Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mt. Rainier

   It's official, last month was the coldest April on record. In fairness, it was the "coldest average high temperature", but still, I'm ready for spring! The radishes are starting to poke through the top soil in the garden! We have had a couple of nice days already. The forecast for tomorrow looks beautiful!

   Today the family and I decided it was time to stop talking about Mt. Rainier and go see it. I've been looking over the topographical hiking map and hiking book I bought after Easter and it was time to go check it out. We got up, fed the chickens, had some coffee, packed up our hiking gear and hit the road. The first thing we learned is that there is no real direct or scenic route to the mountain. From I-5 we took exit 127 and headed east highway 512. Instead of taking highway 7 south, we continued on to highway 161 in the belief it would be far enough out to be more scenic. Wrong. Turns out that, rather than dealing with suburban sprawl from Tacoma along highway 7, highway 161 pushes south through suburban sprawl from southern Puyallup. Oh, well. The purpose of this trip was to explore and learn -- sort of a mini-version of our Olympic Peninsula trip last April -- and we were learning.

   Eventually the sprawl gave way to farmland and I was happy to be there. We drove through Eatonville, LaGrande, Alder, Elbe, and Ashford before coming to the Nisqually Entrance of the Mount Rainier National Park. Signs were posted that the visitor center at Paradise was only open on weekends, so we missed out there. There was also a notice that Stevens Canyon Road (beyond Paradise) was not yet open. Based on what I read I suspected this might be the case. Having just come out of the coldest April on record I should have known it was overly optimistic the think we might be able to drive all the way around the mountain.

   The other thing we learned is just how much more seasonal Mt. Rainier is than the Olympics. In hindsight this seems obvious, but after spending a couple years camping, hiking, and backpacking in the Olympics, and it's been more than a decade since we lived on Mt. Hood in Oregon, we forgot just what we were dealing with. Good to learn!

   We stopped at Longmire to look around and visit the museum. At this point, The Wonderland Trail crosses the road and it was like shaking hands with a celebrity to take just a couple steps along the path. I picked up another hiking book at the museum and we all enjoyed the information and displays about the Native Americans, wildlife, and geology around the area.

   We made our way up to Paradise, but as we were warned, it was still closed on weekdays this time of year. Visibility was low as well, so we let the boy play in the 18' of snow a bit before making our way back down the mountain.This learning experience reminded my wife and I that long periods in the car followed by short adventures has a peculiar affect on our son that I describe as, "Random thought generator on overdrive and mouth engaged." The boy can get a bit chatty.

   We did stop for one very short hike. The Twin Firs Loop is a quick, 0.4-mile loop right off the road. From my new Falcon Guide, Hiking Mount Rainier National Park, "This short loop takes you through an old-growth, low-elevation forest. Along the trail you will see a variety of flora such as vine maple, skunk cabbage, giant ferns, mossy logs, Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western cedar, as well as numerous squirrels darting across the trail." The book didn't mention large patches of snow still on the trail (did I mention that April was cold?) and a couple of huge, fallen trees we had to shimmy under. I'm not complaining -- it was absolutely fantastic to get out into the woods and breathe in the cleanest air we've had in our lungs in months! The book also didn't mention that much of what is left of old-growth forest in the United States is in the foothills of Mt. Rainier, so there were some of the biggest trees I've ever seen!

   I was wearing my new five-finger barefoot shoes, which reminds me of another learning point. I love the shoes for walking and hiking (I haven't worked up to any serious running in them yet), but they are still a little chilly on snow and very cold, soggy ground. While my soles were well-insulated, the snow and wet got between my toes and my feet were pretty cold after only 0.4 miles. Learning experience.

   We headed for home, taking highway 7 this time and stopping for dinner along the way. I think we may stick to the Olympics for any ventures into the woods this month, but I am looking forward to exploring the area later this summer.

   C'mon spring! I'm ready!

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