Rainier is omnipresent. Whether its lurking in the clouds, looming behind the fog or lighting up the city, Rainier is compass rose in Tacoma Washington.
The Sunrise Visitor Center is two hours or 87 miles from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in the Lakewood neighborhood of Tacoma but just 10 winding road miles from the White River Campground (2.5 if you vertically hike it from the D loop.). We left the camping gear in Boss from the Cougar Rock-Paradise adventure last week, this time for a 2 day/2 night command camping performance.
It is common knowledge that the National Parks are hard to get into and camp. Unlike the commercial RV campgrounds, the NP eschew full hook-up sites. Any rig over 25 feet is problematic. They are designed for real camping, as in tent camping, so that’s what we do. Like a nested Russian doll, we leave our home for our 5th wheel, and we leave our 5th wheel for our tent.
Adding to the difficulty in camping in the National Parks is the confounding secondary influence of the coronavirus. Perfectly good sites sit idle with absurd Hazard Tree warnings. The once healthy practice of culling dead trees throughout the campground goes off the rails when the tree service is barred from operations. Sites keep making the hit list, but are never cleared. The only thing stopping the campground from closing is a shortage of Site Closed signs.
Yet, filling pot holes on the roadways is permitted, as two lane road access backs up for miles. I would say that the Rangers seem just as frustrated with it all, but they don’t. Perhaps Ranger life is better when the park is at one quarter capacity? Personally, we are finding National Park camp life serene at 1/4 capacity, along as we are lucky enough to get in!
Hiking at Sunrise
Weather and mood are inextricably linked here. When the sun shines, Mt Rainier glows from the inside out. On a clear day, Mt Rainier shows you who you are. Lucky enough to get sunny, clear AND a walk-up site in a partially functioning campground that is only open 2 months out of the year, we escalated 2200 feet to Sunrise to get up close and personal with the massive ball of ice.
Each section of Sunrise has dozens of subsections with trails to forests, lakes and mountains, all in homage to the great one. Not knowing what to choose, a proudly patched volunteer ranger in head to toe tan asked what we wanted to see. When our most wanted list included “lots of Rainier, a summit and wildflowers,” she went off with a 5 hour, 6 mile hybrid, hiking out Sourdough Ridge to Frozen Lake, turning up to Mt Fremont lookout, retracing to Frozen Lake, dipping down onto the snow-covered Wonderland en route to Shadow Lake and cutting off to Emmons Vista on the return to the parking lot.
The Way to Mt Fremont
Sourdough Ridge is literally a trail cut into the mountain with a vertical fall off on one side, a vertical wall of rocks or trees on the other and dramatic views of Rainier closing in on every step of the way. At 3 feet wide, Covid trail etiquette was on full display with 90% of people wearing masks and following the turn-your-back-while-others-pass rule.
Frozen Lake is cerulean blue and snow banked, surrounded by wildflower buds, reflecting puffy white clouds on its glossy surface. As the hub of three 7,000 ft+ summits, Mt Fremont was our new Mt Brown, with a fire tower calling our name.
Scurry and Plod devolved to Plod and Trudge but we persevered and made it to the top of this world. The craggy cliff walk over volcanic rock was in stark contrast to the palatial glacial supremacy of Rainier. As high and mighty as we felt, was as small and insignificant as we actually are in the grand scheme of the world. On this crystal clear day we could see all the way into the North Cascades from where we had once visited. It may not have been the view from the top of Mt. Rainier, but it was as close as we were ever going to get.
Scurry and Plod
Back at Frozen Lake, the return to Sunrise took us into the subalpine world of wildflower covered meadows, Christmas tree pine forests and blue hued Rainier, following a crowd of people wearing matching family reunion t-shirts. The younger family members had raced ahead and gotten separated from the group on the wrong split in the trail. In angry bunches, the family was hiking back to the parking lot to regroup and get yelled at. Unknowingly, we power walked to the front of the reunion to get out of their party, simultaneously declining the offer of a family reunion t-shirt. Try as we might, we could not hold off the maskless mob pressing us from behind even though many were 6 years old with very short legs. Eventually, we huddled in the pines and let the coughing, wheezing, screaming angry family reunion pass, because angry people walk too fast.
Feeling the burn, we got back to the parking lot where eyes and lenses were capturing the spirit and vibe, each in their own way. In Washington State, you carry a lawn chair in your car, and when Rainier is out, you pull over to take in its aura when the mood strikes you. If you’re a tourist, you teeter on a wall for the perfect Instagram post.
Meanwhile, for three days and two nights we ate out of the Yeti, slept out of the Grand Hut and fed the camp fire to keep warm back at the White River Campground. Not wanting to miss a single section of the park, we took a 30 mile drive to the Ohanapecosh and Stevens Canyon region on a morning when the clouds were thick and the trees, silhouettes.
You can’t see Rainier from this side of the park, but you can take an easy boardwalk stroll to see The Grove of the Patriarchs, an ancient forest of Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar and Hemlock trees. The trail is National Park friendly meaning wide, flat, and short. As it turns out, perfectly accessible for a bus load of kids on a summer field trip. The groove didn’t affect us the way Rainier did. Perhaps it was the screaming game of tag. These trees that have been around since the 11th century and seemed like they were remembering better times, before the invention of the bus.
Our last hike of this trip to Sunrise left out of the back of campground toward Glacier Basin. The Emmons Moraine Trail is a vertical hike through a thick forest, past dozens of waterfalls, over a rocky whitewater creek, up an ashy switchback to a view of an emerald lake, back into a pine grove and out to a view of the moraine, which is a mass of rocks and sediment at the bottom of a glacier. The looming Emmons Glacier, largest glacier in the lower 48, also seemed to inspire the mosquitos to greet hikers that stopped to gawk, like us.
On the way back we met a couple married 44 years who visited Rainier on vacation from Cincinnati 1988 and moved to Tacoma in 1989. Espousing the lifestyle of Rainier living, we started to think about what it would be like to live here. When pushed, they did concede that there were 70 days without sun this winter, calling it grim but worth it for the two months of cheer. Then they let slip that they spent most of the winter in Florida. We’ve decided to stick with nesting.