Trailhead: N 46° 42.360′, W 121° 59.571′ Outer Loop and High Hut Trails junction at Gap: N 46° 41.196′, W 122° 01.528′ High Hut: N 46° 41.799′, W 122° 01.529′
The crown jewel of the Mount Tahoma Trails Association’s four backcountry huts, High Hut sits on a 4,760-foot perch teetering over the Nisqually Valley with a full-fledged knock-your-fleece-socks off view of Mount Rainier! The view will take your breath away; and so will the hike getting there. Reaching High Hut is no walk in the park! It’ll cost you 2,400 vertical feet. But a well-groomed trail helps ease the climb. And knowing that a warm hut waits for you should provide enough of an incentive to keep moving.
Back in 1989, a bunch of folks from the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), National Park Service (NPS), United States Forest Service (USFS), Champion Timber Company, and members from the local business community met to establish a network of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails near Mount Rainier. Their meetings resulted in the establishment of the non-profit MTTA which would go on to build and maintain over 50 miles of trails, along with four huts and one yurt open to the public for both day and overnight use. Touted as North America’s largest no-fee (although there’s a reservation fee for staying overnight) hut-to-hut cross-country ski trail system, the MTTA network is open to skiers and snowshoers of all ages and abilities. If you plan on staying overnight in any of the huts, reservations are mandatory. If you are coming up just for the day, no reservations are necessary, so feel free to bring along some hot soup and drinks to prepare in the huts’ fully stocked kitchens.
The way starts climbing immediately. Pace yourself, you’ve got some ground to gain. At .35 mile, come to a junction with the Anderson Lake Trail. This junction like most of the junctions is well-signed. However, some of the mileages posted aren’t quite accurate, often understating the distance. Continue straight on the Outer Loop Trail, the main arterial for MTTA’s south district. You’re sure to meet plenty of fellow snowshoers and cross-country skiers along the way on this popular path. Prepare to exchange friendly salutations and be sure to snowshoe to the side of the wide trail staying out of any ski tracks.
Steadily climb. The way is lined with thick forest, but occasional gaps in the green cloak reveal window views of jagged Sawtooth Ridge just to the east. At 1.2 miles reach the Middle Sno-Park (el. 2,900 feet), used when snow levels are high. Enjoy a respite from ascending-then it’s up, up, up once again! At 1.9 miles come to yet another Sno-Park (el. 3,400 feet), used when the snow levels are even higher. Here is also where the MTTA stores some of their grooming equipment.
After passing a tumbling tributary of Catt Creek, the trail switchbacks through cool evergreens and comes to a junction with the Lower Yurt Trail. Save that long and lonely adventure for another time. Continue straight to High Hut! At 2.6 miles reach a low saddle on a high ridge (el. 3,800 feet) and yet another junction. The Outer Loop Trail continues left along the ridge heading to the Snow Bowl Hut, the Yurt, and beyond. You are heading right with still almost 1,000-feet of climbing left to subdue.
While it is still a steady ascent, emerging views south to Mount St Helens and Mount Adams should help to distract you from your snowy slog. At 3.2 miles, come to another junction (el. 4,100 feet); this one with the ungroomed trail to Anderson Lake (an alternative return not recommended for beginners). Turn right and march right up the spine of the ridge holding your coveted destination.
En route you’ll pass yet another junction-this one with the Ben Jones Loop Trail, which allows for you a slightly different and highly scenic short alternative descent from the summit. And speaking of the summit from which you have worked so hard to attain-you’re almost there. Crest the windblown high ridge housing the hut, and it soon becomes apparent why you worked so hard to make this trip. The Views! Take a break and begin reaping your visual rewards. Peer straight down to frozen Anderson Lake. Look northward all the way to Puget Sound. West to the Olympics and the Rockies-not the Colorado Rockies, but the obscure peak east of the hamlet of Mineral sharing the name of that western mountain range. Stare south to America’s most famous recently-erupted volcano. Then east to America’s grandest and most awesome volcano-Mount Rainier!
The Mountain forms a spectacular backdrop for High Hut, appearing close enough you swear you can feel its icy breath blowing down on you. More than likely though a chilly breeze will be blowing upon you, so get yourself inside the warm and inviting hut. From the kitchen, make yourself a cup of hot cocoa, sit back, and stare out the big windows to Washington’s iconic mountain. If you’re spending the night, sit in awe captivated by the alpenglow on the massive volcano; and watch a dark shroud blanket the Nisqually Valley below as daylight yields to starlight. If you’re here just for the day, you now know what to look forward to on a return overnight visit to this highlight of the MTTA’s outstanding backcountry trail and hut system.
Trailhead directions: From Elbe (Junction SR 7 and SR 706) head west 10 miles on SR 706 turning right onto Kernahan Road (2.5 miles east of Ashford). Continue 1.4 miles south on Kernahan (which eventually becomes Skate Creek Road FR 52) bearing right onto Osborn Road (signed for “Paradise Estates”) then immediately turning left onto FR 85. Continue for 1.5 miles turning right onto dirt DNR Road No. 1. Follow for 2.1 miles turning left at a junction after crossing Catt Creek. Then proceed for 3.1 miles to trailhead at lower Sno-Park.