I did this route yesterday as part of the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge. It’s a very nice loop on relatively well-maintained runnable trails (Strava link here). The one exception is the last 3-4 miles up the Eastside Trail, which involve a long climb that is steep in spots, especially on tired legs.
For those of you contemplating this route in the future, I’m thinking the best direction is counterclockwise (opposite the direction that I went). That way you aren’t doing the steepest climb of the loop at the very end of the day. Also, counterclockwise saves the most scenic section of the trail for last, which is nice. The one exception to this is if it’s a very hot day – in that case you might want to consider clockwise, so that you aren’t on the exposed PCT in the heat of the day.
I started just before 7:30 am. The morning was cool, the sun was shining, and life was good. The trail undulated up and down without any serious climbing or descending.
The last four miles of the PCT before Laughingwater Creek trail offered up some very nice views of the surrounding volcanoes.
I saw most of my wildlife during the last 1-2 miles of the PCT (interestingly, outside NPS boundaries). At one point the trail traverses an alpine meadow with views of One Lake below. There was a small herd of elk in the meadow that would scatter every time I got close enough to take their photo. I had a moment of jealousy, watching them run through the meadow, until I realized that I was doing exactly the same thing! Except not as gracefully.
Although the elk were shy, I came upon a marmot who definitely was not. At one point it seemed as though he was scurrying towards me, and I started to get curious about what would happen next (perhaps he’d pop up on two legs and start chattering in a British accent?) But nope, he was just trying to get to his burrow, which happened to be located a few feet off the trail in front of me.
Soon enough, I turned onto Laughingwater Creek trail and began to make my way towards Three Lakes. At this point the trail entered the woods, all the while continuing to descend. Occasionally the trail would open up to more views of Rainier.
I reached the Three Lakes Patrol Cabin, and as instructed by Matt Hagen, signed the visitor book and corrected his spelling error. Hey, I do what I’m told (sometimes).
After the patrol cabin came a long stretch of downhill, wooded trail.
It was getting pretty hot at this point, and I was drinking a fair amount of water. Luckily there were plenty of small streams crossing the trail. I had just filled up my water flask, and as I stepped backwards my foot slid on a wet mossy rock and I went crashing to the ground, face-first. My left knee landed squarely on the rock, while the right side of my body landed in the stream. It was a weird combination of painful (knee still hurts today) and super refreshing.
Eventually I reached Silver Falls, where I saw my first humans of the day. I continued to see more people as I headed up towards Grove of the Patriarchs. As soon as I passed the turn-off for the grove, the crowds dissipated quickly. The last person I saw on the trail was an old man sitting on a rock at the Eastside Trail junction, tying flies in the afternoon heat. And then it was back to solitude.
The final climb of the day was a toughie. I knew it was coming, but the first section of uphill is relatively mellow and I was lulled into complacency. Ha! I thought. Turns out those SMRG guys aren’t so tough after all! This uphill section isn’t so hard! Then the switchbacks ended but the trail kept going straight up. Ouch. It was a grunt, for sure. Overall, the final section of the Eastside Trail is relatively mellow compared to say, Teneriffe or Old Mailbox. But at the end of a 30+ mile day, it was a little too steep to be enjoyable, especially in the mid-day heat.
I’d never been so glad to see a road, as I knew that meant the climb was over. Just a short jaunt past Tipsoo Lake and I was back where I started. I headed straight to the cooler in my truck and sat down on the sidewalk for a feast. UPWC Chinook Pass completed!