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Destination United States of America

Mount Rainier: A Snow cone in the Clouds

Text and Photos Javier Pinzón

It is August, so the cold months are but a memory and the days are warm and sunny. Children splash in the lake and, discernible between the buildings of this vibrant city, a distant sentinel thrusts its snowy peak through the clouds. It is Mount Rainier, a 14,000-foot eminence that serves as a point of reference for the denizens of Seattle and the surrounding areas.

Since I am visiting friends who live in the area and I have a few days to take in the natural wonders of Washington State, my friends have brought me to this special place, fifty-four miles southeast of the city. Our excursion targets what appears to be an island of snow emerging through the clouds; three hours later, the island resolves into an imposing, snow-capped peak rising out of a palette of colors against a magnificent backdrop.

Mount Rainier is an active volcano that qualifies as the largest snow-capped peak in the continental United States. Its multiple thermal levels are a sight to behold. High up, at close to 7,000 feet, perpetual snows hold sway over four square miles of an impeccable white blanket. Below this line and down to around 5,000 feet are the subalpine meadows that come into their own in late spring when the snow begins to melt and thousands of small brooks flow down the mountain, signaling the burgeoning of life. Seemingly barren expanses bloom with hundreds of species of wildflowers that paint the middle levels of the mountain with a profusion of color. Lower still are the cedar forests that have outlasted countless generations of human beings. The mountain’s beauty and abundance of fruitful nature prompted the creation of the fifth national park in the United States in 1899, thus protecting 235,000 acres.

Sunshine gilds the landscape on this summer day. We begin our tour on the lower slopes of the mountain, mantled with the dark green of the dense forest. We get out of the car to walk the Grove of the Patriarchs trail and enjoy a closer look at these wood giants, some of which are thousands of years old and reach heights of 230 feet. These majestic trees have managed to survive volcanic eruptions, winter storms, floods, and fires, and still stand, welcoming us and screening the best-kept secrets of Mt. Rainier.

We return to the car and head for the Sunrise Visitor Center, located at nearly 7,000 feet. This is the highest point accessible by car and it provides a 360-degree panoramic view of the flower-filled valleys and mountain ranges around Rainier; it is also the departure point for four day-hiking trails, part of the 250 miles of trails in the park.

We step away from the car and become one with the landscape, making us feel as if we were advancing into an infinite, unbounded picture. Our destination is Frozen Lake, reachable by several highly-recommendable trails: Nature Trail, Sourdough Ridge Trail, and part of the Wonderland Trail. We will walk about three miles, ascend around 500 feet, and leave behind the deep green of the pines, which do not grow at this altitude.

The pines thin out and the lime-green subalpine meadows begin to sprout myriad wildflowers. There are hundreds of species, forming patches of white, purple, blue, red, orange, yellow, and pink, against a background of deep green pines and light green grasses, which gradually give way to more and more dark, sharp-edged rocks.

We spend the morning strolling through these oases to the sound of groundhog whistles. The surroundings teem with life: there are 130 species of birds and fifty species of mammals in this lovely home of the mountain goat and the black bear. By 6,500 feet, the flowery carpets are replaced by narrow trails cutting through stark terrain marked by steep rocks. We enter the cloud zone, and the snowy peaks surrounding us begin to fade out. The trail ends where the blinding white ice becomes snow that turns the lake waters turquoise blue. This is a vast landscape of contrasts: smooth, hard rock, soft, fluffy snow, spiky pines, and a three-dimensional carpet of bright flowers where the occasional butterfly flits from blossom to blossom.

The day draws to a close on a high note, with the colors of the sunset overpowering the intense white of the snows: reds, oranges, and even purples dye the sky behind the peaks and light burnishes the colors of the flowers. It is very exciting to have a chance to spend the night in the park. There are several options for overnight stays: we choose the historic Paradise Inn, which was founded in 1916. We dine on delicious food while sitting amidst bright flowers and enjoying an excellent view of Rainier and its waterfalls. We end our day under a full moon, and a curious deer bids us good night.

Our hosts, Linda and Ken, have traversed these trails since they were teenagers, and now, close to retirement, they share their favorite enclaves with us. They tell us that if we brave the sunrise, the reflecting lakes a few minutes from the inn will give us a wonderful surprise, so we follow their advice. At six in the morning, the sun peeps shyly over the sharp peaks and a horizon dotted with pointed pines. The first rays of the sun strike the motionless lake, turning it into an enormous mirror. Rainier seems to acquire a twin behind a thin curtain of mist that slowly dissipates. The sky takes fire and creates a flawless reflection, providing a resplendent spectacle. A family of deer bidding us good morning adds a perfect finishing touch.

On the second day, we decide to walk the Skyline Trail to Panorama Point at 6,500 feet, where the entire panorama unfurls. The park has twenty-five glaciers —each with its own name— comprising the largest single-peak glacier system in the continental United States. High up, Rainier’s sister peaks stand guard around the highest summit of the chain of volcanoes that extends through the Pacific Coast states, from Mt. Shasta in California to Mt. Baker in Washington.

We are walking through snow, but since it does not feel cold, I am eager to get as close to the end of the trail as possible. The incredibly beautiful landscape has etched a permanent smile on my face, which is entirely understandable, given how the geographic and environmental conditions make this a unique landscape. It has even been described as “an Arctic island in a temperate zone.”

Some five miles of hiking have brought us back to the inn. I learn that modern tourists are not the first to admire this natural paradise high in the mountains. Inhabitants four to five thousand years ago also enjoyed these landscapes, as shown by evidence found near the first section of the Snow Lake Trail.

Two days on Mt. Rainier are not enough. Every year, hundreds of hardened hikers and climbers try to conquer the peak, but not all of them manage. The summit looks close, but reaching it requires determination, experience, and many hours of effort.

The time has come to return to the city, and from our friends’ house on the shores of Lake Washington, I spot the distant snow cone piercing the clouds. It is like a mirage in the sky that became real to me for a few brief moments. For the rest of my stay in and around Seattle, Mount Rainier holds its post on the far horizon, but it is no longer merely an anonymous white cone.