Her husband and two children looked at us expectantly. “Is there anything here?” the woman asked. “Like, maybe a waterfall or something?”
Mr. Adventure and I looked at each other.
We were standing in Spray Park, one of Mount Rainier National Park’s most popular destinations, and the volcano loomed to the southeast. This crown jewel national park, which we’re lucky to have in our backyard, is famed for its wildflower displays. The lower flanks of the mountain (or more accurately in local parlance, the Mountain) is draped with subalpine meadows that explode into bloom for a few sweet weeks each summer. Many of the million-plus visits Mount Rainier logs each year are people on pilgrimages to wander flower-filled meadows beneath the snow-clad peak. The variety of flowers is boggling (the park’s “Subalpine Wildflowers” brochure lists 46 species as a start) and the profusion almost looks intentionally planned, hence the label “park.” We hiked several meadow trails this summer, including Summerland and Skyline (undoubtedly the park’s most popular). Several friends had raved about Spray Park. The fact that the most recent Washington Trails Association trip reports had all mentioned spotting bears added another incentive.
We headed out from the trailhead near Mowich Lake at 7:30am on a day forecast to heat up to 90-plus degrees. We weren’t expecting solitude — the trail is way too popular for that — but hoped to miss most of the crowds. The trail heads downhill from the Mowich Lake campground, then meanders through the forest for a couple of miles before the junction with a trail to Spray Falls. We planned on seeing the falls, but decided to head up to the meadows first, in hopes of having it mostly to ourselves (and maybe a bear). Several switchbacks later, we reached the bottom of the meadows and climbed to the ridge separating Spray Park from boulder-strewn Seattle Park. A few flowers hung on, bees buzzing in their determination to pollinate before the season ends, but the rewards on this day were the 360-degree views from green meadows to sheer cliffs. After a long gander at Mist Park far below, we headed back down the trail.
That’s when we met the family. They looked at us, clearly hoping for an answer worthy of continuing the hike. “We stopped at the waterfall, but thought it would be bigger,” the woman said. Mr. Adventure and I were at a loss. We’d just been standing at the top of the meadows, delighting in the beauty all around us. What exactly were they looking for? It was hard to think of a way to improve on where we stood right then. We mumbled something about good views from the ridge and from the precipice overlooking Mist Park. They obviously weren’t satisfied, and moved past us further up the trail. We shrugged and kept heading down.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to us, this “Is this worth it? What’s my reward for doing this?” query. On the North Fork Skokomish River trail in Olympic National Park, we met a couple who were disappointed that all they’d seen were crowds of moss- and fern-covered old-growth evergreens, as if virgin forest was a common sight. It’s made me think about why people hike, or rather, why I hike. That day in Spray Park was tiring. It was hot, my knees hurt, I was covered in a slick sheen of sweat, sunscreen, and bug spray. I felt off-kilter. As we headed down, I became increasingly crabby about the sheer numbers of people we passed heading uphill, some wearing flip-flops and (maybe) carrying one measly bottle of water. “Not prepared,” I grumbled to myself. I wanted a shower. Not my best day on the trail, honestly.
But I wouldn’t have traded it. To borrow a line from Mr. Adventure, the worst day on a trail is better than the best day anywhere else. Even when it’s hot, crowded, dusty, and steep. By any measure, Spray Park was gloriously beautiful. The bears may have taken the day off (smarter than I, they were probably snoozing in the shade); the flowers may have been past their peak. It didn’t matter. I was outside, in one of my favorite places, with my favorite person. My body was strong and working hard, keeping me fit for future adventures. The Mountain hovered just over my shoulder, beneficent queen of the Cascades. When Rainier is visible — and in our climate, it hides above the clouds for much of the year — it inspires exhilaration, gratitude, joy, awe. I live here. I get to do this pretty much whenever I want.
From that perspective, I understand the desire of visitors who have only a day or three in the national park to see something memorable — a bear, a waterfall, a lake reflecting the mountain’s profile, a riotous flower meadow perfuming subalpine air. But here’s the thing: the Spray Park trail rambles through open forest, crossing streams burbling downhill, and ends in open meadows encircled by mountains. It’s more than enough reward to perch on a boulder and consider the glaciers slowly grinding rotten volcanic rock into dust, to look at the permanent snowfields in hopes of catching a glimpse of mountain goats, creamy yellowish fur just visible against the white. It’s more than enough reward to know that we have this place, that in 1899 bright folks decided it should be preserved permanently. I don’t need a waterfall. The experience is reward enough.
And yet. Halfway down, we detoured a quarter-mile to Spray Falls. The family said they had stopped but “there wasn’t much there.” Maybe they turned back after the log bridge, in which case they missed the real show. A few steps further down the trail, cool mist enveloped us. We stepped onto the rock-filled bank of Spray Creek and craned our necks to peer up at a scrim of spume cascading 300 feet down from the clifftop. Sitting on dry rocks, watching the water hit the base of the cliff and rush down the creekbed, and fellow hikers clamber around in search of the perfect photo, we munched a snack. “They must’ve missed this,” I said. Mr. Adventure nodded. Maybe looking too hard for a spectacular reward means we’re more likely to overlook those right in front of us.