Mother Mountain Loop Hike - Day 3: Mowich Lake Campground to Cataract Valley Camp


Flowers in mountain meadows

On day 3 we have another short hike of 6.3 miles with 1850 feet of elevation gain, along with some steep up and downhill terrain, which will take us from Mowich Lake Campground to Cataract Valley Campground.  It shouldn’t be as bad as yesterday, but most of that elevation gain will over a stretch of 2 miles of trail then lots of downhill to our camp spot. After yesterday, I’m not sure I’m up to more steep climbing, but I’m going to have to suck up and do it.

I woke up many times last night having to relieve myself.  Probably due to all the water I drank to rehydrate myself after my hiking experience yesterday.  Therefore, I didn’t get the most restful sleep.  Not the best way to start another hard day of hiking.

Today I ate a big breakfast of freeze-dried scrambled eggs, and while sipped on a cup of hot chocolate. The egg package says it was two portions in size.  I ate the whole thing.  I just wanting to make sure I get as many calories down my throat as I could before we hit the trail.  We pack up and head out at 8:52 AM.  Our first leg will take us down the Spray Park Trail, which is a section of the Wonderland Trail, toward Eagle’s Roost Camp.

Josh at start of the Spray Park trail

I start down the path at a slow pace.  Today it will be slow and easy all day, with lots of water, and trail food as we go. I don’t want a repeat of yesterday, and get totally exhausted again.

After traveling downhill for 1.5 miles we reach the viewpoint at Eagle Cliff.  We took a break at the view point, which offers our first unobstructed view of Mt. Rainier this morning.  Being so close to the mountain is breathtaking, way different than in the lowlands. Hear you can make even the crevasses on the mountain’s glaciers.  No eagles spotted today. But of course, this was only a short pit stop, before we moved on toward Eagle’s Roost Camp.



View of Mt. Rainier from Eagle Cliff

We considered checking out the campground at Eagle’s Roost.  After arriving at the short trail that heads down to the campground, we found it went down a fairly steep hill to get to the camp.  We decided we didn’t need to put in any necessary vertical gain to just to visit the camp, so we moved on.

We continued on down the trail another .6 miles to the Spray Park Falls Spur trail.  It was only a .1 mile  trek on the spur to the falls and appeared to be fairly level, so we took the short detour.  From my research Spray Park Falls mostly likely got its name, from the trail construction crew that went through this area in 1883, because of all the spray that comes off the falls.  Today it was still spewing off a fine mist as the water cascades down the steep log and rock invested creek bed.  We didn’t stay long.  If we had we would probably become a wet mess before too long.

Mist rising from Spray Park Falls

Once back on the on the main trail, we started up toward toward our high point for day, 1300 feet above our current elevation.  The next .6 miles was the steepest part of the trail, with lots of switch backs.  Up and up, we went.  Today I travelled at snails pace up the trail.  Hopefully my new slow spped would keep me from getting exhausted today.  The trail zigged and zagged up the mountain side.  I was constantly having to step aside to provide room for the day hikers to pass, because they were a lot fast than I.

Some hikers were just out for exercise, or put to look at the sights.  There were others that were mountain climbers, I could tell by the ice ace they were carrying and the rope the had slung over the shoulder, or tied to their pack. Others were crazy diehard skiers with their skis and ski boot attached to their packs.  There was an occasional runner that would pass up as the zipped up the trail at breakneck speeds.

At least this part of the trail was shaded by the tall old growth trees.   We keep chugging along, one foot in front of the other, over and over again.  The miles were clicking off very slowly.

Eventually we broke out into a beautiful mountain meadow, with wild flowers blooming, and lush velvet green grass.  Looked like perfect terrain for seeing mother bears sunning themselves, while their cubs rolled around and played in the grass.

Breaking out into the meadows

The trail meandered up through one meadow after another.  There were lots of day hikers up in the meadows passing us, plus a few thru hikers, as we climbed up through one meadow after another.  I kept looking at black specs on the distance hill sides wondering if they were bears, but the spots never budged.  Guess they were not bears, or they were lounging around motionless just soaking up the midday sun.

Once in the open meadows the sun was beating down on us, make it a hot and sweaty trek as we continued climbing toward the top.  With the openness of the terrain an occasional light breeze would blow through, providing a cooling evaporation effect from my wet t-shirt.

The trails here are very well maintained, with gravel and stone steps.  I have to wonder how all the fine gravel and smooth stone steps made it way up on the mountain to make these trails.  The alpine meadow trail took us up and into patches of snow.  We really enjoyed the scenic stroll through the mountain meadows with the wild flowers in bloom, and small, crystal clear alpine lakes that looked so inviting for a swim.  Had to wonder if there were any fish in these lakes.

Josh climbing a set of those stone steps

We eventually got so high, the trees started to thin out, and the ones we pass were very short.  Near the high-altitude part of our days trek there was just rock and patches of snow to transit, with a few trees thrown in.  Crossing the numerous snow fields was very slow, and slippery going.

Being above the most of the trees gave us and a view of the mountain like no other, as we walked along. I kept looking up at the mountain, wondering if any climbers were up there 1000’s of feet above, trying to scale to the 5th highest mountain in the lower 48 states.  Never did see any climbs up on Rainier.  I’m guessing the side we were viewing is not the side normally used to scale the mountain.

Posing for a picture in a snow field above the tree line

We rested near the top, next to a cliff face that gave us a great panorama view of Cataract Valley below.  It was now 2:15 PM.   While we were stopped, I recouped some energy from the strenuous climb up to here by eating a power bar, popping peanut butter M&M in my mouth, and chowing down on some beef jerky. 

While being perched on the edge of the cliff, I was able to surveyed the trail down into Cataract Valley.  I realized it will be a steep decent to get down into the valley.   I told myself the climbing is not over for the day.  I knew good and well how hard it is to hike downhill with a 40-pound pack on your back.  I’m hoping I don’t blow out my bad knee holding myself back as we transcend the steep trail below.  Having to cross the steep snow fields below had me more worried.  One slip and you might be sliding toward a pill of rocks, or worse yet a large drop off.   Probably wouldn’t kill yourself.  Josh said “If you do fall and start slide toward the rocks, make sure you roll around just right so your pack ends up slamming into the rocks first, instead of your face, body, arms or legs”.  I said “I think I’ll just go slow, hoping to avoid that sliding maneuver altogether”.

View down into the valley below

After feeling rested we headed down.  The foot prints of other hikers were almost melted, so the trail across the snow fields were hard to follow.  We looked for the trail markers before we crossed each snow field.  Big and small cairns, and brightly spray-painted rocks, some with arrows showed the way down.   A “cairn” is a mound of stone.  Some of the cairns we pass were big, and built with a truck load or more of rock stacked neatly in tall mount, making them easy to see.  Others were very small making them a little more challenging to find.

We took our time crossing the steep snow and rocky trails, as we worked closer and closer toward our nights destination, one slow step at a time.  We had to be careful not to break through the snow into the small ice caves created below our feet, by the water that was running down the mountain side.  The melting snow run off were creating little tunnels in the snow fields.   We moved carefully along surveyed the snow as we went.  We did this by picked and prodded the white stuff with our hiking poles, and stepped softly as we crossed each snowfield, especially around the edges.  Our progress toward camp was painfully slow, I kept looking at my watch realize it was getting later and later as we moved down the mountain.  I say we might have even been moving slower going downhill, then we did when we climbed up earlier today.  Picking our way down the mountain was taking a toll on our energy level.  The further down we got the more tired we became.

We eventually arrived at Cataract Valley camp, it was 5:30 PM.   I was not as exhausted as yesterday, but darn close.  Josh was also complaining about how hard the climb wa on him today, so maybe I’m not such an old man after all. 

There are only 6 individual and 1 group camp spot, plus a open-air toilets with two holes.  Nothing like sitting on the pot with view of the forest and cliffs above camp.    We surveyed each spot and picked #6, which was tucked all the way in the back of the remote campground.  We keep wondering if more hikers would arrive at camp, but as luck would have it, we had place to ourselves all night.   

It was already so late, that we started dinner shortly after arriving.  Tonight, it was freeze dried spaghetti, which we doctored up with what was left of my salami.  Once dinner was done, we pitched our tents and then raised our packs and all our food high up off the ground on the bear poles provided.

Camp at Cataract Valley

Since we were kind of wiped out from the days trek, we decided to turn in early.  It was 8 PM when we climbed into our separate tents.  We both needed a good rest because tomorrow will be our last day of hiking on this trip and will be longest  day from a milage perspective.  The trek to the Carbon River Park entrance and my car will be a l10-mile.  But at least most of the trail goes downhill.