Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Project365: Day 209 - Mount Rainier National Park

Day 4 of our honeymoon was another chance to get out of the city, this time to head to the wilderness. We rented a car for the day and drove out to Mount Rainier National Park. It's about a two hour drive to the Paradise/Longmire park entrance in Ashford, Washington. It took us just a little bit longer because we slowed down to share the road with bicyclists--we were at Mount Rainier on the same day as the annual RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day) bicycle race. The race is a 152 mile loop with over 10,000 total feet of climb on the route. It follows the National Park Highway all the way around Mount Rainier. As one volunteer told us, "The fastest riders can do it in about 8.5 hours." Averaging almost 18 mph through a windy, steep mountain road?! THAT is impressive. In Iowa on the same day, RAGBRAI riders were rolling on Day 5 from Altoona to Grinnell (57.5 miles, 3200 feet of climbing).

On the drive from Seattle to Enumclaw, we could see Rainier almost the entire time. Once we got closer to the park, however, the towering trees of the thickening forest obscured the mountain. We stopped at Kautz Creek, the first marked scenic viewpoint in the park, and were immediately reunited with an amazing view of Rainier.



Brittany made sure we got plenty of photos of the two of us throughout the day, starting right away at our first stop.

First Vista

Kautz Creek is known for being a severe flooding hazard and routinely changing its course through debris flows, sometimes violently. Previous flows have changed the entire river path, destroyed trails, and even covered the main park road in deep piles of debris. Today it looked pretty innocent and tame.

Copper Creek

We continued further into the park to the Nisqually River. The fast-flowing Nisqually River is comprised of the meltwater from the Nisqually Glacier on Mount Rainier's south face. The milky color of the water is due to "glacial flour"--sediment that was picked up by the glacier during its movement. The glacial flour is a sign that the glacier itself, and not just the snowpack on top of it, is indeed melting.

At a narrow point in the river, a rough bridge had been placed to allow hikers to cross. A split log with a handrail on one side only and the water rushing underneath, this bridge was exciting to cross. Luckily it was very stable.


Another photo of us in front of Mount Rainier after successfully crossing the rustic bridge.

River Bed

Paradise is the busiest and most crowded area of the park for a few reasons: it is easily accessible by car, it is the most developed area of the park, and it offers some of the best views of the mountain without considerable hiking effort. It gets so busy on weekends that the park offers a shuttle service from Ashford (outside the park) up to Paradise because the parking lots fill so fast. For this reason, we made a point of going to Rainier on a weekday and planned to arrive early enough to beat the crowds.

The visitor center at Paradise is relatively new (it replaced an older, smaller visitor center here), but is still a stunning example of the great architecture found in many of our National Parks. The large windows on the ground level each have large reinforced doors that close over them on the exterior to protect the building from the extremely deep snow that can fall here in the winter.

Visit Paradise

At Paradise, we had decided to hike on the Nisqually Vista Trail, one of the most popular warm-weather trails in the park. This trail is paved, relatively flat, and usually by late July is surrounded by a lush wildflower meadow. Because of above average snowfalls and below average temperatures this past year, the Nisqually Vista Trail was still snow-covered, but we walked it anyway!

South Slope of Rainier

The bamboo trail markers in the snow indicated that we were standing on anywhere from 6 to 10 feet of snow at this viewpoint. As you can see, we didn't wear jackets on the hike. Yes there was still plenty of snow, but the temperature was 75 degrees. We both got a little sunburned on the trail from the bright sun reflecting off of the snow.


We arrived back at the Paradise visitor center just as the crowds were getting crazy, and in time to head down the road ahead of them again. Just outside Paradise is the Reflection Lakes area, which is pretty self-explanatory.

Reflection Lakes

And pretty awesome. I slid down a snowbank and actually put my tripod into the shallow water at the edge of the lake for my photos there.

After Reflection Lakes, we started to go down in elevation as we entered Stevens Canyon. This elevation drop brought us below the snow line and into the wildflowers.


The Stevens Canyon Road was one of my favorite parts of the park to drive, though Brittany definitely did not care for the very long and steep drop off to her side of the car.

Stevens Canyon Road

We stopped a periodically at some overlooks and waterfalls on the next leg of the road, but our next destination was the Ohanapecosh area. Ohanapecosh is the lowest part of the park at 1900' above sea level. The area is home to natural hot springs, a large camping area, and the Grove of the Patriarchs--an isolated island full of towering douglas firs, western hemlocks, and western red cedars. Many of the trees on the island are over 1,000 years old.


The entire loop trail in the Grove of the Patriarchs was beautiful and humbling. Even the single-file suspension bridge over the Ohanapecosh River out to the island was picturesque.

Bridge to the Patriarchs

From Ohanapecosh there are two routes back towards Seattle. Doubling back the way we came into the park meant seeing the same sights in reverse and (worse) possibly having to drive in traffic with clueless tourists. Continuing in the same direction on the loop highway, around to the east and north faces of Rainier, gave us a full tour of the park. It also brought us to the Naches Tavern, a hole-in-the-wall bar and grill in Greenwood, for a tasty dinner before heading back to Seattle.

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