I’ve never seen a photograph that captures the breathtaking majesty of Mount Rainier. Even from miles away, it can seem to hover over your head, perhaps even reaching on around for the back of your neck.
Like Joshua and Jaya in my novel Nearly Canaan, I lived in the desert to the east. That meant we usually frequented parts of the national park that the folks from nearby Seattle were least likely to visit.
It’s been 40 years since I was forced to move elsewhere. Here are ten things that still impress me.
- The park: Established March 2, 1899, Rainier is America’s fifth oldest national park. It covers 369 square miles, making it the 21st largest in the continental U.S. and the third largest in Washington state.
- The central mountain: Also known as Tahoma, Rainier rises to 14,411 feet above sea level, making it the second tallest peak in the continental U.S. Unlike its rivals, its base is only miles inland from sea level. Measured from base to summit, or by its topographic prominence, that’s 13,210 feet – more than K2 in the Himalayas. It’s the most heavily glaciated mountain in the continental U.S.
- It’s a stratovolcano: Rainier is an active volcano, with sulfur-fuming pits in the ice at its summit. Considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, it leaves about 80,000 people and their homes at risk of an eruption.
- Distance from the summit to downtown Seattle: 59 miles, if you’re a crow.
- Diversity of ecosystems: About 58 percent of the park is forested, ranging from dense evergreen forest to open ponderosa. The tall Douglas firs and western red cedars are nearly as impressive as the sequoias further to the south. Another 23 percent of the park is subalpine, above the forests but having evergreens at distances. In season, this is wildflower heaven, with orange paintbrushes, lupines, and white-starred avalanche lilies in profusion. Above that, half of the remainder is alpine, having unique vegetation, while the other half is permanent snow and ice.
- Year-round ice and snow: Depending on your source, 26 or 27 major glaciers cling to the mountain. They release thunderous booms of breaking ice during the summer. Combined with permanent snow patches, they cover about 35 square miles.
- Ice caves: By late summer, the mouths of some of the glaciers melt away to form mystical blue caverns. They’re dangerous to enter but unforgettable if you’ve ever been in one.
- Reaching the summit: Climbers are required to register for permits before setting out. They must possess technical skills regarding ice axes, harnesses, and ropes and be in good physical condition. They face a 9,000-foot elevation gain over eight or more rugged miles. And then they repeat it in reverse. For most, it’s a two-day trek. About 10,000 people set out for the summit each year, with half of them succeeding. The mountain claims an average of two lives a year.
- Thermal hot springs: Furthest away from Seattle is the Ohanapecosh Hot Springs. Once a resort, it now features trails that are delightful to hike in winter.
- Two lodges: Situated at 5,100 feet elevation in the subalpine terrain, Paradise receives an average of 53 feet of snow a year. Sunrise, at 6,400 feet elevation, is the highest point the roads reach. The lodges are often snowed in till the Fourth of July.
If you’ve ever been there, what would you add?