MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. — Flying into Seattle, you can’t miss it. Bulging, white-capped Mount Rainier looms larger than any mountain I’ve ever seen. The peaks of New England are child’s play compared with this 14,410-footer. New Hampshire’s Mount Washington stands 6,288 feet, and has a sort of gradual build to it seen from a distance. Rainier thrusts upward all at once, a lonesome peak hiding its deep secret: It’s a volcano.
The last time Mount Rainier erupted was in the late 1800s, and because of its vast glaciers and potential for mudflows, another eruption would devastate the surrounding area, where some 150,000 people live. Experts keep a close watch; there are about five recorded earthquakes per month at the top.
Summiting the behemoth is not for the faint of heart: On average, two people die each year (one just this month) because of falling rocks, ice, avalanche, lost footing, and hypothermia. It takes a lot of preparation and the right gear to make a trek of that intensity. But for something less extreme, there are numerous day hikes that provide both elevation and amazing views.
We set out on a crisp, overcast day in August, straight out of location casting for Seattle. There’s gloomy fog and a grey mist that seems to hang in the air. But we’re in town for only a few days and we’ve slotted today for hiking, so despite some rumblings in the group (and a surprise flat tire), five of us pile into the rental car and head to Mount Rainier National Park.
The mountain is 54 miles southeast of Seattle. We are heading for the Mowich Entrance at the northwest side, thought of as the back door to the park, a bit harder to get to but popular with hikers.
The drive winds through the Carbon River Valley, a temperate rain forest that receives 70 to 90 inches of rain annually. I keep a lookout for the impressive (if somewhat anxiety-inducing) Carbon River Bridge, which was built in 1921 and spans 494 feet high above the Carbon River.
On the other side is Mowich Lake Road, which stretches for 17 miles over pitted and potholed dirt roads. Calculating travel time to the mountain, we built in an extra hour for this route, which winds through dense, old-growth evergreen forests that cast the road in shadow and all but block out the sky.
About 10 miles down the road, there’s a big payoff when the trees open up and there it is, its white glaciers glistening. We have to pull the car over for a mini photoshoot.
The Eagle Cliff trail slopes immediately downward from the Mowich Lake Campground for a tenth of a mile before starting its gradual, uphill gain through dense evergreen forests for the next 1.7 miles. We keep our chatter going to alert the critters who live here — especially the bears. Not even a mile in, we spot a juvenile black bear about 200 feet from the trail; it got one look at us and scampered up a tree.
There is a quiet to the forest, with only the occasional scamper of a squirrel or chipmunk to disrupt it.
Eagle Cliff, about 1.5 miles into the trail, offers an ideal perch for a snack with breathtaking views of Rainier and the Mowich Glacier. We continued on to Spray Park Trail, which detours to Spray Falls about a quarter-mile past Eagle Cliff. It’s a detour you want to take.
The falls are 80 feet tall and 50 feet across. The detour gives us an OK view, but we decide to scale up the trail to the left of the water and follow it along to an outcropping of rocks just below the falls. We listen to the roar of the water, crane our necks to watch it spill over the top, and duck under the glacial runoff for a quick wake up.
Back on the trail, iour hiking boots are put to good use, as a series of switchbacks takes us up a quick 600 feet before opening up to the first in a series of alpine meadows. We feel the air change immediately.
July and August is peak wildflower season at Mount Rainier, where each shift in altitude introduces another bright, unique species. Purple asters, deep crimson Indian paintbrush, daisies, fuschia fireweed, and lemon yellow cinquefoils color the landscape.
We traversed the meadows and climbed over rocks for another 45 minutes before making it to the first of the snowfields, now layered in fog and obscuring our view of the summit. We made snowballs and hurled them at one another, delighted by the novelty of playing in snow in August. Now just over three hours into our hike, it felt like the natural turnaround point.
We said goodbye to the flowers, trees, and waterfall. The bear remained in his hideout, though it was now guarded by a park ranger. The descent was quick, only about an hour, and once back by the campground, we headed to Mowich Lake, where we shed our boots and sneakers to wade in the cool water.