Mt Rainier

Exploring Mt Rainier with Local Wanderer

words by Emanuel Smedbøl

Rainy drive thorugh the forests of Mt Rainier, Washington

Vancouver-based travel blog Local Wanderer booked a gig with Land Rover USA for the "Go Somewhere Rare" campaign and kindly asked us to join them on a Mt Rainier road trip. We said helllll yeah. Mt Rainier is the best.

The pearl of Puget Sound, Mt Rainier is one of the oldest National Parks in the country and by all accounts the best. Towering over the surrounding coastal mountains, its the third most prominent peak in the US, covered in glaciers, and surrounded by miles and miles of wet intractable wilderness. It was just our thing.

And yes, according to the YouTube videos I watched the night prior to our departure, it is indeed a giant old-world ice-encumbered volcano just itching for its chance to blow. Perfect.

Elbe Lutheran Church on the flank of Mt Rainier Fancy Range Rover branded ligthing Camping means one thing: Marshmallows for dinner

We picked up the 2014 Range Rover in the afternoon and plotted our course to the park's Paradise entrance. We could see the mountain for much of the drive, the glaciers bright and beckoning in the waning light. It isn't a far drive but the mountain looked perpetually distant, until finally being swallowed by the encroaching PNW forest. But there were a lot of other things to stop and see on the way, not least the tiny hamlet of Elbe with its elk burgers, train car hotel, and historic church.

It was well past nightfall when we got into the park and set up camp at Cougar Creek. We ate some marshmallows, hung out for a bit, then crammed 4 people into our two man tent and drifted off into a cozy snuggly sleep.

The clouds moved in overnight, bringing drizzle, bringing rain. We were up at the crack of dawn hoping to photograph a double sunrise at Reflection Lakes, but the morning and mountain were gone, obliterated by a roiling blankgrey screen of low lying clouds. And so it would be for the remainder of the trip.

Rainy PNW views on the drive up Mt Rainier National Park Watching clouds lift off Mt Rainier, WA In the forests of the cloudy pacific northwest Clouds lifting off the mountain Hiking Paradise Meadows, Mt Rainier Hiking in the snow, Mt Rainier

But Rainier is gorgeous in all weather, not least in its natural state of drizzle and grey. To be honest I'm not sure we could have asked for better conditions—it was magical, mysterious. It felt like an authentic and essential Pacific Northwest experience. We were happy just to be there. Provided the volcano didn't blow.

The mountain is huge, with tons of trails and tiny pockets to explore. One could spend weeks trying to see everything. With only a couple days we barely scratched the surface.

We stopped briefly at Narada Falls then hiked part of the Skyline Trail, scrambling in the snow up to a view overlooking the grand Nisqually Glacier. The view was abruptly terminated by the low-lying clouds, but that only sharpened our appreciation for what we could see. The glacier was the whitewhiteblue of icy gelato, and was cracked and fissured and littered with rock debris that appeared for all the world like chocolate shavings. It looked impossibly large and ancient. A huge waterfall silently roared in the distance down the sheer the rocky walls. Which reminded me of soda. I think it was lunch time.

We were greeted by fat waddling marmots, and had fun sliding back down the slope on our descent. It was wonderful. Then we went looking for some treats.

Views of crackling rain-shrouded glaciers on Mt Rainier Hiking to the glacier viewpoints at Paradise Meadows, Mt Rainier Driving the Range Rover on the side of Mt Rainier

After a quick lunch and warm up in the Paradise Visitor's Center we scrambled back into the car to explore the other side of the park. What a drive. The narrow road winds through dark forest, and shreds of fog raked the hillside. There was a teasing tantalizing moment when the clouds almost parted for a view of the mountain, and then later, near some old scenic tunnels, the sun came out briefly. But the clouds were there for the long haul and coalesced around the mountain once again. It was beautiful the way the trees and hillside appeared and disappeared, the clouds racing over us, bringing the mountain's layers into sharp relief.

Thick clouds rolling in the mountains Cloudy drive around Mt Rainier, Pacific Northwest Driving through mountain tunnels on the slopes of Mt Rainier Trees through the fog

Putting our deductive skills to use we figured that Sunrise Point would be a good place to watch the sunset. And boyoboy were we right. We ascended the steep and winding road, climbing thick inside a cloud, the world turning pink, turning a gold-fringed wispy purple, as wave after wave of cloud rolled over us, obscuring everything then just as quickly revealing it again. It was an amazing show, probably one of the more singular sunsets I've ever experienced. We stood on the precipice watching the evening unfold, the clouds yawning and stretching and heading towards night. It was beautiful. But it was also cold, and after an hour we got hungry and headed down to White River to feast on hot cheesybeans and once again set up camp in the dark.

Sunset from Sunrise Point, Mt Rainier Looking out over the mountains from the Sunrise Point, Mt Rainier Clouds rolling over the mountains, Washington Cascades Range Rover in a pink foggy sunset, Mt Rainier National Park

In an effort to catch sunrise again the next morning we awoke in the dark grey of predawn, packed everything up, and ascended Sunrise Point. This time it was truly too overcast to see much of anything at all. We continued up to the Sunrise Visitor Center—the highest point in the park accessible by car—and poked around a bit, trying out a trail overlooking Emmons Glacier, and were heading up Sourdough Ridge when a storm broke out. We had heard the distant booming thunder bouncing off the ridges for a while but suddenly the lightning and rolling crackling thunder sounded mere inches away. It was loud, sharp, like the hills and heavens were waking up in an ear-shattering fury. We hurried back down, propelled by chilly torrential mountain rain.

The rain roared on the roof, on the road, throwing up a fine and icy mist. It turned to hail. It was exciting, and we were all beaming and happy to be there, happy to be safe back in the car, happy to be witnesses to one of nature's grander shows.

And, buoyed by the rain's thundering applause, we headed on home.

Driving up Mt Rainier in the inky foggy predawn Sunrise Visitor Center, Mt Rainier, Washington Storm banging over the Sunrise Visitor Centre, Mt Rainier Caught in a downpour on the mountain slopes of Mt Rainier