We were on the move to another side of Mount Rainier. Getting an early start, it was a crystal clear day with low-lying clouds sweeping around the shoulders of The Mountain. All in all, great conditions to see more of the park.
Southeast of Paradise, the park road switchbacks into Stevens Canyon, and then begins to crawl along the canyon walls. Completed in 1957, it provides spectacular views as it scales the side of steep slopes. One of us sat back to enjoy the outstanding views while the other skillfully navigated the twists and turns. Carved out by a glacier thousands of years before, it is now cloaked with the deep greens of firs and spruce with waterfalls gushing down from the ice melt above.
The southeast corner of the park is a considerably lower elevation and it is in this section that many of the old-growth trees are found. It wasn’t surprising to find Ohanapecosh Campground, located in a deep valley, was nestled within a forest of Doug firs, red cedars and western hemlocks. Sitting at an elevation below 2,000 feet, it is the only developed area of the park without a view of Mount Rainier. With little undergrowth to provide privacy between sites, campers were wedged in between the multitude of towering trees.
A popular trail on this side of the mountain, Grove of the Patriarchs, was just a couple miles away. We waited until later afternoon (hoping the crowds would be clearing out) and then set out for another short but scenic stroll.
Having trees more than 1,000 years old, the stand of Doug-fir, red-cedar and western hemlock have diameters 8-10 feet around. Isolated on an island and thus protected from wildfires, a suspension bridge leads across the river and a boardwalk circles around the stand of giant trees. Standing up to 300 feet tall, the grove is reminiscent of the redwoods we saw in northern California.
Our first full day at Ohanapecosh involved another great trail. Unfortunately, its trailhead was a 30-minute drive away and (dirty darn!) there would be no breakfast buffet offered at the Sunrise Lodge.
Sunrise is another spectacular and strikingly beautiful area in Mount Rainier National Park. It is an awesome place to be at sunrise as the sun first hits the summit. And, like Paradise, it is excellent for wildflowers in the summer.
The road climbs up Sunrise Ridge—at 6,400 feet, it is the highest paved road in the state of Washington. Owing to its lofty elevation, Sunrise is buried in snow for most of the year. Typically, the 16-mile road leading to Sunrise is open only from late June until early October.
Two main buildings compose the Sunrise complex. The Day Lodge, which has a gift shop and cafe, and the visitor center, a rustic log building that we thought resembles more of a stockade built for protection from marauding natives.
When Rainier climbing guides want to show visiting friends and relatives The Mountain, they leave Paradise and go to Sunrise. Whereas at Paradise, you stand virtually ON the mountain, at Sunrise the deep White River Valley separates you from the mountain. Standing at this higher elevation, you are truly face-to-face with Rainier. It is difficult to believe that it still towers more than 7,000 feet above you. You’d swear you could see the top of its summit.
Getting up-close and personal with a glacier seemed an appropriate thing to do here and the Emmons Glacier Trail fit that bill perfectly. “Providing mouth-dropping views of the entire length of the Emmons Glacier, from Rainier’s 14,411-foot summit to its terminus in the White River Valley below” sold the trail to us. We headed out.
More than 70 glaciers give the crest and slopes of Mount Rainier its mantle of eternal white. They have created the deep furrows radiating from its summit and, though generally in retreat since the last Ice Age, continue to fluctuate with changes in climate. Some are sources of quite respectable rivers. Six of the biggest originate at the summit, while the rest, interestingly, are born in the middle zone of 5,000-11,000 feet, where the most snow falls. Emmons is the largest glacier by area in the Lower 48, while Carbon, which is the largest by volumn, reaches the lowest elevation—only 3,000 feet.
From the trail’s end Emmons Glacier can be viewed in its entirety as it separates Little Tahoma Peak from the Mountain itself.
The top half of the glacier is a huge field of giant ice towers and deep crevasses . . .
. . . while the bottom half of the glacier is covered in debris from a massive rock fall in 1963, originating from Little Tahoma Peak.
Although it may look like only dirt, there are many giant boulders the size of a one-car garage. This debris insulates the ice of the glacier beneath it, so as other glaciers here and around the world are retreating, this one is actually advancing, albeit at a slower rate than in the 1980’s. From our vantage point we could see the headwaters of the White River pouring forth from the glacier’s base. Eventually turning into a major waterway, many miles later the river flows into Puget Sound.
A great, enlightening hike with views of the scoured moraine along the way, it was a pleasant choice to make. Only one harrowing section . . . crossing the rocky boulders and a off-shoot of the raging river.
By now it should appear fairly obvious . . . to reap the full benefits of this national park one must really put on his hiking boots. True, the roadside observer will undoubtedly see some excellent views, but it’s the perspective you get hiking down trails that gives you a deeper, more personal sense of this place. What Rainier has to offer will touch its visitors in different ways; but one thing that is for sure—Rainier will leave its mark on all who come.
“For the really grand views of Mount Rainier, some of the best in the park, plus colorful fields of wildflower, hike the Naches Peak Loop Trail.”
I had our last foray into the park’s backcountry selected and nothing short of a sudden storm rolling through would keep me from this trail. It was with high expectations that shortly after an early breakfast (alas, not a breakfast buffet), we were heading out on our final Mount Rainier hike.
It begins at a decently high elevation—just downroad a bit from 5,430-foot Chinook Pass. Even from the road there is a picture perfect view. Meaning “grassy lake” in Chinook jargon, little Tipsoo Lake is the foreground for one of the classic Mount Rainier views. Beholding such a grand vista, the bar had just been set pretty high. How, I wondered, could the sights on this anticipated trail ever best what I was seeing right here?
After some switchbacking up the trail at the start, we earned the rewards of this trail. Once on high ground, the landscape opened up and as we expected, The Mountain came back into view. Oh yes, the reviews had it right—this was easily a five-star hike.
And that was before the flowers came up. Still enraptured by the mountain views, I wasn’t prepared for the next climax to come. Nevertheless, the trail led on, cutting a pathway through carpets of color.
Words seem to diminish what we experienced on this hike. Suffice it to say, it was an emotional as well as physical exertion that day. In the end, I came away with more than a few photos, a deep appreciation for the patience of my hiking partner, and with an exhilarated high that will forever be difficult to surpass.
We ended our Washington travels here at Mount Rainier. Early next morning we were pulling out, retracing our route back over White Pass. From there, we’d pass through the big towns of Yakima and Spokane, before heading into Idaho and more western states to follow. Our trip back home would be slower than the journey out—too many good places deserved more than a quick pass through. But, that remains for future posts and other days.
Fitting as it was, The Mountain, for one last time, didn’t disappoint. A good way to wrap up a fine trip and a sign that everything comes in its own good time . . .
. . . the view we first had of Mount Rainier was much improved on this final look.
I was departing quite the happy camper.
Chris and Melinda