James Creek to Ipsut Creek Walk-in Campground, ~10 miles
It is chilly overnight, and we have a hard time convincing ourselves to leave the warmth of our sleeping bags in the morning. By the time we finally crawl out of the tent, it is nearly 7 am, and we enjoy a leisurely morning around camp, drinking our coffee and tea and eating our breakfast all from the comfort of our camp chairs. We are not sure if it rained more overnight or not, but the tent is still really wet. Nobody likes packing up a wet tent, especially Matt. He straps the fly to the outside of the pack just before we head off. On a brighter note, there are blue skies and the hope of much better weather to send us on our way.
The trail takes us through a lush, verdant forest with every shade and hue of green imaginable on display. Everything looks so beautiful, and our feet are happy treading on the soft, rich, humus-y soil of the Pacific Northwest. How different it feels from the dry, dusty and sandy trails of the JMT!
We aren’t on the trail long before we start to notice the abundance of huckleberry bushes. They are everywhere, and they are practically bursting with ripe, purple berries that we can’t pass up, no matter how hard we try. We stop over and over again to pick the tasty trailside treats. Just when we think we have gotten our fill, we come to another bush laden with even more berries than the last, and we have to stop again to gather another handful.
Eventually, we switchback our way out of the forest, and we emerge into Windy Gap, a beautiful park with fantastic views of Sluiskin and Crescent Mountains. This meadow isn’t in full bloom like Berkeley Park, but it is definitely nice to have some grand, open views after so much time in the forest.
Before long, we reach the trail junction to the Natural Bridge, an andesite arch that is about a mile each way off the main trail. We drop our packs behind some bushes and head on our way. It feels good to hike without our packs on, if only for a bit. We run into Sandra and the gang, who are on their way back from the arch, and we wish them a good time on the rest of their journey. They are only doing the Northern Loop section of the trail, and it is doubtful that our paths will cross again.
The trail to the Natural Bridge is not as well-maintained and is a little steeper in a few spots than what is typical on Mount Rainier. We are thankful to have left our packs behind, but Sandra and her friends seemed to manage just fine with theirs.
The Natural Bridge is super cool, and we also get good views of Lake James and Ethel down below it—definitely a worthy side trip.
Back to the main trail, we pick up our packs and search for a lunch spot. We hike on without seeing any other hikers in this remote corner of the park.
Eventually, we come to a prime view of the Yellowstone Cliffs, and Matt drops his pack and promptly sets up his camp chair. He excitedly removes his boots and socks and declares that it is time for some total relaxation. It appears there is no stopping him, so I go along with it. We indulge in our final fresh lunch of tofurkey, cheese and avocado wraps and journal for quite some time while we charge our mirrorless camera battery in the midday sun. It’s a pretty sweet spot to wile away a few hours.
With quite a few miles and at least a 3200 foot drop in elevation yet to go, we know the fun can’t last forever. We reluctantly pack up and put the boots and packs back on. From there, its down, down, down to the Carbon River along way too many switchbacks to count. At first, we are in the open sun, and there are lots of interesting flowers doing their best to compete with the open views of Rainier.
Eventually we dip down into the forest. We lose the views and the flora, but the break from the hot afternoon sun is a nice trade off. The trail down starts out pretty bare and monotonous, but the flora become more lush and diverse the closer we get to Carbon River.
When we finally reach the bottom, our knees are screaming, and we take a break at a clear stream to filter some water. It is a super-cold, glacially-fed run-off stream, and the water is so refreshing to drink. Oh, the simple pleasures of the trail!
The Carbon River is a torrent, and we are relieved to see a solid, freshly-constructed bridge where we can cross. The river bed looks flooded at the moment, reminding us how these glacial rivers are often a constant headache for the trail crews charged with maintaining the bridges.
We pick up the Wonderland Trail on the opposite bank and head north towards Ipsut Creek along the river’s edge for quite a while. This is a section of the official WT that we did not do in 2014, opting to go over Spray Park instead. Even though we are eager to see what this part of the trail is like, we are still about two miles from camp and ready to be done hiking for the day.
We are moving along in a trance-like state when all of a sudden I see a mass of a wriggling, writhing commotion on the trail just a few feet ahead of me. I jump backward and exclaim, Snakes!, which shakes Matt out of his hiking stupor instantly. The snakes must have been sunning themselves on the hot, rocky trail, but our sudden arrival has them slithering to the base of the closest boulder in a mildly disturbing, tangled mess that resembles the hairdo of Medusa.
The snakes are moving so chaotically that it is hard to count how many of them there are, but there must be at least 8-10. They are dark with either orange or yellow racing stripes running along their bodies, and they seem pretty unhappy to have their afternoon siesta interrupted by a pair of hikers. They are wriggling en masse just a few feet off the trail, so we skirt around them and try to get a shot. The afternoon light is still harsh and contrasty, and this is definitely one animal (or entire group of them, in this case!) that I am willing to keep my distance from.
The adrenaline from the snake encounter wakes us up a bit, even though the next couple of miles of trail are pretty uneventful. The trail runs very close to the river here, and there are several spots along the way where we have to watch our footing because of the erosion damage that has occurred during flooding.
We finally arrive in camp around 7 pm. Ipsut Creek is an old, abandoned drive-in campground, and we walk around the loop looking for the best available campsite. By this point in the day, the campground is almost full with other hikers, but we eventually find a decent site at the far end of the loop.
The sites are all individual with flat tent pads, picnic tables and bear boxes. There are even outhouses with toilet paper and hand sanitizer—it feels like we are practically staying at the Ritz tonight!