Mount Rainier, Fall 2009
Maggie and I spent much of last week in Mount Rainier National Park. We saw brilliant sunshine, rushing streams, thundering falls, old growth forest, snow, fog and ice. Quite a lot for a five day trip. What we didn't see were the crowds of people that fill the multi-loop campgrounds and large parking areas that, on this last week of the season, sat empty. We saw people but we also saw many, many empty tables and parking slots.
We entered the park on a gloriously sunny Sunday, followed by a star-filled night sky above our camp at White River. The rush of water was a constant backdrop throughout our stay there and I am convinced that I also heard rocks grinding against each other under the strong current.
Next day dawned sunny and bright. We drove up to Sunrise Point on the mountain's east side. At 6400 feet, we could look out across the top of the Cascade Range in both directions. The first signs of an approaching cold front began appearing around mid-day.
The clouds gathered and loomed during the afternoon, showing the mountain in an ever-changing light as we drove south from Sunrise and east along Stevens Canyon Road to Paradise.
The predicted front was coming in dramatically as by the time we reached Paradise. Knowing what was predicted, I had booked a room at the Paradise Inn so we would be under a roof for the season’s first snowfall. My wisdom proved correct; the next morning was foggy and snow showery. The land was dusted with white.
Paradise is a major tourist area and was busy even in this challenging weather. The rustic Inn, build in 1917 was warm and dry, if noticeably drafty. The nearby visitor center provided a good orientation to the mountain and its amazing diversity.
Paradise is a high sub-Alpine meadow laced with many trails offering stunning vistas and intimate detail. The vistas were mostly theoretical in our case but the sense of scale was still evident in what we could see. Somewhere in that fog were the headwaters of Nisqually River, cutting its ways through a gorge that is surely no less impressive for our inability to see it. The sound was not at all diminished by the inclement weather. We kept moving enough to keep us warm despite the wet and cold but the warmth of the Inn was also most welcome at the end of our hike.
Day two in Paradise was even snowier—still showery—and a much lower ceiling. We did a short hike up to the ridge above the tourist area where we overlooked a broad snow-covered basin. Below we could see the network of area trails diverging from a streamside trailhead. Farther upstream, we saw a small dam and structures that provide the area’s water. Then we headed back. The day was cold and the wind biting. Skies were clearing a bit—patches of blue sky among the mass of clouds--as we left Paradise.
Heading west, we stopped at Paradise Falls and Christine Falls. Both are spectacular, multi-step waterfalls, just two of the many that powerfully shape Mt. Rainier’s flanks. We camped at the Cougar Rock campground at the confluence of Paradise Creek and the Nisqually River. All but two of the six campground loops are closed for the season. Maybe three of the 30 plus campsites in the loop we chose were occupied. We made a quick camp, fixed dinner and were able to bail into the back of the truck when the rain interrupted our meal. The night was wet but we were warm and dry sleeping in the truck
Our last morning in the park was also wet. Not raining but damp and wet; tolerable though, with coffee and decent rain gear. We are typically leisurely out of camp in the mornings, often the last to vacate. Today was no different. No rush. The drive to Longmire is short. Here we found a small ranger station and park exhibits, an old gas station with covered service area and hand-pumped, glass topped gasoline pumps, and the National Inn. We wandered through the sites and hiked the Trail of the Shadows. The trail takes around Longmire Meadow, the area homesteaded by James Longmire, one of the first white settlers in the area.
Along the way we saw some of the bubbling (formerly hot) springs that Longmire promoted and his original one-room cabin. We also saw the glorious meadow/wetland and remnants of the old growth forests that covered the area. The old growth is gone but many descendants of that forest still stand. They sort of “snuck up” on me. At first I didn’t see them; the many normal sized trees are far more evident but then I spotted a large trunk standing almost seemingly alone even though it’s surrounded by a forest. Then I saw another and then another. It’s hardly a true old-growth forest but it is still profound. Trees of this size and age simply dwarf my puny human life.
By the time we’re done walking, we were chilled and hungry. We stopped at the National Inn for hot chocolate and homemade soup. Then we headed west toward home. The last stretch paralleled the Nisqually River, more than evident at this point in its journey than it was a couple days ago farther up the mountain. Like all the other watercourses we saw during the past few days, the Nisqually riverbed was mostly rock cut by strong running channels. Come next spring, though, far more water will be charging through this space, heading to Puget Sound. In the meantime, winter snows will cover Mt Rainier to a depth of 20 to 30 feet, feeding the mountain’s glaciers and priming all that water for next spring’s torrents.
So the long anticipated adventure is done. But for a five day trip, it was mystical and cosmic. Mystical in the sense of its mystery and power. Cosmic in its ability to connect me to the entire universe. Throughout my stay in the park I felt like I could hear the planet’s heartbeat in the sound of crashing water, grinding rock and the many and varied animal sounds that pervade this wonderfully preserved slice of What Once Was.