August 17-18th, 2010: Mount Rainier, Ever-Looming
Camping outside/visiting Mt. Rainier National Park in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
Mt. Rainier, the 5th highest peak in North America and the tallest point in Washington State looms large, easily seen on clear days, even from Seattle. At 14,400 feet, it dwarfs all other peaks. It’s on the bucket list for many climbers, and 1000s of people have summated the peak, usually leaving from Camp Muir at 3 a.m. It’s serious stuff, and each year, the mountain claims some lives (at least 1000 deaths have stemmed from mountaineering accidents/Hype-related (altitude conditions) incidents. There’s no doubt that this hunka’ rock is very alluring (but, of course, unattainable to me…).
I chose the least-visited (even though it’s the closest to Seattle) corner of the park, the Northwest. I wanted to drive to the Ipsut campground (the road atlas showed a road leading to the campground). The road was closed for some reason. No matter, as all the campgrounds were full, even with the back-to-school season in full swing.
The drive in was nice, with the last 20 miles of road in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. One thing that I’ve learned about
Rainier, it’s ironic that the closer one gets, the more impossible it is to see the mountain (for instance, the winding road was bordered on both sides with huge trees). Even at the Carbon River Ranger Station, the mountain is hidden by other small, closer mountains/peaks.
Because I’m only here for a night and am 30 miles from a town (and 40-50 miles from any of the other 3 entrances into Rainier National Park), I’m (happily) forced to camp a ½ mile away from the entrance gate in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
This day was excellent, as, in addition to the dispersed-camping options (No cost, no people), the remoteness and natural features were excellent. I had two unique features that I’ve rarely, if ever, seen—a glacial river on one side of the road; on the other, a deep, dense forest consisting of large Fir, Hemlock, and Cedar trees; it’s super remote and quite, with only 1-2 cars and hour passing and creating any sound.
I found this site after poking the truck’s nose into a few different Forest Service Roads (I’m still a bit anxious after the Lewis and Clark stranded fiasco!), I drove down
a 4-foot dip, hitting both the front and back ends of the truck—a first—and bounced along over the deep ruts that are a direct effect of a lot of rain (it was very sunny and hot today—there’s been a heat wave in the Northwest, with 3 days of 90+ degree days. These are sweltering conditions for most Seattleites).
I probably arrived around 3 p.m., after a nice, short and easy drive from Seattle. It quickly became clear that I would be only able to explore one small area of the park. I decided on a whim (at the Y-intersection 25 miles out, just south of the town of Buckley, Wa., to try the Carbon River station of the Park. After finding the road closed and the campground full, I scouted a site ½ mile west of the Ranger Station, choosing the forest side of Hwy 165, as opposed to the seemingly-more-popular river/riverbed side. My plan was to spend some time at the riverside, then retire back here to the forest for sunset/sleeping. Sit on this Bank of Sand and Watch the Carbon River Flow…
The Carbon River was an excellent place to spend 3 lazy
and relaxing hours. This being summer, and thus, the dry season (there had been no rain here for 2 weeks), the rivers at this elevation, 1880 feet, rely almost solely on melting snow and glacier melt from above. The river was braided out, with several shallow, but rushing waters. The actual walk to the river took about 15 minutes, as there’s 3 excellent dry creek beds to cross before coming to the “high-water” shore of the river. From there, it’s walking through riverbed sand/rocks. At full river water volume, this river is huge.
Shade from some tall shrubs allowed me to enjoy a PBR, pour over maps (making the decision to head back out 20 miles to the other road of the “Y-intersection,” which would lead to Mowich Lake, at around 5,000 feet in elevation (and still almost 2 miles from Rainier’s peak). I didn’t go all the way into the water, but Sophie the dog and I crossed, watched birds, and took pictures of rocks (which is more fun than it might seem). I only saw one person, way in the distance, the entire day. Amongst the Big Trees
I crossed the street back
into the seemingly-magical forest. The road was sandy, and had obviously been used many times before, as there was trash both near the campsite and at a former campsite ¼ of a mile up to the end of the road (several large, downed trees prevented the road from evolving any further into the pristine forest).
I selected a flat, already somewhat-established campsite to pitch the tent. I walked around for no less than 2 hours, taking in the great smells, soft grounds, darkened canopies, beams of sunlight that shifted, illuminating the moss growing on both rocks and trees.
I cooked a quick dinner of 2 cans of soup, combed Sophie a bit, and typed on the computer until 10:30. Sophie’s “reverse sneezing” woke me up several time during the night, thus allowing me to see the lightened sky through the trees as I laid rainfly-less in the tent (the temp was perfect).
In the morning, I took a huge garbage bag back up to the other campsite, picking up all the trash—cans, expensive REI clothes tags, cigarette butts, and the strangest item: a Trivial Pursuit (Q: Who leaves trash? A: Assholes, for the pie). I made
2 pots of coffee, fed Sophie her can dog food, and packed the tent for my drive, via a 40 mile interlude, to the Mowich Lake site within Rainier National Park.
Sophie the dog and I stopped for an hour to hike through a dense forest up alongside a creek. We crossed the creek over large boulders, and I saw both a snake and a discarded television set, smashed.
Back at the Y-intersection, I turned and began a 25-mile uphill climb over a wash-boarded
Forest Service Road (driving approx. 15 miles an hour). It was shocking to see the amount of clear cutting that had been done on the various mountains—sizable sections cut at various times in the past, with most offering little new growth, just huge, blank and desolate sections. The most exciting feature turned out to be the fine views, looking southeast, onto Rainier (I got some excellent full-mountain views). Downside: Every stop had lots of trash
, which I dutifully picked up, cursing the guilty parties.
There was no Rangers or entry booth (I had my National Parks Pass, anyway). The dirt parking lot was fairly full, and the approximately 30 tents displayed evidence
of serious campers and hikers. The mountain was only partially visible, but since the day was so cool, I took only my second hike on this trip on a National Park trail (Sophie was left in the cool car, as by this time (approx. 4 p.m.) and elevation, the shadows were now growing longer, temps cooler).
I met a couple of hippies, and we chatted about Seattle and nature. They wouldn’t allow me to take their pictures, but agreed to take some of me as I took a quick dip into Lake Mowich. The glacial lake was surprisingly warm, and was very pleasant to experience.
Back at the car, thoroughly relaxed and exhausted (even though I had done no real hiking in my 30-hour excursion from Seattle), Sophie and I retraced yesterday’s route, back along the pleasant Washington State back roads, finally arriving at Renton, near Interstate 5. I knew that Jimi Hendrix’s grave was located in Renton, so I used my fancy phone to locate a map, promptly got lost, and finally found the 60’s icon at his final resting place. In all honesty, the natural environment of the Mount Rainier area had a larger effect
on me (the jury’s still out as to what Sophie the dog feels, but I do know that she greatly enjoyed the nature as well). Chicago Dave and Sophie the dog
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