Backcountry Hikes in Mt. Rainier NP
The purpose of the day hike description and map Web pages are to provide the basic information and resources on backcountry hikes in Mt. Rainier NP. Additional similar Web pages are available for day hikes with the corresponding map of hikes Web pages.
Many, and some will say most, of the photos taken of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Rainier NP are taken from locations along the roads and highway in the NP. This was intentional by the early developers and planners of the NP to make it a visibly scenic national park by automobile. The first roads in the NP were engineered and built with this in mind, something many photographers over the one hundred and ten year history of the NP learned and used.
But for all those photos, there are far many more photo locations and opportunities available on day hikes and more so on backcountry hikes. Like day hikes, but a little more, all it takes for backcountry hikes is some experience, additional preparation and planning and a few extra skills. The degree simply depends on the length of your hike, from a weekend hike to a week-plus one on the Wonderland trail.
Backcountry hikes can be separated by the two factors, length of the hike, in days, and by the type of hike, which is a one-way, loop or roundtrip hike. One way hikes are ones starting and ending at different trailheads. Roundtrip hikes start and end at the same trailhead via the same trail, usually going to a destination. Loop hikes are similar to roundtrip hikes using one trailhead but using two different trails from the same trailhead providing different views of the NP.
The length in days and the campsites obviously determines the degree of preparation and planning and the amount of gear you'll need and carry or cache. Photographers can usually carry enough for a 2-3 day hike using the minimalist technique now taught and used by many hiking enthusiasts and carry sufficient photography gear for their interests.
Longer hikes, lasting 3-5 days, take additional planning to balance your hiking and photogaphy gear, or expect to carry a heavier pack than most hikers for such hikes. These hikes often stress the need to consider minimalist techniques without sacrificing essential and emergency gear. The last thing you need is to be days from the trailhead in serious trouble.
And even longer hikes, such as the Wonderland Trail, take more planning and the use of caches or arrangements to have friends provide for new provisions and clothes at locations or trailheads. The best source for information about the Wonderland Trail is "Discovering the Wonders of the Wonderland Trail Encircling Mount Rainier" by Bette Filley, Dunamis Press, 2006. It's still the only book about the Wonderland Trail.
For the most part, however, much of the photo locations and opportunities are accessible via weekend or slightly longer hikes and still provide time for both hiking and photography. This does, however, require good preparation and planning due to the rules on backcountry hikes and camps. You don't have the freedom to just go and camp anywhere in the NP.
You have to plan your photo destination and work for the camps you have permits. The whole chain of backcountry campsites are often full during the summer hiking season, and you should have and use a reservation for campsites for the days you plan or get one of the daily available ones. Complete information is available from the NPS Website.
The hardest thing if you're not an experienced backcountry hiker/camper is to describe the planning and preparation for a multi-day hike, and the necessary hiking and campging equipment for your hike. You would be best served by finding an experienced hikers or guides to help and go on the hike with you, or find local organizations or clubs to learn or take classes.
That said, there are some good suggestions to consider.
One, make a checklist of the hiking and camping gear you plan to take. Local outdoor recreation stores and clubs usually have these resources. These are helpful to know what you already have and what you need to get ahead of time.
Two, when preparing for the hike, lay out all the gear along with your pack. This is a common practice with backcountry hikers and helps sort through what's important, helpful and just a maybe if weight becomes critical. This includes all the food, clothes, first-aid and emergency kits, tents, etc.
Three, lay out the trip on a map with the trails and campsites and all the photo locations. This helps look at each day's trip for miles, elevation gains/losses, time, etc. and determines the hikes and campsites you'll need reservations for the whole trip.
Four, visualize the trip for your photography with the hike itself, suggestion 3 above, to see when and where you want to photography. Don't forget the sun & moon information to be where the light is best for your photography.
Remember if your trip is in the late spring to early summer as the NP rangers may not have gotten to all the trails to review the damage from winter storms for repairs and bridges across creeks and rivers. This can't be determined until after snowmelt has cleared the location, which is why you check with the NP office for the latest condition immediately before your trip.
And above all before and during the hike, pay attention to the weather. Mt. Rainier makes it's own weather and it's constantly changing, even during the day. All the planning could easily go south as weather fronts and storms sweep through the NP. In Mt. Rainier NP it's not always about timing, but more so about luck.
Trails and Camps
The location and types of the backcountry camps are show on the map of campsites. They're separated by whether the camp is designated a wilderness camp or a Wonderland Trail camp. Both require backcountry permits, but Wonderland Trail camps are identified for those doing that hike as opposed to the other camps.
In addition the map identifies the trailheads for the different backcountry trails, all of which overlap for day hikes too, but the trail extends into the backcountry or connects to otther trails to the backcountry or the Wonderland trail. And the map also identifies the four places where you can cache food and supplies (no fuel).
The camps vary with respect to the environment of their location, from deep in the forest, to near streams or lakes, to the open alpine areas. This affords you the great opportunity to camp at a variety of them for your photography. But should you do so, remember the limitations of the permit.
The backcountry permits are for campsites you select, either by reservation or same day availability. You can not use them at other campsites unless it's an emergency and there are spaces available. The campsites are frequently checked by backcountry rangers. In addition, you can not camp outside designated campsites, especially on the Wonderland Trail.
When planning your hike, you need the latest information, which is available from the NPS Website. You should be flexible with your preparation to be ready for the widest range of weather and trail conditions, especially once on the trail. Ok, that's an obvious "Duh" statement, but not so if you didn't and find yourself cold, wet, hungry or injured. It's a long hike out.
And when you add photography gear, it's all the more critical and important, especially if you are focused on some type of or location for your photography and don't want to skrimp there. It's not unrealistic to find yourself with a 60+ lb backpack for just a 3-5 day hike which means if you're not prepared and fit for it, being tired out in the backcountry isn't fun.
Ok, enough of the reality check. I expect if you're serious to do a long(er) hike then you're smart and fit enough for the challenge and you're experienced enough to know, plan and prepare. And what you want to know is what photography is there in the backcountry worth your time and effort.
The answer there is simple everything and everywhere. But it's also different everywhere. From deep forest environments, to lush alpine meadows, to snow, ice and glaciers, and almost always partial and often expansive views of Mt. Rainier. The key will be to determine what type of photos you and the gear to do that.
Some photographers will optimize their gear sacrificing some types for the larger range of photo ops available. Some will focus the trip on specific types and forget the rest for another hike. The key is to lay all the photo gear out with your hiking gear, pack the hiking gear and see what's left, what you want to take, what you're willing to carry as a heavier load, or what you're willing to leave for another hike.
This is where many experienced backcountry photographers know what they can take on what distance hikes for the type of photography for that trip. For the less experienced or unfamilar with that area and trails in the NP, the best thing is lay out all your photo gear with your hiking gear (see above trip and hike section) to see where it fits into gear and backpack, and the total weight of the backpack.
This is important if you're not familar with the trails and hikes. The trails have considerable elevation gains and losses, even several times during a day's hike. That's where the planning, especially looking at the map and information about the trails, is important. No one is there to carry the extra weight of the gear for you.
As for photo ops, you can get some ideas from the day hike Web page about the areas. But that said, all the longer trails through the forest lead to higher elevation open, alpine and glacial areas, some trails just take longer to get there where others start at or near the high elevation areas.
That's the balance between the area, trails, photo ops and your interests you have to make. And then balance it with the trip plan and the available campsites. It's hard if you're visiting for a week or so and want to optimize your trip, but it still doesn't take away from the many photo ops which are on the available hikes for you, your time and your photo interests.
There isn't much I can say about advisories except listen the the NPS reports and the rangers. The backcountry rangers are the most experienced and helpful folks there. Ask, listen and heed their advise, and you won't go wrong. And keep up with the latest NPS information as you can.
And above all, please follow the rules and your permit. The rules are there for everyone's safety and protection of the resources. And the permit is to minimize the impact of your trip on the NP and for others. An advisory about glaciers.
Do not go on a glacier without experienced hikers or climbers and the proper equipment.
Glaciers are inviting to hike and explore. But they are dangerous for the inexperienced and ill-prepared hikers. Glaciers are very dynamic and constantly changing environments, so it's best to view and photograph them, but don't go on them without guides and equipment. A note about the wildflower and alpine meadows.
Stay on the designated paths and trails in the meadows, especially when snow covered.
You may not leave a trace, but others may not be so cautious and careful about their footprint in environmentally sensitive areas. This is especially important in the late snowmelt season where hiking on the thin snowpack can damage the fragile meadows underneath. In addition you will run the risk of being given a ticket by a Park Ranger for violating the rules (which all visitors accept when entering the NP).
A word about guns Beginning February 22, 2010, openly carrying guns in the NP is legal and concealed with a legal permit. However, there are a number of conditions, which you can find here with links to additional information.
It is illegal to carry a gun indoors and it is illegal to use or fire a gun anywhere in the NP.
This is especially important in the visitors areas, the campgrounds, on the trails, and in the backcountry. You can only openly carry a gun or concealed with the proper (state) permit) and nothing else. You can not unholster, use or discharge the weapon anytime or anywhere in the NP. The NPS has trained and instructed the park and backcountry rangers to treat all visitors as if they are carrying a gun unless it is clear the visitor is not carrying a gun.
This advisory is even more appropriate in the backcountry where some hikers prefer to carry a weapon for protection against wildlife, especially mountain lions and bears. But the rule still applies, you can not use or discharge a weapon. Although some hikers believe the danger is real but in reality not one hiker has been serious injured or killed by wildlife in the NP and there are alternatives which the NPS recommends (see the NPS newsletters).
There isn't much I can say here either because I've long been just a day hiker, long gave up even weekend hikes for personal reasons. Everything I know is from my early experience and what I read, hear and see from experienced hikers and the best and latest news and information I find and report.
That said one idea for new photographers is to follow the advice of experienced photographers which is to identify specific locations for each trip as a base camp for several days and do day hikes to the other locations within a few hours hike. This affords you the ability to be flexible with your plans with weather conditions.
In addition, it's the same as anyone would say, plan well and be prepared and flexible. And above all, remember it's our National Park, for everyone so take care of it for yourself and all of us. This is especially important in high elevation open, alpine and glacier areas. The environment is easily damaged by abuse and long in repairing itself.
One last personal note. If you prefer to do your hiking solo, that's fine, many people, myself included, hike solo, and it's not uncommon to meet solo backcountry hikers. It's all about your experience and skills, and the degree of trust you put in yourself. And it's more than likely you'll meet other hikers, especially since you have to camp at established campsites for your permit.
Remember whether you hike with others or solo, be sure to let folks know of your hikes and camps, especially leave notes in your vehicle of your trip, name, address and phone number(s) of contacts and other information for emergencies or if you fail to return on time.
Below are some resources, especially NPS pages for additional information.
Please use the contact link to send e-mail.
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