Penn Township father, son hike rogue trails to supervolcano doorstep

Robert Szypulski, a computer programmer with Windstream Communications, lives in Penn Township. His son, Scott Szypulski, is a financial research administrator for the University of Pittsburgh who lives in Oakland. This is the story of their recent adventure to Mt. Rainier and Grand Teton national parks.

With national park visitation soaring as pandemic restrictions eased, my son, Scott, and I took another September hiking trip to avoid summer crowds at two western parks. We had previously hiked Zion, Yosemite, Glacier and Grand Teton. This year’s theme was “rogue trails,” those not recognized or maintained by the National Park Service. It led to one first-time park visit and one return trip.

Mt. Rainier National Park is a two-hour drive southeast of Seattle. From the airport, we stopped first in the city, surprised by steep hills intermixed with skyscrapers. We walked the waterfront’s famed Pike Place Market then headed for lodging near the park’s White River entrance. On that overcast day, Mt. Rainier, an active supervolcano, couldn’t be seen.

Visibility is one of two keys to a successful hike around what locals simply call “The Mountain.” The other is fast-changing weather. At an elevation of 14,410 feet, Mt. Rainier can develop its own atmospheric conditions, different from surrounding land. It’s the most glaciated peak and contains the largest glacier (Emmons) in the contiguous 48 states. The Paradise area of the park often wins “snowiest on Earth” accolades for its 639-inch average annual snowfall.

For our 11-mile trek the next day, the hiking gods favored us. Early morning cloud cover didn’t go away, but we rose above it on the switchback road up to Sunrise Visitor Center. After that, with only clear blue sky topping Rainier, the astounding view was like no other mountain we had visited. Even a wickedly hot Pacific Northwest summer couldn’t halt the march of 25 glaciers inchworming down the peak.

Our hike was to 7,828-foot-high Burroughs Mountain, specifically its “third” summit, the spur trail unrecognized by the park service. For day-hikers, it’s the nearest spot to Rainier’s crater without attempting a technical equipment climb.

The hike began by dropping into subalpine forest and small meadows. The intoxicating pine scent along the path included a breath of cedar, the latter trees rapidly thinning out at this elevation. Mountain hemlock and subalpine fir signaled a transition to treeline, the zone where trees gradually shrink until conditions no longer support growth.

A little over a mile in was Shadow Lake, a destination for many overnight backpackers. After that came a steady rise to a stone overlook where massive Emmons Glacier dominated the view. Also visible was the glacial source of the White River, gently cascading down Rainier on its journey to Puget Sound.

The trail steepened as we climbed above treeline into the alpine tundra Burroughs Mountain is known for. A once sandy, wooded trail turned rocky and barren, the only plants being those typically found near the Earth’s poles. Colder than the forested part of the hike, Scott and I added gloves and tossle caps as we continued upward.

The three windswept summits of Burroughs rose progressively on the exposed tundra path. While unmaintained, the trail from second Burroughs to third was easily tracked. A surprise came after descending the second peak to a saddle and having the third summit block all sight of Rainier. From the saddle back up, though, each step revealed more of “The Mountain.” We finally reached the top and an in-your-face view of Winthrop Glacier, plus steaming volcanic vents high on the peak. We celebrated our “hike of ice and fire” with a well-earned rest and snack!

‘A straight-up scramble’

The next day we flew to Jackson Hole, Wyo., for a hike in Grand Teton National Park we couldn’t attempt last fall. Delta Lake, once considered the park’s “hidden gem,” has become wildly popular, achieving cult-like status.

Moreso than with Third Burroughs, Scott and I now understand why the park service doesn’t maintain this rogue spur off the Amphitheater/Surprise Lake route. For one thing, during lighter traffic, the so-called “trail” would require map-reading or tracking skill, maybe both. For another, the boulder field crossings are treacherous. Finally, the last quarter-mile is nearly a straight-up scramble on all fours, not anything park rangers could maintain.

Being mid-week in mid-September, we didn’t expect much trail traffic. Even so, we began the hike early to have the lake mostly to ourselves upon arrival. The trail ascended through mixed forest of Engelmann spruce, Douglas fir and lodgepole pine.

One mile in, a bugling elk from woods across a wildflower meadow startled us. The bull seemed so near, it rattled me enough to grip my bear spray. But we never saw him, and the bugling stopped after a minute. It was the closest we came to encountering large wildlife along the trail, a thrill we enjoy.

As we climbed, breaks in the forest canopy offered snapshots of Jackson Hole below and the Tetons above. After a trail junction leading to other lakes, the hike bared its teeth with grueling switchbacks up the mountainside. Hiking in the morning helped, the sun not yet scorching us on the exposed portion of the trail. The cooler start let us appreciate the ever-expanding view of the valley and two lower lakes.

At the end of the sixth switchback, steep, crude stairs tumbled off the trail, our “gateway” to Delta Lake. We descended the steps to a narrow dirt path blocked often by fallen trees. The dirt ended at a boulder field, which we carefully traversed to relocate the trail. The path then climbed sharply to another boulder field. After crossing it laterally, we reached the base of the loose dirt scramble up to the lake.

Even after cresting the path, we were obstructed by trees and huge boulders. Rounding them gave us one of the best payoffs we’ve ever had on a hike, a 9,016-foot-high alpine lake, guarded by 13,775-foot-high Grand Teton, hidden from view until our very last steps.

With only six others at the lake, we savored yet another exhilarating moment in pristine backcountry. On rogue trails or marked ones, America’s national parks deliver these moments every single day!

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