The sight of Mount Rainier from close-up or afar is breathtaking. No visit to the Pacific Northwest is complete without seeing it.
Fondest memory: Mountains are rarely measured by height alone. Just because a peak is 20,000 feet does not guarantee awe and fame. Much of this depends on where it is. Proximity can work both ways. Being close to a highly populated area increases exposure but there is always something to be said for the lure of the remote and exotic. But the where that perhaps matters most is the relative size of the mountain in question in relation to its surroundings. After all, a peak of a mere 8000 feet would still elicit sighs if rising out of the ocean. Everest gains its notoriety by simply being the biggest and surely its remote location only adds luster. While it is close to 30,000 feet above sea level, it only rises about 15,000 from the plateau of its origin. Mt. McKinley, on the other hand, stands over 18,000 feet above its plain. I have seen both up close and the latter certainly looks bigger.
Mount Rainier is the highest mountain in the lower 48. This is Americans way of saying not including Alaska which somehow transcends being part of the United States. Well, I guess you do have to drive through Canada to get there. Rainier is one of those peaks that grabs you. Anyone that has seen it from Seattle will agree. It just looks so massive. Again, this is a matter of a relatively high peak jutting from an otherwise flat and much lower elevation terrain.
It is a little more than 2 hours drive from the three biggest cities in the Pacific Northwest. Many of of those living in this area do so just to enjoy the great outdoors. As you might guess, Rainier is one of the most climbed peaks requiring some technical skills in the US and you can imagine the numbers hiking around and in the vicinity of the area's “home mountain.” (continued below in Fondest Memory)
As chance would have it, the Pacific Northwest had been pummeled by snow that winter and the unseasonably low spring temperatures allowed for little of it to melt. We should have been forewarned when hiking in Yosemite a month earlier when mosquitoes were in spring mode while the calendar said it was summer. Late snow melt means late pools for their breeding. But the realization was not far off. When we got to Crater Lake a couple weeks later, half of the Rim Drive was still closed due to snow drifts of ten feet.
My fears were confirmed when speaking with park rangers at Rainier who explained that the first group had just completed the Wonderland Trail, a full month later than is normally the case. That group was very experienced and had done the trek previously. With so much snow, there was, in fact, not much of a trail. Hiking through snow necessitated great navigational skills but nothing beats knowing the terrain first hand as this group obviously did. My heart sank a little less when the helpful rangers explained that while much of the park was still inaccessible, there were a few hikes just opening up that afforded great views of Rainier. Of course, if Rainier was visible.
The ride up to its namesake National Park was surprisingly devoid of such views. Rainier was absent from the landscape and I questioned my memories filled with such on my first approach to the area some 15 years prior. After setting up camp in an amazingly lush forest, we went for a drive that proved once and for all that Rainier could never be predicted when it appeared right before us as if magically released from a secret compartment enshrouding it. It was so clear, I swore it could not possibly cloud up over night but, of course, that it did. For two days, Rainier was not on our horizon so we enjoyed the Paradise Visitor Center and waterfalls that dot the park's scenic drive while planning what we would do when it cleared. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
Finally, after going stir crazy for a few days, a ranger told us that while it remained a fog bowl at Paradise, the big one was very much visible a few hundred feet up. That trail up there was covered completely in icy snow but the park had thoughtfully put up wands to mark the way. It was already late afternoon but we slushed our way slowly up. On the verge of turning back, we passed another ranger doing trail maintenance and he egged us on, promising clarity with a few more minutes effort. True to his words, we escaped from the white out moments later to find the massive peak and its many glaciers glistening in the sun. Climbers were returning from what was surely an incredible day at the summit but we were happy enough to finally see it.
The next morning, we broke down camp just as it got light. The overnight hike we had planned was short and there was no need to start it early but we noticed a spot called Reflection Lakes on the park map that we would pass en route to the trail head. On our way, we had many great views of Rainier in very nice light. It was hard to not stop for photos at every turn but the promise of a reflective shot of this incredible mountain was too strong to squander it.
A photographer was already breaking down as we arrived. I feared we were too late but a mirror was soon before me, and in it was one beautiful sight: Mount Rainier. If it is at all possible, the reflection was even more stunning than the peak itself. The two together, with a few wildflowers for good measure was breathtaking. I kept expecting to wake up in my sleeping bag, no camera in hand, in a cold sweat. But no, it was really happening and while an hour later than I would have liked, the light was still not half bad. I snapped greedily and with glee. (concluded below in Fondest Memory)
A half hour later, I pulled out our camp stove and made up a hot chocolate for my very understanding wife who had sat patiently in the cold, enjoying her admittedly beautiful view. We still had to carry all our gear up Shriner Peak later that afternoon but for now Rainier was our companion as we sipped our hot beverages.
The hike would prove a bit of a trudge and anti-climatic but its rewards sweet. After a hot and oddly dusty uphill climb, we found the small backcountry camp empty. We grabbed a spot with a view of the mountain and enjoyed a spectacular sunset on Mount Adams. Only the mosquitoes kept it from being absolute paradise. Oh, and the lack of water. This camp was without a creek but luckily there was still ample snow. We cooked up what we needed to make dinner but hadn't really made up as much as we should have to drink. Doreen wound up getting a massive headache during the night and I had to fetch the aspirin from the bear pole in the dark, no fun endeavor.
At that latitude in July, the nights are not long and before I knew it, the first rays of the sun were making Rainer glow red. With such a great spot, we could see it from our tent. Not content, I rushed over to a patch of bear grass I had sized up the afternoon before. The peak was almost completely clear but some lingering clouds hindered the rising sun's full strength from the east. I tried my best to pray them away but if every day was perfect, perfection would be less special. It was an incredible sight nonetheless and probably a nicer one than those closer to the peak. From this vantage point, it was close enough to get great shots but far enough away to still see the perspective of its massiveness. Thanks to some late season snow, we were led to this spot by the park's great rangers who said it was one of their favorite views of what is, even for them, a very special peak. Perfect every day in its own special way.
I first saw the majestic peak from Seattle in 1994. It was very early in my hiking life and though I had just come through the Rockies of both the US and Canada, I had never seen such a hauntingly singular entity before. It looked like a volcano covered in snow. It was a volcano covered in snow. That's how naive I was. I still envisioned volcanoes to be a tropical spewing cone relegated to remote Pacific islands. I was enjoying Seattle and my glimpses of my new friend but I could not wait to get a closer look.
Driving to Rainer National Park later that week, the peak was like a beacon on a calm ocean, always in sight but on arrival, I found myself engulfed in clouds with nary a peek. The next morning I went to the visitor center for a shower and was told to hike high to get above the clouds. I did just that and was rewarded with amazing views of Mount St. Helens but hiking on Rainier itself offered none of it. I learned two important things that day. One was that mountains have their own weather. Just because it's cloudy at its base does not mean it is cloudy at its summit. Perhaps more importantly for me personally was that you cannot see the mountain you came for if you are climbing it.
Fifteen years passed before I would get another chance. I had since got married and with my wife I had begun a love of backpacking. Being so close to mountains, sleeping amongst them in solitude was a revelation. The best part was being in their presence when the light was best, early morning and evening. I resolved to hike at least a portion of the Wonderland Trail that encircles Mount Rainer. A full circuit would take three weeks and though we had six months to travel the western US, there was too much to see to spend that much time at one park. That would prove to be the least of our problems. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
Mt. Rainier is part of the National Park system. To enter the park you'll need to either pay $20 per vehicle or have a National Park annual pass. The pass is only $50 and helps to fund essential maintenance, development, and activities for all of the national parks in the country. Plug plug: Yes, I think it's a good idea to get a pass - $50 for the remainder of the month you are in + 12 months following. You also get a great National Parks guidebook and quarterly newsletter if you sign up for them.
Fondest memory: Glaciers
Amazing views from Seatle and Tacoma
http://www.nps.gov/mora/ has the latest information on trail/road/mountain closures. It's important to check this before making any trip to the mountain. There can be closures for any number of reasons at any time of year (fires, mudslides, snow, flooding, bears, volcanic activity, etc.).
Enjoy your trip!!
Favorite thing: This really isn't much of a tip. Instead, it's a question: can anyone identivy this animal for me? I saw it while looking out the window of my room at Paradise Inn, but wasn't very sure what it was. Any help that anyone can give me... thanks.
Mount Ranier is located in the central portion of the state. Its an easy drive from Seattle to one of Mount Ranier NP's three entrances. Nisqually, in the Southwest Corner, is about 2 hours away. To get there, take I-5 south to SR 512 (exit 127). Head east on SR 512 to SR 7, south on SR 7 to SR 706 in Elbe, and east on SR 706 through Ashford to the Nisqually entrance. White River and Sunrise are accessed via the northeastern entrance. To get there, take I-5 south to I 405 (exit 156). Head east on I 405 to SR 167, then south on SR 167 to SR 410, east on SR 410 to the White River Entrance, White River, and the Sunrise turnoff. From the northwest, the Carbon River entrance leads to Mowich Lake.
Sunrise and the entire hwy 410 and 123 sections of the road in Mount Ranier NP close in October after the first heavy snowfall and do not open until summer. The Nisqually entrance and the Paradise visitor's center are open year round.
Favorite thing: Paradise is 11 miles from Longmire and is the most popular stop in the park. I particularly enjoyed this one because it had been overcast up until this point and once we reached Paradise, the sun broke free and Mount Ranier came into view from behind its cirrus curtain.
Nisqually Vista is located just outside the Paradise Visitors Center. From here, a 1.2 mile trail loops around and provides great views of Mt. Ranier and Nisqually glacier. The trail is paved an easy to follow. Not exactly a challenging hike, but a good one when time is limited, as ours was.
If your not short on time and are sane enough not to try and see Ranier NP in one day, there's the 5 mile Skyline Trail, which is steep but has even better views from Panorama Point.
Favorite thing: A short detour from Paradise along Stevens Canyon Road. Heading out of Paradise, the road enters the southeast portion of the park. This part of the park is dryer as it receives more sun and less rain and snow.
Favorite thing: Snow still covers much of the trail as late as July 4th. The trail is paved though, and makes a nice easy loop through a forested area. Its another good place to stretch your legs for a bit while taking in the view of the mountain. You can get a good view of the Nisqually glacier on the face of Ranier. In the summer, you can also see and hear streams of glacial runoff which run down the mountain.
Of course, not everyone who visits the park will actually try and adcend the mountain, however I thought it would be good to share the experience since some people would like to try it.
First and foremost, this was the most serious mountain I have ever encountered. I could not climb this on my own as it has been with other mountains. Above Camp Muir at 10,000 feet, this becomes a technical climb.
I chose to go with the RMI (Rainier Mountaineering Inc.) guide service that is based at Paradise. They have courses that range from a couple of days to a whole week that involve climbing this mountain. I took the week long course and lived with a group of 10 at their Camp Muir base.
We were required to bring a list or clothing and climbing related articles in order to access this mountain. Most of the items on the list could be purchased at an outdoor store. In addition to gathering all of the equipment, a great deal of exercise was necessary in order to carry a backpack up the mountain. Living in Colorado and biking/hiking in that state certainly helped. The guides will teach you the rest of what you need such as stopping yourself with an ice axe, using crampons, crevasse rescue, and how to step. In the course I took, they actually lowered each one of us down into a crevasse and then we took turns rescuing each other. Meals were provided at Camp Muir as we took this course. One night, I even tried out a snow cave to see what it is like. Mind you, this is a true mountaineering experience.
Fondest memory: Preparing to climb to the top of Washington. My first glacier climb!
If the weather is working in your favor and you are prepared, you just might make the ascension of this 14,410 ft. mountain. We started several hours before dawn from Camp Muir and made our way to a place called Disappointment Cleaver. Up the glaciers we went in a rythmic fashion. We were very high up by the time the sun came up. I could see the spire of Little Tahoma Peak behind us. Breaks were short, just enough to get some food and water to keep us going. You really have to drink a lot of fluids up there. At last, we stepped up to a the rim of a large crater. Steam vents could be seen at various locations here. This was our reminder that the volcano could be active again some day. Some of us walked across the crater to the true high point of the mountain--Columbia Crest. There, we signed a logbook and had our pictures taken. It was an incredible experience. My only regret? I did not have a better camera back then. At least I got some photos, right?
Such an adventure is not for everyone, but if you feel it drawing you in, it just might be worth the effort. I would definitely recommend hiking up some other peaks first. Rainier should not be anyone's first mountain.
Fondest memory: Making the summit! On a clear day, you will see other prominent peaks of the Cascades such as Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Hood in the distance.