Mount Rainier lies about 3 hours from Walla Walla, and roughly marks the start of stereotypical Washington ecology – the huge pine forests and mountains.
Mt Rainier seen from near the White River
Mount Rainier is a 14,000 foot volcanic peak in the Cascades; it’s dormant but not extinct, just like Mt St Helens. What’s interesting about it is how it dwarfs the surrounding mountains, which are in the 7-8 thousand foot range. The mountain actually changes the climate around it, creating a huge amount of precipitation, a rainshadow, and so forth. It’s typically wreathed in a layer of clouds. This mercurial weather produces a cornucopia of biomes: alpine, sub-alpine meadows, mountain forest, rainforest, box canyon, primeval forest, classic northwest forest.
The park is mostly inaccessible in the winter – it’s only in the summer that all the roads are open. The park is divided into four sections – a dirt road-only NW section, the main section in the SW, an old-growth section in the SE and a rockier section in the NE.
On my first day I arrived at 2pm and claimed a site in the Ohanapecosh campground (a fun name to say!), where I would spend two nights. Then, I headed to the visitor center at Paradise. This was the diciest driving so far on my trip, I think, as the road gains massive amounts of elevation and winds along the rocky edge of the mountain.
Along the Skyline loop, hiking in the clouds
Mount Rainier receives vast numbers of visitors, and of the parks I’ve visited so far, it’s the least able to handle the load. I arrived on a Sunday, and it was crawling with people. The Paradise visitor center, which is quite remote, had three full parking lots, and I felt lucky to find a spot in a nearby picnic area. I got a map of nearby trails and decided to try a strenuous one, the 5.5 mile Skyline loop. It was 3:30 and the average time for the trail was four and a half hours, so I figured I’d finish just as it got dark.
Rock and snow, above the woodline
As chance would have it, I chose the wrong direction for the trail – the side of the loop that went straight up. This proved to be a good challenge. I the trail gained 1700 feet of elevation over what I estimate was 1.5 miles. The grade was slightly less steep than a set of stairs, and the first half mile or so of the trail was partially paved with asphalt. As I gained elevation (the visitor center was around 5500 feet above sea level), the vegetation grew sparser and eventually nearly disappeared. Snow, packed down by the crowds, began to appear, and I entered a layer of clouds – hiking in the clouds is an awesome experience. Sometimes the trail disappeared into the snow, and I had to cautiously edge my way up the mountain. I went through this first part of the trail in about 45 minutes, without any breaks. I was breathing heavy and sweating a bit at the end, but would have felt comfortable continuing. I was really happy about this; it was a good indication that I’d finally gotten my “trail legs,” and was adjusting to the stress of hiking.
At the highest part of the loop I was greeted with some surprise guests: two marmots grazing on the subalpine flowers. These woodchuck-like creatures had a neat brown/white coat and were fearless around people. So far on my trip, I’ve already seen most of the wildlife I’d hoped for: buffalo, elk, deer, marmots, heron, moose, quail, turkey, prairie dogs. No bear yet, and that’s fine with me!
The surrounding Tatoosh mountains, seen from the trail. You can see cars parked along the road.
The trail began a leisurely descent, and I passed through extensive patches of snow, some of which I had to slide down because I couldn’t get a good grip with my boots. This part of the trail was beautiful, the plants a shimmering green, and there were fields of tiny flowers. I could see why the area is known as Paradise. The sad part, though, is that although the trail is well-constructed (it’s lined with stones), there are huge tangles and braids of side-trails that mar the landscape. The park has put up signs and urges people not to be “meadow stompers,” but it doesn’t seem to do much good. And it’s tough to control people way up here on the mountain. I completed this loop in two and a half hours, which I was quite pleased about, as it was almost half the average time and would have been a decent pace along flat ground, let alone a mountain.
Burls on a fallen tree near the Grove of the Patriarchs
The next day, I decided to try something different, and stayed near the campground. This time, I hiked to the “Grove of the Patriarchs,” a small island filled with enormous ancient trees. Some of these trees are one thousand years old and 300 feet tall. I went early, and was alone with the trees as the fog lifted in the cool morning air. The trees are astonishing and humbling; now I can only wonder how the Redwoods compare. The grove is a short hike – just over a mile – but there’s a turnoff for a longer hike, the East Side Trail, which I took. This felt like a totally different park from the day before: first the raw, primeval forest, and then traditional Pacific Northwest pine forest. I did an easy 14 mile out-and-back hike.
Back at the campsite I got to test out my new stove setup. I’d been using a basic Swedish army stove, but the supports around the burner were designed to work with only a particular pot, and not normal pots and pans. In Missoula, I’d found a bracket at a hardware store that would serve as a more generic support. It worked pretty well, and I cooked up an omelet for dinner.
My final full day at Mt Rainier I moved to the White River campground in the northeast of the park. I started and finished a book (With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, a memoir of WWII on the Pacific front, which I highly recommend). I felt lethargic.
It’s amazing how simply getting on my feet now gives me a lot more energy. I ended up doing a 10 mile out-and-back hike along the Wonderland Trail, a 100 mile loop which surrounds Mt Rainier. I was interested in doing an overnight or two on this loop, but the park has encountered unprecedented interest in this trail, and it’s difficult to get a permit for backwoods camping. The scenery here was much the same as the day before, with the exception, at the beginning of the hike, of a stunning view of Mt Rainier near the White River.
This, though small, was actually the most vicious river I’ve yet encountered. It’s literally white, apparently due to some mineral runoff and probably the rapids; it’s narrow and deceptively deep, and quite rocky. There’s a primitive log with a guiderail over the river. When I completed my hike, I talked briefly with a man standing next to the bridge. “I wonder how many people cross this river without thinking about how close they are to making a mistake and ending it all,” he said. I guess we agreed on that, but it was a macabre discussion that I didn’t want to have before crossing to the other side of the river!