December 14, 2016
A National Park Gem
Story and Photos by Tami Asars
Photo above: A backcountry skier makes tracks in the mid-day sun.
Whether you fancy hiking, climbing, backpacking, snowshoeing or simply a scenic drive, Mount Rainier National Park offers something for everyone. Standing at 14,410 feet above sea level, holding 26 major glaciers and 36 square miles of permanent snow and ice on its massive slopes, this active volcano is an icon, a vision and a playground for those who live and visit the Northwest.
The gallery in which the mountain stands is the breathtaking Mount Rainier National Park, consisting of nearly 370 square miles of high-alpine landscapes, deep river valleys, meandering trails and fragrant wildflower meadows. As far as national parks go, Mount Rainier is a true gem.
When you visit the park, you’ll be keenly aware that Mount Rainier is an active stratovolcano — a volcano built up of layers of lava and ash — and is subject to flooding, mud flows called lahars, debris flows and rock fall. Evidence of volcanic power is obvious everywhere you look, from the washed-out riverbeds to the crumbling glaciers high on the Mountain’s slopes.
The last recorded volcanic eruption was more than 200 years ago, and while the mountain is still active, it is considered to be dormant — or asleep. Scientists keep a close eye on the seismic activity and monitor the park’s clues to help predict volcanic outbursts. Additionally, the park is equipped with sirens in populated areas to warn of various geological occurrences and potential hazards that could be quickly approaching.
Since the beginning of recorded history of the park, Mount Rainier has been an important place for the people of the Northwest. Before the park was established, Native Americans used the area’s backcountry for hunting, collecting berries and holding primitive gatherings.
Gradually, others explored the area and on Aug. 17, 1870 two Tacoma settlers, Hazard Stevens and Philemon Beecher (P.B.) Van Trump, from Rhode Island and Ohio, respectively, made the first recorded summit ascent and received a hero’s welcome upon their return.
In 1888, the famous naturalist, author and environmental philosopher, John Muir, climbed Mount Rainier with Van Trump and noted its vast landscape and surreal beauty. The two men later became political advocates for Mount Rainier being recognized as a national park.
Tacoma’s first female journalist, Fay Fuller became the first woman to climb the mountain when she summited Aug. 9, 1890 with Stevens and Van Trump on their third attempt. She helped form the Mazamas in 1894, a climbing club based in Portland, Oregon, and also played a role in Mount Rainier becoming a national park.
On March 2, 1899, President William McKinley recognized the need to preserve the mountain and adjacent terrain and signed Mount Rainier as the nation’s fifth national park — following its fellow parks, Yellowstone, Yosemite, General Grant (now Kings Canyon) and Sequoia.Today, nearly two million visitors come to this tranquil place each year to marinate in the magic of the outdoors, sweeping themselves away to a place where nature is the cornerstone connecting a modern world with an ancient one. In every direction and in every season, there is something scenic to see and something active to do.
The eastern side of the park houses the highest visitor’s destination that can be reached by car, called Sunrise. The area is located at 6,400 feet where you can get up close and personal with the mountain’s northeastern slopes and glaciers.
Here, you can explore the exhibits in the Sunrise Visitor Center, take a ranger-led tour, grab a souvenir at the gift shop or munch on a delectable treat from the snack bar.
Starting from the Sunrise parking lot trails in all directions entice you to set foot into the backcountry. Of these, perhaps the most popular is Mount Fremont, where a fire lookout tower, built in the 1930s still stands guard over the park’s famous landscapes.
Sunrise is popular with cyclists, too, who enjoy the challenging, scenic climb twisting and turning up the narrow roadway from the White River park entrance to the Sunrise Visitor Center, gaining 3,650 feet in just 10 miles.
On the park’s south side lies the aptly named Paradise destination — the most popular of all the park’s tourist areas and attractions. Paradise hosts the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center where you can enjoy a movie about the mountain and walk through educational and interactive exhibits, purchase a keepsake to take home from the gift shop, participate in a ranger-led hike, grab nibbles at various dining options, or stay at the historic Paradise Inn, a 121-room log-lodge of wondrous craftsmanship.
Built in 1916, the Paradise Inn is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and features native building materials such as salvaged timber, native rockery, river stones and cedar shingles.
Summer months are magical at Paradise when the landscape comes alive in rainbow carpets of wildflowers while mighty Mount Rainier watches over the meadows as a surreal backdrop.
Trails, such as the Skyline Trail, allow visitors to hike their way up along the ridgelines for breathtaking views and the opportunity to spy wildlife, such as golden-mantled ground squirrels, hoary marmots or black-tailed deer.
Or, if it’s technical mountaineering you seek, the most popular climbing route on Mount Rainier, known as the Disappointment Cleaver Route, winds its way up the Muir Snowfield out of Paradise.
Of course, winter months at Paradise are alluring, too. Although the lodge is closed at this time, the Visitor Center is open year-round and serves as a base area for sledding, snowshoeing or simply enjoying a cup of hot chocolate as you watch the snow fall.
In the southwest corner of the park, Longmire, the oldest tourist stop on the mountain — and named after founder James Longmire in 1883 — also boasts a number of services. Open year-round, the historic National Park Inn offers visitors an opportunity to stay in a cozy room as well as lounge in rustic rocking chairs on the large front porch and breathe in the fresh mountain air.
The whole Longmire area is a national historic district complete with a decommissioned, antique gas station displaying the history of park transportation, a natural history museum with exhibits of various flora and fauna, a general store and the Wilderness Information Center where you can obtain park information and permits for wilderness camping or climbing.
Longmire also contains buildings that house park personnel. Directly across from the National Park Inn, the wide and gentle “Trail of the Shadows” guides you through a well-signed hiking loop featuring beaver ponds, mineral springs and the tiny, historic Longmire cabin, built by Longmire’s son in 1888. It is the oldest surviving structure within the National Park; peek inside and get a glimpse into the days of yesteryear.
The most famous trail in Mount Rainier National Park is the 93-mile Wonderland Trail, a loop which guides you along the base of the mountain exploring high sub-alpine ridgelines and deep silted river valleys. With 22,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, the Wonderland is as much a hardy feat for the body as it is a joyful feast for the soul.
Permits are required for all backcountry overnight camping and climbing passes are required for those wishing to visit landscapes above 10,000 feet.
Tire chains are required to be carried in all vehicles regardless of weather and vehicle type, between Nov.1– May 1.
Mount Rainier National Park: www.nps.gov/mora/index.htm
Mount Rainier Tourism: www.visitrainier.com
Green Trails Maps: www.greentrailsmaps.com
For more information, read our previous stories about Mount Rainier National Park:
Tami Asars is a guide book author, photographer and outdoors writer. She is the author of Hiking the Wonderland Trail, Day Hiking Mount Adams and Goat Rocks, and her most recent, Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington (Mountaineers Books). For more information visit: www.tamiasars.com