The thing that gets me most about Mt Rainier is it’s ‘there-ness.’ On clear day, the mountain hovers over Seattle like a lumpy white ghost, appearing unexpectedly as one comes over one of Seattle’s hills or in between buildings, while crossing intersections. No matter how many times I see it, I find it impossible to take it for granted. We can see it from our apartment rooftop in Ballard, the bottom half cut-off by Queen Anne hill, the disc of the Space Needle superimposed on its middle reaches. After 10 months living in Seattle, it was time to pay Rainier a visit.
I’d been to Rainier once before, in 1998, in between temp jobs and apartments during month long August trip to Northern CA and the Pacific Northwest. Typical of my travel at the time, I just knew I wanted to go to these places for some vague reason and so, without much research or planning, I went. I arrived in Seattle on a day that the ‘mountain was out‘ and having never seen, in my Midwestern upbringing, such a sight, I decided to drive down and see it up close. I rented a car and spent a day hiking from Paradise before moving on to the Olympic Peninsula.
We left for Sunrise at 7am for the 2.5 hour drive. I was anxious. All week, the Mt Rainier NPS twitter feed had been updating almost daily in the mid-morning “Wait at Nisqually entrance is currently 60 minutes.’ Nisqually, gateway to Paradise is the most popular entrance in the park, but White River, is second, as Sunrise is the highest point one can drive to on the mountain. The Mt Rainier website said the parking lots generally filled by 11am, and that on particularly busy days, they had to start metering cars coming in at Sunrise, not allowing anyone in until someone had left. When planning, I’d dismissed Nisqually as we didn’t want to leave at 5am to beat the crowds. I’d entertained Mowich lake, but the hike there was more than S, more of a hobby hiker than dedicated, would have been up for. So I chose Sunrise for the variety of hikes available, compromised on the departure time, and chanced the crowds.
At 920am, the line formed about half a mile back from the entrance, and continued to grow quickly behind us. It was fine. We rolled down the windows and breathed the mountain air. People go out of their cars and walked forward, presumably looking for bathrooms. Some of the men I saw walking I imagined were just being men, going forward in search of information, to see ‘what the hold up was’ as if that would make any difference.
Forty minutes later we were at the entrance and buying a new annual parks pass. We could have saved 15 minutes at the end if we’d had one, as where the road widened a ranger on foot was checking passes and waving through those who had them, but mine had expired in April, and I’d yet to replace it.
From the Sunrise parking lot, I watched a stream of hikers going up the trail to the Mt Fremont lookout and so decided to go in another direction. We headed on the trail toward Sunrise Camp, intending to go counterclockwise to get to the Sunrise Rim trail, passing Frozen Lake, but shortly after the junction with the the turn off to Sunrise Camp, there was snow across the trail. We watched a few hikers cautiously crossing before S. decided she’d rather not, so we turned and went back, passing Sunrise camp and starting the trail clockwise, knowing we’d eventually turn around and backtrack. We ascended the Sunrise Rim trail to the Glacier Overlook. It was mostly shadeless, and the day was becoming warmer than I anticipated. Ascending further, the trail became narrower and more exposed, and before we reached the junction with the Burroughs Mountain trail, we came to another snowfield. It was more exposed than the first, so lacking trekking poles or microspikes, we descended, detouring to Shadow Lake along the way, before returning to the parking lots where we had lunch at the snack shop. Our cashier was a young woman with a nametag that said her name and underneath ‘Taiwan.’ She couldn’t have been more than a teenager, and someone else stood behind her and supervised as she tentatively counted out our change. What an odd and interesting place to have your summer job, an ocean and 6000 miles from home, midway up a 14000′ volcano.
It was 1:30pm and a busload of day trippers had just arrived, and they marched along with everyone else in a parade line up to the Mt Fremont lookout, so we turned east and headed up the Sourdough Ridge trail. It was hot and windless and the bugs were out. At a few spots on the along the ridge, the wind picked up enough to knock down the mosquitos, no-see-ums and biting flies, but otherwise, the only solution to the bugs was to keep moving. We had DEET, but that doesn’t stop bugs from dive bombing your eyes and nostrils and just buzzing around your head and being a general nuisance. Stopping along the trail to look at Mt Baker to the north and Mt Adams south meant balancing swatting bugs with the breathtaking views. The view from Dege Peak was 360 degrees on this cloudless day, with the far off peaks to the north layered and blue in the haze. It was also windless, so while I wished I could just stand and look and look, it was no more than 10 minutes before the bugs overwhelmed me. I took a few more pictures, a selfie with S and me, turned slowly, taking a panorama with my phone and headed down.
We got back to the parking lot at 430pm. There was plenty of daylight to get in more hiking, but after 10 miles, the plantar fasciitis that has been lingering in my left foot all spring and summer was flaring up, so rather than join the crowds heading up to Mt Fremont we checked out the visitor center, then sat for awhile at a picnic table with a view of the mountain, behind one of the staff residences. I wanted to stay and watch the light change on the mountain, but I also didn’t want to eat dinner at the snack shop get home after midnight. I made a plan in my head to come back to camp here in the fall, maybe Sunrise, maybe Mystic, perhaps somewhere in the Northwest quadrant I have yet to discover, before the snow, so I could just sit and look with nowhere to be. And the colder nights cause the bugs to drop.
Back down the mountain and onto the highways, Rainier popping up in the side and rear mirrors every now and then, back into the city and up to our roof for a drink, back where we started, Rainier a fading phantom on the skyline.