Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Exploring Mt Rainier National Park's NE Corner

The idea for this adventure began, as many of my trips do, while reading a post on one of the hiking Facebook groups I follow.  In mid-September, someone posted incredible fall color photos from a trail to someplace called "Sheep Lake and Sourdough Gap."  Of course, I had to look up the location, and discovering it was adjacent to the NE corner of Mt Rainier National Park, decided then and there I had to go.

Technicolor slopes along Hwy 410

Since MRNP is too long of a drive for a day trip, finding overnight lodging was necessary.  A bit of research into nearby places to camp led me to the Silver Springs campground, just outside of the park boundary near Crystal Mountain Ski resort.  My grand plan was to drive to the campground first, secure a site, then travel back to the trailhead, located at nearby Chinook Pass.

Brilliant backlit mountain ash leaves

My plan worked perfectly.  Leaving Portland early one Tuesday morning gave me a mid-morning arrival at Silver Springs campground.  Although the $28 a site price tag at this Forest Service campground made me gulp (and this was for a regular site!  The premium sites were more $$) I sucked it up, chose a spot, and erected my tent.  I guess this place did have bathrooms with running water so that partially justified the higher cost.....

Sheep Lake

Then it was back on the road for a quick drive to Chinook Pass, the trailhead for today's adventure.  Arriving at the parking area, I was pleased to see the adjacent slopes dotted with huckleberry bushes in several hues.  Also, the mountain ash trees were sporting lovely colors of yellow and orange.  I could tell this was gonna be good!

Another view of Sheep Lake

The hike to Sheep Lake follows the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) paralleling Hwy 410 for the first mile.  Traversing a steep slope above the highway, this lofty perch gave good views of both the road and deep valley of the Rainier fork of the American River.  And oh were the fall leaves lovely!  Huckleberry bushes and mountain ash trees glowed in the midday sunshine.

Blazing huckleberry leaves

With so many photo opportunities, forward progress was slow.  But finally after a mile, the PCT veered away from the highway and 3/4 of a mile later I found myself at the shores of Sheep Lake.

Looking down on Sheep Lake near Sourdough Gap

As mountain lakes go, Sheep Lake was a gem.  Ringed by tall rocky cliffs full of fall finery, it was the perfect place to rest, have lunch, and take in the scenery.

Sourdough Gap

But as fantastic scenery went, the trail just getting started.  After filling my belly, I continued my upward trek, climbing high above Sheep Lake.  The views and fall colors just kept getting better, and my camera didn't stay in it's bag much.  I passed one slope that was positively blazing with color - huckleberry leaves sporting vibrant reds and oranges so vivid even my camera didn't do it justice.

Lovely mountain meadow

The higher I climbed the better the views became.  Ascending the steep valley I began to spot adjacent peaks, even a hazy Mt Adams way to the south.  Sheep Lake became a small turquoise spot far below.  The rocky cliffs rising from the valley floor added drama to the scene.

Fall colors along the trail and Hwy 410

Although the distance from Sheep Lake to Sourdough Gap was a mere 1.4 miles, the trail was much steeper and it seemed to take forever before I arrived at Sourdough Gap.  By now I was hot, dusty and tired.  When I finally reached Sourdough Gap, which was just that - a gap in the rock outcrop, I took some photos and turned right around.  It was too windy to linger very long.  In hindsight, I wished I would've stayed longer and took more photos.  Views from here were postcard perfect.  The continuation of the PCT led hikers through a dramatic steep talus slope and a line of mountain peaks stretched north and eastward.

Explosion of autumn color

But my body was feeling the effects of the climb and my foot was beginning to hurt.  So back down the trail I went, soaking in the incredible views once again, and taking a few more photos.  I'm sure I repeated quite a few photos of the colors and scenery.  (Did I capture an image of this on my way up?  I don't remember.  Oh well, now I'll have two photos!)

Looking towards the east from Sheep Mtn Trail

Hiking back along the highway, late afternoon light illuminated the fall colors, making for some impressive scenes.  Although I'd documented this section fairly well already, the light was so much better I couldn't resist adding more files to my memory card.

Backlit pasque flower seed heads

Near the trailhead, the sun was backlighting a bunch of Western pasque flower seed heads.  It was so cool I captured a bunch of images of the little mop-heads silhouetted against colorful leaves.  One of my favorite images from the day!

This slope was a patchwork quilt of autumn hues

Another favorite scene was the technicolor slope directly adjacent to the trailhead.  Several bright huckleberry bushes transformed it into a spectacular patchwork quilt of autumn hues.

Tipsoo Lake area

After my trek to Sourdough Gap, I'd initially planned to tackle the nearby Naches Peak Loop.  But the hike had absolutely worn me out.  Although I'd like to think I'm back to normal, I was still recovering from a very recent brain surgery (only three months post at the time).   My body was telling me to back off.  So taking heed I decided that instead of another hike, I'd make a brief stop at Tipsoo Lake to photograph the nearby scenery.


Red huckleberry bushes and cloud-covered Mt Rainier

The Tipsoo Lake area is lovely in any season, but autumn was especially stunning.  Along with more colorful huckleberry bushes, the adjacent grassy shores were also turning gold.  Although Mt Rainier hid behind a cloud, I did get brief glimpses of it's still-snowy base.

More backlit pasque flower mop heads

The mop-headed Western pasque flowers also put on quite a show.  They were especially photogenic backlit by the sun.

Trail along Tipsoo Lake

I walked beside both the upper and lower Tipsoo Lakes, capturing several great vantages of the lakes, adjacent mountains, and colorful slopes.  But the wind began picking up, and worried about my hastily erected tent blowing over, I packed away the camera and headed for camp.

Crimson-lined trail

I spent a relaxing evening at my campsite, eating and reading until chilly night air and fatigue from the day's exertions sent me to my sleeping bag.  I had planned another nearby hike for the following day and needed to recharge my batteries, for this trail would be much more difficult.  Two hikes, two days in a row.  Could I still do it?  

To be continued.......


  1. That is so beautiful there and unspoiled

  2. I was there a few weeks ago. Your photos are much better than mine. A little tip is when you look through the Sourdough Gap you'll see the trail continuing to another ridge. That's the trail to the next lake. At that pass you'll have great views of Rainier and can see into the next lake basin. Obviously my brain can't remember the name of the lake and I'm too lazy to look at a map.

  3. Just amazing beauty wherever you turn your camera.

  4. Hello,
    Beautiful views of the park, lakes and the fall colors. You seem to have recovered very well from your illness. Gorgeous photos. Take care, have a happy day!

  5. Wow, Linda, you find the best hikes. I love the seedheads, and the colors were magnificent. Glad you're hiking again and taking great photos.

  6. The scenery in its autumn colour is spectacular. Your recovery to full health is equally so!

  7. Some stunning colours there. You really do live in a colourful part of the world! :)

  8. WOW, WOW, WOW! This may be the best fall color you've shared yet! Love the backlit pasque flowers!

  9. I spent a miserably windy night at Sheep Lake while hiking the PCT. After that we vowed to stay away from all lakes named Sheep! Looks like you had a nice day though.

  10. Stunning Fall color! What a great hike! Hope you are feeling better and better everyday!

  11. Spectacular photos! Once I had a chance to visit Mt. Rainier but I was ill from something I ate and spent the day recovering while my husband went there with our hosts.


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