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Welcome to Mount Rainier National Park. This book is designed to guide visitors on a driving tour of magnificent mountain scenery in a park centered on a towering, ice-covered, sleeping volcano. While Mount Rainier itself is the heart of the park there is much more to see -- lush dark forests, flower carpeted meadows, dazzling sunshine on rock and snow. Water in its many forms is everywhere -- locked in glaciers and snow on the summit, shimmering in pools and lakes, rushing over high waterfalls or in sparkling cascades over slick boulders, and and flowing silently in swift rivers. You may even encounter water as raindrops at some point in your stay.
Our guidebook is planned for the reader who has about two days for a visit, with the first day the drive from Nisqually Entrance through Longmire to the aptly named Paradise Meadows. The second day -- with the greatest driving distance -- goes from Paradise through Stevens Canyon to Ohanapecosh and Chinook Pass, ending at Sunrise in Yakima Park.
For those who can spend more than two days in this intriguing National Park we include a list of hiking trails of various terrain and difficulty. Mount Rainier is truly a hiker's park, with more than 300 miles of trail to lure you into seeing some of the backcountry.Besides telling the geologic story of this dramatic volcanic park, we also describe something about Mount Rainier's climate, plants, wildlife and early settlers. But space is limited and there is much more to be said; for those who have a special interest in any of these topics we include a list of suggested reading with more detailed information.
The following symbols in the text indicate major points of interest:
OUT Stop in the parking area, climb out of the car and look around.
HIKE Stop in the parking area and take the suggested short walk.
LOOK Things to notice from the car while driving between stops.
The number following the symbol shows the total miles driven. For example, (7.3) means that your mileage indicator should show that it is 7.3 miles since you started your guided tour.
Meals and snacks are available at Longmire, Paradise and Sunrise, but it is a good idea to carry a picnic and some water so your time will be more flexible. Three more suggestions: On Day One if it is a weekend and spectacularly clear, consider driving right to Paradise to avoid the parking crunch and make the suggested stops in reverse order on the way down. Also, on Day Two, be sure to keep your park pass or receipt handy since the route goes past other entrance stations where you will need to show it. Finally, a reminder to drivers not used to mountain roads, be sure to shift down on long downgrades -- this goes for automatic as well as stick-shift cars.
Mount Rainier is the tallest of the fifteen great volcanoes, from Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia to Lassen Peak in California, that make up the backbone of the Cascade Range. These peaks, part of the thousand-volcano Ring of Fire that surrounds the Pacific Ocean, are known to geologists as stratovolcanoes -- steep sided cones composed of thousands of layers of lava and ash erupted during their million-year lifepans.
Most volcanoes occur at or near the edges of the crustal plates that form the surface veneer of the Earth. These great plates -- there are about a dozen of them -- are thousands of miles across but only a few tens to hundreds of miles thick. The continents ride along on the plates like ships frozen in an ice floe, and the thickest areas of the plates are beneath old continental rocks. If the Earth is compared to a hard-boiled egg, the plates are like large pieces of broken shell. Beneath the plates the rock in the Earth's mantle is more dense, and although not quite molten, hot enough that it behaves like stiff plastic. In this sense, the plates "float" and slowly move on their taffy-like foundation. The plate edges either separate, converge, or side-slip past one another.
As the plates containing most of the world's continents push in toward the Pacific Plate at rates of inches per year, great slabs of the ocean-bottom crust slide beneath the edges of the continents. The sliding is not smooth and steady; it is better described as sticking and slipping. The sticking may last for centuries, building up great stresses in the converging plates. Suddenly the plates slip tens of feet, releasing the stress and shaking the region with a great earthquake.Sea-floor sediments on the Pacific Plate, rich in carbonates and water, are carried down beneath the edges of the encroaching plates. After millions of years this water and carbon dioxide...
reach about 60 miles deep beneath the overriding plates, where they reduce the melting temperature of the already hot but solid rocks that exist there. This melting forms magma -- molten rock charged with dissolved gases. Since magma is less dense than the overlying rocks a batch of it will slowly push upward toward the surface. Once there, the gas-charged magma boils out in huge eruptions of volcanic ash. Later, gas-depleted magma oozes out in thick flows of lava.
From the perspective of a human lifespan the Cascade Range may seem tranquil and unchanging, but the geologic past and future of the Pacific Northwest has been and will again be interrupted by many violent earthquake jolts and volcanic eruptions.
Mount Rainier, born in fire, torn by ice; that will be its epitaph. As of now the fires are not dead, only sleeping, and in a possibly warming world the tooth and claw of the glaciers may diminish. Most episodes in the creation and destruction of the volcano will never be known, but several of the larger or more recent events have left their record in the rocks. We will point these out as you travel around the mountain.
The naked mountain of rock and ice is only part of the story of Mount Rainier. Much of the mountain is clothed with grand forests and meadows, bejeweled by lakes and cascades. There is awesome beauty in the bare mountain, but the cathedral forests and sparkling alpine meadows have great beauty more tuned to the human heart. Walking through the meadows, listening to the singing streams, and breathing the fresh air quiets the most rumpled spirits. The hush of the forest is not just a figure of speech. Footsteps are muted by a carpet of duff, voices are lowered as in a cathedral, and no echoes reflect from the curtains of trees. Walk into the forest and you will know the world as it was a thousand years ago.
The forests of the Pacific Northwest have been home to Indian tribes since the end of the last ice age, nearly 12,000 years ago. There is no evidence that any tribes had permanent settlements in what is now Mount Rainier National Park, but many -- Yakama, Puyallup, Nisqually, Cowlitz and Klickatat -- fished and hunted in the lowlands surrounding the mountain, and hunting parties followed game up the slopes as the winter snows retreated. The Yakama name for this majestic peak was Takhoma or Tahoma, which means -- in a superlative sense -- The Mountain.
Several expeditions by European explorers had sailed near the Washington coast, but the first to record sighting the "high, rounded mountain covered with snow" was Britain's Captain George Vancouver in May, 1792. He gave it the name Mount Rainier, in honor of his friend Rear Admiral Peter Rainier.Early in the 19th century emigrants started heading west, and by 1850 they...
were arriving in Washington by newly scouted routes through the Cascades. Fueled by the 19th Century zeal for "conquering nature", a surprising number of the new arrivals felt the urge to stand atop this towering snow-covered peak that soars from low foothills to 14,411 feet. Informal accounts place the first successful climb as early as 1852, but the first documented summit climb was made in 1870 by Hazard Stevens and Philemon Van Trump.
Today many of the features in the Park -- like Kautz Creek, Stevens Pass, Van Trump Park and Emmons Glacier -- are named for members of early climbing parties. More than a century after the first ascent the summit lures more climbers every year -- as many as 5,000 a year succeed. However, one look at the serene grandeur of Mount Rainier will tell you that the word "conquer" does not really apply.
By the early 1890s word of Mount Rainier's spectacular beauty had attracted so many visitors to the warm springs, the flowery Paradise meadows, sparkling snowfields and glaciers that it was evident the area needed to be protected from unbridled development and overuse. Scientific and conservation groups led a campaign to preserve this unique resource, and in 1899 Congress established Mount Rainier as our fifth National Park.
Many writers have tried to catch the essence of Mount Rainier's unique splendor and have found it hard to make an adequate comparison. Geologist Francois Matthes said it resembled "an enormous tree stump with spreading base and broken top." William O. Douglas -- seldom at a loss for words -- imagined Adams and Rainier were "great chocolate sundaes...the vast tongues of lava that poured down from their snowy crests were creamy chocolate flowing over ice cream." Maybe it iust defies description; see for yourself -- start your tour at the Nisqually entrance, and hope for a clear day!
From the Nisqually Entrance of Mount Rainier National Park to Paradise is only 19 miles but along the way you will find a wealth of grand scenery and interesting stops. The entrance station is located at the edge of magnificent old-growth forest at an elevation of 2,000 feet -- nearly two and one half miles lower in altitude than the summit of Mount Rainier. From the entrance, the road winds up the valleys of the Nisqually and Paradise Rivers to the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center in the subalpine meadows at Paradise, elevation 5,400 feet. The average high and low summer temperatures at the Nisqually Entrance are about 70 and 45 degrees F, and the annual precipitation (mostly rainfall) is about 75 inches. In contrast, average summer temperatures at Paradise are 60 and 41 degrees F, and the annual precipitation (mainly snowfall) is 105 inches. These contrasts are reflected in the rapidly changing aspect of forests, flowers, and animals that grace this beautiful drive to Paradise.
tunnel through a grand forest primeval. Set your trip meter to zero at the entrance station, or note the mileage on your odometer. Drive slowly and enjoy winding through these giant trees, but please be courteous and use turnouts to let other vehicles pass.
Between the entrance and Longmire the road follows the north side of the Nisqually River, named for the Native American tribe that lived along its valley. The grand old-growth forest in this area is largely made up of Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and western redcedar. Some of these trees reach diameters exceeding 8 feet, heights over 200 feet, and ages of 700 years. Hot forest fires and thick mud flows reset the stage for new forests to grow, and trees that die of old age often become nurse logs for new trees, giving old growth forests trees of many ages. Roughly 1,000 years is the age of the oldest trees in Pacific Northwest forests. The forest canopy here is so dense that only a few deciduous trees -- like vine maple and dogwood -- compete for the scattered sunlight that filters through, while bigleaf maple, cotton wood and red alder hug the riverbanks.
The understory is a profusion of shrubs like huckleberry and the thorny Devil's club with spikes of brilliant red berries. The spongy forest floor is carpeted with mosses and ground species like vanilla leaf, bunchberry dogwood, beadruby, queens cup and oxalis, many with white flowers that seem to shine like tiny stars in the dim light. Ferns of many kinds grow on the forest floor and on old tree stumps, while goatsbeard lichen and moss drapes from the limbs of hemlock and fir.
At (0.9) mile the West Side Road turns off to the left. This gravel road used to be open for about ten miles, giving access to some fine vistas and back country trails. In recent years, though, frequent mudflows and flooding on Tahoma Creek have kept most of the road closed. Stay on the main road; your first stop will be in 3.3 miles.
HIKE (3.3) Just past the bridge over Kautz Creek, pull into the parking area on the right. If the summit of Mount Rainier is clear, this will be your first good view of the mountain. The clearing here and the few dead tree-trunks standing nearby are the result of a large mudflow that surged down Kautz Creek in 1947; the old road lies buried more than 20 feet down beneath this area.
A mudflow is a flowing mixture of water saturated mud and debris. In other words it is a flood so thick with mud that it acts more like wet cement than like water; it can sweep along huge boulders and relentlessly destroy or bury whatever gets in its way.
Mudflows have several sources, and often occur on volcanoes with or without an eruption. In 1985 an eruption of Ruiz Volcano in Colombia dumped a hot ash flow on the summit ice field. Rapid melting of the snow and ice generated giant floods that swept down the stream valleys that surround the volcano, picking up ash, soil, rocks and trees along the way. Thirty miles downstream, and an hour after the eruption began, a huge wave of mud buried the town of Armero and killed more than 20,000 people.Fortunately the Kautz Creek mudflow did not kill anyone but it destroyed severai hundred yards of road which remained closed for weeks. Heavy rains had occurred that fall and somehow large volumes of water had been trapped in cracks and reservoirs within the Kautz Glacier, seven miles upstream from here.
Suddenly the dam or dams of ice and glacial debris gave way and the flood rushed down the creek valley. Mud and boulders from the grinding glacier, and more mud and boulders from older, smaller mudflows deposited upstream were mixed into the surging flood. The mudflow poured over the normal banks of Kautz Creek and spread out through the forest. Some trees were felled by the battering torrent and more were buried standing, to die by slow suffocation of their roots.
Large earthquakes can also trigger mudflows on steep, water-saturated hillsides. Steam vents high on a volcano slowly turn hard lava into clay, and these soft, unstable masses of wet, altered rock shake loose during an eruption or a great earthquake. The enormous Osceola Mudflow that spilled down the White River Valley on the northeast flank of Mount Rainier to beyond the present city of Kent, Washington, some 5,700 years ago, was caused by the collapse of the entire summit of the mountain -- a volume now estimated at almost one cubic mile; more than the volume of the avalanche of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Take the short stroll on the boardwalk across the road to the side of Kautz Creek where you will see the 1947 mudflow deposits in the stream banks. You can also see how the local forest is recovering from its inundation. Geologists can map the extent of ancient mudflow deposits, estimate their volumes, and can often date the flows by the radiocarbon content of pieces of wood trapped within the flows. It is more difficult to determine if the cause of these ancient mudflows was heavy rainfall, a glacial outburst, a volcanic eruption, or the shaking from a large earthquake; the resulting mudflow deposits look alike.
Looking at Kautz Creek some fifty years after its devastation, you see a young forest that has gone through a complete succession of regrowth. A forest that has been burned by fire may recover in a different order when roots and bulbs that had been below the surface can resprout. In this case the mudflow buried vegetation beneath deposits many feet thick, smothering roots and killing even trees whose crowns were above the surface.But it made a fine laboratory for scientists to study the order -- and speed -- of forest recovery. From mosses and lichen the first year, the general succession seemed to be herbaceous plants like fireweed and huckleberry; then red alder -- an important plant that prefers disturbed areas and also fixes nitrogen in the soil. After four or five years conifer seedlings began to appear, but it took many years for them to emerge from the shade of the alder canopy. By now, the new forest, its cycle of succession completed, is growing and thriving. This is a very simplified account of a complex phenomenon; if you are interested in learning morel read "Forests of Mount Rainier" by William Moir.
Take a look at the water in Kautz Creek; generally it's a chalky color from a suspension of fine silt and clay particles. This is a tip-off that the water in the stream flows from an active glacier. The fine sediment called glacial flour is the ground-up rock formed by abrasion when rocks that are embedded in the ice grind along the bedrock beneath the glacier.
The next stop will be in Longmire in 3.1 miles.
HIKE (6.4) Longmire is Mount Rainier's operations center, with Ranger Station, hiker information, a small museum, the National Park Inn, and a nice introductory nature trail.
Longmire is a village of stones. The buildings, walls, and curbs are built of rounded rocks; even the empty areas are filled with water-worn cobbles and boulders. These stones are the remains of many mudflows that have overflowed the Nisqually River, some as recently as the past few centuries.
River rocks provide good clues to the bedrock geology upstream, and at Longmire there are two major kinds of boulders -- dark and light. The fine grained, dark gray rocks are andesite lava erupted from Mount Rainier, and the coarser-grained, salt-and-pepper light gray rocks are Tatoosh granodiorite -- a variety of granite rich in calcium -- the basement rock on which much of Mount Rainier is built. In a broad definition "granite" includes all the crystalline, quartz-bearing rocks that formed as molten rock slowly cooled deep underground. Erosion had exposed the Tatoosh granodiorite to an ancient surface long before the first eruptions of Mount Rainier andesite began. Take a close look at some of the dark and light cobbles at Longmire and you will have identified two of the major bedrocks of the park.
James Longmire -- a Washington pioneer, trailblazer and climbing guide -- first saw the warm mineral springs that bubble in the meadow here in 1883. The next year he returned to start building a resort and spa, Longmire Medical Springs, and eventually the Longmire Springs Hotel.
Take a walk on the Trail of the Shadows, an easy 0.7 mile loop, that starts just across from the National Park Inn. Interpretive signs along the way tell the story of the Longmire family, the old growth forest, and the springs that are still active around the meadow. The trail passes one of the original homestead cabins, and some fine specimens of western redcedar -- the tree most often used as lumber for the early buildings. Toward the end of the trail notice the big patches of showy skunk cabbage -- its huge yellow blooms are some of the first flowers to appear in spring, and later its glossy leaves grow to as much as three feet long. Another of the earliest flowers here is coltsfoot, with spreading heads of tiny white blooms. Look for woodpeckers and varied thrush in the trees that ring the meadowl as well as the ubiquitous Steller's and gray jays.
The next stop will be in 4.4 miles.LOOK Leaving Longmire, turn right to Paradise. At (10.7) miles the parking area on the left is the trailhead to the spectacular 320-foot-high Comet Falls and Van Trump Park (see Hiking Trails, page 40) Pull into the turnout on the right just past the bridge at Christine Falls.
HIKE (11.0) Christine Falls is only forty feet high but its beauty far exceeds its size. It can be viewed from the bridge or, better still, from a platform a few steps below the turnout. Christine Falls, like many in mountain-glacier landscapes, is a hanging-valley waterfall. The main glacial valley, in this case the Nisqually, is more deeply eroded than the tributary valleys which are left "hanging" when the glaciers recede.
This can be a very congested area so watch for traffic, especially if you walk onto the bridge. The next stop will be in 1.9 miles.
LOOK Above Christine Falls the road passes through silver fir and a grove of tall noble fir. Notice how the canopy of the forest is not as thick as below Longmire. In this area, at an elevation of about 3,800 feet the cooler climate supports a less dense forest with a different mix of species. At (11.9) miles the road crosses the Nisqually River on a high bridge and switches back along the south side of the river.
OUT (12.9) Turn right on the one-way view point road and pull into the first parking area. Look back up the Nisqually River for the great view of its classic glacial valley. Mountain glaciers carve U shaped valleys in contrast to V-shaped valleys carved by streams. In the 1830's, the snout of the Nisqually Glacier reached about 1/4 mile below where the bridge is now. Today its snout is out of sight just behind the left wall of the valley more than a mile upstream from the bridge, though it has been doing a dance of small advances and retreats since 1951.
A low bridge just upstream from the present high bridge was washed out by a glacial outburst in 1955. Dwight Hamilton, then a young park ranger, nearly lost his life in that flood. After a day of heavy rainfalll he was monitoring the potential flooding of the Nisqually River from a position on the Paradise side of the bridge. Water, ice and rocks were washing across the road at the bridge abutment. The following is his eye-witness account:"For a time it looked as if the water level was dropping, then I glanced upstream in time to see water heading for me and the truck. As I backed up the road, I was engulfed by water, the motor stopped, and visibility was cut to zero by the muddy water. The truck was bounced around quite violently and pushed back up the road another 10 yards. When things quieted down I looked out to see the bridge was gone. The following 45 minutes or so of watching are hard to describe. After the initial surge of water which took out the bridge, the water level dropped to a point where you could see the remains of the bridge abutments, then another surge, which appeared to be 15 to 20 feet higher than the river level immediately in front of it would appear. These surges came five or six times while I watched, each approximately the same size. The astounding thing was the size of the boulders and blocks of ice that the water carried. I would estimate some of them to be larger than an auto. They did not roll or turn, but rode the surface of the water like a boat, the same end always downstream and the same surface out of the water. The speed at which these rocks and ice...
traveled is hard to estimate, but I would say between 30 and 40 miles per hour."
This account, written shortly after his adventure, is an excellent description of a small mudflow. It did not flood Longmire, four miles downstream.
Drive another 0.3 mile to the main lookout at Ricksecker Point. On clear days this is one of the best views of the mountain. Rampart Ridge, across the valley, is formed by one of the thick early flows from Mount Rainier that filled the deep ancestral glacial valleys in this area. These flows, 300 to 500 feet thick, have now reversed the old topography. The lava flow that filled the ancient valley is harder than the rocks in the present Nisqually River Valley, and the millennia of erosion have now changed the once valley-filling lava flow into Rampart Ridge. These Iong lava ridges that buttress the lower slopes of Mount Rainier surround the present mountain. What were once deep valleys in the ancestral landscape are now high ridges. Given enough time, even Mother Nature changes her mind.
As the volcano grew, the lava flows higher on the growing mountain were more numerous; they were erupted onto steeper slopes and are generally thinner than the early flows. Many stratovolcanoes erupt more ash than lava flows, but that does not seem to be the case for Mount Rainier. A few thick ash deposits do occur here, but their volume is much less than the lava flows. The present glaciers on the mountain are small compared to the ice cover during the last ice age which waned about 10,000 years ago. Geologists believe that most of the thick ashfalls once deposited on Mount Rainier have been stripped away by the ancient glaciers.
means Mount Rainier is not extinct, just dormant. As an analogy, imagine a healthy man who has been asleep on the couch for a few hours. While it is always possible that he is dead, it is more logical to assume that he is napping. A few tens of years compared to a volcano's lifetime of a million years is comparable to a long night's sleep in a human lifespan of 70 years. Mount Rainier still has active steam vents at its summit and small earthquakes beneath its surface -- in human terms it is still breathing and has a heart beat. Will the mountain erupt while you are visiting here? Most probably not. Certainly, don't worry about it. Statistically, automobiles are much more dangerous than volcanoes.
There are 25 major glaciers on Mount Rainier. From here you can see only a few of them. The high point seen on the mountain is Point Success (14,150 feet); the true summit, 261 feet higher, is hidden behind Point Success from this viewpoint. The ridge that appears as the left horizon of Mount Rainier is Success Divide, and from left to right are views of Pyramid Glacier, Success Glacier, Kautz Glacier, Wilson Glacier, and Nisqually Glacier. The steep rock outcrops between the glaciers are called cleavers. They are the sharp remnant ridges of lava between the actively eroding glaciers. The right horizon of Mount Rainier seen from Ricksecker Point is Gibraltar Rock and Cowlitz Cleaver. Common sense would suggest that you can see almost the southern half of the mountain from this viewpoint. In fact, you are so close to massive Mount Rainier that you see only a pie shaped slice of just one quarter of the mountain.
From Ricksecker Point (named for the engineer who designed and surveyed the road to Paradise) you can also look southwest, down the valley of the Nisqually River. The cone-shaped, forest-covered mountain on the north side of the valley is called Tumtum Peak. In Chinook jargon "tumtum" means heart.The next stop will be in 2.3 miles.
LOOK Just beyond Ricksecker Point the view opens up to the south toward the rugged crest of the Tatoosh Range. The bedrock in these eroded peaks are volcanic and granite rocks which predate the lavas of Mount Ranier and are part of the foundation focks beneath the great mountain.
Turn right when you reach the main road at (14.0) miles.
HIKE (l5.5) Turn right into the parking area and walk down the short (0.2 mile) but steep trail for a spectacular view of the falls. Here the process of a lava-filled valley becoming a ridge is still in progress. The wall of rock over which the Paradise River drops 168 feet is andesite lava from Mount Ranier. When it erupted, it filled a steep valley carved into the Tatoosh granodiorite. Today the lava is more resistant to stream erosion than the weaker contact zone between the two rock types. The falling water excavates the weaker rock at its base faster than it wears down the lip of hard lava over which it pours.
Along the trail the tall rangy plants with large, flat-topped white flowers are cow parsnip, a giant member of the parsley family. Seeing the rainbows in the sunlit mist near the base of Narada Falls makes the steep climb back up worthwhile The next stop will be in 1.8 miles.
Mountain glaciers are literally rivers of ice. Measurements of the Nisqually Glacier indicate that it flows about one foot per day by both internal movement of the ice and by sliding on its bottom surface. Ice is like very stiff silly putty; if deformed slowly it flows; if rapidly, it breaks. The cracks in glaciers, called crevasses, occur where the ice is deformed too rapidly to flow.
The fact that the ice was much thicker during the early 1800's can be inferred by the sharp line between the forest above the glacial valley and the bare dirt and rocks below -- the so called trim line. These bare slopes of loose glacial debris plastered against the valley walls are steep and dangerous and hindered by frequent snow avalanches and landslides, plants and trees are slow to grow on them.
The next stop will be in Paradise, only 1 mile ahead. There is also a fine picnic area about half way there.
MOUNT RAINIER GLACIER FACTS
HIKE (18.3) Finding a parking space is often a problem even though there are large parking lots at both the Visitor Center and Paradise Inn Even Paradise has its problems.
The star attraction at Paradise -- and the inspiration for its name -- is the magnificent array of wildflowers that clothe the subalpine meadows with an ever-changing display of color from the time the snow starts to melt until it returns in the fall. A network of paved trails winds through the meadows and across rivulets and streams, past masses of more blooms than your mind's eye can imagine. Take time to walk a few of them, or spend all day at this visual feast. Signs near the trailheads show maps of the interconnecting trails, so you can plan a short or long walk, and trail maps are available at the Visitor Center.
No matter how alluring the dense patches of flowers look, don't wade out into the meadow. Trampling not only destroys delicate plants but it also compacts the moist soil, making it harder for other plants to grow and setting the stage for erosion. The National Park Service is conducting an extensive meadow restoration program to try to undo the damage of many years of uncontrolled off-trail rambling.The most lavish flower displays are in July and August, when every inch of...
meadow seems covered with blooms, but glacier lilies and anemones start to appear in June, quickly followed by whole hillsides of avalanche lilies, and drifts of other white, pink, yellow and purple blossoms. Even in September asters and gentian compete with the fall color of huckleberry leaves. Planted areas near the Visitor Center have markers that identify such plants as subalpine lupine, green false hellebore, magenta Indian paintbrush and Sitka valerian.
spectacular overlook of the Nisqually Glacier is an easy, enjoyable walk. Pick up a copy of the self-guiding trail booklet that is generally available in a box near the beginning of the trail, and enjoy the streams, pools, and meadow life along the way.
On reaching the glacier overlook, notice that high on the mountain the Nisqually Glacier is covered with bright white snow. Only in the crevasses and ice falls can you see the subtle blue of the solid ice. Below you at its snout, the glacier Iooks more like a dirty rock pile than a river of ice. This change is caused by the way mountain glaciers work. At higher altitude more snow falls each year than melts. If a rock falls on this area of accumulation it gets buried. It moves down into the glacier as well as downslope with the flow. At lower elevations, generally about 7,000 feet on Mount Rainier, summer snow melt exceeds winter snowfall. Below this snowline is the area of glacial wastage or ablation. Here the ice melts away and the once-buried rocks accumulate on the surface of the glacier as a blanket of dirt and rocks. This same fate would occur to a climber who falls into a deep crevasse high on the glacier; the frozen body would move slowly downslope for about a hundred years before coming back to the surface in the area of ablation.
Mount Rainier's 25 glaciers cover 34 square miles of the mountain and contain an estimated one cubic mile of snow and ice, more area and volume than all the other glaciers on Cascade volcanoes combined. Even so this great amount of ice is small compared to Rainier's ancient glaciers For comparison, the present Nisqually Glacier is about 5 miles long; 20,000 years ago it reached down valley for 30 miles to the present site of Alder Lake Dam.What will happen to Nisqually Glacier in the future? If the past 150 years helps to forecast the future, the glacier will both wax and wane, but mostly wane. Overall since 1840 the Nisqually has retreated more than a mile, mainly during the period 1920 to 1950. Since then, several small advances and retreats have taken place. High-snowfall winters and/or cooler summers set the stage for glacial advances a few years later, and vice versa. Studies of the valley glaciers of Mount Rainier lead to a better understanding of climate change. These...
studies don't specifically predict the future, but they do identify trends in climate change over periods of decades to centuries.
Be sure to visit the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, named for the late Washington senator. The building itself is architecturally unique, and it contains many informative exhibits as well as a gift shop and grill. Programs are offered in the auditorium at regular intervals during the day. Have a look at the large relief map in the lobby -- the best way to orient yourself to the park features you've seen today and those you will visit tomorrow.
The imposing mountain lodge across the parking area to the east of the Visitor Center is Paradise Inn. Built of huge Alaska yellow cedar Iogs, it was first opened to the public in 1917. Walk through the high-ceilinged lobby and admire the massive hand-hewn cedar furniture made by a German craftsman in 1917. The lodge is open for guests in summer only. This is a nice place to relax, and end your Day One tour.
Today's drive begins at Paradise Inn and ends at Sunrise, with side trips to Ohanapecosh and Chinook Pass, a total drive of 62 miles. Much of this part of the park is closed in winter, so call ahead ((360) 569-2211) if you are planning this trip in late spring or early fall; winter at Mount Rainier can last from October through May.
Drive down the one-way road from the east end of the Inn parking lot. Set your trip meter to zero or note your mileage at the start of the road. As you start down the road keep an eye out for marmots among the rock outcrops on the right side of the road. They like to sun themselves on the rocks, sometimes sitting up to watch the cars with curiosity. Look down into Paradise Valley and you might see deer browsing silently among the trees.
HIKE (0.7) Pull into the the parking area just past the bridge. Walk a little way up the trail along the river to see and hear the beautiful singing cascades just above the road. The Paradise River runs fast and clear with little or no rock flour. Even though the Paradise Glacier is upslope, it has retreated so far that much of its drainage now spills into Stevens Creek. The once-popular ice caves beneath the Paradise Glacier have collapsed and melted away. Often said, but true: the only constant in nature is change.
Before climbing back into your car, notice the road cut across from the parking area. This cut exposes the Tatoosh granodiorite overlain with a few feet of Paradise avalanche debris that slid from the summit about 5,700 years ago. The meadows of Paradise cover the rubble from the huge landslide, an example of nature creating beauty from chaos.
OUT (3.4) Pull into the large parking area on the left. Here is another proof of the healing powers of nature. When the Paradise avalanche swept down into this area 5,700 years ago, it banked up against the north base of the Tatoosh Range, creating the dam that ponded Reflection Lakes. Time and trees have transformed the once-bleak devastation into great beauty.
If you are fortunate enough to be here on a clear, still morning, you will see a nearly perfect reflection of Mount Rainier on the lake. The best view is from the east end of the turnout. If you walk down to the lake, be sure to stay on the trails. Years ago an entrepreneur rented boats here, but now only wind disturbs the serenity. A fish jumping may ripple the surface, but fishing is not allowed in Reflection Lakes.
Some of the flowers you may have seen at a distance from the Paradise trails are here for a close-up look. Nice patches of rosy spirea and red heather cling to the lake shore, accented by the fragrant white blooms of Sitka valerian. The moist bank across the road from the lake almost always has a profuse display of flowers; look for avalanche lilies, paintbrush, shootingstars and elephanthead. The steep, one-mile trail to Pinnacle Peak starts near here.
Geology fans may wish to look closely at the stone wall between the parking area and the lake. The wall is made of dressed blocks of Tatoosh granodiorite. This intrusion of molten rock cooled slowly a few miles beneath an ancient surface of this area about 20 million years ago. Uplift and erosion exposed the granodiorite to the light of a later surface long before the birth of Mount Rainier, which now has buried part of it again.
The next stop will be in 4.1 miles.
LOOK Sunbeam Creek at (4.1) miles cascades down from a small glacier at the north base of The Castle and Pinnacle Peak in the Tatoosh Range. Louise Lake at (4.4) miles fills a rock-bound basin carved by an ice age glacier. The road then descends a large switchback down into Stevens Canyon. Across the valley are the scars of several avalanche chutes that cross the highway, and as the road points back towards Mount Rainier there is a good view of Little Tahoma, the peak along the rocky east ridge of the mountain.
OUT (7.4) Pull off to the right on the wide area of the road shoulder. Across the canyon you can see the high Martha Falls that plunge over several ledges into the deep glacial valley once occupied by Stevens Glacier. The falls, the highest of which is 125 feet, drop from a classic tributary hanging valley, now the course of Unicorn Creek. Although not as high or spectacular as Yosemite Falls, Martha Falls has a similar origin.
HIKE (10.8) Pull into the the parking area on the right just past the tunnel and bridge. This is the place to observe close up the striking difference between glacial erosion and stream erosion. The broad valley is nearly a mile wide and U shaped, clearly carved by the Cowlitz Glacier whose remnant snout is only three miles upstream. For confirmation, walk down the short trail from the parking area. Glacial striations -- scratches -- carved by the rasping action of rocks frozen into the glacier's bed can be seen on the smooth, rounded bedrock outcrops. Down valley, Mount Adams is in view, and upstream Mount Rainier.
Walk halfway across the bridge for the best view of the deep slot of the box canyon cut by the Cowlitz River since the glacier retreated some 10,000 years ago. At this place the stream gorge is 115 feet deep and at its narrowest point, only 13 feet wide. Stream erosion is not always this vigorous, but here the rapid, turbulent motion of the water, and its load of sand and boulders, gives it exceptional cutting power.
The next stop will be in 4.4 miles.
OUT (15.2) Pull off to the right into the parking area. Look back up the valley for a superb view of Mount Rainier's summit and Little Tahoma. The challenge of climbing to the top of Mount Rainier is so compelling that some 10,000 adventurers try it every year, and about 5,000 succeed (see Summit Climb section of Hiking Trails on page 42). From here the road descends a thousand feet to the Ohanapecosh River, bringing you back down into lush virgin forest, with moss-covered rocks and names like Laughingwater Creek. The next stop will be in 5.6 miles.
of lowland old growth forest in the northwest. The trail crosses the Ohanapecosh River (Ohanapecosh -- aptly enough -- means "clear stream") by a cable bridge and then circles through a stand of gigantic Douglas-fir, western hemlock and western redcedar, estimated to be nearly 1,000 years old. Below these giants are moss-covered rocks and a rich understory of vegetation -- sword fern, salmonberry, violets, foam flower, vanilla leaf, oak fern and many, many more.
From the parking area, drive across the bridge, past the entrance station, and turn right at the highway junction toward Ohanapecosh Visitor Center, a right turn off the highway at (22.9) miles. The next stop will be in 2.4 miles.
HIKE (23.2) The Visitor Center is not small, but it is dwarfed by the giant old-growth conifers that surround it. Inside there is another large relief map of the park that will help you find where you've been and where you're going. Other exhibits tell about the forests and Native American tribes in this region.
Be sure to walk the 0.6-mile-long, self guiding nature trail that begins just beside the Visitor Center. Pick up a trail guide at the start of the trail or get one inside the Visitor Center. This walk through the dark forest with its shade- ...
loving plants, and past the warm mineral springs is a gem; it provides the nice contrast of a lush, living environment after the majestic but stark summit views of rock and ice.
By now the three predominant trees of the lowland forest are probably very familiar to you, but this is another chance to walk among them for a closer look at the trees and the profusion of understory plants. The hot springs here spawned a health resort in the early 20th Century; it operated until 1962. Today the most frequent users of the springs are the American elk, who like to spend the winter here; the warmth of the springs keeps the area around them free from snow.
From Ohanapecosh, drive back north on the highway to Cayuse Pass (elevation 4,694 feet). There turn right to Chinook Pass (elevation 5,432 feet). The next stop will be in 16.5 miles.
LOOK For the first few miles the road follows the relatively flat valley bottom of the Ohanapecosh River. It cuts through old growth forest with occasional glimpses of the clear river, tempting you to try fishing. Brook, Dolly Varden, Cutthroat, and Rainbow Trout, and Kokanee Salmon have been caught in the park, but since there is no stocking program, fishing is better anticipated than realized. You don't need a license in the park, but the Ohanapecosh River is open only to fly fishing. For more information on the regulations, ask at any of the Visitor Centers.
At about (28) miles the road begins to climb out of the valley towards Cayuse Pass. The forest thins and the species of conifers change as you gain 2,000 feet of elevation. From Cayuse Pass to Chinook Pass the road climbs another 700 feet along two cliff-hanging switchbacks, swings by Tipsoo Lake, and leaves the park at the crest of the pass.
OUT (39.7) Pull into the first turnout on the right past the park boundary. The Mather Memorial Parkway leads east from here towards Yakima, down the valley of the American River. Note the unique log gateway at the park boundary, or try a walk across it. The Naches Peak Trail (see page 42) crosses the highway via the logs on top of the gateway.Reset your trip meter to zero, turn around and reenter the park. The next stop will be in (0.2) mile.
OUT (0.2) Pull off on the right at any parking spot looking down on Tipsoo Lake. This is one of the best roadside views in the park with Tipsoo Lake in the foreground, the serrated ridge of the Cowlitz Chimneys in the middleground, and the majestic summit of Mount Rainier, even though in the background, dominating the scene (cover photo (at top of this page)). Tipsoo means "grassy lake" in Chinook jargon and Cowlitz is the name of the tribe of Native Americans who lived along the Cowlitz River southwest of the park.
Return to Cayuse Pass and turn right toward Sunrise. The next stop will be in 19.6 miles.
LOOK North of Cayuse Pass the road descends more than 1,000 feet into the valley of the White River. Take the sharp left turn at (7.0) miles to Sunrise. As you cross the White River -- cloudy with rock flour from the Emmons Glacier -- flash back 5,700 years to the time Rainier erupted and its summit collapsed. The wave of debris from that huge avalanche was more than 500 feet thick at this place.
At (14.6) miles notice the parallel cracks in the lava flow exposed in the road cuts. These fractures are called columnar joints. They formed as the cooling flow contracted and cracked into these geometric patterns.
As the road climbs up Sunrise Ridge in a series of switchbacks, the forest changes from a mix of western hemlock, Alaska cedar, and Douglas-fir, to a forest dominated by noble fir and then subalpine fir. These latter, sharp-spired conifers are closely spaced and only about 50 to 60 feet tall.
OUT (19.8) Pull into the parking area carefully. The panoramic view from here is so impressive that some drivers may be looking at the scenery instead of the traffic. On a very clear day you can see five of the great Cascade volcanoes from this point: Clockwise from Mount Rainier are Mount Baker and Glacier Peak to the north, and Mount Adams and Mount Hood to the south. These four distant peaks are all over 10,000 feet tall, but Baker and Hood are so far away they may be hard to spot.
The elevation here is 6,100 feet, just about the limit of continuous forest. Above here the trees occur in isolated clumps of subalpine fir, mountain hemlock, and whitebark pine. The next stop will be in 2.7 miles.
HIKE (22.5) For stunning views of Mount Rainier and its glaciers Sunrise probably takes the prize. The subalpine meadows here are similar to those at Paradise but the vegetation looks different for several reasons. First, at 6,400 feet Sunrise is almost 1,000 feet higher than Paradise. Also, since it is in the lee of Mount Rainier, rainfall and snowfall are much less. The soil is much more porous too, since it is made up of pumice deposits from volcanic eruptions -- not just from Mount Rainier but from Mount St. Helens and even as far away as Crater Lake in Oregon. This faster-draining soil supports many wildflowers, but grasses and sedges are more in evidence here than at Paradise. Dotting the meadows are spiky clumps of subalpine fir and whitebark pine, and on the ridge above the meadow is a low stand of Alaska yellow cedar.
Stop by the Sunrise Visitor Center; its focus is mostly on the geologic story of Mount Rainier, but has some displays about subalpine ecology also.
Many trails -- long and short -- radiate from Sunrise; there is even a pet exercise loop. We recommend two short hikes, each with a very different view; try to save time to do both of them, and carry your field glasses if you have them.
The Emmons Vista trail -- only about a half-mile round trip -- leaves from the south side of the parking lot opposite Sunrise Lodge. It leads to overlooks on the rim of White River Canyon, where the views across to the immense Emmons Glacier and towering Mount Rainier are overwhelming. The Emmons is Mount Rainier's largest glacier, covering more than four square miles. A climbing route to the summit goes up to Steamboat Prow (on the right side of the glacier) and then up the Emmons glacier. Interpretive signs at the overlook tell the glacier story.
The other recommended hike is the Sourdough Ridge Nature Trail, a 1.5 mile self-guiding loop trail up through the flowery meadows and along the ridge. Pick up a trail booklet from the box by the trail or at the Visitor Center; it will help you identify trailside plants and describes the ever-changing flower display. As at Paradise, it is of highest importance to stay on the trails and not walk on the fragile meadows.
At the top of the ridge you will walk through the "Elfin Forest" -- trees that have been dwarfed and contorted by harsh winds and heavy snow cover. On a clear day you can look far to the north and see the high peaks of the North Cascade Range.
This is the end of your Day Two tour. If you are staying longer in Mount Rainier National Park, check out the Hiking Trails suggested in the next section.
Seeing this spectacular 320-foot waterfall is well worth the steep 1.6 mile climb from the parking area 0.3 mile below Christine Falls (see page 17). Van Trump Park (named for one of the first men to climb Mount Rainier), another mile beyond the falls, is a flower-filled meadow surrounding castle-shaped clusters of subalpine fir and mountain hemlock. It's like Paradise with fewer people. Lucky hikers may even see mountain goats. Allow half a day for this beautiful 5 mile round-trip route.
snowfields above Panorama Point. Fog can quickly form over snow fields, even on a sunny day, and being lost in a whiteout with nearby crevasses, steep slopes and cliffs is no picnic.
Begin this 4 mile loop trail at either Tipsoo Lake or Chinook Pass (see page 32). It circles Naches Peak and its maximum elevation change is only 650 feet. Chinook Pass, at 5,342 feet, is well below tree line, so this trail winds through both forest and meadows. The views of Mount Rainier and the peaks and ridges of the High Cascades in the William O. Douglas Wilderness Area to the east and south of the park are spell binding. The eastern half of this loop follows the Pacific Crest Trail.
This 5 mile round-trip hike from Sunrise gains 800 feet of elevation, and the views are well worth the moderate climb. Take the left fork of the Sourdough Ridge Trail, then continue west to Frozen Lake. From there it is 1.3 miles north to the fire lookout. Most of the trail is above tree line and only small gnarled conifers called krummholz (German for twisted wood) interrupt the sweeping views. These high meadows are very fragile so stay on the trail. Take along some field glasses to view the North Cascades and downtown Seattle from the lookout. Allow half a day and take along a jacket. The elevation at the lookout is 7,181 feet, and Frozen Lake does stay frozen well into summer.
This is not a day hike. The wonderful Wonderland Trail is 93 miles long and completely circles Mount Rainier. Backpackers doing the entire trail take about 10 to 12 days to enjoy the trek. The route is mostly in remote areas, and hikers must obtain a backcountry permit that lists their planned itinerary and campsites. The trail crosses snowfields and fords streams, but much of it wanders through beautiful old-growth forests and alpine meadows. It also climbs and descends 11 major ridges of lava that radiate from Rainier for a total climb of 20,500 feet, more than twice the elevation gain of the summit climb from Paradise. The trail crosses roads in several places so the hike can be done in segments on weekends. Even the more rugged backpackers doing the entire circuit may wish to have friends resupply them at highway rendezvous.
The ultimate hike at Mount Rainier is a climb to the summit. Even the "easiest" route is a major challenge to body, mind and spirit. Unless you are an expert mountaineer, don't even consider a summit climb without a guide. Sixty seven climbers have been killed on the icy slopes of Mount Rainier, many of them because of lack of experience. Call (360) 569-2227 (June to September) or (206) 627-6242 (October to May) for information on guide service and reservations. The most popular route to the summit begins from Paradise and ascends to Camp Muir on the first day, a 4 mile climb from 5,400 feet to 10,200 feet. The next morning, about 2 AM, after a short night at Camp Muir, climbers start up the Ingraham Glacier or Disappointment Cleaver routes depending on crevasse and avalanche conditions. Reaching the summit by mid-morning, climbers return all the way back to Paradise the same day. Read Dee Molenaar's book (see page 47) before you call the guide service, and be sure to register with the National Park Service. Then go for it. It's an adventure you will remember all your life.
Kirk, Ruth, EXPLORING MOUNT RAINIER. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1968.
Matthews, Daniel, CASCADE-OLYMPIC NATURAL HISTORY. Portland OR: Raven Editions and Portland Audubon Society, 1988.
Snow, Ray, MOUNT RAINIER, THE STORY BEHIND THE SCENERY. Las Vegas, NV: KC Publications, 1984.
Steelquist, Robert and Pat O'Hara, A TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK. Seattle, WA: Pacific Northwest National Parks and Forests Association, 1987.
Steelquist, Robert U., WASHINGTON MOUNTAIN RANGES. Helena, MT: American Geographic Publishing, 1986.
Whitney, Stephen R., A FIELD GUIDE TO THE CASCADES AND OLYMPICS. Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers, 1983.
Moir, William H., FORESTS OF MOUNT RAINIER. Seattle, WA: Northwest Interpretive Association, 1989.
Spring, Bob and Ira Spring, MOUNTAIN FLOWERS. Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers, 1979.
Strickler, Dee, WAYSIDE WILDFLOWERS OF THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST. Helena, MT. Falcon Press, 1993.
Crandell, Dwight R, THE GEOLOGIC STORY OF MOUNT RAINIER. Seattle, WA: Pacific Northwest National Parks and Forests Association, 1983.
Decker, Robert and Barbara Decker, VOLCANOES. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1989.
Driedger, Carolyn L., A VISITOR'S GUIDE TO MOUNT RAINIER GLACIERS. Seattle, WA: Pacific Northwest National Parks and Forests Association, 1986.
Fiske, Richard S., Clifford A. Hopson, and Aaron C. Waters, GEOLOGY OF MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK. Washington, DC: U.S. Geological Survey, Professional Paper 444, 1963.
Harris, Stephen L., FIRE MOUNTAINS OFTHE WEST. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Co., 1988.
Pringle, Patrick T. (Editor), MOUNT RAINIER, A DECADE VOLCANO. GSA FIELD TRIP. Chapter 2G, GSA Guidebook, Seattle, WA: University of Washington, Department of Geological Sciences, 1994.
Molenaar, Dee, THE CHALLANGE OF RAINIER. Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers,1979.
Smoot, Jeff, ADVENTURE GUIDE TO MOUNT RAINIER. Evergreen, CO: Chockstone Press, 1991.
Spring, Ira and Harvey Manning, 50 HIKES IN MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK. Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers, 1978.
All photographs in this road guide were taken by the authors except the following: p11 (bot) National Park Service; p20 courtesy of National Park Service; p36 National Park Service; p39 (top & bot) Dwight Hamilton; p41 (columnar joints) National Park Service.
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