Rainer Vista from Sunrise (panoramic)
Our first day in Rainier broke early, and our fears that we’d spend the time there enshrouded in fog, clouds and rain seemed to be approaching reality[i]. However, sunlight was poking through the clouds by the time everyone was up and eating breakfast. On the upside, I got to try out my new canister stove, which worked like a charm, and left our bellies warm and full of fruit and nut-laden oatmeal[ii].
The campground is nestled in wooded ravines along the Nisqually River basin, so we could hear the faint sound of rushing water throughout the evening[iii]. After our time in the crowded tent city at Yosemite, this relative seclusion was a nice change. A flurry of wildlife passed through our site while we ate, with Stellar’s Jays, Gray Jays, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Townsend’s Chipmunks forming an uneasy alliance to watch us for the off chance of a dropped crumb.
Vista from Campground, Kate with New Stove and Sunbeam, Gray Jay, Camp Site.
Along our way to the Paradise area of the park, we made the requisite stops at overlooks and sites along the way. On the way we made our first stop at the small, but very photogenic Christine Falls. We got our first taste of the park’s wildflowers here. While we were outside of peak, they still put up a decent show.
Upper Christine Falls , Wildflowers, Bear Grass, Christine Falls Wildflowers, Broadleaf Arnica, Upper Christine Falls, Upper Christine Falls (B&W), Kate and Dave at Christine Falls, Christine Falls Walkway.
Continuing on to Paradise, we hit all the scenic overlooks on the way. While the views of the Nisqually River were amazing, the low lying clouds negated most of the grandeur of the overlooks. We still had yet to see the Park’s namesake. However, the low-lying details were amazing. The forest was thick and ancient, and wildflowers were everywhere even at the lower altitudes.
Nisqually River Vista (panoramic), River Valley, Nisqually River Valley.
By the time we got to Paradise, it was almost completely clouded in. We could see pieces of the area, but most of the grandeur was lost. The park buildings, however were fantastic. Far from some of their low-lying, utilitarian contemporaries, the buildings here looked like things we had seen in Bavaria and the Austrian Alps; large alpine lodges and peaked wooden chalet style architecture[iv]. We stopped by the visitor’s center, where the friendly rangers recommended that we might have better luck in the northern portion of the park that day[v]. So without further ado, we set out for the Sunrise area.
Paradise in the Clouds, Mount Rainier National Park in the Fog (rimshot), Paradise in the Clouds (II), Foggy Spire, Old Wood, Lupines, Western Bistort, Visitor Center Ceiling Abstract.
The ranger had pointed out some worthwhile stopping points along the way, so we took her advice and went for a brief hike in the Grove of the Patriarchs. The conditions had improved at the lower altitude forest, and we had a sunny hike through the forest. The Grove is a section of old-growth forest, with towering Western Red-Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Western Hemlock. It was a nice counterpoint to the sub-alpine areas we’d spend most of our time traversing during the trip. However, after visiting the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias in Yosemite, it was hard to be as impressed by these smaller trees[vi]. Regardless, it was a nice first hike at the Park.
Creek Bed, None Shall Pass!, Kate and I Among the Grove (photo by Kate Bower), Dave and Kate in the Grove of the Patriarchs, Life Lines, Light on Leaves, Ogre in the Wood, Stirred Wood, Stirred Wood (B&W), Dave and Trees (photo by Kate Bower).
As we drove higher in altitude to the northern section of the Park, we got some of our first views of Rainier, towering above the gap in trees along the road. Lunch found us among the dizzying panoramic views of Sunrise Point[vii]. Our view of Rainer here was truly astounding, seeing it and its glaciers in full context. There was also a really noticeable difference, in only the space of a few miles, between the low lying forests and the sparser but more epic subalpine areas of Sunrise[viii].
Road to Rainier, Rainier above the Trees, Sunrise Point Vista, Sunrise Point Vista (B&W), Sunrise Point Vista (panoramic), Clark’s Nutcracker, Perching Clark’s Nutcracker.
After lunch we continued on to the visitor’s center at Sunrise and went on a short ranger-lead hike through the fields of wildflowers. I was slightly disappointed that we had missed peak season, but there was still an amazing diversity of wildflowers there[ix], even though snow still covered thr grounds in great accumulated drifts here and there. The overlooks of Rainier from the trail were amazing, and the ranger was pretty knowledgeable[x].
Sunrise Park Building, Spreading Phlox, Trail Vista, Trail Vista (II), Magenta Paintbrush, Sitka Valerian, Pasque Flowers, Pasque Flowers – Seed Stage.
The guided hike was short, so we took the adjoining Silver Forest trail, which she assured us would have lots of wildflowers. While the views from the trail were nothing short of fantastic, and it yielded me another new species (the ubiquitous Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel), its wildflowers were something less than impressive. The views, however, were pretty amazing as we were hiking along the valley edge.
Silver Forest Trail (panoramic), Kate on the Silver Forest Trail, Silver Forest Trail Vista with Wood, Glacial Valley Vista with Wood, Old Wood with Wildflowers, Rainier Vista (B&W panoramic, Head in the Clouds, Rainier Glacial Valley, Old and New Wood, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, Kate and Dave on the Silver Forest Trail.
With a couple hours of light left, but a long drive back ahead of us, we decided we had time for one more hike. The ranger had recommended the Frozen Lake trail for its views and relatively moderate length. It ended up being a great suggestion, even though the eponymous Lake was a little underwhelming. The light was starting to get long as we were on our way, stippling the subalpine valley forests below us in the long shadows of afternoon. A little sketchy in parts from snow melt, the trail was otherwise pretty easy, even with the elevation climb. At the top, Rainier loomed unobscured, as the sun started to set behind it. Pipits and squirrels scrambled around the rocks, but otherwise there was a hush of light wind and not much else[xi]. The reflection of snow pack in Frozen Lake was almost completely still. As we started back, clouds started to pass back over Rainer, at one point leaving its top visible only through a break in the gray sky.
Alpine Vista, Of Wood and Stone, Rainier in the Clouds, Subalpine Afternoon, Glacial Field, Frozen Lake Trail Vista, Frozen Lake (panoramic), Frozen Lake, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, Kate and Dave on the Frozen Lake Trail, Common Paintbrush, Frozen Lake Trail (Panoramic), Frozen Lake Trail Vista (panoramic).
While none of the day’s hikes were “epic” in the sense of our jaunts to Half Dome in Yosemite, or on the Skaftafelshaedi in Iceland, they were really enjoyable. The scenery wasn’t of the same scale (Rainier itself notwithstanding) but the treks felt pretty fulfilling anyway. On our way back from Frozen Lake, we skirted through a snow field, which was a bit harrowing to traverse, and drove back down to Cougar Rock for dinner. On the way we spotted some Elk, but between the light and their quick disappearance into the brush, I didn’t get a decent picture. Dave left for Seattle after we had dinner[xii], and Kate and I settled in for an even colder night.
[i] We’d heard story after story of people who’d come to the park, the vast majority of which is domainted by views of this massive stratovolcano, and have never seen it due to the constant west coast fog/cloud cover/rain. The last time we’d been to Seattle, we have planned a trip to either Rainier or the Olympics, but had been thwarted by Seattle’s grey and rainy cloak.
[ii] I had spent no small amount of time researching good one-pot camping meals, and this oatmeal was one of the winners. It uses powdered milk for density, good oats, almonds, fruits, etc….nothing like starting a hike with a good dense and warm bowl in you. The canister stove was a new purchase for the trip, and performed admirably. Ultraportable, but high powered enough to make quick meals for 3-4 people.
[iii] When it wasn’t being drowned out by the sound of my own shivering.
[iv] Sadly, we had been unable to book a room at the Paradise Lodge, which looked pretty fantastic in an Overlook Hotel kind of way.
[v] Part of Rainier’s uniqueness is found in its tendency to experience a vast array of microclimates depending on prevalining winds and conditions on different sides of the mountain. Sunny and mild on one side, wet and dreary on the other ,shifting regularly.
[vi] My wife and brother in law ended up getting much better pictures than I did here. The light was bad for landscapes, so I did what is always recommended…I focused on details. Kate and Dave did a better job at getting some of the bigger shots.
[vii] Here I had the same problem I have in a lot of the high, vast places of the world; my sense of scale is offput by the disparities between my tiny immediate surroundings and the vastness in front of me. I’ll be looking at a scene, and suddenly notice a detail on a large object that makes it clear the object is many times larger than my brain has indicated to me…like seeing a tiny speck and realizing it’s a towering tree. Sometimes I get a little disoriented in situations like this, especially when I don’t have a solid horizon to track. It leads to some dizziness issues which makes some climbs a bit challenging.
[viii] I can only imagine how amazing the area is in winter, at actual sunrise. Sadly, like I’ve lamented before, I am usually hiking with people who don’t see the value (or weigh the cost benefit of) getting up really early or hiking late, to see some of these places in the amazing light of morning or evening. I got my wife to do an early morning deal one time, seeing the sunrise form the top of the volcano at Haleakala NP in Hawaii. Even though it was only a driving, not hiking trip, I think I used up all of my future odd hours hikes on that one…
[ix] I think I counted about 36+ species I was able to identify subsequently that I have never seen before. And yes, I know perfectly well that many of you are reading this sentence as “blah blah boring blah stuffy old naturalist blah blah blah”.
[x] However, she spent a LOT of time talking about the impact of global warming on glaciers. Even I, as someone who is totally in line with what she was saying, was thinking “ok, already, we get it. Global warming bad.” I could tell the message was less well received among some of the other people on the tour. Which begs the question…if you are anti-environment, why are you taking a nature hike at a National Park? Just for spite. “Yeah, I see your majestic vistas. Pfft. I am not impressed. Take THAT, nature. I’m gonna go watch Honey Boo Boo now, and you can just stay here and melt.”
[xi] I’ve written before about the odd sensation in the high places of the world, that they share a hush…not a silence, because the wind is omnipresent, but a quite stillness. Like the quiet of a high snowy meadow, as of yet undisturbed. It reminds me of home a little I guess….that quiet of wild places under the muffled falling of snow. Something I dearly miss, now ensconced in urban cacophony. As many times as I write about this same sensation, I’ve never really been able to satisfactorily put it into words that really express the sensory images I’m conjuring up.
[xii] Another successful recipe, a one pot chicken and black bean enchilada casserole. We’ll be reusing that one.