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Published: April 28th 2012
Mount Rainier from the Nisqually Overlook. Quite a contrast from yesterday!
Driving Mount Rainier
Today I explore Mount Rainier in earnest.
My first order of business is to find a campsite.
With everything going on, I forgot to get reservations for tonight.
I have to take a chance with getting one of the first come sites, and that means getting there early.
The first sight I saw today is the bridge over the Nisqually from yesterday.
The clouds were replaced by a perfect view of the river going straight up a large white mountain!
Despite the time risk, I had to see the view from the official pullout
, which was even better.
Mount Rainier filled half the sky in all its glory.
The mountain is big from a long distance (see The Biggest Port that Never Was
); close up its overwhelming.
I bypassed Paradise and its traffic headaches, so the next thing I saw is the famous Reflection Lake
My guidebook has a picture of this lake on the cover.
When the weather cooperates, the lake has a perfect reflection of Mount Rainier in the distance.
The sky was clear, but unfortunately there was just enough
Mount Rainier and the sort-of reflection in Reflection Lake
breeze to create a fuzzy view in the lake.
After the lake, the road reaches the most amazing piece of highway engineering in the park, Stevens Canyon
The canyon is a classic glacial valley, first seen from an overlook near the top.
Mountains appear in all directions.
The far side of the canyon reveals a flat spot along the wall, steadily dropping.
The flat spot is the road.
After the overlook, the road drops down the valley to the headwall, crosses two streams with small waterfalls on them, and then down it goes.
reminded me of a much longer version of the Calasaja Gorge road in North Carolina (see The Land of Falling Water
): narrow, filled with curves, and very steep.
It ends with a rocky tunnel with amazing visible rock layers.
After the canyon, the road twists through more conventional mountain landscapes with lots of pines.
It finally reaches a junction after crossing a wide river of beautiful blue green water, the Ohanapecosh River
. Ohanpecosh Campground
lies just south of the road junction.
I had to drive around it for a while, but I finally found
Stevens Canyon Highway
The driving insanity that is Stevens Canyon Highway, seen from the overlook at the top. Notice how the road goes directly through the rock slides?
a pretty campsite next to a stream in a grove of huge pine trees.
A sign at the campground mentions a rare but important hazard.
People tend to think that Mount Rainier is a dead volcano, because it has not erupted in centuries.
In reality, it is merely dormant, with magma flowing below the surface.
That magma sends up heat on occasion, which can melt part of the mountain’s glaciers.
The melt water will form a huge flood
Every built up part of the park sits in these flood zones, including the campground.
Grove of the Patriarchs
Sleeping place secure, I could finally explore the park in earnest.
The first site was Grove of the Patriarchs
, one of the most amazing displays of old trees in the Northwest.
The trail starts by following the river.
A signboard describes the color, and contrasts it with the Nisqually River from earlier.
This river is filled with snowmelt.
Snow around here has relatively little pollution, so the water is unusually clear.
This produces the color.
The Nisqually flows from a melting glacier.
The wire suspension bridge to the Grove of the Patriarchs
the glacier grows every winter, it grinds the rocks around it.
The process produces a fine rock dust called glacial flour
When the glacier partly melts in the summer, the dust ends up in the water.
The dust is mostly grey, so the river has a blue grey color.
The Hoh River in the Olympics (see The Hall of Mosses
) gets its mesmerizing color from the same type of dust.
The trees along this stretch of trail are all old growth
Right along the river bank, they are mostly alder, which is adapted to a riparian environment.
Just behind it is an old growth forest of Douglas fir and western cedar.
Like the forests in Olympic (see Waterfalls and Trees
) this one contained trees of all sizes, but the big ones got the most attention.
After a while, the trail drops to the riverbank and crosses a wire suspension bridge.
Since it is made of wire, the bridge shakes as people walk on it.
Most cross as carefully as possible, although daredevils stomp on the bridge to make it buck like the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge (see Galloping Gertie
The incredibly clear water of the Ohanapecosh River, seen from the wire bridge.
Thankfully, this bridge was properly designed and the vibrations die out when nobody is on it.
The bridge leads to an island in the river containing the actual grove.
This grove is unusual in that it contains ONLY old trees.
A signboard near the entrance explains why.
The island was part of a huge forest fire a thousand years ago.
The trees that recolonized it promptly blocked all sunlight, preventing anything else from growing.
Since fir and cedar have a thousand year lifespan, those trees are still on the island
The trail first goes past some fallen trees.
Since they are near the river, they are more vulnerable to wind gusts, and a storm blew them over.
The trees are unbelievably large, on par with the one I encountered on the Stone Mountain trail.
From there, the trail entered an area of perpetual shade.
Enormous trees reach for the sky.
The only underbrush is moss and ferns.
One spot has six trees growing close together, nearly forming a wall.
They sprouted on a nurse log (see Entering the Forest Kingdom
Nearby is a
Grove of the Patriarchs
The Grove of the Patriarchs, one of the highest concentration of old growth trees on Mount Rainier. These are almost a thousand years old.
pair of gigantic Douglas firs, growing so close together they look like twins.
The tops are just barely visible from the base.
These trees are near the end of their natural life.
A sign next to these trees mentions the most notorious animal in these parts, the northern spotted owl
When it was added to the endangered species list, all area loggers, and some environmentalists, believed it had little to do
with saving a rare owl.
The owl only nests in the broken tops
of really tall trees.
By incredible coincidence, the only trees that fit that requirement are the oldest of old growth forests, like the trees here.
The listing forced the Forest Service to curtail logging of old growth wood, a big win for the environmental lobby that also fundamentally changed the culture of this area.
On the way out, I had one of the few moments of pure panic on this trip so far.
My camera fell out of my pocket while crossing the bridge.
I had no idea where.
The camera is waterproof, so my only concern was finding it.
Ten minutes of
Twin Douglas Firs
This is what a pair of thousand year old Douglas Firs looks like, along the Grove of the Patriarchs trail.
frantic searching of the river from the bridge revealed it was nowhere in sight.
This was a major problem.
I finally had the idea to search the banks under the bridge, where I found my camera hanging on a bush.
That was close.
After the grove, I headed back west.
My target is waterfalls.
Mount Rainier has lots of them thanks to all the rain it gets.
The first one is Falls Creek Falls
, which conveniently falls just before a road bridge.
Less conveniently, people stop on the bridge to get pictures.
Use the parking lot after the bridge and walk back, people!
The next waterfall is Cougar Falls
The road crosses over a creek flowing through a narrow groove in smooth rock.
A parking lot lies on the downstream side, with a very steep scramble path leading away from it.
This path is for experienced scramblers only.
It crawls along smooth rocks right next to the narrow ravine.
Any fall will be fatal, and there are no railings.
The gorge is a classic glacial ravine, worn into solid
Falls Creek Falls
Falls Creek Falls, next to Stevens Canyon Road in Mount Rainier
rock by the stream.
It starts dropping through a series of little waterfalls.
Several fall into potholes, carved by rocks swirling in the water.
The big drop occurs at the end, a sliding falls almost a hundred feet high.
I liked these waterfalls.
Next up is a feature called the Box Canyon
A bigger stream has carved a narrow and dramatic gorge in volcanic rock.
The road passes directly over the top.
It was worth a stop, but less dramatic than all the publicity would suggest.
After another hair rising drive up Stevens Canyon, I got another treat.
Another stream fell off a cliff next to the road.
Unlike the one next to Christine Falls, this one is across from a pull over spot, so getting a picture is safe.
It also had more water.
This waterfall usually dries up by this time of year.
The next stretch shows how thoroughly the park service designed this road eighty years ago.
Most roads in National Parks were designed to show off the scenery instead of
Cougar Falls, shot from the top. This waterfall requires a very careful rock scramble to reach
a clean and fast drive.
The road in this area had a perfect view of Mount Rainier directly ahead.
The entire mountain was visible through my windshield.
I have gotten so used to the unobstructed view that my car provides that I had to remember that the windshield view is the only one most visitors get.
From there, I drove to Paradise for supplies.
Here, I got a real treat, which I joked about with the rangers.
All that amazing atmospheric fog from yesterday was gone!
Instead, I got a view of a vast snowfield leading up to a gigantic white mountain.
The whole area reminded me of a tasteful ski resort, like Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood (see Grand Gorge
Paradise got its name from an early settler, who stated “It looks like paradise
” on first seeing the area.
Now I know why.
Van Trump Creek Trail
After Paradise comes one of the park’s most rewarding hikes, Van Trump Creek
Christine Falls from yesterday is merely the most accessible of several falls along this stream.
A trail starts from near the bridge and hikes up the
It looks like Paradise
Paradise and Mount Rainier. Relatively few visitors get to see this view.
valley to see more of them.
One of them is the third highest in Washington state!
How could I refuse?
For the most part, the trail passes through a world of old growth pine trees and lots of rocks.
From the parking lot it quickly reaches a bridge over the narrow gorge seen from the highway bridge.
The view of the waterfall in the gorge is not as good from the top.
From here, the long climb begins.
The stream mostly cascades through this stretch, which is not that interesting.
The trail has views in several places.
Things pick up when the trail reaches a view of a narrow gorge with a waterfall at the end.
This waterfall is merely the final piece of Lower Van Trump Falls
Unfortunately, the rest hides in a deep ravine, so that view is the only part people can see.
The trail becomes really steep at this point.
Further up, the trail encounters a hazard listed as “the hole” in the trail report back at the parking lot.
The trail partially
Van Trump Creek
A typical view of Van Trump Creek during the early part of the hike
Enough tree roots exist that the washout went through the middle of the trail instead of taking out everything.
I carefully edged along the uphill side of the hole and kept going.
Higher up, the trail breaks into an open area along the wall of a steep ravine.
The creek cascades along the bottom.
The sides are covered in wildflowers.
Near the top of the ravine, a little stream drops directly down the side wall.
The drop is huge, although the low water level detracts from the view.
Just past this, the main stream drops directly down the ravine headwall.
This is Middle Van Trump Falls
, another pour over falls.
After the waterfall, the trail becomes really rocky and steep, as it climbs the ravine walls to the top of the headwall.
This stretch revealed the true hazard of this hike.
A large tree on the top of the ravine had blown over during the winter.
It slid down the ravine wall until it stopped in the first flat spot available.
Unfortunately, that flat spot was the trail.
Middle Van Trump Falls
The first big waterfall hikers can see
The huge root ball completely blocked the path.
I carefully climbed onto the roots and around the tree, one root at a time.
The drop below is pretty frightening.
Once past the tree, the trail soon reenters the forest.
It becomes flatter in this stretch.
It reaches a place where the creek forks.
The trail follows one of the forks for a bit, until it reaches an area of bare rocks with the stream running down the middle.
A “bridge” crosses the stream at this point.
I use the quotes because the bridge consists of a single log with a railing attached.
It looked flimsy enough for the next storm to wash it away.
The stream was high enough to splash on the log, and the water was cold.
The far bank gives a perfect view of one of the reasons people hike this far, Upper Van Trump Falls
This waterfall is a three tiered cascade down the side of a cliff.
It is tall and dramatic.
This waterfall is just the warm up though.
A tall cliff is barely
Upper Van Tramp Falls
The three tiered drop of Upper Van Tramp Falls. The sunlight makes the top drop hard to see in the photo
visible up the other stream from the fork.
The trail follows the creek to that cliff.
Snow patches appear at this point, and the trail goes over several of them.
As one gets closer, a huge ribbon of water becomes visible on the cliff through the trees.
The trail eventually reaches an overlook, showing Comet Falls
in all its glory.
The waterfall is over three hundred feet tall.
Like other basalt cliff falls, the stream falls over the top of a very high cliff and breaks into mist on the way down.
Unlike some, part of the flow leaked onto the cliff face.
The result is a curtain waterfall where the curtain of water extends OUT from the cliff instead of along it.
I’ve never seen a waterfall like this before.
The only downside was a snow bank that blocked the view of the plunge pool.
My guide book calls this waterfall the best in Rainier.
Comet Falls requires a hike of several hours, but it’s worth every step.
The hike back is the reverse of the hike up, including dealing
Comet Falls, the second highest on Mount Rainier and one of the highest in Washington State.
with the tree roots and the washout hole.
The upper portion of the trail gives a distant view of the Nisqually Valley.
Unfortunately, the lower portion is covered in pine trees, so that view is all I can get.
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