The Huckleberry Creek Trail to Forest Lake Camp may be one of the best kept secrets in Washington State’s Mount Rainier National Park. That’s because you have to be part mountain goat to hike out. Yep, the return trip is almost entirely uphill. Think Empire State Building without an elevator. But this is one trail that’s worth every grunt, groan and creaking knee.
You’d never guess that a world-class wildflower meadow, gurgling creek and glassy tarn are tucked into the conifer-clad valley below Sourdough Ridge at Sunrise on the eastern flank of Mount Rainier. Their secrets are revealed only to the truly intrepid or utterly clueless. Consequently, we had the entire hike to ourselves on a beautiful Thursday in late September, save for one other couple from Holland. And they were lost. See? Everyone with brains headed toward Frozen Lake or Mount Fremont. We, on the other hand, opted for “the road less travelled” and were rewarded with one of the most beautiful alpine settings in the park. And aching knees. But I digress.
Dog-legging off Sourdough Ridge, the Huckleberry Creek trail narrows and turns treacherous as it juts into Huckleberry Basin, especially through a rock-strewn avalanche chute below the basin. Past the chute, the trail slims further to ribbon-width as you dip into a riotous romp of Renoir pastels cleverly disguised as a serene alpine meadow. While the wildflowers aren’t as plentiful on this higher, more exposed side of the Mountain as they are in Paradise, they still paint the landscape in rich floral hues where yellow mountain daisies, purple aster, lupine, fire-engine red Indian paintbrush and white-tufted bear grass splash the landscape like a Louvre-worthy canvas.
Huckleberry Creek winds through tall, thick grass and plays hide and seek with the trail as it skips around gentle knolls and ridges bristling with evergreens. Once you’ve reached the valley, cross a couple split-log foot bridges and elbow the creek on your left. It’s a short walk to Forest Lake Camp.
While its shores are lined with the sun-bleached bones of fallen trees, Forest Lake is as still as the Sphinx. If you’re part polar bear, go for a swim. We lunched at the camp for about an hour, listening to warbling wrens and varied thrushes. Chipmunks scurried nearby as gray jays, those shameless panhandlers, thought we were opening a traveling cafeteria. We left reluctantly as afternoon faded and snow-scrubbed breezes began whining off the Emmons Glacier.
As for the return hike, well, be sure to fuel up the after-burners. Both creek and camp are well worth the hamstring-hollerin’ climb out. Just don’t tell anyone.