The Northern Loop Trail follows a little used, 37-mile loop in the northwestern portion of the park. The trail leads through pristine wilderness including forests, meadows, rivers, cliffs, lakes and ever-changing views of Mount Rainier and its glaciers. Hikers can begin this hike from Sunrise or Isput Campgrounds. This description details the trek from Isput leading southeastward to Sunrise then following the Wonderland Trail to complete the western portion of the loop. The first segment of the loop, to Lake James, is often done as an overnight trip.
The trail begins at the end of Carbon River Road at an elevation of 2,300 feet. Walk beyond the campground heading southward. Within a half mile you'll reach a junction with the Wonderland Trail. Turn left at this junction following the Wonderland Trail eastward. The first two miles of this track lie along the valley floor, close to river elevation.
At the next junction take the left fork across the Carbon River. On the far bank turn left again, downstream. The trail soon begins a series of countless switchbacks, climbing 3000 feet up the southwestern aspect of Chenuis Mountain. The climb lies mostly in cool forest on a smooth and soft path, making it somewhat more bearable.
The gradient lessens after two miles of climbing and the trail nears Spunkwash Creek. Five and a quarter miles from Isput Creek Campground,
you'll pass Yellowstone Cliffs campsite. Above the trail to the north are Tyee Peak and the Yellowstone Cliffs. Beside the camp lies a pair of small lakes to the left and another to the right.
Continuing along the trail hikers will reach the tundra of 5,800-foot Windy Gap three quarters of a mile east of Yellowstone Cliffs Camp. This landmark is six miles from Isput Creek and it offers wide views to the north along Independence Ridge. A few hundred yards east of Windy Gap is a side trail to Natural Bridge. This trail is 1.75 miles round trip and an interesting side trip if you are staying at Yellowstone Cliffs or Lake James.
From Windy Gap the Northern Loop descends 1,400 feet in the next two miles to reach the camp at Lake James. This site lies on the southwestern shore of this picturesque alpine lake at an elevation of 4,370 feet. Most hikers doing an overnight trip spend the night at Lake James, which is 8.7 miles from Isput Creek.
From Lake James, the route drops 1,280 feet, using several switchbacks, to a crossing of the West Fork White River. Looking back and somewhat north of the trail you may be able to see Van Horn Falls emptying into the West Fork White River. On the opposite bank of the waterway a 2500-foot climb begins. The saving grace of this climb is that it lies within dense forest. Nearing the top of this two and a half mile climb you'll see a side trail leading to the left. This is the access trail to Fire Creek Camp. Water is not dependable here; if you plan to camp here, obtain water at Van Horn Falls near the West Fork.
The trail continues to climb for another mile past Fire Creek Camp through forested terrain. Reaching the northwestern corner of Grand Park the terrain levels then opens shortly before a fork in the trail. Six miles from Lake James is a junction with the trail leading to Lake Eleanor. The route to Lake Eleanor is a three and a quarter mile, mild descent to a secluded alpine lake. A primitive camp lies on the eastern shore of Lake Eleanor.
From the trail leading northward to Lake Eleanor the Northern Loop leads southward through Grand Park. It enters a forested area a mile south of the Lake Eleanor Trail and begins a slow descent. A half mile after beginning the descent the trail reaches Lodi Creek and Affi Falls. Beyond the falls the trail parallels the creek for a half mile then crosses one of its tributaries. At this point Mt. Fremont Lookout sits atop the ridge to the east. Looking southwestward you'll see Skyscraper Mountain on the ridge above Lodi Creek. Approximately one mile from the tributary crossing is a spur trail leading to Berkeley Camp. Total distance from Lake James to Berkeley Camp is nine miles.
From Berkeley Park Camp ascend one mile through meadows and the Lodi Creek headwaters to a junction with the Wonderland Trail. Turn right and contour around the top of the valley you just ascended. After rounding the valley the trail turns northward and you'll be walking toward Skyscraper Mountain. Once the tread reaches the southern base of the mountain and Skyscraper Pass, it makes a sharp westward turn and begins an 800-foot descent to Granite Creek Camp. This site lies four and a half miles from Berkeley Park.
Walking westward from Granite Creek Camp the trail crosses Granite Creek and descends slowly along its southern bank. Approximately two miles and 800 feet below Granite Creek Camp the tread reaches the moraine left by the retreating Winthrop Glacier. The trail turns northward and skirts the snout of the glacier, crossing Winthrop Creek then turning westward. On the western side of the glacier the trail parallels the West Fork White River ascending steadily for a mile and a half to Mystic Camp.
Mystic Camp lies at 5,700 feet, ten miles from Berkeley Park. From this point it is eight miles to the end of the loop. Leaving Mystic Camp the tread passes Mystic Lake on its southern shore then turns northward ascending 400 feet to a 6,100-foot pass. Beyond the pass the track begins the long descent through Moraine Park and along Moraine Creek. The trail descends slowly for the first mile and a half from the pass. After one half mile of descent the trail begins to parallel the moraine of the Carbon Glacier. The trail steepens and reaches Dick Creek Camp after descending approximately two and a half miles.
Dick Creek Camp lies at 4,080 feet next to the Carbon Glacier moraine. Two miles north and 1,440 feet below Dick Creek camp the trail reaches the completion of the Northern Loop. At this fork the right side leads to Yellowstone Cliffs Camp. The left side of the fork crosses the Carbon River and returns to the starting point at Ipsut Creek.
Directions: From White River Entrance, Drive nearly 14 miles westward along White River Road to the Sunrise parking area. The trail begins at the northern end of the parking area.
Elevation: 2,300 feet
Ending Elevation: 2,300 feet
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