Trip reports

The measure of a mountain

Last spring, after I’d decided to leave teaching and work on my book and figure out what’s next, I also decided I’d spend as much of the summer as I could in the mountains. This year, that’s meant Mount Rainier.

It’s about a two-hour drive to the mountain no matter which entrance I choose. Armed with a Green Trails map, the Falcon guide Hiking Mount Rainier National Park and the Washington Trails Association Trailblazer app, I pored over possible routes.

JUNE: 15.4 miles, 2850′ elevation gain

We’d never been to the Carbon River area in the far northwest corner of the park, even though it’s probably the easiest drive from Olympia. On June 4 — National Trails Day — we drove through the charming town of Wilkeson (one source of the sandstone from which the Washington State Capitol is constructed) and on to the ranger station. The Carbon River Road was open to auto traffic until November 2006, when 18 inches of rain fell in 36 hours, obliterating large sections of the road and bringing down hundreds of trees. Around the park, a campground and several other roads and trails were damaged or destroyed. The severe destruction closed the park for six months.

Carbon River damage, November 2006
Carbon River damage, November 2006 (National Park Service photo)

A decade later, the Carbon River Road is permanently closed to vehicle traffic, although nonmotorized bikes are allowed. And it’s a sweet access: five miles of gentle grade along the glacial-floured Carbon River to Ipsut Creek Campground, which used to be a car campground but is now backcountry. The trail/road also passes through the only low-elevation rainforest inside the national park.

Low-elevation rainforest along the Carbon River Road
Low-elevation rainforest along the Carbon River Road (Lauren Danner photo)

A lovely, three-mile walk up the road took us to the Green Lake trailhead, where a two-mile forest trail rambles past 800-year-old Douglas-firs, the cooling mist of Ranger Falls, and to the namesake lake. We arrived to find a teenaged soccer team there, along with someone’s dog (bad form; no dogs are allowed on most park trails), but the view of surrounding peaks reflecting in the water encouraged lolling a bit on the logs against the shore.

The mist from Ranger Falls feels great on a hot day
The mist from Ranger Falls feels great on a hot day (Lauren Danner photo)

A hiker from Tacoma told us this corner of the park has three resident cougars. He was hiking down the Carbon River Road once when he heard branches snapping as if something was crashing through the forest. A juvenile deer bounded out about 50 yards away, saw the hiker, and headed straight for him. The deer was trembling with fear and exhaustion, likely fleeing a cougar (which the hiker never saw). After a few minutes they parted ways, the hiker on higher alert. Ever since he’s carried bear spray while hiking, although as he pointed out, cougars are ambush hunters, so you’d likely never see one until it was leaping toward you (the chances of which, I hasten to point out, are infinitesimally small; you’re unlikely to ever see a cougar in a lifetime of hiking the Northwest). Still, bear spray might not be a bad idea.

Lovely Green Lake. That's Tolmie Peak peeking through between Arthur and Gove peaks.
Lovely Green Lake. That’s Tolmie Peak peeking through between Arthur and Gove peaks. (Lauren Danner photo)

We left full of enthusiasm for this previously unknown-to-us part of the park.

Meeting my self-imposed manuscript submission deadline and Mr. Adventure’s trip to Cambodia put the kibosh on hiking until later in June, when, desperate for a day off, I headed to the park’s southwest entrance and followed the road to the confluence of the Nisqually and Paradise rivers and the start of the trail to Carter Falls, which I’d make part of a waterfall trifecta hike by going beyond to Madcap and Narada falls.

The first part of the hike provided a good reminder that the map I carry is not for decoration or to cover my head in case of a sudden squall. The trail starts on the side of the road and immediately descends into the Nisqually River valley, where you clamber over and around rocks and head downstream to a log footbridge. Cross. So far, so good. I’m not sure whether it was the distracting view of the mountain playing peekaboo or my general elation at being on the trail, but I completely missed the trail at that point, instead heading upstream through the rocky riverbed for about a half-mile. I did see a western tanager flashing through the treetops, but most of my concentration was focused on trying not to roll an ankle.

The Nisqually riverbed is <em>not</em> the trail, but it took me a while to figure that out.
The Nisqually riverbed is not the trail, but it took me a while to figure that out. (Lauren Danner photo)

This couldn’t be right. I knew I wasn’t supposed to follow the riverbed to the waterfalls. Doh! If only I’d checked the map, I would have realized the trail heads up the Paradise River, separated from the Nisqually by a ridge that tapers down to the confluence a couple hundred feet from the log bridge. I turned around, made for the base of the ridge, and immediately found the trail, which tracked the Paradise River on a gentle incline to Carter Falls. And while the falls is pretty, it’s partially screened by foliage and the angle of the viewpoint, so I kept going to the aptly named Madcap Falls, merrily rollicking along 150 feet further up the trail. It’s not as big as Carter Falls, but at least I could see the whole thing.

Another 1.5 miles to Narada Falls, and I ascended from the woods into a crowd of sightseers, some of whom looked at me quizzically (“Where did she come from?”). Although my route had taken me along a section of the Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates the mountain, most people come to the waterfall from the parking lot above. The road actually passes over the top of the falls, which goes a long way toward explaining its popularity as a driving-tour stop. I maneuvered upstream past the bulk of the shutterbugs, sat on a rock, and munched a snack. Narada Falls is a big, impressive cataract with a rainbow garnishing its lower reaches, and its mist drifts onto the viewing platforms, clouding camera lenses and cooling sweaty hikers (ahem).

Narada Falls. Notice the parkway bridge at the very top of the photo.
Narada Falls. Notice the parkway bridge at the very top of the photo. (Lauren Danner photo)

It’s possible to keep going from Narada Falls and hike all the way to Paradise and beyond. The afternoon was draining away, though, so it was back to my car and the ride home.

JULY: 11.9 miles, 2720′ elevation gain

A couple weeks later found Mr. Adventure and I back in the park, again in the northwest corner. Instead of the Carbon River area, this time we continued onto 15 miles of gravel road to Mowich Lake, the park’s largest lake and site of several inviting trailheads. Our goal that day was Tolmie Peak, an old fire lookout reached via a trail that goes past another alpine tarn, Eunice Lake, slogs up the side of a ridge. The first part of the hike skirts Mowich Lake, following the Wonderland Trail to the Tolmie Peak trail junction in about 1.5 miles. The sign said Ipsut Pass was just past the junction, so we went to check it out.

Wow. The trail dropped away into the steep-sided Ipsut Creek valley, where it eventually comes out near backcountry (since the 2006 floods) Ipsut Creek campground. Aggressive bugs discouraged lingering, and we rejoined the Tolmie Peak trail.

Ipsut Pass.
Ipsut Pass. It looks like the trail ends, but it actually heads sharply downhill from this point, descending several hundred feet in four switchbacks. My knees felt phantom sympathy aches just looking at it. (Lauren Danner photo)

This trail is crowded for a reason. It passes through subalpine wildflower meadows and past a pretty little lake, and the climb to the lookout is short. Once there, the views of Rainier are exceptional. You’re far enough away to get a sense of the mountain rising above the rest of the Cascades, yet close enough to fit the whole thing in your camera lens. Most people stop at the lookout, but we went on over a narrow ridge to the true summit and enjoyed fewer people and a well-deserved snack.

Mount Rainier and Eunice Lake
Mount Rainier and Eunice Lake (the network of social trails around the lake is depressingly visible from this vantage point) from Tolmie Peak. The sliver of Mowich Lake is visible just left of center in the photo. (Lauren Danner photo)

Tolmie Peak is a gorgeous hike, but we learned leaving earlier would be smart: cooler hike, fewer people.

After a short interlude that included a couple of Olympic National Park hikes, I was back on Mount Rainier, this time because I’d missed a tweet-up with pnwanderers (urgh, my low-clearance car couldn’t handle the approach road) in the 3000-acre Glacier View Wilderness, which abuts Mount Rainier National Park to the west. It was still early, so I decided to brave the masses at Paradise, whose meadows are most people’s destination on Rainier, and hike the Skyline Trail.

This 5.5-mile trail is probably the most-used in the park, part of a spaghetti-like network of trails around Paradise. A chunk of it is paved, and you’ll trudge up 1700 feet in the first two miles as part of a long line of park-going meadow lovers. Some of the hikers turn back at Panorama Point, two miles in, but just accept the fact that you’ll have lots of company and roll with it. I mostly did just that, although I found myself frequently explaining (in a friendly, isn’t-this-beautiful way) why people need to stay on the trail and off the meadows.

Pasque flower spangles the Paradise meadows in mid-July.
Pasque flower spangles the Paradise meadows in mid-July. Come August, these flowers transform into appealingly shaggy seedheads that look like Cousin It from The Addams Family. See the snowfield to the left? Be prepared to cross several during the hike. Trekking poles help. (Lauren Danner photo)

Subalpine meadow plants have evolved to be enormously tough. They have to sprout, bloom, and reproduce in a very short time, and spend most of their lives under a deep blanket of snow. But they are also fragile. Eight to ten people going off-trail in the same path will create a social trail that can take decades to repair. A ranger told me that an average size man’s shoe will crush about 30 meadow plants. Mount Rainier National Park and volunteer partners work to revegetate damaged areas, but it’s tricky. Each seedling costs an average of $3, so one lousy footprint runs the park about $100 to fix. Multiply that by the tens of thousands of people who wander Paradise each year, and…well, it’s a lot of money. There are many social trails at Paradise, caused by people who either don’t know or, worse, don’t care. So I try to politely educate folks about why staying on the trail is so important.

The Skyline Trail.
The Skyline Trail. Note the social trail next to the rock-bordered main trail. It will take decades for the damaged areas to recover, if they ever do. (Lauren Danner photo)

Paradise is also a pretty reliable place to glimpse hoary marmots. My first experience was marmots was of the yellow-bellied variety in Grand Teton National Park when I was about 12 years old. The ranger called them “whistle pigs,” and like everyone else I was immediately enchanted by their stuffed-animal cuteness and high-pitched calls. The marmots were out in force at Paradise, although the wildlife highlight occurred when two ptarmigan, one in full arctic feather and the other mottled, strolled across the trail in search of tasty subalpine bugs. Another hiker and I watched them until they disappeared behind a boulder. I’d never seen ptarmigan at Paradise before.

A ptarmigan in the upper subalpine area of Paradise.
A ptarmigan in the upper subalpine area of Paradise. Its companion had slipped behind the rock. (Lauren Danner photo)

From the lower alpine reaches, it’s another few miles back to the trailhead, through more meadows, subalpine forest, and past some pretty waterfalls. It was good to get out on the Skyline Trail again after a few years’ absence.

The feeling of being able to reach out and touch Mount Rainier is one of the charms of the Skyline Trail.
The feeling of being able to reach out and touch Mount Rainier is one of the charms of the Skyline Trail. (Lauren Danner photo)

AUGUST: 39.3 miles, 9725′ elevation gain

The first of August is my birthday, and I decided to celebrate with a longer solo hike to Summerland-Panhandle Gap, a (surprise) popular hike on the northeast side of the park. It’s a beauty: the first two miles through open forest, a transition into mixed meadow, then some switchbacks into Summerland. The area is renowned for its wildflower meadows (sensing a theme yet?) and its mountain views. It did not disappoint.

Several varieties of pedicularis grow on Mount Rainier, including one that's endemic to the mountain.
Several varieties of pedicularis grow on Mount Rainier, including one that’s endemic to the mountain. Based on my field guides, I think this one is commonly called coiled-beak lousewort. (Lauren Danner photo)

Marmots amused themselves among the lupine and paintbrush as I traversed the meadows and climbed into the alpine region below Panhandle Gap. The meadows are lovely, but the snow-and-rock zone mesmerizes. This is, after all, the territory of mountain goats and mountaineers, austere and icy, the volcano laid bare. Several snowfields later, I stepped up to the gap and gazed 90 miles south at Mount Hood floating dimly beyond Mount Adams. Happy birthday to me.

The view south from Panhandle Gap.
The view south from Panhandle Gap. That’s Mount Adams in the top center of the photo. (Lauren Danner photo)

Next up, Spray Park, yet another beloved wildflower park, this one on the northeast side of the mountain. On what promised to be a hot day, we were on the trail by 7:30am. I’ve written about this trail elsewhere, so I’ll just note that bears are regularly seen here (not by us, alas) and the short side trip to Spray Falls is worth it. The hike was hot, crowded, steep, dusty — and overall, pretty great.

The Mountain from upper Spray Park.
The Mountain from upper Spray Park. (Lauren Danner photo)

A few days later, I was in Cougar Rock campground, thrilled to be celebrating the National Park Service centennial by spending a few days in the park. I walked down to Longmire and checked out the museum (small, lots of taxidermy, appealingly old-fashioned) and learned about the citizen ranger program. Modeled after the NPS Junior Ranger program, this is targeted at park geeks like me who can’t get enough of the national parks. At Mount Rainier, you complete four quests to earn your badge. Sign me up! I measured temperatures in the hot springs and streams around Longmire; matched animal tracks to their owners; identified trees, rocks, and birds at Paradise; and learned about different strategies used to care for the park.

How cool is this?! I'm going to iron it on my daypack.
How cool is this?! I’m going to iron it on my daypack. (Lauren Danner)

Early the next morning, I was on the trail to Comet Falls, at 320 feet the largest waterfall in the park. My destination, though, was Mildred Point, a vista at the end of an unmaintained trail a couple thousand feet higher. On the way, I stopped in Van Trump Park (named for one of the first Euro-Americans to summit the mountain), where the wildflower show was pretty much over. Seedheads were everywhere, with bees frantically seeking the last few blossoms hiding in shady spots. Climbing to the Mildred Point junction, I noticed plenty of goat tracks on the trail, but no goats. (On the way back down, I noticed plenty of goat tracks over my boot tracks, but still no goats. Elusive ungulates, for sure.)

Ho-hum. Another spectacular view, this one from Van Trump Park.
Ho-hum. Another spectacular view, this one from Van Trump Park. (Lauren Danner photo)

The last part of the trail is sandy and steep, but the view from Mildred Point made me forget all the work to get there. It’s as if you’re looking from the summit to the base of the mountain, the Kautz Glacier up to the left and its namesake creek thundering down out of sight far below. It was noisy even from my lofty vantage point. Heading back down, I could see Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens on the southern horizon. And although I’d had the trail to myself the whole way up, by the time I got back to my car (no longer the only one in the lot), I’d passed probably fifty people, affirmation that leaving early is the best plan. And, I made it down in plenty of time to get to Paradise for the centennial shindig.

Top-to-bottom view of alpine Rainier due north from Mildred Point.
Top-to-bottom view of alpine Rainier due north from Mildred Point. (Lauren Danner photo)

I drove home the next day through the park along the Stevens Canyon Road, stopping at the short wayside trails I never visit, reading the signs and stretching my calves. Most people see the park this way — from a car — and it was a good reminder that Mount Rainier inspires from the roadside too.

Mount Rainier from Reflection Lakes.
Mount Rainier from Reflection Lakes. There’s a great trail around the lakes, but you don’t have to leave your car to get this shot. (Lauren Danner photo)

I’m lucky Mr. Adventure loves being in the mountains as much as I do. Three days after the centennial, we were back on Rainier, this time on the Palisades Lakes trail. Starting just off Sunrise Point on the northeast side of the mountain, this consistently gorgeous trail seesaws over forested ridges and through meadows past a chain of seven lakes. It ends at upper Palisades Lake, named for the vertical cliffs that form a wall on one side of the tarn. A couple of backcountry campsites there make a tempting destination, and a backpacker we passed said he’d heard elk bugling there that morning. The area is known as a summer home for elk, and their tracks were everywhere, on the main trail and animal trails crisscrossing the area. Coming into a meadow we heard rockfall above us and saw two giant bull elk (I always forget how big they are) traversing the ridge, rocks clattering under their hooves.

The Palisades loom over Upper Palisades Lake.
The Palisades loom over Upper Palisades Lake. (Lauren Danner photo)

On the way back we sidetripped to Hidden Lake, a climb worth the effort to see the boomerang-shaped lake nestled in a glacial cirque. There are no views of Mount Rainier on this hike, and it doesn’t matter, because there is so much beauty along the trail.

A few days before the Palisades Lake hike, I went downstairs and looked through Mr. Adventure’s collection of mountaineering literature. I was seeking Bruce Barcott‘s book The Measure of a Mountain, a wonderful memoir of coming to know the mountain first published almost two decades ago. Our copy was brand-new; neither of us had ever cracked it open. My timing was perfect. Rainier’s combination of “beauty and terror” attracts us, Barcott writes: the sparkling lakes and confetti storm of wildflowers contrast with the danger inherent in climbing a volcano. “People used to avoid mountains,” he observes, “but now we seek their company.”

I’ve sought Rainier’s company all summer, and the mountain has been a gracious host, providing abundant blue skies, friendly weather, flower fields rimmed with stately firs, pikas and marmots and elk and birds. I’ve logged nearly 70 miles on the mountain this season, and climbed more than 15,000 feet total. I’m already looking forward to fall hikes and winter snowshoeing. Like Barcott and many, many others, I’ve become a little obsessed by Mount Rainier. I can’t wait to see where it will take me next.

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About Lauren Danner

When I’m not out hiking on our public lands, I’m either buried in a book or writing about Pacific Northwest and environmental history, outdoor recreation, and public lands policy from my home near Puget Sound.

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