While we were up along the Northern edge of Oregon we decided to continue on up into Washington State. We knew we wanted to see Mount Rainier for sure but first, being a bit of a Tacoma fanboy, I decided to get a picture of our Tacoma in front of her namesake which I thought would be the city of Tacoma. Once in the city I could not, for the life of me, find a “Welcome To Tacoma” sign and didn’t feel like driving around in crap city traffic just for that so instead we settled on the Tacoma Dome since it is easily visible from the Freeway and easy to get to.
Since this was a decidedly unfulfilling destination we decided to immediately head towards our Tacoma’s spiritual home, Mt. Rainier. Up until it was officially named Mt. Rainier in 1890 it had been known as Mt. Tacoma (or Tahoma) in the Lushootseed language spoken by the Native Americans and area locals. Plus, Mt. Rainier and its surroundings are way better looking than the city of Tacoma (sorry Tacomans) so let’s head thataway.
We headed east on Highway 410 through Enumclaw, Upper Mill and on through Greenwater until we started seeing Forest Service Roads heading off into the green of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest which surrounds the actual National Park. We turned off onto a promising road and started looking for a suitable spot. For the first half mile or so the road paralleled a nice little creek but the few existing camping spots were already occupied and this was a Tuesday which is somewhat weird in our experience (not that Tuesdays are weird but the fact that campsites are taken on a Tuesday). We eventually turned off that main Forest Service road and headed up the mountain on an auxiliary road. We passed several promising spots but wanted to get up as high as possible on the mountain so that we might have the possibility of an AT&T signal (wishful thinking) and we’d certainly have more sunlight than was peaking through the dense forest around the base of the mountain. After numerous switchbacks as we slowly climbed the mountain we eventually turned a corner at a brisk pace and almost ran into this.
Even if I had a chainsaw with me (sometimes we do) this would have been too much of a chore for possibly no return. We had seen signs for a timber sale and passed glaringly obvious signs of recent logging activity so thought that possibly these trees were felled in advance of a following crew that would limb them and wrestle them onto trucks. Either that or else there had been quite a bout of windy weather in the past few days and if that was the case we would rather be down in the protective forest than up the mountain in the blast zone. Soooo, after a multi-point turn-around on the narrow road with mountain wall on one side and cliff on the other we started back down the mountain again. We finally settled on this little spot all of 50 feet from Huckleberry Creek and set up camp.
This was the first time we had set up the ARB awning and tent in the wild. The first time was in my friend in Portland’s driveway just to check it out and learn how to set it up. It was a spur-of-the-moment purchase since we had always wanted to try one out and since we bought it in Oregon, no sales tax. Sadly our knee-jerk acquisition turned out to not work really well for our situation and since it came with a minor defect we used that as an excuse to return it. We, literally, only had it for a couple of weeks and used it only this once so we are choosing to not do a full review of it. Essentially though there were two main disappointments that immediately jumped out at us. The first issue was that it really was not that well made. Annoyingly lightweight and flimsy zippers and tons of loose threads on the edges where the fabric panels had been cut. It tellingly is half the price of the awning itself and seems to be an afterthought by ARB. The second and most important drawback to us and our situation is that when you set it up your vehicle is an integral part of its support system. Since it clips on to the awning which is attached to your vehicle it obviously needs the awning to function. Even if you decided to unscrew the awning from its mounting point on your vehicle there would then be no support structure on one whole side of the tent/awning and it would collapse. This means you cannot use your vehicle and tent at the same time. If we wanted to set up camp and then go exploring off road we’d have to empty the tent, break it down and pull in the awning as well. Not. Gonna. Happen. We’re keeping the awning though as we spend enough time in the desert that having the option of some quick shade when there are no trees around will come in handy and setting it up and stowing it away only takes an easy 5 minutes.
Someone who had used the site before had left behind a rudimentary lean-to and this braided grass necklace was hanging off of one of the corner posts. Since Willow is my little nature girl we decided that she would “go native” and look the part for a couple of days. She did not seem to mind it at all.
Once our camp was set up we spent a couple of days exploring the area on foot (since we obviously couldn’t drive) 😉 and found numerous little trails up into the mountains. One led to a lovely small, sunny clearing that had been used as a shooting range and so we were able to perform our standard Garbage Walk protocol and fill up two plastic bags with spent shells and other garbage. We took several “dog hikes” which are decidedly different from “dog walks.” In the latter and more traditional situation the human leads the dog. In the former the dog follows its nose, chooses the path, leads the way and the human follows. This is a foolproof way to end up on some really strenuous hikes and how you find some very interesting things and go places that usually only deer, mountain lions and other fauna have gone before. If you are able we highly recommend them.
Since our little stream-side spot had one glaring shortcoming (no direct sunshine to speak of) our solar suitcase was essentially useless and so we didn’t even bother to set it up. That meant our secondary battery was not loving life and we decided to move our base into the National Park itself. There we could take advantage of our America The Beautiful Pass to enter the Park for free (saving $25), camp in a developed campground for half price and replenish our 25 gallon water supply without having to pump our MSR water filter thousands of strokes. My arm got sore and I got sweaty just thinking about having to do that last bit.
We ended up in the White River campground situated at 4400 feet which had more than a few sites open to non-reservation campers such as ourselves.
The campground was your typical deal where each site gets its own picnic table and fire ring with a communal restroom and water spigots in a central area. There was also a small amphitheater for Ranger talks and we ended up going to one about the geology of Mt. Rainier which was quite interesting and informative.
Across the South of the campground flows the White River itself. On the day after we arrived we decided to take a walk over to the river. Out past one of the campground parking lots a narrow trail is the beginning of the Glacier Basin Trail which, among other things, leads to some great views of Emmons Glacier, the largest glacier in the lower 48 states. That is a “hike” though and we were just going for a “walk” and so instead we just satisfied ourselves with a short trip across the river and back.
Willow headed directly for the water and took two steps in before stopping abruptly, giving me a pained and quizzical expression along the lines of “why oh why did you not stop me from doing this” and then immediately removed herself and her little Princess Paws from the cold clutches of the river. Sorry girlie.
The next day in the park we decided to take a trip around the park and a couple of sights on our list were Tipsoo Lake and the Grove of the Patriarchs. Heading out from our campsite we headed up towards the summit of Chinook Pass. At the Y in the road where Hwy 410 and Hwy 123 meet we stayed left on Hwy 410 and continued on up the mountain via three miles of switchback roads towards Chinook Pass and Tipsoo Lake. From the parking lot it was a short 5 minute walk to reach a spot on the far side of the Lake where we were able to capture the picture below.
At an elevation of 5299 feet above sea level Tipsoo is considered an alpine lake and its placid and reflective waters make it an excellent photo opportunity to incorporate the splendor that is Mt. Rainier along with the bright colors of huckleberry, lupine, Indian paintbrush, and Partridgefoot.
From Tipsoo Lake we had our collective heads embedded (yeah, I’m blaming the dog too) and turned left out of the parking lot instead of turning right and heading back down to Hwy 123. Even though we eventually figured out this was not the way we had intended to go it still was quite the gorgeous drive as we headed out of the National Park and into the Wenatchee National Forest as it parallels the American River. Before we knew we were on the wrong path we pulled off into a scenic overlook for a quick look and picture.
This vista looks down the valley that was created by a glacier during the Pleistocene Ice Age about 2 million years ago. This U-shaped valley is now encompassed by both the William O. Douglas and Norse Peak Wilderness areas. This is also the spot that the highway crosses the Pacific Crest Trail.
This portion of Hwy 410 is also called the Mather Memorial Parkway after Stephen Tyng Mather one of the driving forces behind the creation of the National Park System and its first director. We knew that the Grove Of The Patriarchs was supposed to be about 11 miles down the road and so we coasted down the Highway content that the Tacoma was getting the best gas mileage it could possibly get all the while blissfully unaware we were heading in the wrong direction. We kept that up for about 15 miles before the little alarm went off in my head letting me know that something is just not right. So, if we are not where we are supposed to be, where the heck are we then? All along this eventual 40 mile or so round trip “whoops” we had trouble knowing exactly where we were because, as usual, AT&T service was non-existent and also because many signs along the side of the road were essentially unreadable from the truck at highways speeds. Here’s a free tip to anyone who designs signs to be read from speeding cars: don’t make the background of your sign a light blue and then put white lettering over that and hope that after years of fading this will remain a readable sign. You’re welcome.
Once we could match our real-world position to a spot on our paper map we figured out our dumb mistake and headed back the way we came. Adventure…Yay! On the way back up we decided that, since we’re here, we might as well stop and check out a few of the roadside attractions along the way.
The peaks are named for the Fife brothers, Scottish emigrants who homesteaded in the area and are credited with finding the first quartz gold mine up near Chinook Pass in 1888. At 6,793 feet Fifes Peak is the remnant of a large, low profile caldera that blew up about 25 million years ago.
Once we got back up to Chinook Pass we took the correct turn onto Hwy 123 and headed (finally) down towards our original destination. Earlier that morning when we had left our campsite and drove out past the White River Ranger Station we essentially left the paid area of the Park. Until we took our little detour down Hwy 410 we were still in the National Park but outside the area they want you to pay to access. This came into play once we arrived at the turnoff towards the Grove Of The Patriarchs. We turned onto Steven Canyon Road which quickly leads to the Stevens Canyon Entrance to the park…where you have to pay to enter. Luckily we were able to just flash our America The Beautiful Pass again and they waved us right through. If you do not have a pass and you paid at another park entrance you should be sure to save your receipt because it is good for 7 days from the date of purchase and no one wants to have to pay an additional $25 every time they pass through an entrance gate if they don’t have to.
All of 1/5 of a mile past the entrance is the parking lot and trailhead for the Grove of the Patriarchs loop trail.
This pleasant, easy hike can be done by almost anyone. As we walked parallel to the Ohanapecosh River we descended towards the water itself and through a smorgasbord of various trees and other flora. An assortment of interpretive signs inform us that we were walking past Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Red Alder (Alnus rubra), Pacific Silver Fir (Ambies amabilis) and of course many examples of the mighty Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). The dense canopy created by these trees supports a veritable universe of flora and fauna. Over 200 types of plants including mosses, liverworts and lichens live up among the branches of these giants. So to do many mammals including Douglas squirrels, flying squirrels and bats. The area is also a winter habitat for many Elk who leave upland meadows for the milder climate at this elevation.
At the bottom of the trail when you get to the river there is a cool suspension bridge that takes you over the water and into the Grove Of The Patriarchs itself. It looks modern and stout but there is a faded sign recommending that only one person cross the bridge at a time. As you are walking across it the bridge does bounce and sway a bit disconcertingly and, depending on your pace and gait, can also start-up with a sympathetic vibration feedback loop and the bouncing starts to increase. We had fun but I saw an older couple and another pair of (lets just say large) people grab for the sides in a panic. We turned away quickly before they could see our smiles.
Once you are across the river you turn right on a dirt path and head toward the grove. Soon enough the dirt path is replaced by a meandering boardwalk that takes you through and around some of the highlights of the grove. One highlight is the twin Douglas Firs. About 1000 years old they are a bit the worse for wear. They both have rotten centers (only the outer 10″ or so is still alive), one lost its top in a wind storm and the other still has its crown but it is dead. They both have barely enough foliage to keep themselves alive but they are still tenaciously hanging on after more than a millennia towering over their grove.
The other main attraction for us was the fallen giants and their extensive root system. To my active imagination it looked like a Giant Sandworm from Arrakis (Dune reference) about to swallow my girl whole.
This tree and its doppelgänger on the other side of the path were felled in the winter of 1970. It is interesting to note that the two trees, essentially of equal stature, fell in opposite directions on the same night. The generally accepted explanation is that since trees of this type have shallow, spreading and intertwined root systems, when one was toppled by the wind its roots pried up its neighboring tree in the opposite direction.
While the above sites and sights are interesting to us and an integral part of the Mt. Rainier National Park experience we have thus far not truly focused on the park’s namesake. Seen from countless vistas throughout the park Mount Rainier itself stands close to 3 miles (14,411 feet/4,392 m) above sea level and is an iconic view from hundreds of miles around. Don’t let its majestic and serene facade fool you though. For several reasons Mt. Rainier is an extremely dangerous volcano when it eventually decides to erupt again. The main one is the 25 glaciers on its slopes and the humongous (technical term) amounts of water stored in them that will come slamming down the mountain and through numerous river basins once it is melted in a short period of time. Besides any pyroclastic flows, poisonous gases, lava and tephra the mountain would spew forth its the lahars that will pose the greatest threat to life and the economy. In past eruptions lahars have reached all the way to the Puget Sound. In that same area now stands important highways, hydroelectric dams, businesses and a major seaport. Because of this and the hundreds of thousands of people who live downrange from the mountain the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) acknowledges Mount Rainier as one of the Nation’s most dangerous volcanoes. So…beautiful and deadly. Sounds like many things in the natural world.
The White River Campground happens to be about 9 miles from Sunrise Point and only 3 more miles beyond that is the Visitor Center which, at 6400 feet, is the highest point in the Park that you can reach by car. We were told that Sunrise Point offers essentially 360-degree views of the surrounding valleys, Mount Rainier itself and other volcanoes in the Cascade Range such as Mount Adams and so we decided to make that spot one of our main stops while in the Park. On our last night in the campground we decided to get up at the crack of dawn in order to be up at Sunrise Point at actual sunrise which in this case meant 6:48am…yuck. To facilitate an easy and early departure we packed up the vast majority of our stuff the night before but kept out our little 2-man tent to sleep in and hit the sack at about 9pm. Willow was snoring by 9:15 and me not long after. We woke up at about 5:30 and, with my headlamp on with its red light activated so as to not annoy the sleeping campers around us we quickly but quietly (except for one toe stub/stumble and involuntary epitaph) finished packing and headed out of the campground.
With essentially zero traffic on the road we arrived at Sunrise Point far quicker than we had anticipated. Sadly the place was already teaming with visitors and so we decided to bypass that spot for the time being and head the rest of the way up to the Visitor Center area. We still had about 40 minutes to spare before true sunrise. We pulled over to the side of the road by the entrance sign to take a few pre-sunrise pictures.
It was a bit breezy and below 50 degrees F so we decided to whip out our supplies and make some coffee while we waited for sunrise. In the 15 minutes it took to pull out our stuff, set it up on the open tailgate and make our coffee beverage we had a total of three cars drive by us (all giving us the “Why is that guy cooking on his tailgate by the side of the road” look) on their way for the morning’s upcoming spectacle. Coffee in hand we took a few more photos and then sat and waited for the sun to peak over the hills to the East and shine over onto the white and icy slopes of Mt. Rainier.
We stayed there watching the transition from sunrise to full-on morning for close to an hour. By then the morning chill was beginning to wear off and more people were starting to arrive and so we decided to head back down the mountain and be on our way. First though we continued up to the actual Sunrise Visitor Center parking lot to use the little boys room and then decided to take a quick walk on the loop path up behind the facilities.
From the sign in the picture above you can head out on hikes over a dozen trails in the area. On our way back down towards the parking lot we passed several picnic area, some set inside small groves of shading trees and others set within patches of exuberantly colorful wildflowers. A short path led down to an overview towards Mt. Rainier, Emmons Glacier and the valley below.
Once the morning crowds got, well… crowded we started down the mountain but once again stopped back at the major vista point on the road, Sunrise Point.
Our time in the Park was coming to its conclusion. Knowing we had a date to keep in late October back down in the San Francisco Bay Area we started out in a meandering Southerly direction. Once out of the park we kept south and decided to break off a big chunk of travel time by doing the three-hour trip or so back towards the Columbia River Gorge area we love so much.
As we write this post and look back over all the stunning pictures we took on this adventure we cannot help but want to go back and further explore the area at a later date. We left just as the weather was turning wet and we got slammed at our camping spot on the Washington side of the Gorge over the next few days. Luckily it was only wet and windy but not too cold. Since we’ll be back up in Oregon for the Total Solar Eclipse next year we will plan on continuing up into this area again in hopes we can catch it after some snow has fallen so we can get to see it all over again in its Winter Wonderland mode for the very first time.