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Mount Rainier National Park
By Charles Shugart, Jr.
Mt. Rainier National Park, in Washington State, is one of the most beautiful places in the country. At 14,411 feet elevation, the stand-alone volcanic peak is impressive from any angle. During clear skies it is easily seen from nearby Seattle and even nearer Tacoma. With a massive crown of snow and ice, Mt. Rainier has an icecap that spawns several mighty glaciers. Altogether there are 26 active glaciers on the mountain. With 35 square miles of glacial ice, it is the largest single-peak glacier system in the lower 48 states. Because of a long-standing warming of the earth, made worse since the beginning of the industrial revolution more than 100 years ago, Rainier’s glaciers are melting away. But heavy clouds still blow in from the nearby Pacific Ocean and drop prodigious amounts of rain and snow. It will be many years before the mountain looks anything less than gorgeous. Note: In the winter of 1972 Mt. Rainier broke the world’s record for snowfall ... 93 ½ feet! Twenty four years later the record was broken by Washington’s Mt. Baker ... 95 feet!
Mt. Rainier’s lower elevations are populated by magnificent forests of Douglas fir, western hemlock and red cedar. They gradually yield to the hardy evergreens of a sub-alpine climate zone, and eventually all the way to tree-line.
Summer is the best time to visit, and not only because winter snows have covered bare rock; it’s also when they open all the paved roads in the national park. These park roads are worth exploring by car or pickup. So select your nearby RV park or campground, disconnect, and go sightseeing. With a base camp, two or three all-day trips should be about right for most folk. And don’t worry about driving up a paved road and then turning around to retrace your steps; everything looks different on the return anyhow.
The warm summer months are also when alpine meadows blaze with myriad colors of a million wildflowers. Flower–lovers will have a grand time crawling around on their hands and knees as they identify the tiniest of these beauties. Photographers will zoom to their cameras' widest–angled lenses so they can record the flowers, the trees in the mid–ground and Mount Rainier looming in the background. Photo tip: sometimes taking a vertical photograph helps.
Non flower–lovers and non–photographers will have to manage with nothing to do except drink in the remarkable displays of Mother Nature at her finest. Laughing at people crawling around with their noses to the ground and their butts to the sky is okay, too.
Four paved access roads lead into and through the national park. The first, in the northwest corner, is Carbon River Road. Closed during winter, it is used primarily to get to the Northern Loop Trail, which is part of the trail system that circles Rainier.
On the northeast side of the park, leaving State Highway 410, is the road to Sunrise. Open only in summer, it takes you on a magnificent zigzagging ascent to tree line, where broad alpine meadows compete for space with the hardiest of Rainier's evergreen trees. You are looking southwest at the mountain's summit, as well as at Emmons Glacier, the largest in the Continental U.S. Before the road ends at Sunrise, a hairpin turn offers one of the best sightseeing places ever, with views of Mount Adams to the south, and Mount Baker to the north. Neither is as high as Mount Rainier, but both are lone and snow–clad volcanic peaks. And both are very impressive.
From the southeast corner, Stevens Canyon Road, closed in winter, leads you to Paradise. Between the turnoff to Sunrise and Stevens Canyon Road, State Highway 410 heads east. Take Highway 410 to the top of Chinook Pass for a quick but enchanting view east. Then turn around and drive back to the viewpoint to the west, which gives a different perspective of Rainier.
The year–round highway to Paradise comes in from the southwest by way of Longmire, following the Nisqually River. Paradise is along the south slope of Mount Rainier, and is among the best places to appreciate the mountain. The magic begins as soon as you get out of your car. It is the visual blending of scattered evergreen trees, plus exquisite alpine tundra with luxuriant green plants. Wildflowers proliferate during summer, joining the mosses, ferns, wild huckleberries and dozens of other plant species that carpet all but the rockiest of locations. With an average of 126 inches of precipitation falling from the sky every year, the plants are nicely watered by melting snow and abundant rainfall. Paradise is the base for a variety of activities: from skiing in winter months to hiking and mountain climbing during the mild weather of summer.
Although there is certainly wildlife along the mountain slopes and in the forests, it seems to be widely dispersed, or merely shy. Chickaree squirrels, also known as Douglas or red squirrels, are often seen or heard as they scold you for trespassing into their world. They inhabit mainly the trees, whereas the tiny, striped chipmunks are ground squirrels. Among the tumbled rock areas, you might spot marmots, which are large rodents. Or perhaps you'll see the elusive and much smaller pikas, which look as though they should be rodents, but are not. They're closely related to rabbits and hares.
The occasional deer may wander across your trail, having learned from an early age the upright two–legged animals around Paradise do not harm them. Other mammals, such as mountain goats, elk and black bears will probably be going about their daily activities unseen by people.
Among bird populations are Clark's Nutcrackers, Steller's and gray jays, as well as ravens. They are loudmouths one and all. You may not see them, but you'll certainly hear them.
For no–brainer animal spotting, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park lets you get close to many of the Northwest's most intriguing animals, such as moose, elk, mountain goats, wolves, bears and cougar. Like other wildlife parks, the animals are in fact confined, but the non–predators have a large area in which they can roam, and the 55–minute narrated tram ride gets you close to most of them. Northwest Trek is west of the national park, near the town of Elbe.
Although hundreds of energetic climbers make it to the top of Mount Rainier each year, it is a serious climb not to be attempted by amateurs. During almost every climbing season there are lives lost. Going with an experienced guide is a necessity for all but expert and registered mountain climbers.
Seasonal hikers are far more numerous as they walk the trails during the brief but sensationally dramatic summer months. Straying from those trails, however, is not only against park law, it is disrespectful to the delicate nature of the ground cover. Meadows, especially, begin to show signs of passage after only a few dozen people walk the same "line." These lines encourage others to follow them. It doesn't take long for enough damage to be done to the ground cover that it will take many years to restore itself. Well–beaten paths across these sub–alpine meadows can change the water table, leading to serious devastation of plant–life. Admittedly, people generally don't like to be told where they can or can't walk, but with more than one million visitors to Mount Rainier annually, it has become necessary.
As you hike the trails around Mount Rainier, you'll discover many changing perspectives. Whether or not you're a photographer, remember this: whatever makes for a good photograph also makes for good sightseeing. Blue–sky days might be boring to some serious photographers, but on cloudy days the tops of snowy peaks disappear into the gray sky. On clear days, the blue sets off the edge of the white ice and snow very nicely. Extremely dramatic, stormy skies might provide opportunities for the very best photographs. But being there at the right time is a matter of serendipity, or laying siege to the mountain. Mount Rainier has stunning vistas throughout the park, as well as streams and waterfalls, lakes, ponds, and meadows. It's worth a stop of two or three days if you do nothing except drive, stop, go walking, and take some good photographs. Add hiking? Add a couple more days.
Tip: Keep a "permanent picnic" handy as you drive, because food availability within the park is limited. And as you drive around, stop and get out at every view spot.
Places for RV camping surround the edges of the park, as do assorted motels, lodges and eateries. Campgrounds are found near Enumclaw and Buckley, northwest of the park, and Randle and Packwood to the south. Plus the several scattered National Forest sites. Most are of the basic variety, i.e. lacking hookups and showers. There are four car campgrounds in the national park itself. Cougar Rock and White River are probably the best because you're close to the places you want to see.
Severe flooding in 2006 washed out roads and seriously impacted sightseeing in the national park. Check with the park service for the latest information, and to make campground reservations. Call 360/569–2211 or log on to
. And as always, your Woodall's Campground Directory or
can provide information about RV parks and campgrounds in the area.