Wildflowers, Waterfalls, and Slugs at Mt. Rainier
We hike slowly but steadily uphill in the cool shade of Pacific silver fir and Alaska yellow cedar draped in Spanish moss. With melting snow swelling every river, stream, and rivulet in the 470 miles of waterways within the boundaries of Mt. Rainier National Park, the Cascade Range erupts in a riot of greenery all around us. The forest is a happy drunk on an H2O bender.
The temperature hovers around a just-about-perfect 60° F or so, and a breeze wanders through the big trees—weather copied and pasted directly from my backpacking dreams. I’m barely breaking a sweat despite carrying a pack weighing as much as my nine-year-old son. It’s jammed with much of the gear, clothes, and food for our three-day, 22-mile family backpacking trip across Rainier’s northern flanks, from Mowich Lake to Sunrise.
I’m trying not to think about the forecast of rain for the next two days, or that my itinerary assumes our nine- and seven-year-old kids will happily hike nine miles and 2,000 feet uphill on our last day.
We emerge from the dense forest and cross a log bridge over a small stream, passing through a threshold of conifers into a spacious meadow—and a vision of impossibility suddenly looms on the horizon before us.
Mt. Rainier stands shockingly tall and broad, a shaggy old bison of a mountain surrounded by coyote-scale peaks. However close or distant you’re standing, Rainier just looks so impossibly big it’s a little hard to believe it’s real. It rises anywhere from 8,000 to 11,000 vertical feet above hikers on trails around its base. Few North American peaks have visible relief of two vertical miles. You naturally react as you might to a full-blown, heat stroke-induced hallucination: Compelled to believe your eyes, you nonetheless struggle with the nagging intuition that the delicate fruit that is your frontal lobe has spoiled badly in the heat.
We hike across Spray Park, sub-alpine meadows at about 6,000 feet that are renowned as one of the Pacific Northwest’s power spots for wildflowers. We’ve arrived in the first week of August, at the peak of flower bloom. Lupine, beargrass, phlox, goat’s beard, pink monkeyflower, and other wildflowers in a mosaic of yellow, white, pink, and purple carpet the ground against the backdrop of Rainier’s brilliant snow and ice. Hoary marmots chomp on plants just a few steps off the trail.
We drop our packs at great tongues of snow extending 300 feet down gentle slopes, leftover from the heavy snowfall of last winter and spring, and our kids “ski” laps on the snow.
Besides the magic of Spray Park, our three-day hike features giant slugs—some as long as a child’s hand—and a big pile of freshly deposited black bear poop in the middle of the trail. We get views of the largest glacier in the Lower 48, the Emmons, and a close-up look at the Carbon Glacier, which is the longest (5.7 miles) and thickest (700 feet) American river of ice outside Alaska, with the lowest terminus (3,500 feet). We see numerous waterfalls and creeks roaring, foaming, and gray with glacial silt. And we make an exciting, bouncy crossing of the suspension bridge above the Carbon River.
It’s one of the finest long-weekend backpacking trips in the Pacific Northwest.
Rainier has a fascinating story involving Pineapple Express storms, deadly lahars (or mudflows), and climate change. In the summer of 2007, I backpacked here to write a story for Backpacker Magazine about record floods that struck the park in November 2006, during a storm that dropped an incredible 18 inches of rain in 36 hours, causing mind-boggling devastation.
Roads were wiped out across the park, which remained closed to private vehicles for an unprecedented seven months; one gully carved by floodwaters across WA 123 was 70 feet deep. I saw 100-foot-tall trees with trunks that two adults couldn’t join arms around piled up like matchsticks in creek beds—and those piles stretched for miles, consisting of thousands of trees. I visited what was left of one backcountry campsite—since relocated—buried under several feet of dried, cracked mud, boulders, and trees, the debris from a lahar. Fortunately, no one was camped there when it hit.
That storm’s devastation was magnified by complex dynamics involving unusually warm, so-called Pineapple Express storms, receding glaciers, and the unstable soils found on heavily glaciated volcanoes like Rainier. Climate experts predict that as average temperatures rise in coming years and decades, we’ll see more such storms and floods. Some believe we’ve already entered this new climatic regime: the Pacific Northwest saw three “100-year floods” between 1995 and that November 2006 super storm.
[Author’s note: I write more about this trip and Mt. Rainier National Park’s climate story in my book, Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, from Beacon Press.]
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR moderately experienced backpackers and families with children—basically anyone capable of hiking several miles a day, on sometimes rocky or snow-covered trails, with moderate elevation gain and loss. The main challenge is weather, which can change quickly and vary greatly on different sides of the mountain: high winds and cold rain and even snow can occur any time of year, though the east side of Mt. Rainier is drier than the west side. Black bears are the only large animal of concern, but they rarely pose a threat or problem; designated campsites have bear poles for food storage. Trails are generally obvious and well marked.
Make It Happen
Season Mid-July through September is peak season, though trails sometimes remain snow-free and the weather good into October, a time when there are few other backpackers. Snow often covers higher trails well into July, but lower-elevation trails are snow-free in spring; check conditions with rangers.
The Itinerary The 22-mile traverse between Mowich Lake, in the park’s northwest corner, and Sunrise, in the northeast corner, can be done in either direction. Hiking west to east, the route follows the Spray Park Trail from Mowich Lake to the Carbon River, then the Wonderland Trail almost all the way to Sunrise (there are trail signs). Hiking in that direction over three days, we camped at Cataract Valley and Mystic, which gave us days of 6.7, 6.4, and 8.9 miles. There are six backcountry campgrounds along the way (not including Berkeley Park, which is somewhat off this route); the nicest are Dick Creek, Mystic, and Granite Creek.
Getting There To reach Mowich Lake Trailhead, follow WA 165 south from Wilkeson to the road’s end at Mowich Lake. To reach Sunrise, from WA 410 outside the park’s White River (northeast) Entrance, follow Sunrise Road to its end. The vehicle shuttle between Mowich Lake and Sunrise takes at least three hours.
Permit A permit is required for backcountry camping. You can make a reservation or obtain one first-come, but reservations are recommended for many campsites, especially along the Wonderland Trail, from July through September. The park starts accepting reservation requests on March 15. For trips starting after Sept. 30, the park does not accept reservations, you have to get a first-come permit. Read details about the permit process at nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/reservations-and-permits.htm.
Map Trails Illustrated Mt. Rainier National Park map no. 217 ($11.95; 800-962-1643, natgeomaps.com).
Contact Mt. Rainier National Park, (360) 569-2211, nps.gov/mora.