or shine every spot in the campground will be occupied with families roasting marshmallows, friends talking and drinking beer (wine in my case) and dogs going crazy over the number of stick options in their possession. For even just a night our eyes are fixated on the flames in a fire rather than the characters on a TV show. We’ll sacrifice our Tempur-Pedic for a bed of rocks and roots and forget about what time it is. If it rains, you get wet. If it’s cold out, you snuggle with the fire. On a diet? Have some chips.
Silver Springs Campground, the site of our weekend retreat, sits nestled within a forest of evergreen and cedar trees with Mt. Rainier lurking at its back. White River outlines the edge of the campground and hosts large rock beds soon to be overcome with rushing water as glacial ice melts with the coming summer months. Fallen trees form bridges over water too deep for walking through and from all angles you see nothing, but tree covered hills and rocky peaks. In the early spring and winter months, when nobody occupies the campground, I’d imagine this area to be filled with elk, bears and eagles.
A short drive south of our campground, just on the other side of Crystal Creek, we parked at the trailhead for a 6 mile roundtrip hike to Crystal Lakes. Thankfully the sun had been shining brightly since the moment we’d woken up, which illuminated the yellow in the leaves and the glitter in the snow. The trail began at a somewhat secret garden style break in the trees next to a rushing creek. Crossing over a bridge made from a fallen tree the steep accent into the forest starts. Up and up and up we go. Higher and deeper into the woods, the snow on the trail makes its first appearance. Only a few inches deep, we push on up for another hour of switchbacks. With sweat rolling down our backs and muscles sore, we come to a clearing in the trees where Mt. Rainier was to make its debut. Although above us was nothing, but blue skies and bright sun, Mt. Rainier was blanketed in a thick layer of white cloud. So close! Through random breaks in the cloud we caught glimpses of pure white, untouched snow resting on jagged gray rock. Everywhere below the mountain was green and covered in sunlight. A perfect ‘S’ curved river meandered through the valley until it disappeared behind a hill. Mt. Rainier, this gigantic mountain that rises taller than the Seattle skyline from four hours away, was within a few miles of us, but hidden from sight.
With a deep sigh and a big gulp of water we push on the trail. 1.5 miles in we come to a sign pointing us straight up for another 1.6 miles toward Crystal Lakes. Looking ahead we noticed that the depth of the snow was increasing and the nice brown trail was disappearing beneath it. This is where you keep going anyway. For about a mile we trudged through 3-4 foot snow, following the trail as best we could until the snow got too deep to see it. An early morning snowboarder left us a nice track in the snow beyond where the trail had disappeared. We followed it up for another 10 minutes until it was clear we were just a group of eager hikers stuck in a winter wonderland. The sun reflected brightly off of the snow and every so often you could hear trees gasp as melting snow released from their branches. For fear of getting lost and uncertain of how deep the snow would get, we turned around before finding the Crystal Lakes. About an hour of sliding downhill through snow later, we reached the bottom again. Saddened by how close we were to two beautiful mountain lakes and a view of Mt. Rainier, we demanded a rematch for the later summer months.
The point of it all is that even if you don’t see what you came for, you get a winter wonderland on a beautiful sunny day. Your experiences camping and hiking will be created by whatever nature decides to do in that moment. So put your boots on and prepare to be surprised.