Of all the fire mountains which, like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast,
Mount Rainier is the noblest. –John Muir
At first sight, it really wasn’t that much to look at. Impressive, perhaps, in a big, bulky, bulging kind of way . . . nevertheless, it was barely visible. Being backlit didn’t help. Maybe the wildfire haze had an influence too. But here we were, making our approach to Mount Rainier National Park from the east, standing on the overlook at White Pass, having our first look at The Mountain. We could only hope subsequent views would be improving. Back in the car, we began the final leg of our trip into the national park.
Called Tahoma by the native tribes living in the area, the mountain was considered a source of spiritual strength as well as foreboding mystery for those people. On his visit to the Puget Sound area in 1792, the British sea captain George Vancouver christened the peak Mount Rainier in honor of his friend, Rear Admiral Peter Rainier. On clear days the mountain can be seen from Canada to Oregon, from the San Juan Islands in the west and from Spokane in the east. In western Washington, where mountain ranges dominate the landscape, local vernacular admits only one as being “The Mountain” and when Rainier rises on the horizon, it is common to hear the phrase “The Mountain is out.”
It wasn’t until the following morning, once set up in camp and on our way up mountain to the trailheads that we had our first really good view. With the morning light giving definition to its cracks, crevices and rocky cliffs, it was worth a swing off the road where we could stop, linger, and look for awhile. Before us rose the mountain this trip had been leading up to . . . the mountain that would put all other peaks that had come before it into proper perspective. Here in this park we would stay for a week, hoping that would be enough time to see Rainier in many different lights and from various perspectives. Somehow I knew even that would not be enough.
Established in 1899, this was the country’s fifth national park and one of its oldest. Before that time, the area had been experiencing exploitation and abuse—the lower forests were being harvested and the upper alpine meadows were being trampled by grazing sheep and thoughtless tourists. Present day has resulted in the dense forests being largely old growth and of huge size, while the meadows are flourishing in a wildflower display unsurpassed in the Northwest. Ninety-seven percent of the park is preserved as wilderness.
We were headed up to Paradise, location of the one of the park’s inns, a Visitor’s Center, many of the more popular trailheads, and the primary destination for most visitors to the park. It is also the epicenter for the wildflower displays. With peak bloom between mid-July to mid-August, my expectation was to find acres and acres of sloping meadows bursting with color. As surely as the salmon head upstream to spawn, when the flowers come on the hordes pour forth. All I could hope is that many of them would be late-risers. We pulled into a sparse parking lot after first light and headed up one of the trails.
The flowers were out, but not so many people. Ecstatically, I almost had the chosen spot to myself! I set up and took my first shots.
When Virinda Longmire, wife of the area’s first white settler, rode up to this high meadow in 1885 and exclaimed “Oh, what a paradise!” the name caught on. By the 1920s the area was overrun with tourists who trampled what they came to see, camping and parking their cars on the meadows. At one point there was even a golf course here. Soon after becoming a national park, protections began to be put in place. The meadows have been preserved.
Named for the area in which it is located, the 121-room Paradise Inn was built in 1916 and sits at a 5,400-foot elevation on the south shoulder of Mount Rainier. The lodge interior is built with exposed cedar logs that provide its structural framework and has 14 French doors to “allow summer breezes to enter” and dormer windows for natural lighting to shine in from the second story. The lighting is further augmented with massive hanging lamps. Each afternoon for several hours music is played in the Great Hall on a rustic, hand-carved piano. Weary hikers as well as the more sedentary travelers congregate, filling the hall for a leisurely interlude before dinner.
The extreme elements took their toll on the inn. In 1952 a public outcry saved it from being demolished. In 1987 $1.75 million was spent to strengthen and restore the building, and again in 2006, when it was closed for two years so that more renovations and structural work could be done. In 1987 it was declared a National Historic Landmark.
Several photos later we reluctantly left the meadows in favor of refueling. We needed a hearty breakfast before heading out on the day’s intended hike. The buffet served in the Inn’s massive dining room certainly fit our needs. An hour later we seriously needed to walk off a lot of excess calories.
There are some things in life that are too worthwhile, much too outstanding, for their own good. The Skyline Trail at Paradise is one of those things. Taking in some of the most luxurious of the flower-festooned meadows, having truly wondrous views up to the glaciers of Mount Rainier, not to mention the big write-up it receives in all of the park’s trail guides, it can’t be surprising that a virtual Congo line of people begin this 5.5-mile trail.
Although the crowds can be a serious detriment to the trail’s experience, the rewards will easily outweigh it. From the start, the flowers confront you and soon you discover that their abundance is equaled only by the beauty of the landscape. Progression along the trail slowed down considerably . . . for one of us in particular.
You don’t take the Skyline Trail for the best views of The Mountain—you’re hiking on its flanks and too close for any good perspective. Instead, the trail is all about the meadows, flower-filled from mid-July through August. It seems that with every turn, with each succeeding rise, another dominant flower species comes up, making it nearly impossible not to stop and absorb what you’re seeing.
Things begin changing the higher the route goes. For one, the trail begins to weed out the faint-hearted and out-of-condition masses. A near 2,000-foot elevation gain in around 2 miles can have that effect. Attaining a 7,000-foot elevation might have some bearing too. For another, the landscape becomes more barren and rocky. The mountain is now becoming in your face.
So close, it seems, you could see every crack and crevice. Veteran hikers told us by midday in late summer, you’d probably hear the breaking off of icefalls. Huge waterfalls were seen tumbling off cliff faces. Looking closely, a line of hikers was seen making their way up to Camp Muir. Lying at 10,000 feet, it is the location where those attempting to summit will rest before starting their pre-dawn trek to the top.
Reaching 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier was once thought to be the highest point in our country. Outside of Alaska, the four mountains higher are Mount Whitney in California’s Sierra Nevada Range, and Mounts Elbert, Massive and Harvard in the Sawatch Range of Colorado. More than two million people come to Rainier every year. Ten thousand a year attempt to climb it, about half of them succeeding. The mountain rises 10,000 feet from its base and holds as much snow and ice as the 12 other Cascade volcanoes combined. Its massive ice flows and furious winds so closely mimic Himalayan conditions that the first American climbers to conquer Mount Everest trained on Rainier before leaving for Nepal.
We were fortunate to encounter a young man from back East (New York, to be exact) who had come out here expressively to summit The Mountain. On his way back down, we took a few moments to talk about his accomplishment.
He had gone up to Camp Muir two afternoons ago. There he ate and rested up until 1am when he began the final climb. He “tied on” to two other climbers, making the summit by midmorning. Once back at Camp Muir, he said he then slept a full 12 hours. Here it was near noon as he was on the last short leg of his endeavor. He didn’t look that worse for the wear, and no, he didn’t know how much his backpack weighed. (Usually around 50 pounds).
Those wildflower meadows began reappearing as we made our way through the rest of the loop trail. Once again, it became slow-going.
Well, maybe the grizzly mama and her cubs weren’t so immune—we spied them from afar, way down below, roaming through a flowered-filled meadow.
The coming down was easily as picturesque as the going up. We chose a route that wasn’t as heavily utilized. The trail wound down, twisting and turning through beautiful meadows, even more densely carpeted in flowers. It was an emotional experience.
It’s easy to lose your sense of time and distance when caught up in a beautiful setting. The trail’s end came unexpectedly, once noticing the crowds were returning. In the last few moments of relative solitude, I looked back over the way we had come. Mount Rainier rose up over the landscape, the perfect backdrop for its alpine meadows. One last picture that conveyed the place we had been . . . and then with backs turned, we finished what easily was a superlative hike.
Our second full day at Mount Rainier dawned bright and clear again. Before breakfast we made a quick drive over to Reflection Lake, a popular place to catch The Mountain’s mirror image in the lake. Good fortune was with us—no breezes to stir up the water!
Another great hike was on our day’s agenda. Yesterday’s breakfast buffet at the Inn had stayed with us so well the day before, we decided to let it work for us the same today. We feasted on, enjoying every morsel! Then it was time to once again walk it all off.
This is quite possibly the best wildflower hike on the planet.
With words like that, I was smitten. No turning back—this one I just had to try. And Mazama Ridge, I’m happy to report, did not disappoint. Oh no, not for a second.
Just tough it out at the start, climbing several hundred feet up to the ridge. And then, the world of mountain glories is yours to enjoy. On the way up, you can’t help but pause on Faraway Rock to take in the view of the Tatoosh Range spread out before you.
Once up on the ridge it was all about meadows and tarns and the ever-present Mountain looming above. The distance from Rainier was a little farther, but that worked to open up the views. We soon discovered that Mazama Ridge gives its hikers a taste of so much that is good about Mt. Rainier National Park.
No day-long hike for us the following day, our last here in the Paradise area. No breakfast buffet either, which we longed for but couldn’t quite justify. Instead, we had a breakfast in camp, then set out to explore a tamer side to the park.
Mount Rainier has two very different lodges, The Paradise Inn is the classic national park lodge. Sitting at a high elevation, it is buried under snow for more months than it is opened.
The park’s other lodge, the National Park Inn, is much smaller with only 25 rooms, and located in a quieter area also on the west side. Being 2,500 feet lower in elevation gives a much different climate than at Paradise. As a result, this Inn is open year round.
In 1870, pioneer James Longmire was a member of a party that made the first confirmed successful summit climb of Mount Rainier, and when he returned for another climbing trip in 1883, he discovered a mineral spring in a beautiful meadow. The next year, he began developing Longmire Medical Springs Resort. The Longmire area was important for early park visitors because of its gas station. The old pumps are still on display here. The famous naturalist, John Muir, stayed at Longmire’s hotel when he came to climb Mount Rainier in 1888. Camp Muir above Paradise is named for him.
Today, the Longmire area is a National Historic District that includes a visitor center, museum, employee housing, trails, store, and the National Park Inn. The “Park Service Rustic” style, with its heavy beams, logs, stone, and shingles, was supposed to remind people of a European hunting lodge. The little museum has some nice exhibits on the history, geology, and ecology of the area; it’s also a good place to find out about current road and weather conditions in the park.
Just across the road from the Inn, a path leads to Longmire Meadow, where some of the crumbling remains of Longmire’s Medical Springs Resort are found. We hiked the Trail of the Shadows, which encircles the meadow. It was a great little leg-stretcher that helped work out the kinks from the past two days’ hikes. Along the way we passed the old Longmire homestead, where Elcaine and his wife raised their family for many years. It was surely cramped quarters for them and their two children. Life was rough back then.
We ended the day checking out waterfalls and more wildflower destinations. It was a fitting way to wind down from the climax of two superior trails. We would leave this western side of the park to take in more sights to the east. Some things would be new, while The Mountain would still be there.
From the slopes of Mount Rainier,
Chris and Melinda