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Hide and Seek with Mt. Rainier

[Mt Rainier national park, July 21, 2018]

For our day in Mt. Rainier national park, we picked the most popular trail in the park – Skyline trail. At only 5.3 miles with 1700 ft of elevation gain, it’s not terribly demanding, although you are bound to feel the effects of high altitude – the trail begins at 5,400 ft. Our visit also fell on a Saturday, so we knew we had to get out fairly early to beat the crowds. We got to the park entrance around 8:30 am and we still encountered a line of cars, albeit short.

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As we approached the area of Paradise on the south side of the park, we saw Mt Rainier peeking through the clouds. At 14,411 ft (4,392 m) it’s the highest one in the Cascade range and also in Washington. It’s a dormant volcano but it’s still alive. Rainier is currently listed as a Decade Volcano, or one of the 16 volcanoes with the greatest likelihood of causing great loss of life and property if eruptive activity resumes.

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I was amused to discover that British explorer George Vancouver had continued his habit of naming peaks after his friends, this one honoring Rear Admiral Peter Rainier. The native Salish people called this peak Tacoma, although clearly that name didn’t stick. Rainier became the fifth national park in 1899.

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The parking lot at the visitor center was already full but we lucked out with the first spot along the side of the road. The visitor center didn’t open till 10 a.m., but we knew the trail was well signed so we didn’t need to talk to a ranger. There was also a map at the trailhead, which was helpful as the trail network here is quite elaborate.

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The trail began with this set of stairs, inscribed with a quote by the “father of the national parks,” naturalist John Muir.

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The first third of a mile or so is steep but paved. Views of Mt Rainier opened up as soon as we started our climb, so many people were satisfied with stopping at the end of the paved section.

Still, the trail was busy, including a couple of marmots that did not seem bothered by all the attention.

As we got closer to the top, Mt Rainier loomed ever larger. It’s a formidable mountain, home to 26 glaciers and 36 square miles of permanent snowfields. The amount of snow this late in July was just astounding to me. It’s hard to believe that 8,000 to 13,000 people attempt to climb Mt Rainier every year, and only half of them make it to the top.

Glacier Vista point was aptly named – from here, we could get a great view of the snowfields and glaciers on the mountain.

I kept taking photos every so often as we went up. The views were just astounding.

We saw a few guys carrying skis, and I wasn’t sure exactly how or where they were planning to come down with them. Mount Rainier kept playing hide-and-seek with us in the meantime.

When we reached Panorama point, not yet the highest but the most scenic point in the loop, the cloud cover continued to increase. We stopped for a quick food break and took some photos. By the time we continued on, we couldn’t see Mt Rainier any more. We felt bad for those who had started on the trail after us and were missing the gorgeous views on the way up.

In the beginning of our descent, it got to a point where we couldn’t see but a few feet in front of us, as you can see in the video below.

Luckily, the weather cleared after 10-15 minutes. See how much different everything looked now!

On the descent, we encountered lots more snow.

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As we were passing through a snowfield, we finally found out what the people with the skis were doing. I was surprised they were allowed to use them on the mountain, and it seemed like there wasn’t even enough snow for them to get a good run. The duo in the video below hiked the rest of the way down in their ski boots, which didn’t seem like fun.

There were lots of snowfields on the trail. There was a section with a huge snowfield on a downhill. The snow was mushy and slippery, and rather than navigating with our hiking poles or yak trax, which I carried in my bag, we decided to go down butt-first. I felt like a kid playing in the snow!

We saw waterfalls and streams in the lower elevations where more of the snow had melted. The wildflowers were just starting to come in – it seemed like we were still a couple of weeks until full bloom. It’s crazy how late Spring comes in the higher elevations.

We made it back to our cabin by mid-afternoon, and did nothing for the rest of the day but make dinner and hang out in the hot tub. It was our last day in nature – we were headed to the hustle and bustle of Seattle the next day.

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