Mt. Rainier National Park - Washington

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Page 2: What to See & Do | Day Hikes
Backcountry Hiking | Where to Stay

Mount Rainier: Fire and Ice

What has been created by fire, has been ground away by ice. First there was the mountain, but as soon as it grew, glaciers formed and began to wear away at the rock. This see-saw of mountain building and glacial erosion has been going on for almost a million years. And the process continues today, although the several million people who live in the shadow of Rainier hardly consider the perils of living close to an active volcano, let alone several volcanoes which are located in Western Washington.

Rainier last erupted about 150 years ago, and in the meantime, snow has fallen on the crater, compacting and filling with ice, although several vents around the edge produce steam from water melting far below the mountain's crown. The heavy rains of the fall of 1995 caused scientists to wonder what effect the abundant water would have if enough of it seeped into the molten interior to build up a pressurized mass of steam.

Over those million years, Rainier has had thousands of lava flows, with molten rivers cascading down the slopes, filling river canyons and valleys. Deep deposits of fallen ash are found on the slopes, as is evidence of many mudfalls -- the kind of alluvial flow which devastated the sides of Mt. St. Helens, less than two decades ago. The last eruption of any size occurred in the mid 1800s.

While fire and magma builds the mountain, glaciers proceed to destroy it. There are 26 large glaciers on Mt. Rainier, above the 7,000 foot line. Most occupy places on deep crevices -- U-shaped valleys of their own creation -- and "flow" at an average rate of one foot per day. A few glaciers move much faster. In years past, the icefalls at the toes of the faster-moving glaciers have created great ice caves. The few visitors to the mountain in the 19th century were able to see the huge Paradise Ice Caves, a phenomenon which melted away. The glaciers of Mount Rainier now cover an area of 38 square miles.

What to See & Do

Visitors usually plan their visit to the park as a series of drives. The most popular day trip takes tourists from the Nisqually Gate to Paradise, a trip of only 18 miles but one which takes a half-day, or a full-day if you really want to see all there is to see in this area of changing elevations and varied vegetation.

The first few miles is through a Douglas-fir forest, peppered with western hemlock and western red cedar. From the Kautz Creek Bridge, about three miles from the entrance station, one can see the destruction brought on the landscape by mountain floods, this one caused when Kautz Glacier unleashed a flood of meltwater which carried volcanic debris, trees, and huge rocks down the streambed, burying the road with a pile of mud 28 feet high. Longmire Museum (6 miles from the park gate) is named for the pioneer settler who build the first hotel in the area, offering miracle cures from his hot springs. The Hiker Information Center provides information on trail and weather conditions.

Another drive of 6 miles leads to a spur road running to Ricksecker Point, with the Tatoosh Range in view. These Cascade mountains were created by volcanic action about 50 million years before Mt. Rainier emerged from the valley floor. Back on the highway, you reach Narada Falls, where the Paradise River drops 168 feet, best seen from the viewing area below the bridge. Then, Paradise Meadows come into view. The Paradise Inn was built in 1917. Here, too is the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center: the best place to begin a stay in the park. Short and long trails lead from the visitor center area, including a hike which leads to Paradise Glacier.

The second major excursion is the drive which leads from Paradise to Sunrise, a distance of 50 miles, and a trip which should take a full day to thoroughly enjoy. This drive leads through some spectacular geology, including the Reflection Lakes, which have been carved out by glaciers. There's an outstanding view of Stevens Canyon from a vista point overlooking the gorge named for one of the first adventurers to successfully make the summit climb. You'll see several tributaries of Stevens Creek falling off the canyon rim.

There's a picnic area near Box Canyon, with another viewing experience, reached by walking a short trail to the rim of the 100-foot-deep canyon. Another ten miles of driving leads to the Grove of the Patriarchs, an old growth forest of western red cedar, Douglas-fir, and western hemlock, located on an island in the Ohanapecosh River. The ages of many of these trees range between 500 and 1,000 years. Back on the highway, turn left onto State Route 123.

Mather Memorial Highway leads north through Cayuse Pass. You'll find the White River Entrance, where you turn left onto the road to Sunrise. This is the subalpine zone, near the tree line, with stunted, gnarled, and twisted whitebark pine and subalpine fir. This is the vegetation known as krummholtz, or alpine timber. There is a visitor center at Sunrise, providing information on the high trails which leave from the site. There are several short nature trails offering easy walks. Those who wish to do some ice walking and climbing can do it from here. Rangers should be consulted about proper equipment for this type of hike. Needless to say, a hike into the icy alpine zone, into Glacier Basin, toward the summit from Sunrise, is a spectacular experience.

Although there are no paved interior roads leading from Carbon River, at the northwest corner of the park, a visit to this area can be richly rewarding. There are few people here, and the scenery is as good as at any other point in the park. An inland rain forest greets you at the park gate, enough reason in itself to visit the area. An unpaved road, suitable for most cars but better for vehicles with high clearance (pickups, four-wheel-drive). It ends at a parking lot, beside the Ipsut Creek Campground. There's a self-guiding trail through the rain forest at the park entrance, and then farther down the road is a seven-mile round-trip hike to the Carbon Glacier. Other, longer trails fan out across the park, providing views of the Yellowstone Cliffs, another hike which takes you past Tolmie Peak and Castle Peak, to mountain meadows beside Mowich Lake.

Day Hikes

Paradise is a popular place for taking short hikes. Paved wildflower trails lead across mountain meadows with spectacular displays during most of the summer. As the season progresses, you'll see copious numbers of glacier lilies, lupine, and paintbrush, among many others. At various times, there will be carpets of pink, or white, or yellow, or purple. with monkeyflowers, painted cup, and Sitka valerian.

Skyline Trail is a five-mile loop which leads through wildflower meadows and features a climb to Panorama Point, passing a junction with the Golden Gate Trail, and then continuing to the Paradise Glacier Trail and Sluiskan Falls. The trail drops into Paradise Valley, and makes a slight climb again to Myrtle Falls, returning to the Paradise Visitor Center.

The 1.2-mile Nisqually View Trail leads to a great view of Nisqually Glacier. This trail runs to the lip of Nisqually Canyon where one can see, at close-up, the effects of a moving river of ice.

Moraine Trail also leads to Nisqually Glacier, for a different view&emdash;of the rocky moraine created by the moving ice. It leaves from the Jackson Visitor Center, and ends at the edge of the glacier. This is the trail to take to touch the glacier, after crossing the moraine.

Golden Gate Trail, also leaving from the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise, is a four-mile loop which covers some of the scenery along the Skyline Trail, and leads to a wonderful wildflower area in the Edith Creek Basin.

Paradise Glacier Trail also starts at Paradise, providing a six-mile round trip walk to the glacier, another walk which offers a look at the recent effects of a moving glacier. The trip will take about five hours.

The Lakes Trail starts at the Paradise visitor center, and ends at the Reflection Lakes. This is a five-mile loop, taking about four hours. The trail leads through sub-alpine meadows to the beautiful small lakes, with tremendous views of the Tatoosh Range and Stevens Ridge.

From Longmire, Trail of the Shadows is a short nature trail, less than a mile long, that runs beside a meadow, passing the mineral springs discovered by James Longmire. This trail is self-guiding.

From Sunrise, the self-guiding Sourdough Ridge Nature Trail leads for 1.5 miles to the Emmons Vista Trail, providing an additional .5-mile walk to view Emmons Glacier. The Sourdough Ridge Trail has an easy climb through the sub-alpine zone. Emmons Glacier is Rainier's largest icefield.

Also from Sunrise, the hike to Mount Fremont Lookout starts from the visitor center, following Sourdough Ridge, climbing 1,200 feet through meadows and rocky terrain, to Frozen Lake. The trail intersects four trails at this point. The round-trip walk to the lookout is a distance of 5.5 miles, taking between three and four hours.

Other short trails leave from Stevens Canyon, the Nisqually park gate, and from the Carbon River park gate (a short rain forest loop).

Backcountry Hiking

There are many trails, in all sections of the park, which offer thrilling hikes with glacier views, and which lead to backcountry campsites. Two hikes grab the imagination of those willing to test their endurance and those with the time to pursue the ultimate in backpacking excitement.

Wonderland Trail

Access: The most popular trailhead is at Longmire, the location of the Longmire Museum, near the southwestern corner of the park. To get to the trailhead, drive into the park through the Nisqually gate, and drive along the southern boundary, turning north for several miles to Longmire.

A warning: several bridges on the Wonderland trail have been destroyed by severe flooding. Parts of the trail may be difficult to navigate or the trail may be closed in some places. Contact the park office for up-to-date information.

The Trail: Over the 93 miles of this trail, which circles Mount Rainier, the hiker will be visually and physically challenged: visually by the incredible beauty of every single mile of this odyssey; and physically by the ups, downs, and twisting route which moves from flat meadows to steep climbs, many times over. Campsites are located eight to twelve miles apart, providing a hike of about ten days to two weeks. Most experienced hikers require close to two weeks to complete the walk, with enough time to regain muscle strength along the way, while leaving enough time to explore the beauty of the mountain. Most hikers do the trip in a clockwise direction.

The Hike: The availability of roads at Sunrise and Paradise make possible advance stocking of supplies at these locations. Sunrise is a particularly good place for stashing a cache of food.

Leaving Longmire, the trail climbs into forest, dropping into meadows and climbing again (and again), crossing the western slope of the volcano. The trail passes the toe of the Tahoma Glacier, and leads onward to Mowich Lake, where there is a campsite and summer ranger station. The trail heads along the north slope, on high, windy ground, beside a long stretch of Carbon Glacier, to Mystic Lake (5,800 feet), with another campground and a ranger station. The trail leads past Winthrop Glacier to Sunrise, where there is a campground, plus a few creature comforts. White River (another campsite) is just beyond Sunrise. The trail really climbs past White River, along the eastern slope, to the high point on the trail (6,700 feet), with close-up views of waterfalls, more glaciers, lakes, and the Box Canyon of the Cowlitz River. The trail moves to lower levels to complete the trip to Longmire.

Climb to the Summit

Access: The summit trailhead is at Paradise (5,400 feet). To get there, drive to the park and enter by the southwestern Nisqually gate, driving past Longmire to the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise. All those attempting the climb must register with the park rangers before setting out. Those without much climbing experience should think about attending the snow- and ice-climbing school provided by the park. It's a one-day course.

The Climb: Eight thousand adventurous souls try the ascent to the summit each year, an 18-mile, two-day climb which tests the hiker's mettle in more ways than one. However, this is a climb which thousands of people are able to manage each year, and the thought of a rugged climb on snow and ice should not deter the otherwise determined. It's a test of mind and body which will be remembered as a peak life experience.

Camp Muir is located 4.5 miles from the trailhead. The trail first crosses the Paradise meadows and then climbs through sub-alpine terrain to reach rocky slopes, the remains of former lava flows. Crossing Pebble creek, the trail runs across snowfields, something to be concerned about if the weather is inclement. There are tent platforms at Camp Muir, at an elevation of 10,000 feet. Climbing to Camp Muir without finishing the summit climb is quite rewarding. The terrain is not too difficult (not as strenuous as the rest of the climb), and the camp offers spectacular views of several mountains including Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens.

The climb on the second day begins very early, before 2 a.m., with several climbers joined by a rope, using lights, as they climb toward summit of the ice-filled cone. Returnees marvel at the sight of strings of lights snaking up the slope in the pre-dawn morning.

The summit is 1,300 feet wide, filled with snow, with vents producing steam at the edge of the crater. Climbers usually return to Camp Muir by noon, avoiding the warmer afternoon period on the upper slope which can bring meltingsnow and avalanches. After the muscle-straining effort to reach the summit, the afternoon descent to Paradise is a breeze.

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