Mystic Lake to Sunrise: 8.9 miles, +2400/-1900
I think I’ve delayed writing this because this blog has made the trip last a little bit into our real lives, and just like the trail, I don’t want that to end. So of course this post is longer than usual and has a ton of pictures. Hang in there.
We woke up early, around 6 a.m., broke camp, ate our ProBars, and headed out. I hadn’t been thinking much about our total mileage on the trip; I was too preoccupied with our day-to-day. But seeing the sign to Sunrise, where we started, was a wake up call. We had already hiked about 84 miles (well, 86 with our “detour”). That’s a lot of miles!
We had a beautiful hike to Winthrop Glacier. It started out on a gentle slope through wide, wooded trail. Then we emerged into rock fields and followed the winding trail with what continued to be beautiful views of the mountain. The night before I had been woken up by what sounded like thunder but went on for a least a minute. I could only assume it was an avalanche. I looked at the mountain and wondered what part of it had shifted overnight. It seemed so permanent and solid, and yet I was reminded about how different a landscape can be even just day-to-day.
At about the two mile mark we decided to stop for Hot Drink next to Garda Falls, a waterfall that was just on the other side of the tip of the glacier. We were not the only ones with this idea. We found two women at the spot we decided to stop who were just finishing up their own mid-morning snack. We chatted with them for a bit — they were doing the Northern Loop trail and were on their second day, and they were originally from Illinois. They had both graduated from U of I and we had a small world moment before they moved on.
So there I was, making coffee and hot chocolate, when suddenly I hear Toby making some inarticulate grunting noises. I look up and see where he’s pointing and he finally gets out “Bear!” And true to his word there was a small black bear (well, it was brown, but still a black bear) lumbering down the hill on the trail we were about to climb. It took a quick look at us and then turned the other way, sauntering off into the woods along the river. It was so cute (though my ability to say that depends heavily on the fact that it turned away from us, not toward us)!!
So we began our 3 mile climb up to Skyscraper Pass doing a lot of yelling, lest the bear had decided to come back up the hill and meet us on the trail. For at least half an hour Toby and I took turns saying things like “Hey Bear! We’re just walkin’ through. No need to be concerned. Just making our way up the mountain.” I’m sure we sounded ridiculous but it did take our mind off what was a pretty steep climb. [We really had to yell here because we followed the large, loud Winthrop Creek for much of the climb, which made me even more concerned that bears wouldn’t hear us coming. Also, we saw no fewer than three piles of fresh bear scat right on the trail in this section, so I felt totally justified in our precautionary measures. –Toby]
When the switchbacks ended we were on a meandering trail through a beautiful forest. It was still going up, though, and we were at pretty high elevation at that point so we were taking it slow. Up from behind came two women who blazed past us, clearly on a mission. We caught up with them at a stream about half a mile later; they had stopped to get some water, which was our plan too. We had the typical Wonderland trail exchange – where are you headed to today? how many days are you taking? They were only going two miles past us on that day, but were planning on finishing the trail the next day with a 20 mile push that included the section we hiked on Day 2 that almost made me drop out. I was both incredibly impressed with their ability and so glad that we planned things the way we did. [This conversation was also where I started to feel intensely sad about finishing the trail. When they asked us which day we were on, I said “Day 10, of 10” and they were like “OH WOW! So this is it for you guys!” I felt proud that we were nearly finished, but also really jealous that they still had another day out there. –Toby]
Shortly after the stream we broke for our last lunch at the last campsite we would pass along the way — Granite Creek. It was a nice enough camp but it was full of bugs and the privy had zero privacy. We were eager to get going so that we could get to the much-talked-about Skyscraper Pass. So we ate our jerky and some trail mix and got back to it.
The climb after this was not steep but felt harder than usual, at least to me. We were at about 6,000 feet at this point and I felt again like I was having trouble catching my breath. Toby was so patient about the pace [hey, I was in no hurry to leave the trail! –Toby], but I felt frustrated that I was pausing every 100-200 meters to catch my breath (though those are longer stretches than I could do at the beginning of the trip so there’s that). We just kept plugging away, though, and eventually we were out of the woods, back to the expansive views and a flattish (a word we used a lot, “flat” barely exists on the Wonderland) trail.
This was one of those times were we thought we were seeing the most beautiful things we could see, but it just kept getting better. As we walked up to Skyscraper Pass, more and more of the park unfolded below and around us. There was Mt. Rainier of course, but also a stunning mountain range on two sides and, once we made it to the Pass, a beautiful meadow with rolling hills on the third.
We never wanted to leave this spot. Occasionally during the trip I was sad that Panhandle Gap had happened so early, because it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and I didn’t think anything else on the trail would compare. But this spot was the perfect way to end the trip (even though we still had 5 more miles). It felt like all of the miles we had walked, not just on this day but on the last nine days, were about getting us here and it was such a perfect reward for all that work. I had been saying throughout the trip that I wasn’t thru-hiker material, and that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do a trip like this again. But this moment hooked me. I was definitely going to be doing this again. [YAAAAAY!! –Toby]
We reluctantly left the pass, driven by our desire for a hot meal and a coke (I never drink soda, but it was just about all I could think about on this trip. I had also had a craving for enchiladas that had been growing in intensity over the last three days. More on that later). We climbed down into Berkeley Park, encountering more and more day hikers as we got closer to Sunrise. It was a weird experience, going from seeing maybe 10 people each day to passing large groups of tourists who were just casually strolling on a part of the trail that we had worked so hard to get to. I was already starting to feel resentful, not because they were doing anything wrong but because the noise and interactions were making me anxious. [It really was strange to suddenly be among so many tourists and day hikers here. We passed a group of teenage boys who were blaring pop music from their phones and I could not believe how jarring it was to me. –Toby] This was also a beautiful stretch of trail, but we were mostly starting to just knock it out at that point. I wasn’t ready to be done, per se, but being so close to the end made me just want to get the last few miles over with for some reason. [Near Sunrise, there are a few trail options because it’s a popular trailhead with lots of little tiny hikes for picnics and sight-seeing. We could’ve taken a shortcut trail back to the parking lot, but we agreed it would feel disappointing to cheat our mileage right at the end. It was incredibly hot and dusty and completely exposed from Skyscraper Pass all the way back to Sunrise, but it was worth it to know that we did walk the entirety of the Wonderland proper. –Toby]
It was blazing hot, and I was starting to get a sunburn. I didn’t want to put on sunblock so I stopped in the middle of all the tourists, took off my shirt, and put on my long-sleeve sleep shirt. I was aware that backpackers would not have blinked an eye at me changing in front of them, but that these folks might think it was strange. I also noticed that I did not even remotely care. Other than that moment we just trucked on through the sun, counting down the miles. I feel like I want to say more here to prolong the ending, but that’s really all there was.
And then there it was, the sign that had started us off. We had seen it 10 days ago and turned left, starting the long descent to White River. I could barely even remember that moment, it felt like so much time had passed and so much had happened. We were both overwhelmed with emotions, my eyes brimmed with tears and we hugged, celebrating all we had accomplished.
We bent down for some selfies, but a guy came around the trail and we asked him to take a picture, saying that we had just finished the trail. He encouraged us to strike some poses, saying, “Okay do you want to hug? Do you two still like each other?” The answer to that was emphatically yes. I felt even closer to Toby and more proud of our relationship than I did when we started.
We were reluctant to leave this spot, because continuing to walk meant that we were no longer on the actual Wonderland. But again: hot meal and a coke. We continued to pass people and said hi to all of them, as was the custom in the back country, but most people just gave us strange looks and kept walking. Was it our friendliness? Or how bad we smelled? We will never know. Finally we got to the parking lot and I wanted to just turn back around and do the trail again. The parking lot was absolutely packed. I really can’t articulate how overwhelming it was to be surrounded by so many people. Now that we were off the trail, though, we had a new mission: eat as much as possible [as soon as possible –Toby]. We made our way through the crowds to the cafe and ordered two grilled ham and cheeses and two cokes and took our place at a table, strewing our stuff and our hiker stink everywhere. That lackluster little meal was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. [This was probably one of the most overwhelming sensory experiences I’ve ever had. All kinds of smells and sights and noises colliding here. I found it really hard to focus, and kept feeling a bit claustrophobic. On those few occasions the past ten days that we had actually seen other people, we’d always engaged in a shared conversation about the hike and our experiences on it — now, every little group of people crowding into this cafe was having its own separate, disconnected conversation, and I realized that I’d strangely felt more connected to other people on the trail, when we’d been alone most of the time. I tried to just turn my attention toward Cyn and our lunch plates, but then I was also becoming acutely aware of how incredibly smelly we both were, and how fresh and clean everyone else seemed. I was thrilled to be eating that food, but the rest of the cafe experience was just too much. –Toby]
The sandwiches would just tide us over for the hour-long drive home. We stopped for some souvenirs, I used the bathroom and looked in a mirror for the first time in 10 days (eek! But also it was so liberating to not see myself for so long and to really truly stop caring or thinking about what I looked like), and we dropped by the ranger station to leave the fuel canister that we wouldn’t be able to take home on the plane. We chatted with the young ranger (he had just started a year ago) about bears on the trail, and then we were really out of things to do and it was time to leave. [I guess I shouldn’t have been, but I was kind of surprised by the wave of emotion that crashed over me as we drove way. I really wasn’t ready for this trip to end. We drove past groups of tourists who had driven up to a lookout point and parked to gaze at the mountain for a few minutes before continuing on their way, and I thought about how their experience of the park was nothing like ours, and how our experience this year could never be repeated, even if we hiked this trail every year, it would never again be like this experience, and I cried some exhausted, happy, sad, grateful, overwhelmed tears. –Toby]
We drove back to the same hotel we had stayed at the night before the trail, and literally all I could think about was enchiladas. There was a mexican restaurant in the hotel that I was sure would be fairly terrible, but all I wanted was a giant plate of enchiladas in red sauce, with heaping piles of rice and beans. And that’s exactly what I got. We checked in and took showers. I watched the water in the tub turn brown as I tried unsuccessfully to scrub all of the dirt off my feet and out of the creases of my hands (my hands especially took a few days to actually look clean). Once we were acceptably clean to appear in public, we prioritized. There was a pie shop just a block from our hotel that was closing in 20 minutes. So we went there and ordered four giant slices of pie – two sweet ones for dessert and two pieces of chicken pot pie for breakfast. We dropped all that in the fridge in our room and headed down to dinner.
We sat at the table and tortilla chips appeared, which we scarfed down while I waited for my margarita (I ordered the “regular” size but it was still at least as big as my head). Dinner came and I ate and loved every mediocre bite of food on that giant plate and drank the whole margarita and was more tipsy than I should have been [and incredibly cute –Toby]. The waitress kept filling our water glasses and we could not get over how weird it was for cold, clean water to just, like, appear in front of us. And then we went back up to our hotel room and scarfed down our sweet pies (Toby’s was a super rich chocolate. Mine was lemon meringue).
And that was it. It felt good to be in a bed, but I also missed the tent and sleeping bag. And I was happy to be able to catch back up on facebook and check in with family and friends, but I also missed being off the grid, without that constant pull to check in with the world. Toby fell asleep almost immediately, while I stayed awake with insomnia that is only just now starting to resolve itself and felt so proud and grateful for this trip. And profoundly sad that it was over. -Cyn