Peaceful…that’s a joke of course. There are signs everywhere warning you that Mt. Rainier is still an active volcano. It’s a little unsettling to bed down for the night or set out for a hike after reading signs that warn you of potential geothermal activity like eruptions, mudslides, avalanches, flash floods, etc. Sleep tight, but if you hear something that sounds like a freight train, run for the hills (the official advice is the seek high ground at least 160′ above the valley floors)! Be sure to dodge any falling boulders along the way!
Really, though, it’s as risky as any other day in your life. The last time Mt. Rainier really erupted was in the late 1800s. Floods and mudslides that do major things like change the course of rivers have happened more recently. Sure, nearby Mt. St. Helens totally blew itself up in 1980. But…look at that mountain. It’s just so beautiful!
Mt. Rainier is often wreathed in clouds, but it was out in full the three days we spent in the park. It’s amazing — the fifth highest peak in the lower 48 states. As a stand-alone volcano it’s much more dramatic than a peak of similar height in a range of mountains. The mountain is easily approachable from all sides by road, but there’s also a trail, the Wonderland Trail, that encircles the mountain. I’d love to do this 90-mile hike someday, passing through the damp, quiet, lush trails and being treated to unexpected flashes of the mountain and its glaciers.
We enjoyed lots of lower elevation trails, hiking to big old trees and forest waterfalls, but I wanted to do some hiking around the Sunrise Visitor’s Center, about 3,000 feet below the summit. Specifically, I really wanted to climb Dege Peak, an easy and short climb up a 7,000-ish foot peak that gives you amazing 360 degree views of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and all kinds of surrounding splendor. I’d been there on a family trip and it had become one of my mental “quiet places;” after 15 years my memory was in need of refreshing.
But, even more so than in Glacier, all high elevation trails were buried under feet of snow! We set out on the Dege Peak trail, hoping that the snow would clear on the “sunny” side of the mountain, but after a quarter-mile of slipping around on the side of a snowbank-covered ridge (in shorts and sneakers), we had to admit defeat and turn back.
Strangely, though, even though it was busy and we struck out on the big views, I wasn’t as bummed about it as I was in Glacier. More than anywhere I’ve been since the Great Smoky Mountains, the forests were incredibly lush and shady, the trees were ancient, the rivers were clear and icy cold, the waterfalls were pretty and plentiful. We saw lots of serious hikers, not just drivers. It was sunny and the mountain was out, and that makes you feel lucky around here. Maybe it was the extra little sparkle that everything takes on when you’re reminded that your life is constantly in danger. Or maybe I was just happily looking forward to settling down in Seattle for a week. Either way, it’s a magical place.