While the overarching theme of our trip is national parks, we want just as much to get in touch with the in-between places in America, the spots we probably wouldn’t get to see if we were traveling any other way but extended road trip. We’ve made it a goal that if we see something interesting, we should always stop if at all possible. And on the way to Mt. Rainier, we definitely saw something interesting.
Mt. Rainier is surrounded by logging land, small forested towns where logging seems to be not only a livelihood, but a lifestyle. We happened to drive through one of these towns, Buckley, on the day of their annual logging festival and had to stop to check it out. Aside from the typical festival fare—carnival rides, Navajo tacos, booths of chatty Republicans—this festival also included a contest of logging feats: scaling tree trunks, running across logs, chain saw races, etc. All accompanied by colorful commentary and plenty of flannel and beards. It was delightful.
It was also hotter than hades in the valley, so after a few hours of watching the show and riding a few rides, we jumped back in the bus and fled to the mountains.
Or, more accurately, the mountain. Mt. Rainier is the star of the show here, and of course it would be—it is spectacular. With over 13,000 feet of vertical relief, Rainier can be seen from hundreds of miles away. Its slopes are covered in 25 glaciers and scattered with wildflowers. But Rainier is also considered to be the most dangerous volcano in the Cascade Range; because of its dense snowpack, an eruption would create lahars, a deadly mixture of lava and snow that would flow through hundreds of miles of valley like a river of concrete, carrying off everything in its path.
No fun for western Washington.
While Mt. Rainier was built by lava, it was worn down and smoothed out by glaciers, and we wanted to get as close to one of those glaciers as we could. We spent our first night in the White River area and set off in the morning to hike the Emmons Moraine trail.
Two-thirds or so of the hike was through forest; streams came down on one side, some trickling, some roaring, and on the other side joined with the White River. The trail switchbacked up through the trees and let us out on the bank of the river; we crossed, climbed up a steep, dusty river bank, then walked along the ridge of the moraine toward the mountain.
As we looked at our map from the top of the trail, we thought maybe the glacier had retreated dramatically since the map was made; on the map, the glacier came past the point where we were standing, but all we saw was dirt and rocks, while the ice ended far above us. Later the mystery was solved: right underneath those dirt and rocks (in some places only a foot beneath what we were seeing) is solid ice, the glacier continuing down to the head of the glacier-fed river. While Emmons Glacier is, like most glaciers in the world, retreating pretty rapidly, it was still there right below, undetected by us.
The more you know.
The views from the moraine ridge were gorgeous. We saw a bright blue-green glacial lake in the valley below and had clear views of Rainier’s summit as we walked toward it. At the top we stuffed ourselves with vegan jerky that we bought at the fair in Buckley (and I have to figure out how to make that stuff at home [or at bus, in our case] because it is delicious but also EXPENSIVE.)
The main part of the trail we took also leads, further on, to the Schurman base camp for Rainier summiteers. We met plenty on our hike and it was strange to see their crampons and pickaxes and think about how one mountain can host a little family of day hikers like us and serious climbers too. We feel so lucky to get a piece of these places, even if we can’t get into any hard-core activity in them right now.
The same river we crossed on the way to the moraine flowed right next to our campsite, and I took Graham down to the bank one night to watch the sun set, cross the log bridges, and dig in the sand. The sky was cloudless, the air was clear, and the view of the mountain was perfect. David went down later that night to take pictures of the stars around the peak and of the Milky Way. Since Mt. Rainier is so massive and stands more or less alone, it creates its own weather, trapping storms from the coast for days or even weeks. It’s common for the peak to have cloud cover, and sometimes the whole mountain is invisible through the rain. So we felt incredibly fortunate that we were there on such clear, sunny days.
Since the Sunrise area of the park was still closed (we considered biking to the top, but figured 20 miles with nearly 4000 feet of elevation gain might not go too well for us), we headed to the Ohanapecosh area in the southeast corner of the park.
There are a ton of hikes in this area (and in the park generally; two thumbs up for the hiking in this place), and we decided to check out Grove of the Patriarch first. This is a perfect family hike, an easy 1.1 miles, mostly flat, with a big payoff: the trail leads along the river to a suspension bridge, which takes you onto an island in the middle of the Ohanapecosh. There, you walk the mostly boardwalked trail through old-growth forest: 1,000-year-old western red cedars, hemlocks and Douglas firs, some of them almost 300 feet tall. It’s a pretty highly trafficked trail in an already highly trafficked park, but the grove was incredibly peaceful. All rushing water and birdsong—perfection.
On our way back, David decided to stick his head in the river to cool down, and he talked so highly of this momentary dip that I wanted to try it for myself. We walked out to a little sandbar in the river to skip rocks and I waded in a bit to dip my own head. Which is kind of a tricky thing to do, standing up straight, lowering your head all the way down, and not losing your balance. I wouldn’t mention the trickiness except that I did fall, flailingly, a fall like I haven’t had since a particular summer in middle school when I grew 7 inches in 3 months and couldn’t step outside my front door without tripping over myself. So here I was, 13 again, and falling into the water, and then the current caught me and swept me, very briefly but very terrifyingly, downriver for several yards before I managed to crawl out, sopping wet head to toe, gasping and sputtering, having screamed bloody murder for the entire probably 3 seconds of event.
This unexpected and refreshing Bag O’ Fun Times happened on my birthday, and kicked off an exciting series of events that added up to a perfect Mom Birthday, which can basically be summed up as a birthday in which you end up cleaning poop out of multiple pairs of knickers. The poop happened right as we were sitting down to birthday cake substitute (fresh blueberries with loads of mascarpone on top), so that by the time I blew out my candle we were all a little weary and some of us were no longer wearing pants. (I should mention that my whole day was actually really lovely; David cooked me delicious food and the fam gifted me some sweet new gear, plus I got to spend the whole thing in the wilderness with my favorite people, even if some of those people spearheaded Poopgate.)
One of the cool things about Mt. Rainier is its planning: it was the first park to present an organized, thoroughly thought-out plan of development from its inception, and I think that’s why it’s such a pleasant park to explore. The roads, for example, were designed not for ease of building, but for the views.. We experienced this the next day on our drive up to Paradise. The views are unbeatable from start to finish. Everywhere we looked were waterfalls, craggy snow-capped peaks, reflective lakes, and miles of pristine forest. We had a hard time getting very far, since we stopped to take pictures about every 10 feet, but when we finally made it to the Paradise Visitor Center, we were rewarded with a super close-up view of Rainier. This area looks like it has incredible hiking in the summer, but once again, we hit a little too early in the season and all the trails were snow-packed and unmarked.
We’re starting to pinpoint the things that make certain parks more enjoyable for us than others, and I think it might all come down to time. We felt like we had enough days in this park to really let it sink in: we could hike longer, relax in the evenings, take plenty of pictures, slow down. The more we learn about each park’s history, geology, and biology, the more we’re able to feel like we’re really there, present and aware. Learning about moraines and glaciers and even just the history of the park’s design colored our whole experience and allowed us to see things we wouldn’t have before.
I think about all the places in America and in the world that could potentially be blow my mind if I knew enough to appreciate them properly. Already, eight parks in to our trip, I feel like I’ve learned things that make me appreciate the National Park System and the American landscape and even the very idea of conservation in ways that change how I interact with my environment. And I’ve realized that’s my favorite thing about travel: that knowing something about somewhere else can fundamentally change the way you see and interpret your world. And what a blessing for humans, that we can go to places utterly foreign and, if we talk to people and learn everything we can and stay open, come home a little wizened, altered for the better.
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