By Dan Hardebeck
For The Chronicle
Most high-altitude hiking trails in Western Washington are not accessible until the snows have melted out in August. However, there are a few alpine hikes on southern-facing slopes than have begun to open up in mid-July, and I had the pleasure of enjoying one such hike last week: the Eagle Peak trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
With both of our sons now graduated from high school and heading off to college in the fall, my wife and I have tried to squeeze in as much family hiking as possible this summer. Hiking seems to be the one activity we all enjoy a great deal, and even with all of our crazy schedules a family hike followed by ice cream always seems to bring us together like nothing else.
Most of our favorite alpine hikes in the Olympics and Cascades require hours of highway driving followed by miles and miles on remote, primitive logging roads just to reach the trailhead. But we set out from the South Sound relatively late last Friday morning because the Eagle Peak trailhead — to my great shock — can be found at the back of the Longmire parking lot.
I’ve been going to Longmire for over 30 years, and I never knew this trailhead existed. You can consult the park’s website to find its exact location, but I’ll warn you, the trailhead is marked only by a small sign near the ground and is very easy to miss.
Perhaps that’s why, even though Longmire is one of the most well-traveled places in the park, we saw only two other people during this 7.2 mile out-and-back hike.
The hike itself is not spectacular; it’s a steady uphill climb through old-growth forest with a couple nice creek crossings. But because the entire hike is southern-exposed, the snow melts sooner in the season, allowing hikers to climb to 5,500 feet much earlier than other hikes at similar altitudes.
This hike is somewhat misnamed because the maintained trail does not actually take one to the top of Eagle Peak, but rather to a saddle between Eagle Peak and Chutla Peak. But upon reaching the saddle, the uphill climb rewards hikers with spectacular views.
To the north looms the enormity of Mount Rainier, virtually filling the entire sky. If you have sharp eyes, like my younger son Sawyer, you can see lines of climbers making their way across the Muir snowfield from Paradise to Camp Muir. If your eyes are not so good, like my older son Emerson’s, then carrying up a pair of binoculars is well-worth the extra weight.
The real treat from the saddle is the view to the south, where we had a panoramic outlook of Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, and even the sharp, snowy peak of Mount Hood off in the distance.
Sawyer is the photographer in the family. He’s won a number of national competitions and awards for his photography, and he hauls his trusty Canon SLR along on every hike, the extra weight be damned. But Sawyer tells me that sometimes good photos involve just a bit of luck, as was the case last week at the Eagle Peak saddle.
He snapped off a few landscape shots, then lined up the rest of the family for the obligatory “We’ve reached the top” photo. It was at that moment that a proud mountain goat stood up from his resting spot on the snowbank above us, looking for all the world like a stuffed trophy.
Sawyer just kept shooting pictures and eventually let us in about the party-crasher behind us; one does not, after all, want to surprise a mountain goat. Despite their generally docile nature, they can be aggressive and have caused severe injuries and even deaths of hikers who got too close.
After the climb up, the 3.1 miles back to the car seemed relatively easy. We’d had a great family day together, Sawyer had a cool photo – and there was ice cream waiting back at the lodge in Longmire.
Dan Hardebeck formerly taught literature, humanities and journalism at W.F. West High School in Chehalis. He now lives in Tacoma and teaches at Timberline High School in Lacey.