I get asked often about what I think the prettiest section of the Wonderland Trail is. To me that would be the section where you leave the trees on the Cowlitz Ridge to Indian Bar and then to Summerland and below to the flower fields. The trail from either direction isn’t easy nor is it short. Either way you have a couple miles of woods hiking and going uphill. If you do it as a dayhike start at barely dawn and by the time you leave the woods the sun will be up and the day upon you! To see Indian Bar though coming from Nickel Creek is the way. Even older children with strong hiking legs can do it – no scary creeks, rivers or ice fields to cross – just a lot of gorgeous hill side meadows and views. The start is at the parking lot for Box Canyon, on Steven Canyon Road – look for the Wonderland Trail sign. It is a pleasant wooded hike to Nickel Creek, a backcountry campsite.
When I did it last we had camped at Nickel Creek and left just as first light came up. The woods were dark and cold down in Nickel Creek (it is a lovely camp with a babbling brook). The climb went by quick enough and soon enough we entered the meadows. Or rather the open hillside meadows, one after another. You keep climbing but somehow it is OK. Th views make up for the elevation gain.
Rainier is always ahead of you, if you lose sight then just keep going, it will be around the next knoll! That is the nicest thing about going this direction – the views.
As you come up to the high point on the Cowlitz Ridge Rainier is in front of you with the remnants of the Ohanapecosh Glacier that feed the start of the river. Way down below is the river and Indian Bar.
The descent goes quickly and you can see the cabin:
The cabin sits on the left side of the river, the other campsites are on the right, accessed via a bridge over the waterfalls there. The shelter is the “group” site (there is also a shelter at Summerland as well).
Crossing the river (though you don’t have to!) there is a lovely clear stream below the camp that is cold even on hot days….ahhhh! And while the river doesn’t look big in the photo it is a loud one. It is though very clear since the glacier that once fed it is nearly gone (now just a snow field) meaning unlike most rivers off of Rainier it isn’t full of glacial till. This is why down at the Grove of Patriarchs the river runs clear.
If you continue on and head for Panhandle Gap and Summerland the climbing starts again (it is brutal but can be done in a day, just save your energy and stay hydrated). The whole way is above treeline so you get views that get only better with every step. Looking down you can see the shelter way far below, just a speck. It is above the end of the grey river area, in the green.
Even higher you can still see it but suddenly you can also see Mt. Adams in the distance and more.
Finally you cross more ridges and the views open up to what one was looking up at from Indian Bar. After crossing a number of permanent snow fields, some with streams running under you break out into alpine tundra and are almost to Panhandle Gap, which is the high point and the dividing line between Indian Bar and Summerland. Even after this photo there was still many more feet to climb up. It is long.
But it is worth it.
Go to Indian Bar, take a lunch and spread out, take a nap in the sun. Cool your feet off. Then head back up the hill and then downhill to the car, slowly leaving the mountain until the trees wrap around you. Come July that is!