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Grand Park Backdoor via Lake Eleanor Trail

Our Hiking Time: 3h 30m
Total Ascent: 1100ft
Highest Point: 5600ft
Total Distance: 8.5 miles
Location: N 46° 57.7080, W 121° 40.9203
Required Permit: None
Difficulty: Moderate

Nathan's Photo
Mt. Rainier National Park boasts dozens of hikes leading out to dramatic landscapes dominated by the looming volcano. Few are more iconic than Grand Park; a sea of meadows and wildflowers lapping at the base of Mt. Rainier. The classic approach from Sunrise is long and tough, putting Grand Park out of reach for most casual day hikers. Luckily, there is an unofficial “backdoor” approach via Lake Eleanor that allows many more hikers to enjoy this stunning destination.

Around 500,000 years ago, Mt. Rainier began a cycle of volcanic activity that culminated in the mountain we see today. For thousands of years, volcanic rock boiled to the surface and built up the mountain, each time also producing a layer of pyroclastic flow. With the next eruption, softer pyroclastic flow would be covered by harder layers of thick lava that are more resistant to erosion. The plateau that Grand Park covers is an example of a hard layer of lava that remained as softer rock eroded around it. The area is among the largest open meadows in the national park, and was given the name Grand Park by park officials.

The “backdoor” approach likely began as a boot trail used by fishermen to access Lake Eleanor. This 20 acre alpine lake and the creek that drains it were named around the turn of the 20th century by Burgon D. Mesler in honor of his wife Eleanor. The Mesler family were early settlers in the area, running an inn and other amenities that catered to travelers heading over the Cascades or visiting the park.

The hike begins just off FR 73, following a bootpath along the edge of Eleanor Creek. The trail enters a mixed forest and begins a moderate climb toward Lake Eleanor. Within a half-mile, you will cross into Mt. Rainier National Park and in another mile or so you will arrive at the lakeside. There are a few campsites around Lake Eleanor that provide nice views of the lake and a pleasant place for a snack, though most hikers will be eager to push on to the meadowlands ahead.

From the lake the trail steepens and climbs through larger stands of hemlock and fir. The moderate climb is broken up by short wanderings through progressively larger meadows. Push onward and upward to the wide expanses of Grand Park. Often filled with wildflowers during the spring and summer months, the miles-long grassland can seem to be awash in color from the moment you arrive. Resist the temptation to linger at the edges, and continue on to the meadow’s highpoint for outstanding views of the mountain. Find a comfortable spot to settle in and soak up the panorama. If you're hungry for more you can continue all the way through Grand Park's meadows to connect with the North Loop Trail and the rest of the Wonderland Trail.

We highly recommend this approach to Grand Park. Not only is the trail fairly approachable for almost all hikers, but the Lake Eleanor route is usually accessible long after the road to Sunrise is closed for the season. Although the trail may have been difficult to navigate in the past, its popularity has brought thousands of boots to soften it up, and today the path is almost as well-maintained as an official trail. One word of caution: the area around Grand Park is the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and other bugs. Be sure to come prepared during the spring and summer months. If you haven’t made it out to Grand Park yet, add this one to the top of your list of future hikes.

To get there, take I-5 south to Highway 18 Exit 142A. Follow Highway 18 into Auburn and take the SR 164 Exit. Head left on SR 164 through Enumclaw to SR 410. Head left onto SR 410 for 25 miles to Huckleberry Creek Road (FR 73). Turn right onto FR 73 and follow for 6 miles to cross the Huckleberry Creek bridge. Continue on FR 73 as it climbs for another 4 miles to the bridge crossing Eleanor Creek, which is signed. There is no official trailhead, but there is room for a number of cars to park. -Nathan

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Grand Park

Mount Townsend Trail #839

Our Hiking Time: 3h 45m
Total Ascent: 2900ft
Highest Point: 6300ft
Total Distance: 8.2 miles
Location: N 47° 52.0440, W 123° 3.5700
Required Permit: None
Difficulty: Moderate

Nathan's Photo
A few weeks ago we spent a long weekend hiking a number of trails in the Olympic Peninsula, exploring popular hikes and obscurities alike. By far the most challenging and popular hike we took on was Mt. Townsend, a favorite among hikers for its expansive views of Puget Sound and surrounding mountaintops.

On May 8, 1792, as Captain George Vancouver was exploring the Puget Sound, he named a large, protected bay Port Townshend. It took over 50 years, but eventually a town was founded on the bay and took the name Port Townsend as its own, dropping the “h” along the way. Other geologic features were also dubbed Townsend, such as Mt. Townsend and the creek that runs down the mountainside, Townsend Creek. All of these features were named in honor of George Townshend, the 1st Marquis of Townshend, a friend of Captain Vancouver. In 1933 a fire lookout cabin was constructed on the summit, and trails were expanded to provide access to the cabin -- both for the fire watcher and the mules that hauled supplies nearly 3000ft up the mountain. The cabin was destroyed in 1962.

Although there are a number of possible approaches to the summit, we recommend using the Upper Mt. Townsend Trailhead, as this cuts out a little over a mile of trail. From here, the wide, well-maintained Mount Townsend Trail #839 enters a forest of Douglas fir and hemlock intermingled with healthy stands of rhododendron. Almost immediately the trail begins a series of switchbacks up the mountainside before entering the Buckhorn Wilderness and beginning a long traverse up the Townsend Creek valley. The trees quickly begin to thin as you continue to gain elevation and eventually climb through rocky slopes covered in thick underbrush.

At roughly the 2.5 mile mark find Camp Windy, an unmarked spur providing access to Lake Windy, which lies just off the trail. There are areas to camp around this small tarn for those on longer journeys, but most day hikers will want to push on to better views. In another half mile find the junction with the Silver Lakes Trail #842. Keep right and continue upwards on the Mt. Townsend Trail. From here the meadows unfold and the trees fall away, providing ever-wider views of the surrounding landscape. Reach the exposed ridgeline and press onward through delicate fields of alpine flora to the short spur trail leading to the summit. From the junction you can either continue on for a half-mile to the former lookout site, or climb up to enjoy the view.

The summit offers a commanding view of the Puget Sound stretching from Canada to Seattle. Bands of water snake between islands below, and in the distance the big Cascade volcanoes rise above the surrounding peaks – Mt. Baker to the north, then Glacier Peak and finally Mt. Rainier to the south. To west you can spot the tops of Mt. Constance and Warrior Peak peaking over rocky ridgelines, and to the south find nearby Mt. Worthington and the Welsh Peaks.

There is a good general rule when it comes to the popularity of a hike: the more difficult it is to get to a trailhead, the fewer hikers make the trek. But every once in awhile we come across hikes like Mt. Townsend, where hikers flock down mile after mile of bumpy forest road for the promise of varied landscapes and stunning vistas. And this hike more than delivers on its promise. To add to the appeal, because of the rain shadow this hike tends to be free of snow a little earlier in the year. While the trail is well-trodden and relatively free of rocks and roots, much of it is exposed, which can make for a hot and dusty climb in the summer. Still, most hikers should be able to tackle this challenge without too much trouble. Of course, if you’re looking for solitude, this is not the hike for you – although other approaches will have less traffic and a mid-week visit will cut down on the number of folks on the trail.

To get there, take the Bainbridge Island Ferry and follow State Route 305 through Poulsbo to State Route 3. Follow SR 3 to the Hood Canal Bridge, taking a left over the bridge onto State Route 104. Follow SR 104 as it merges onto US 101 and continue 11.3 miles through Quilcene to Penny Creek Road. Take a right and continue 1.4 miles to Big Quilcene River Road. Veer left and proceed to FR 27. Continue for a little over 13 miles to the junction of FR 2760. For the lower trailhead, head left down FR 2760 for 0.7 miles to find the parking area. For the upper trailhead, continue on FR 27 for about a mile to FR 2700-190. Turn left and continue another mile to the upper trailhead. -Nathan

Mount Townsend
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