By Kelly Compton, Volunteer Photographer
In mid-August, my partner, friend, and I took a day trip to Paradise Visitor Center in Mount Rainier National Park. As fairly recent Seattle transplants, none of us had yet experienced the famous Mount Rainier late summer wildflower season. That day we were on a mission to see wildflowers, so despite the nebulous “cloudy/partly cloudy” forecast, we embarked on the Skyline Loop Trail, a 5.5 mile popular traverse in the national park with about 1500 feet of elevation gain.
This trail begins at the top of the Paradise Visitor Center steps, which bear a quote by conservationist John Muir, “... the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings." The path starts out as steep yet smoothly paved, providing fairly easy access to gorgeous views of Rainier that likely gives this spot its targeted popularity. Sure enough, during this initial climb, we had to maneuver around a sea of visitors of all ages, ranges of physical fitness, and apparent levels of comfort in nature. Thankfully, the crowds thinned pretty quickly, as it wasn’t a far walk to get jaw-dropping views of the mountain. Many people turned around after taking some pictures here. The path remained paved for a bit and then abruptly turned into the more typical narrow dirt hiking path that I am used to.
The “cloudy/partly cloudy” weather forecast turned out to be spot on, as the day constantly shifted between fully and partly foggy. Throughout the entire hike, Mount Rainier and surrounding Cascade Mountains struggled to reveal themselves as clouds streamed by. One minute we would be hiking in a shapeless sea of grey fog, and the next, the clouds would dissipate to reveal the rolling curves of the iconic stratovolcano that seemed simultaneously so close and so far away. While at first I was disappointed by the weather and much would have preferred a sunny, cloudless Washington summer day, the clouds in some ways made our hike more breathtaking. Whenever the clouds would break enough to allow a view of Mount Rainier, it was consistently jarring. The splendor of Rainier never fails to take my breath away, and a few times on the hike it literally halted me in my tracks as my mind attempted and failed to process its complexity and enormity.
As we proceeded clockwise around the loop, we passed several weathered climbers on the last stretch of their descent after summiting Mount Rainier via Camp Muir. The route to Camp Muir breaks off of the Skyline Loop Trail and the camp itself provides 7 of the 12 climbing approaches to the summit. As an amateur yet very avid hiker, I was totally in awe of these incredible athletes and couldn’t help but stare. I felt like a kid in the presence of celebrities. They looked dirty, tired, hungry, and sunburnt, and they had such a palpable determination in their stride that other hikers on the trail automatically stepped aside to let them by. Through their pained expressions, though, was the gleam of accomplishment and satisfaction in their eyes that so many outdoor enthusiasts yearn for.
The biggest celebrities of Paradise, though, were the marmots. Plump, fuzzy, and curious, they captured the attention of passerby’s with their cuteness factor and apparent comfort around people. I probably saw upwards of 20 marmots throughout the entire hike; the closer I looked around me, the more of them I saw munching on flowers, sleeping on the warm ground, or “posing” in front of surreal landscapes (at least, the photographer in me would like to think they were purposefully cooperating in my photo shoots). While most people kept a respectful distance (and thank goodness I didn’t see anyone try to feed them…), I did see a few visitors inappropriately approaching the marmots or thrusting their iPhones just a few feet from their faces. This was quite bothersome to me and demonstrates the lack of understanding that many people have for what it means to be a guest in a wild space. I suppose such is the unfortunate downside of increasing access to nature; it yields closer human/wildlife encounters, which on one hand can help develop a greater reverence for our natural environments, but unfortunately can also be problematic and destructive without proper education. There is a very fine line.
My hiking crew and I stopped for a while at the northwest corner of the trail that passes the closest to Mount Rainier. From this point, I tried to take in as much as I could of the magnificent view before me. As with spotting marmots, the longer I stared, the more details I saw: incredible blue, white, and black swirls of glacial ice and till, waterfalls of glacial melt cascading from cliffs carved out of the mountain, and fields of snow too large and crevasses in the ice too deep for my mind to possibly comprehend.
Continuing on around the loop, our view turned away from Rainier and instead we were met with an endless expanse of the Cascades, also peeking in and out of clouds. At Panorama Point, we couldn’t see very far beyond the immediately neighboring mountains and valley below, but it was still a great stopping point for a snack. Plus, there is a bathroom shed a short way up the trail from here. After a final ascent beyond Panorama Point, we reached the highest point of the trail and began descending back to the Visitor Center.
Rather than continuing on Skyline Loop, we decided to take a shortcut back to the Visitor Center via the Golden Gate Trail, a path of steep switchbacks that shortened our hike by about a mile and a half (our group was getting a little “hangry” at this point). Finally, this Golden Gate Trail yielded the wildflowers that we had been seeking. Patches of white, pink, red, and yellow flowers lined the trails, ranging in appearance from small and dainty to fuzzy and other worldly-looking. The air buzzed with excitement as pollinators flew from flower to flower, and the life swarming around gave us a newfound energy in the last stretch of our hike.
Before reaching the end of our journey, we passed by an extremely crowded viewpoint of Myrtle Falls, one of the most iconic Mount Rainier sceneries due to its picturesque beauty and easy accessibility (at this point we were back on the paved path that led back to the Visitor Center). I had to wait patiently for my spot at the front of the crowd in order to take a quick photo.
A beautiful day spent in my beautiful backyard with loved ones; life doesn’t get much better. To my readers, whether you’re visiting Mount Rainier or another beautiful area elsewhere in the world (federally or state protected or not), please be respectful of your surroundings and speak up when you see people doing more harm than good. Each of us has an obligation to do our part in protecting the wild spaces that we are so lucky to be able to experience and that positively impact our lives. Finally, thank you to Mount Rainier for giving me the peace, clarity, and power of mind that I find comes from the places in nature that make me feel small. You, Mount Rainier, make us feel the smallest.