Ipsut Creek to Mystic Lake: 8.1 miles, +3600/-300
(This entry has a lot of photos because this day was ridiculously beautiful. You can click on them for maximum pretty.)
Like Mowich Lake, Ipsut Creek camp had some car camping amenities including picnic tables and two real-ish toilets (curiously, one privy was the most pleasant of the whole trail, while the other was one of the most disgusting). But the camps were worlds apart in terms of atmosphere. I slept so peacefully at Ipsut, dozing off just at dusk to the sound of the Carbon River flowing nearby, with the night warm enough to leave the tent vestibules open. A really great set-up for our last two days, which in the end would be two of my very favorites.
Despite the recovery time we’d had on Day 8, Cyn was worried about the elevation gain up to Mystic Lake. [I mean, look at those numbers! I think my worry was justified. -Cyn] We agreed to get out of camp as early as we could, to boost our confidence and morale with good miles before our mid-morning break, or what I now simply referred to as “Hot Drink.” We ate our ProBar breakfasts and broke camp around 6am, and were just stopping at the (good) toilet on our way out as the first other hikers in camp woke up. I felt great after ten hours of sound sleep, and we sped along at a good clip, Cyn bravely clearing the trail of spiderwebs as we walked a gentle uphill along the Carbon River. The river noises were, as always, a lovely auditory backdrop, and the scenery was gorgeous.
In the forest sections so far we had seen lots of large slugs. They looked like banana slugs from Santa Cruz, only green instead of yellow, often with black markings in a sort of camouflage pattern. This morning, though, we saw a huge bright white slug and spent some time cooing over it. “Oh my goodness, little Ghost Slug, how have you managed to survive so long? You are amazing!”
Soon the trail popped us out of the forest and onto a rocky cliffside, and we carefully navigated our way down to find a big sign blocking the natural path of the trail. “DETOUR,” it read, but its arrows pointed to the Northern Loop trail, not the Wonderland. Upon closer inspection, we saw some handwritten notes underneath: “Wonderland Detour and Suspension Bridge.” Huh. Okay. Following the detour sign, we crossed the Carbon on a log bridge and looked back to see that the trail we would have taken had been completely washed out by a landslide, and it didn’t look at all recent. This seemed to be a pretty permanent rerouting. We made our way across lots of river rocks and were heading uphill in the forest again, quite sure we hadn’t missed any further detour signs, but nervous after our wrong trail mishap on Terrible Day. As we were checking the map yet again, two trail runners jogged up behind us. [This is when I realized how much being on the trail for 9 days had affected my senses. One of the women was chewing gum and I could smell it from feet away. It seemed so out of place. -Cyn] They were hoping to reconnect to the Wonderland as well, and didn’t want to get off-route because “we’re doing 23 miles today!” (try to hear this in the brightest, freshest, and most casual voice possible). We compared maps and continued on together until we found a sign confirming we were on the right track; they then wished us well and promptly left us in the dust.
We hiked on through beautiful forest until we saw the suspension bridge through the trees, and stopped at some boulders for Hot Drink before reaching it. You only need to cross this bridge if you’re going to Carbon River camp on the other side of it, but I walked halfway out anyway, and got a beautiful view of Carbon Glacier (lowest elevation glacier in the contiguous U.S.) with Mt. Rainier as its backdrop.
Then a steep uphill alongside Carbon Glacier. We were awed by this landscape and by the glacier itself, which made the hike feel easier. I could not get over the fact that we could literally see the mouth of the Carbon River — it emerged from an ice cave formed at the foot of the glacier, and I stood mesmerized by water pouring down from inside the cave and rushing out as a river. So incredibly awesome.
More lovely views as we climbed to Dick Creek, one of the smallest camps on the trail and our intended lunch spot.
We crossed a log bridge so enormous that we had to sit down to scramble down from it at the other side (I got distracted fending off an aggressive bee here while Cyn urged me to watch my footing instead). Then up some unstable wet rocks that seemed intended as a kind of staircase/deathtrap, to arrive at Dick Creek and find both campsites still occupied at 11am! A large family from (we think) Germany washed dishes and packed up staggeringly enormous backpacks while we ate lunch nearby. Before leaving we visited the privy, which offered an epic view (though still second to the privy view at Indian Bar camp).
We hiked for a bit and then stopped to fill water at a pretty creek. As we mixed our Aqua Mira drops, Cyn remarked that she was still feeling great. The uphills had been going well, and we were both in good spirits (no umbles from Cyn today!). [Really, today was a turning point. For the first time I felt like 1) I could do this, and 2) I was going to be sad when it was over. I felt like a whole new person this day, partially because I finally let go of comparing myself/my pace to other people and just embraced our own pace and routine. -Cyn]
But the day was about to get even better. We hiked through some huge boulder fields and were just starting to feel too warm in the afternoon sun when the trees opened way up and our jaws dropped. We were now in Moraine Park, site of the most perfect postcard view of Mt. Rainier I could have ever imagined. The trail was a gentle uphill here, but it took us forever to pass through because we had to pause every few feet to stare around in amazement and take more photos. “North side of the mountain, you are really pulling out all the stops today!” I kept saying.
We reluctantly left Moraine Park and began a much more intense climb to Mystic Lake. To ease the pain of a steep afternoon ascent, I provided Trail TV: the “Bad Blood” episode from The X-Files season five, which I have seen approximately one million times. Because it is hilarious. So committed was I to a high level of detail for this episode of Trail TV that it took at least twice as long to tell it as it would have to actually watch the real thing. [We rewatched this when we got home and Toby’s accuracy was impressive and astounding. –Cyn] [Thanks! I take pride in my work. –Toby] Just as I finished, we met a couple coming down who said we were only about five minutes from the top of the pass. (For once, this was pretty accurate trail info.) They were doing the Northern Loop and were interested to hear how our Wonderland trek was going. They warned us that they’d seen a bear in Berkeley Park the day before. As we walked on, Cyn asked if I was going to be disappointed if we didn’t see a bear on our trip. It’s true that I’d wanted to see a bear at the outset, but I realized now that it would hardly be fair of me to feel disappointed when I spent most days calling out “HEY BEARS!” to scare them off as we turned low-visibility corners. My goal was to never surprise a bear on the trail, and if that meant not getting to see one at all, I was okay with the trade-off.
Atop the pass we found a sign claiming 0.8 miles to Mystic Lake. This sign was another lying liar. Down down down we hiked, finally reaching the lake. It was gorgeous, and since it was only mid-afternoon (!), we rushed on toward camp so we could dump our gear, hang our food, and get back for swimming. We were assigned the group site at Mystic, which was a few tenths of a mile past the individual sites, so we had extreme solitude for our last night of camping. This site was also enormous, with space for many tents, and came with its own bear pole and privy!
After a snack, we trekked back to Mystic Lake, stripped down to our underwear, and headed in. [This basically meant that I was wearing a bikini, which my body image anxieties usually prevent me from doing. And there were a bunch of other hikers around. But I decided that there was no way I was going to let something so silly keep me from having this beautiful experience. And it was a truly beautiful experience. Lake swimming forever. -Cyn] This lake was magical. Perfectly clear water, just cold enough to soothe my sore muscles and tired feet, but (unlike most of the rivers and creeks we’d soaked our feet in) warm enough to stay in for more than 30 seconds. I waded out up to my waist and did some washing up, and Cyn went out further to actually do a bit of swimming. We were both pleased that we hadn’t had to use sunscreen or bug repellent so far on the trip, so we could get right in the lake without having to scrub off any chemicals first. Afterwards, we sat on a log and gazed at the beauty around us while the sun warmed our skin. This hour or two at Mystic Lake was one of my very favorite times on the Wonderland. Sitting there in the afternoon light, looking out across the lake at the mountains rising up all around us, I was moved by an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. I think this was also when we both began to feel a mix of triumph and sadness: we had only about nine miles left to hike now.
Back at camp I savored my favorite camp dinner, the potatoes and gravy, and consumed many forms of chocolate from my food stash before Cyn secured our food for the night. She was an expert at hanging bags on the bear pole by the end of the trip (and I was pretty skilled at retrieving them first thing in the morning).
Although our campsite was spacious and peaceful with a sweet little creek bubbling along nearby, it was a bit buggy, so we retreated to the tent early. When a ranger stopped by around 6.30pm, Cyn was already snug in her sleeping bag and I was just stepping into the tent. He didn’t seem surprised, though, and gave us some good advice on water sources for the next day, along with a weather forecast of “cold but dry,” which sounded ideal to me. We agreed on another early morning start for our last day. Last day! I fell asleep in complete denial. –Toby