Backpacking Mount Rainier’s Northside Figure 8

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If you have been following this blog for a while, you know it’s no big secret that we are huge fans of Mount Rainier National Park. This gem of the Pacific Northwest captured our hearts back in 2014 when we backpacked the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around the entire mountain. We loved our experience in Mount Rainier so much we even wrote a book about it! So, when we drove out to California to hike the John Muir Trail last summer, we couldn’t leave the West coast without making our way up to Washington state to get a little fix of “The Mountain.”

While the Wonderland Trail is definitely the quintessential way to see Mount Rainier, there are a few alternate trails in the park that offer some equally stunning backcountry experiences with even fewer people. The most popular of these is the Northern Loop, a 15-mile trail in the northeastern corner of the park that can be combined with sections of the Wonderland Trail to create a nice 35-mile loop. Sounds perfect!

Of course, we started thinking why stop there? While we were at it, why not pick up the Ipsut Pass section of the WT that we skipped in 2014 when we took the Spray Park alternate route through the northwest section of the park. And then we realized that if we put those four sections of trail together, we would fashion a nice figure 8-shaped loop that would get us back to our starting point at Sunrise. The whole thing would be just under 50 miles and would allow us to see two new sections of the park while also allowing us to return to some of our favorite spots on the Wonderland Trail. Win, win!

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A wilderness permit is required to stay in designated campsites found along the backcountry trails of Mount Rainier. The only trouble with our plan was that, once again, we were unsuccessful in securing an advance permit (this time due to an epic power failure during the advance permit application window that led the park service to only issue walk-up permits for the 2016 season).

Back in 2014, we were successful with getting a walk-up permit, so we decided to take our chances once again and head into the park with no guarantee of getting a golden ticket for the backcountry. Worse case scenario, we would strike out and end up in the Pacific Northwest with lots of time on our hands to explore other beautiful locales. Things could be worse, no?

Word on the trail is that trying to get a walk-up permit on a Monday or Tuesday improves your chances of success by avoiding the busy summer weekend rush. Knowing this, we timed our arrival in the park for a Sunday afternoon, planning on being in line at the Wilderness Information Center (WIC) at Longmire first thing Monday morning. We drove into the park around 3 in the afternoon, and, since the WIC was still open at that time, we decided to pop in and see if anything happened to be available to start hiking on Monday. And wouldn’t you know we were able to get the exact itinerary that we wanted for a second time in a row!

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This trip was intended as a cool down hike for us after 270 miles of backpacking on the John Muir Trail, so we decided to take it really easy and do our Northside Figure 8 loop in a leisurely 6 days. This included a short start of only 3.6 miles to our first camp at Berkeley Park, an area of the park known for its abundant wildflowers. This would allow us to hike some of the trails at Paradise in the southern portion of the park in the morning before making the long drive up to Sunrise and starting our trip.

With our permit in hand to hit the trail the next day, we headed to Cougar Rock Campground and were lucky to get a front-country campsite where we camped for the night and repacked all of our gear for yet another fantastic excursion in the backcountry. Oh, man, do we love it when a plan comes together! Our next series of posts will be a trip report on our return visit to the amazing backcountry trails of Mount Rainier along the Northside Figure 8. We hope you enjoy it. Happy trails!

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