When Ben and I started planning our Pacific Northwest vacation, Mount Rainier National Park was a bit of an afterthought. Seeing Mount St. Helens was a non-negotiable, and Olympic National Park was the main draw. In charting our route from Point A (Mount St. Helens) to Point B (Olympic National Park), I noted that Mount Rainier really wasn’t too far off course. It would be a shame, I reasoned, to journey all the way to Washington state—perhaps our one and only trip there—and not at least see Mount Rainier….
I had heard that Mount Rainier was actually prettier than Mount St. Helens, and the fact that it, too, was a volcano appealed to my inner volcano geek (the Cascades have SO many volcanoes!). So our week-long vacation turned into a week-and-a-half vacation and Mount Rainier was added to the itinerary.
Day 2: September 4, 2015 continued
Once I had resigned myself to the fact that we weren’t going to see any more of Mount St. Helens, we started on our two hour journey to our motel outside of Mount Rainier National Park. We were staying in the town of Eatonville, and the drive there took us just past the Alder Lake Fire; from the road, we could clearly see smoke rising from the forest.
Ben & Kim vacation fun fact: We have really bad timing with vacations and wildfires.
- Our first trip to Colorado was in August 2012, two months after the Waldo Canyon Fire started. Though the fire was considered 100 percent contained a month before our vacation, it still burned 18,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes in the Colorado Springs area during its month-long course. Our final destination was Buena Vista, a beautiful town about half an hour west of Colorado Springs; the drive through Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs was a sobering one as we passed so many hand-made signs thanking firefighters.
- I kept a nervous eye on the news leading up to our honeymoon scheduled in late September/early October 2013; we were bound for Yosemite National Park, and the devastating Rim Fire had started a month-and-a-half prior to our arrival. Little did I know that the fire—recorded as the third largest in California’s history, having burned 257,314 acres—would not be the biggest problem marring that vacation. Let me take you back to October 1, 2013 with these two little words: government shutdown. Yeah, thanks a lot for that, elected government officials. Despite the whole government shutdown snafu, we had a lovely honeymoon and had a chance to drive through the national park a few times; the route that took us along Tioga Road gave us glimpses into the fire’s devastation; even at roughly 90% containment by that point, the smell of camp fire lingered rather unsettlingly. The change in plans also resulted in our visiting more of the communities surrounding Yosemite, and again, these communities had many hand-made signs thanking the local firefighters.
- And then, of course, there was the Alder Lake Fire just outside of Mount Rainier National Park and the Paradise Fire in Olympic National Park in September of last year. The fact that a wildfire began burning in Olympic National Park in May and continued burning well through the end of September is a testament to how dry the west was last summer and fall. Olympic National Park, arguably the wettest place in the continental US, is considered a rainforest and it was on fire!
Thankfully, the fires in Washington did not threaten our vacation plans (the ones relatively close to our destinations were actually minor compared to the fires that raged near the North Cascades National Park in the northern part of the state), but I always hate to hear of our beautiful natural areas being destroyed by relentless fires. I’m also starting to get a mild complex that our vacation plans may be an underlying factor.
The motel where we stayed boasts a fabulous view of Mount Rainier, provided you have a room on the top floor of the eastern side and the weather cooperates. Thanks to tips on TripAdvisor, I knew to ask for a room with a view, and thanks to a few moments of clear skies during our stay, we were able to admire Mount Rainier even from afar.
We checked in and then made our way to the national park’s Nisqually entrance. The weather was actually pretty crummy, spitting rain off and on with endless cloud cover, but we wanted to make it to the Paradise section of the park. Ben’s sister, also hailing from the Midwest, happened to be in Seattle for work, and she had a few free days that overlapped our vacation, so we had made plans to meet up. Upon our arrival, she was in Paradise; our Washington state rendezvous was to be the Paradise visitor center.
Paradise is only 19 miles from the Nisqually entrance, but let’s not forget, these are winding mountain miles. Add rain to the mix, and the drive is even slower. As you drive from the entrance, through a section known as Longmire, to Paradise, you’re also gaining roughly 2600 feet in elevation. As we neared Paradise, I mentioned to Ben that the rain almost looked like snow.
And then I began to have the following internal conversation with myself: Wait, is that really snow? Surely not…. No, that really IS snow! But it was like 50 degrees outside, so we’re fine; nothing will stick. Ok, the visibility is starting to get worse the longer we drive. This road’s shoulder does not allow much room for error; I can’t really see it through all the clouds, but I know the edge of the mountain is right there. I really hate this rental car, too. Oh my gosh, we are in the middle of a blizzard on a road we’ve never been on before in a strange, quirky car and we’re going to die.
To Ben I managed to squeak, “I think we need to turn around.” I’d like to think I controlled my panic quite well and never gave any indication that I was sure we were about to meet our untimely demise, but my death grip on the arm rest and my unusually high voice betrayed the calmness I wanted to convey.
We probably made it to Paradise by the time we found a good spot to turn around, though I couldn’t really distinguish any identifying factors through the snow. Back down the mountain we very slowly went. We tried to contact Ben’s sister, but cell service was very spotty, to the point of being nonexistent for many miles even outside of the park boundaries. It wasn’t until a few hours later we were able to connect with each other. Turns out, she had been hiking in the snowy mess!
Once we were all safely back at a lower elevation (with no snow whatsoever, mind you), we decided to grab dinner at a place called Bruno’s. We chose it primarily because of it’s convenient location right next to our motel, but I knew we made an excellent decision the moment we walked in the door and saw the entire place was decked out in dog-themed decor. These were clearly my kind of people. The restaurant is actually named after the owners’ adopted shelter dog. And for that reason, I’d recommend it if you ever find yourself in Eatonville, Washington! (The fact that the food happens to be delicious is a plus, too!)
Day 3: September 5, 2015
Ben’s sister headed back to Seattle after dinner the night before, but she had recommended we spend our half day at Mount Rainier hiking along the Skyline Trail in Paradise. She even left us with a walking stick she had purchased, noting that we would definitely need it on the steep, often-times rocky trail.
The drive back up to Paradise drastically differed from the day before; though clouds dotted the blue sky, we could actually see parts of the mountain this time. The closer we got to our destination, the more snow there was on the ground, too. It turns out Paradise ended up getting three inches in total the day before, and it was actually quite beautiful when it didn’t feel so life-threatening.
The official trailhead for the Skyline Trail begins at stone steps inscribed with a quote from John Muir. These words are among those he used to describe Mount Rainier’s Paradise.
Roundtrip, the Skyline Trail is a 5.5-mile hike. Along the way, hikers come upon what is known as Panorama Point, named for its gorgeous panoramic views of Mount Rainier and Nisqually glacier, and on especially clear days, other Tatoosh (try not to giggle if you read that aloud) peaks, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and Mount Hood. Ben’s goal was to make it to Panorama Point; my goal was not to die on the mountain.
Ok, so I realize I sound a little dramatic, but let me explain. I read a lot of books about people perishing in our national parks and other areas of untamed wilderness; as I write this, I’m looking over at a shelf that currently holds the following books:
- Unsolved Disappearances in the Great Smoky Mountains
- Lost! A Ranger’s Journal of Search and Rescue
- Mayday! Mayday!: Aircraft Crashes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 1920-2000
- Death in Yosemite
- Colorado 14er Disasters: Victims of the Game
Before you start think I’m morbidly unhinged, let me clarify that these are not the only books I own pertaining to our national parks; I have several hiking trail books, books about the history of the parks, books written by rangers about their experiences working in the parks, photography guide books, books about local folklore and mysteries and books written by well-known through-hikers. I am essentially building my own miniature national park library, and it just so happens that I seek out a new book about death, disaster and/or disappearances with each new area we visit (because maaaybe they’re my favorite kind of national park book—I still stand by my claim that I’m not morbidly unhinged, though).
When I read the stories detailed in these books, I feel for the victims and their families, but there are a lot of lessons to be learned from these accounts as well. In situations of man vs. nature, it does not take much for nature to be victorious. Those who choose to explore these untamed areas of beauty need to be prepared.
And as far as hiking on Mount Rainier that day, I knew Ben and I were NOT prepared for an extensive hike at higher elevation. Oh sure, we dressed in layers and had the appropriate footwear, but as the day before proved, the weather can change in an instant. The temperature was hovering in the mid-30’s and the day was still clearly very transitional, going from blue skies to fog and clouds and back again. Trust me, many stories in those books start out with blue skies only to end in blizzards that trap unsuspecting hikers. Fear and hypothermia set in and then the mind and body begin to war with each other; I did NOT want to be found on the mountain, half-naked and dead, thankyouverymuch.
So, we opted to hike a portion of the trail and soak up as much of the stunning views as possible.
If you look closely enough in the picture above, you’ll see a line of hikers on the right-hand side. How’s that for perspective of just how massive Mount Rainier is?
Our view of the summit was never perfectly unobscured, but the clouds perfectly framed it, almost as if God was saying, “Look at My masterpiece.” One reason I have such a love for our natural areas is because hiking is such a spiritual experience for me. I feel so close to my Creator when I’m exploring His creation.
By the time we decided to turn around, the fog had completely overtaken the mountain.
I was very thankful for the ropes lining the trail during our descent because the path was VERY steep and ice-covered in spots. The fog was so thick at times that it felt like we were hiking into utter nothingness, like the mountain had completely disappeared.
We made it back to the visitor center around noon and explored the exhibits (and gift shop) before setting out for the next leg of our vacation.
I really wish we had allotted more time to explore Mount Rainier National Park in our trip itinerary. Now I keep asking Ben when we’re going to return. I learned my lesson: Mount Rainier should not be treated as an afterthought; it is a breathtaking must-see destination.