Berkeley Camp to James Camp, 9.0 miles
We both sleep heavy, and I totally forget where I am or why the alarm is going off when it rudely attempts to wake me up. Matt must be feeling the same way because he tags the snooze button on his phone several times before we finally decide it’s for the best to get moving. Our neighbors are up already and busy packing by the time we finally emerge from the tent.
We break camp and are making breakfast when one of the women walks by and says that she is eager to hear about our John Muir Trail experience. Of course, we are happy to oblige, and we chat for a while before she introduces herself as Sandra from Spokane. We introduce ourselves as Matt and Alison from Chicago, and then she does a double take. You mean the Matt and Alison from Chicago who did the Wonderland Trail a couple of years ago and have awesome photos that they posted on their blog? she asks us. Yes! we eagerly reply.
Turns out, Sandra read our Wonderland Trail posts a few years back. She left a few comments when she was planning her own trip, and she and I had several exchanges. She even sent me a write-up of her time on the Wonderland when she was done with it last year. How crazy is that? What a small world!
All of us are staying at James Camp tonight, so we will get a chance to catch up more later. Sandra and her hiking buddies are ready to go, and they head off while we are still eating breakfast. We wish them luck with the blowdown section ahead, and after cleaning up, we leave our packs and head back into Berkeley Park for a short while to have another look at the flowers.
After a brief photo shoot, we get on our way. The trail is mostly through forest for the first hour or so, and it is damp and chilly. We are wearing our hats and gloves and need to keep moving to stay warm.
Not too far from our campsite, we get a reminder that Mount Rainier is home to black bears. We pass a tree that has been shredded by a bear trying to get to the insects inside its bark, and there’s a huge pile of relatively fresh-looking scat nearby. The toothy, cross-hatch pattern was made by a porcupine eating the soft, fresh pulp of the tree shortly after it had been exposed by the bear.
The forecast is for rain today, and the darkish clouds in the sky hint that the weathermen won’t be wrong about this one. When we hit Grand Park, the clouds are so thick, we can’t see any peaks at all.
We pick up the trail to James Camp at the end of Grand Park, where an ominous sign warns that there is a hazardous water crossing ahead. It must refer to the washed-out bridge the ranger at the White River WIC told us about. We remember all too well what the rivers we crossed on the Wonderland Trail were like two years ago—glacial-fed and raging. The thought of crossing one without a bridge isn’t exactly setting our minds at ease.
We come to an opening in the trail where we get a glimpse of the West Fork of the White River below us, and a hole in the thick clouds appears almost magically at the exact right moment to reveal a view of mighty Rainier looming high above.
We stop for a break here and enjoy the magnificent scene for the short time that it lasts. We pull out the solar charger while we are eating our snack to see if we can get a quick charge on the camera while we have some open sky.
Across the way, we see a devastated hillside full of fallen trees stretching below Redstone Peak. We are worried that we may have to hike through this section. After consulting the topo map, we decide that the Northern Loop trail must take us on the other side of this peak. Hopefully it will be in better condition than this devastated area.
The wind picks up, and we decide we had better get a move on before the sky opens up on us. The trail takes us through a thick forest as we switchback our way down to the river below. Almost immediately, we encounter blown down trees blocking the trail. Most aren’t too bad—we can step over them or follow the footsteps of other hikers who have walked around them.
The farther down we go, the worse the trail gets, and then, of course, it starts to rain, making the whole experience of climbing over and under trees even more of a challenge. We remember that the ranger told us that the tree situation on this side of the river was better than on the other side, and that has us both a little worried about what we will encounter there.
We finally manage to make it to the river and decide that we want to cross before stopping to eat. There are three channels in all, and the ranger told us to cross this first one on a broken log bridge. We spot the bridge and head over to check it out. There is a family of four there. They spent last night at the Fire Creek camp and are looking for a way to cross, too.
The family decides to take a pass on the bridge. It is broken about one-third of the way across and looks pretty sketchy. Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad, except the last third of the log angles up severely to the riverbank on the opposite side. There is a wobbly handrail barely attached that may offer a bit of support, but it makes me nervous just looking at it. Matt decides to give it a go and has trouble with the steep part. He makes it across safely but advises me to follow the family who is crossing on a huge fallen tree a bit farther downstream.
The son, a charming boy named Justin, has already crossed the river with his mother and sister and comes back to guide his father and me over. He is so sweet and patient, advising me exactly where to place my feet on the log and even holding my trekking poles for me when having my hands free is more useful. He looks to be about ten years old, and I am super impressed with his polite manner and encouraging tone. It’s not too difficult of a crossing, and Justin makes it look so easy—oh, to be young and agile.
Once across, we lead the family (originally from Australia but living here now) upstream to where the ranger has advised us to ford the wider middle channel. There is a large cairn on the rocky bank where the water looks a little less treacherous. We change shoes and zip off our pant legs. The family crosses before us without incident. We know that the temperature of the icy, cold water will be the worst part.
The round boulders on the river bottom are slippery, making our progress a lot slower than we would like. We shuffle our feet under the water and search for solid sandy spots to step in. We can’t feel our feet by the time we make it to the other side, and they are screaming their displeasure at us by changing to an alarming color of red.
From there, its back downstream for another ford over a smaller, stick-strewn channel. This last crossing is easy, and we pick up the trail again on the other side. Right away, we can hear Van Horn Falls and head in that direction, but, there are so many trees blown down between us and the viewpoint, we decide it’s probably best to let this one go and hope that the trail will swing us by for a closer look later.
It’s tough to pick out the trail with all the tree debris. Luckily, there are some pink plastic ties around branches indicating the way, and we follow them to one last crossing over a bridge with a wire handrail. The trail up looks steep and is full of downed trees. We stop for a very late lunch and eat in the rain before finally deciding it would be a good idea to change back into all the rain gear and boots we shed for the river crossing.
For the next several hours, we slowly and methodically make our way up through the forest to James Camp. There are huge downed trees everywhere blocking our path, and we do everything we can think of to get past them. We straddle them. We step over them. We shuffle along, shimmy under, maneuver around, and rappel down them. You name it; we do it. Sometimes, the situation feels so absurd that we can’t help but crack up at our circumstances. With the constant rain and all the crawling around, we are getting really dirty. It feels like we are in a Muddy Buddy contest, except the only prize is making it to camp in one piece before dark.
It’s pretty fun except when we lose the trail. On one occasion, we manage to get around a particularly difficult tree, but we can’t find the trail anywhere on the other side. We have to backtrack to see where we might have lost it, and we count our blessings once we are able to spot the trail again.
Whatever Matt does to get around the trees, I copy, which works out well for the most part. But when he goes down flat on his belly and slides himself through, it doesn’t quite work out so well for me. When I try to do the same, the weight of my backpack just pins me down to the ground, and I’m not shimmying anywhere.
Hey, Matt, I’m stuck! I call out. On what? Matt wants to know. Nothing. Just the weight of my backpack!. He comes back and grabs the top loop of my pack and pulls me forward whenever I can manage to move my weight toward him. I’m so happy nobody else is around to see this.
The more elevation we gain, the fewer downed trees we encounter, and we eventually make it past our final obstacle and walk on to James Camp where Sandra and her friends have already set up for the night. We take the group site again and pitch our tent.
Sandra joins us for water filtering by the creek and then comes back to our site to hang out with us for a while. We have fun talking shop and spend the rest of the evening discussing gear, our JMT experience, dehydrating trail food, other treks, etc. Just before dark, a backcountry ranger appears in camp to check our permits. We ply him with questions, and he tells us about his life as a ranger for the National Park Service.
Man, these guys have tough jobs, and most of them make tons of life sacrifices (think no houses, no pets, tough relationships, etc.) just to work a short, seasonal job with few benefits. We have total respect for our park rangers and wish life could be easier for them. What a shame that the government hasn’t made funding and protecting our national parks more of a priority. It would be a particularly fitting tribute for the centennial celebration year of the National Parks.*
*We hiked this trail in August of 2016.