Wildflowers, Waterfalls, and a Little Wildlife ~ Mt. Rainier National Park, Part III

“…the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountaintop wanderings.” ~ John Muir 1889   

We had seen some lovely wildflowers in our travels this summer but nothing prepared me for Mt. Rainier National Park’s subalpine meadows bursting with color.   Trails were lined with multiple varieties of flowers, as if a master gardener had lovingly selected and planted each. Every path we stepped onto seemed to be more colorful than the last, a grand mosaic of diversity.

Pungent smell of living trees and soil surrounded us. Air so pure and sweet that our lungs eagerly expanded to drink in the delicious nectar.

The glacier lily, aka yellow avalanche lily, may be one of the most resilient of wildflowers growing on the slopes of Mt. Rainier.  It can generate its own heat, melt a hole in the snow, and poke through the snowmelt, giving it a distinct advantage over the other meadow plants that must await the melting snow.  In all our wanderings I was not able to find this beautiful little flower.

Snow dominates much of the landscape here, blanketing the earth for several months at a time.  Many of the evergreen trees have a contorted shape, twisted by ice and wind.  These subalpine trees grow very slowly and are called krummholz, German name for “twisted wood”.

Paths were spongy, carpeted by countless layers of fir needles and bark. Lichen and miniscule mosses attached themselves to everything that stood still – fallen logs, stately Douglas fir, Western hemlock, and river-polished boulders. Tiny fir trees begin life here in this fertile soil, fallen trees acting as nurseries, adding to the varied shades of green seen along the trails. Heavily scented forests intoxicate, while the roaring rivers busily rush to their terminus, simple, magical experiences found in nature.

The sound of running water can be heard throughout the park, sometimes soothing, sometimes almost deafening, always rushing to get to an unknown destination.  Waterfalls are plentiful due to snow and glacial runoff, and misty spray dances as sunlight caresses water droplets, sparkling like jewels, no two waterfalls alike, each uniquely their own.

Other than the sounds of whistling marmots heard almost non-stop, this is the only little bit of wildlife that we spotted, and he was certainly a cute little guy.

Mt. Rainier speaks to the vastness of a world intense with growth and birth. It was the perfect time to experience this wonder, the season of life between the sleeping winter and autumn’s move towards dormancy.

Next Up:  The Wild, Rugged Olympic Peninsula

Hiking Extravaganza~ Mt. Rainier National Park

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” ~ John Muir

He could be the perfect specimen, this “King of the Cascades”, with those chiseled features, that steely cold gaze, and that red-hot core. Seeing him clearly for the first time, I was smitten! And we were blessed with several clear days where Mt. Rainier’s imposing form rose above the surrounding peaks. Our hikes found me time and again under his spell, as Terry left me trailing far behind, taking photos.

With a total of six days to experience Mt. Rainier National Park, we managed to squeeze in four good hikes and a couple of shorter treks. Hikes were chosen to allow us views of glaciers, some of the park’s most sought after waterfalls, and subalpine meadows bursting with color.  Here are our top four ranked hikes:

1) Skyline Loop, via the High Skyline Trail

Length: 5.5 miles   Elevation gain: 1700′   Rating:  Strenuous

Prepare to get your heart pounding the moment your feet touch the trail. Even if the elevation didn’t take your breath away, the views certainly would.  Hiking up to Panorama Point, you can hear the mountain groan as you pass by constantly shifting glaciers.  Bring binoculars and you may glimpse climbers at the overnight camp preparing for an early morning summit or a group making their final ascent.  We saw both and silently cheered them on.

And at the end of the trail one final surprise as a beautiful bouquet is strewn beneath the glacier-shrouded throne of Mt. Rainier, like a Monet canvas.

The trailhead begins at Paradise, known for its grand views and wildflower meadows. An average of 680” of snow falls here each winter and it typically lingers until July. The National Park Service says that this is the snowiest place on Earth where snowfall is regularly measured. A world record snowfall of 1122″ was set here during the winter of 1971/72.  This exceptionally warm winter changed the landscape, leaving Paradise with less than 5 feet of snow in March instead of its normal 14 feet.

Paradise Visitor Center is the most popular destination for visitors to Mt. Rainier and the only center open when we visited the park.  The orientation film was great and the exhibits very informative.

On the same grounds is the historic Paradise Inn, built in 1916 and opened for business in 1917. The timber used for the interior décor of the inn and the furniture was cut within the park.

2) Comet Falls/Van Trump Park Trail

Length: 5.6 miles, out and back   Elevation Gain: 2200’   Rating: Strenuous

Located near Longmire in the southwestern part of the park, this trail takes you by one of the tallest waterfalls in the park – Comet Falls, plunging 320’ into Van Trump Creek. We sat along the Nisqually River on the return trip, basking in the glow of summer sun and serenaded by rushing water. Boots were off and feet plunged into the icy water…heavenly!

3) Sunrise Rim Trail/Burroughs Mountain

Length: 6.5 miles   Elevation Gain: 2000’   Rating: Strenuous

Located at Sunrise, the highest point accessible by vehicle at 6400’, this was a recommendation by a Park Ranger.  I must admit that sections of this hike left me a bit weak in the knees as the trail became narrow on the side of Burroughs Mountain, steep and sloping precariously towards a 2000’ drop-off down a shale strewn cliff.  It is one of those hikes where it is wise to focus on every step, but it was oh so exhilarating.  Clear views of glaciers and glacial-fed lakes obliterated all other thoughts.  When we were stopped from going any further due to snow and ice, we took a side tour past Frozen Lake and onto Sourdough Ridge for our return back to Sunrise.

Sunrise Point, on the way to Sunrise, offering 360° views of snow-capped peaks.

4) Glacier Basin Trail

Length: 7.5 miles, hiking part of the unmaintained trail   Elevation Gain: 1700’   Rating: Strenuous

Trailhead located at the White River Campground, south of Sunrise. Beautiful wildflowers waved in the breeze as we hiked the trail, with views of White River, and on this day, shrouded views of Mt. Rainier.

All trails we hiked were rated strenuous as the elevation gain occurred within  a short distance, which made the trek back sweet!

Those that didn’t make the cut:

Silver Falls Trail – From the Ohanapecosh Campground, where we stayed, this 2.5 mile hike takes you to Silver Falls and past a small hot springs area.

Wonderland Trail – 93 mile trail encircling Mt. Rainier.   We hiked 3 miles of it while staying at Cougar Rock Campground to visit a small NPS museum at Longmire.  On our return trip we met a woman who had one mile of the Wonderland Trail left to hike. To say she was on a high is an understatement as she shared her near accomplishment with us, Terry got a high-five from her.

Next up:  The colors and sounds of Mt. Rainier National Park

The Restless Giant ~ Mt Rainier National Park, Part I

“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.” ~ John Muir

Subalpine meadows, blanketed with brilliantly colored wildflowers, envelop a glacial  volcano, while time-worn forests grace majestic mountain slopes.  This scene enveloping are senses is better known as Mt. Rainier National Park, our 5th National Park in the U.S., established in 1899.

Covered by 34 square miles of year-round snow and ice, this “king of the Cascades” boasts 25 glaciers on its rugged slopes, which have spawned six major rivers. As much glacial ice covers Mt. Rainier as on all the other Cascade volcanoes combined. It is still considered an active volcano, restless, geologically young, having formed ~ 500,000 years ago. Glaciers and landslides continue to erode Mt. Rainier’s surface, making this imposing mountain look older than it is.

We had read that Mt. Rainier is most often shrouded in a gauzy mist instead of proudly on display. We wondered as we entered the park if we would be fortunate enough to see this formidable giant without swirling clouds obscuring its peak. We were blessed to have several clear days. 🙂

With an average annual snowfall of over 50 feet, snow plays a huge role in Mt. Rainier’s ecology and the entire Cascade Mountain range. It shapes everything we see. Snow conditions determine when wildflowers bloom, when water will be available for wildlife, which glaciers retreat or advance, and which species thrive and which are diminished.

How were these 25 glaciers gracing Mt. Rainier’s slopes formed? For starters, more snow must fall than melts away. As snow piles up, the weight of the snowpack squeezes air out of the lower layers, where the compacted snow crystals start to break down. They recrystallize, forming an entirely different type of snow, called firn. It resembles wet sugar but is much harder and heavier than snow. As surface water trickles down, firn goes through many cycles of melting and refreezing, turning to ice in 3-5 years. Glacial ice scatters incoming light into blue wavelengths, which is why they appear blue to the naked eye. As ice rushes over rock, valley walls, and icefalls, it may break like glass, opening up crevasses up to 100’ deep.

We could hear the groaning and cracking of the glaciers as we hiked some of the ridgeline in the park.

Each year over 10,000 people attempt to scale Mt. Rainer’s highest peak. Nearly half reach the 14,410’ summit. John Muir and nine others climbed to Mt. Rainier’s summit in what became the 5th recorded ascent. His trip to Rainier reinvigorated his efforts to preserve nature as National Parks.

With binoculars in hand on one of our hikes we were able to watch several at the overnight camp prepare for their summit attempt the following morning. We also watched another group making their final ascent. How blessed we were to have a clear day to see this unfold.

Those fortunate souls who do summit find themselves inside a massive crater. They can warm themselves near steam vents if they can stand the “rotten egg” smell of sulfur. There is even a lake underneath all the ice.

I was mesmerized by Mt. Rainier’s raw beauty, its wildness, its power to shun half of those who strive to reach the highest peak.

Next Up: A week of getting deep into the untamed landscape of Mt. Rainer National Park.