Monday, October 29, 2018

Mt Rainier NP - The Skyline Trail

Mt Rainier National Park's Skyline Trail - the premier hiking destination for all visitors to the Paradise Visitor Center.  This amazing path climbs through wildflower meadows above treeline to a fantastic overlook with in-your-face views of the famous mountain.  Wildlife abounds - marmots lazing on boulders are a common occurrence.

For two days I'd attempted to hike this trail, and was foiled by rain both times.  Would the third day finally be the charm?

Narada Falls

My final day in the park, I awoke extremely early.  Packing up camp, I hit the park's deserted roads by 6:30.  On the way up to Paradise, I took advantage of an empty parking lot (my car was the only one!) to make a quick visit to lovely Narada Falls.  The early bird does get the worm, or in my case, the crowd-free waterfall view.

Stone steps lead to the trails

Persistence paid off.  The final day dawned sunny and rain-free.  Pulling into another empty parking lot at Paradise, I was able to park right next to the visitor center - and had my pick of spots!


And, oh, Mt Rainier was out!  Morning light illuminated the great mountain and it was a magnificent sight.  This was the view I'd missed the two prior days. 

Amazing morning light on Rainier

I chose to retrace my steps along the paved path I'd taken on Friday in the heavy rain.  Amazing the difference full sunshine makes.  Rainier dominated the skyline, her glaciers glowing white.  Coupled with deep green vegetation and blooming wildflowers, photo ops weren't lacking.

At this early hour, the place was deserted, save for two women.  One lady, a photographer like me, was toting around a huge tripod.  The other, out for a quick morning walk, was wearing sandals and carrying a tiny backpack.

Mountain and flowers

With so much fantastic scenery to capture, progress was glacially slow.  But I managed to catch up with both ladies, and struck up a conversation with the sandal-wearing one.  She was staying in the lodge nearby, and had hiked to Camp Muir (the climber's camp high on the mountain) the day prior.  The lady was happy for my company, and didn't seem to mind the frequent photo stops.


I came upon a ptarmigan in the middle of the trail.  Careful not to scare it away, I approached slowly, snapping images as I went.  The bird was busy pecking the ground, and didn't seem to notice my presence, even when I got within a couple of feet.

Peek-a-boo marmot

Passing by a large boulder field, my new friend spotted a marmot.  I attempted to capture a picture, but the critter quickly ducked behind the rocks.  However a split second later, the marmot popped it's head out (I assume to check if the coast was clear) and, already focused on the area, I was able to get my photo.

Pika sighting!

Then the sandal lady exclaimed see'd spotted "a rat" and pointed towards a nearby rock.  Turned out the "rat" was actually a pika.  A pika!  Mostly heard but rarely seen, these tiny alpine "rock rabbits" are notoriously shy.  But this one lingered long enough for me to snap a quick image before it emitted it's characteristic"meep" and disappeared under a rock.  Three wildlife sightings already!  I was excited.  This morning was off to a great start.

Western pasqueflowers

The trail began to wander underneath a steep, rocky slope.  My new friend and I spotted the photographer lady up ahead, and were just about to walk towards her, when we heard a loud crashing noise.  Before us on the trail, not 30 feet away, two basketball-sized boulders came tumbling by, slamming into the path before continuing downhill.  A scary sight - were we any closer we could've been hurt.  I assumed the previous day's rainfall had loosened the rocks, and hoped there wasn't more to come.  Needless, to say my friend and I hustled past this area as fast as we could.

Glacier close-up

The path meandered through more spectacular flower fields, crossing a couple of creeks and marshy areas.  Oh, and yes, with more grand views of Rainier.

Magenta paintbrush

The magenta paintbrush was especially thick here.

Tatoosh Range

Climbing higher, pointy peaks of the nearby Tatoosh Range began to come into view.

Flower fields

I passed by the same flower field I'd photographed in the pouring rain.  Although the foggy, rainy atmosphere was photogenic, I much preferred seeing these colorful beauties in full sun.

Jaw-dropping mountain scenery!

At this point, my sandal-wearing new friend decided it was time for her to head back, and we bid each other goodbye.

Backlit flowers

Now on my own, with no other people around, I was free to wander at my own pace, snapping copious images of whatever caught my eye.  Like a field of backlit Western Pasqueflowers (aka "hippy on a stick").

Can you spot the reflection?

I passed through a lovely high alpine tundra, with a rushing creek.  Mt Rainier gave off some perfect reflections in a small pond.  Can you spot the mirror image?


Flowers were still blooming, even high up here.  I spotted a patch of bright pink monkeyflowers.

High alpine goodness

It was here I spotted another marmot ambling through the grassy slope.  I tried to capture a few photos, but the light wasn't in a good direction. 

Path through a snowfield

Nearing 6000 foot elevation, I started to encounter slushy snowfields.  One encroached right up to the trail.  Another totally covered the tread, necessitating a short, cautious walk over it's slippery surface.

Marmot fight!

Then I came upon two more marmots.  Slowly, I dug out my camera for some photos.  Then one began charging the other.  Before I knew, it the two furry creatures were locked in battle.

Warring marmots

A marmot fight!  Hastily I began digging through my backpack for my zoom lens, all the while hoping the two combatants wouldn't run away.

They were oblivious to me and my camera

I was in luck.  The two marmots were much too busy battling to even notice my presence.

"Your mom wears army boots!"

With my zoom lens, I was able to capture several images of the conflict.  The marmots got up on their hind legs and kept grappling, clawing, and biting each other.  Several times, one chased the other, but then they'd turn around and start wrestling once again.

Photo ops don't get much better!

It was such an amazing sight - definitely one of the highlights of my day.

And higher I climb...

Past the warring marmots, I kept climbing higher and higher.  And at this point, I began to encounter people heading the other way.  After having the trail to myself for nearly two hours, it was kind of a shock.  But, this being one of the most popular trails in the park, I knew it was only a matter of time before I ran into the crowds.

Western pasqueflowers before they sprout hippy heads

At elevations over 6000 feet, I began to see Western Pasqueflowers in their flower stage.  Having only seen the seed pod (aka "hippy head"), this was new for me.

Top of the world!

The trail began to get more rocky.  It kept climbing and climbing, until I could see the entire Tatoosh mountain range spread out before me.  The views were jaw-dropping.  I'd heard you could see the other Cascade peaks from here, but sadly, smoke from nearby wildfires began to drift in, making the skies hazy.

Colorful tundra

Still, it was mighty impressive to be so high on Mt Rainier.  The path bypassed a dangerous snowfield (the regular trail was closed for this reason) and climbed to 7000 feet, before descending slightly to Panorama Point.

Mt Rainier in your face

It was here I began to encounter the masses.  Tons of people perched on boulders, having a snack and gaping in awe at the in-your-face view of Mt Rainier.  It totally dominated the skyline.

High altitude toilet!

It was also here that my camera battery began to die.  I always carry a spare, but it's an off-brand and not reliable.  When I slid the spare battery in my camera, it only lasted about 10 minutes before it ran out of juice.

Another marmot

Oh no!  I still had two miles left on the loop.  Hoping to nurse my "good" battery until the end, I switched off the camera, and began using my phone to take photos.

Panorama Point

Panorama Point was indeed appropriately named.  Mountain vistas extended in all directions.  Marmots lazed on sunny rocks nearby.  The place even had a restroom, in a tiny rock-faced building that blended nicely into the adjacent landscape.

Way too friendly chipmunk

At any National Park where people congregate, the chipmunks and ground squirrels do too.  And here at Panorama Point I encountered some of the most aggressive chipmunks.  You didn't dare leave a backpack unattended - the little critters would jump inside.  I watched a few chipmunks climb into people's laps, begging for food.  I pointed my camera at one little guy and he grabbed for it, almost putting his face right into the lens.

Well fed critters

I never feed the wildlife, but sadly I saw many people that did.  That's what makes these little chipmunks so assertive.

Steps lead down from Panorama Point

After a rest, very quick covert snack, and a few photos, I followed the Skyline trail downhill towards the Paradise Lodge and visitor center.  Here the trail was good tread, rock-lined with built in steps.

High alpine meadows

And, man, were the views impressive!  I thought it couldn't possibly get any better but it did.  Wildflowers, mountain vistas, greenery, and more marmots.  No wonder this trail was so popular.

Climber conga line

And, boy was it!  There were mobs of people making the steep uphill trek.  I passed several groups of mountain climbers, hauling huge backpacks, heading for Camp Muir.

Crowds near a snowfield

There were clusters of people from all walks of life and fitness levels.  I saw experienced hikers wearing heavy boots and people in loafers who looked like they'd just come from church.  Old and young, many different nationalities, all had one goal in mind.

Skiers heading towards the glacier

I even spotted a group of people hauling skis on their backs, I assume hoping to get some turns on the high elevation glacial snow.

Amazing views on the way down

I'm usually not one for crowds, but on this day I didn't really mind.  Most people were courteous, moving aside for each other on the trail.  And many were very friendly, smiling and wishing everyone a good hike.  I enjoyed seeing people from different countries, hearing unusual languages, and watching parents and children enjoy nature together.  I leapfrogged a family with very young kids who were climbing steadily, not complaining at all.  The parents told me their children were already experienced hikers.  Start 'em young - I love it!

Mt Rainier was always front and center

Hamstringed by an ailing camera battery, my descent took much less time.  Photo stops were only for sights that I considered truly magnificent.  Luckily, I was able to nurse my battery to the very end.  With the visitor center in view, I snapped one final photo of a patch of pink flowers framed by mountains before it died for good.

Trailside flowers

What a way to end my Mt Rainier weekend!  My trek up the Skyline Trail was hands-down the highlight of this trip.  Crowds or not, this is one trail I highly recommend.  I will certainly be back to hike it again (next time with two fully-charged camera batteries!)

If you missed my other two Mt Rainier trip recaps, find them here:

Soggy Day One

Day Two, Reflections, Waterfalls, and Flowers

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Mt Rainier NP Day Two - Reflections, Waterfalls and Flowers

Day two!  Are you ready?

Reflection Lake lived up to it's name

On the second day of my Mt Rainer National Park trip, I woke up early hoping to catch some nice light on Reflection Lake (and beat the crowds).  This lake, of course, was so named due to the mirror image of Mt Rainier reproduced on it's waters.  I drove by the day prior, but dense clouds hiding the mountain prevented any reflections (except of the clouds of course!)

Sun glow on Reflection Lake

But on day two clear skies greeted me as I pulled into a nearly empty parking area.  Grabbing my camera and hustling down to the lakeshore, I gasped in happiness.  My early arrival had paid off -  Reflection lake's waters were producing a most excellent duplicate of the famed snow-capped peak.

Amazing Mt Rainier duplicate!

I spent a good hour wandering around the lakeshore, trying to capture that money shot.  When people started arriving, I took that as my cue to move on to another place.

Ice-blue stream above Christine Falls

My second destination of the day was to hike into Comet Falls.  Driving back and forth along the park road the prior day, I'd passed by it's overflowing parking area several times.  A trail that popular had to be good!  So I decided to hit it early ensuring both empty trails and a parking spot.

Interesting "stairway" on Comet Falls Trail

The trail itself was only 3.8 miles round-trip, so I planned a quick romp to the waterfall to allow time for hiking another longer trail afterwards.  But what I hadn't factored in was the elevation gain - 1250 feet in less than two miles.  Plus I was carrying a heavy tripod - and the day was already hot and muggy.  For those reasons (and the fact that I was still tired from hiking the day before) this short trail became an unexpected slow slog.

Stream crossing right before Comet Falls

It started out nicely though, passing over the lovely creek directly above Christine Falls (which I'd photographed yesterday).  The ice-blue water had worn channels into the rock, and it made for some nice photo ops.

Comet Falls (in really crappy light)

But then the hike quickly turned into a steep trudge through an unremarkable forest.  Sweat poured off my body, and my breathing became ragged.  The tripod hanging off my backpack felt like an anvil.  I took many more rest breaks than I'd intended (I kept thinking "what's wrong with me today?")  It was the longest 1.9 miles ever!

Silty glacial stream

But thankfully I began to hear the sound of rushing water.  I crossed a churning East Fork of Van Trump Creek, and looked upstream to a very lovely waterfall.  Bloucher Falls, a three-tiered drop of 124 feet, was blowing mist furiously.  I would've mistaken it for Comet Falls, except for a sign proclaiming my destination was a mere 200 feet further.

Upper portion of Comet Falls

Climbing up the stream's steep bank, I rounded a corner and there before me was the magnificent Comet Falls.  Dropping 320 feet down a nearly vertical rock wall, it dwarfed neighboring Bloucher Falls.

Lovely rainbow (my favorite image of the day)

The only bummer - unequal light.  The cascade's upper tier was in sunlight, while the lower two drops and creek were still in shadow.  I did the best I could to photograph this wonderful sight in the crummy light.

Upper and Lower Comet Falls

I followed the trail as it hugged the top of a steep riverbank.  I ventured out onto a clearing below the first tier.  Here the light hit the water and produced a stunning rainbow.  Well, if I couldn't get the entire waterfall in sunlight, I guess this was the next best thing.  A capture of flowing water beside the rainbow became my favorite image of the day.

Roadside wildflowers

About this time I noticed another photographer setting up his tripod nearby.  Recognizing the young man from Reflection Lake earlier that morning, I struck up a conversation.  He was from the Seattle area, and spent many of his weekends like me driving around the Pacific NW in search of lovely nature images.  We had a great chat, comparing notes on where we'd been shooting.  I ended up hiking back to the parking lot with him, and the company made my return trek pass much faster.

Rainier peeping out of the clouds

By the time I reached my car, it was past noon.  Although I'd initially planned to hike the Kautz Creek Trail into Indian Henry's Hunting Ground, I knew there wasn't enough time, nor did I have enough energy, to cover the 11.4 miles and 2300 feet of elevation gain.  Time for Plan B!

Huge field of pink flowers

First I drove around the park, taking in all the various scenic overlooks.  The morning's clear skies were sadly giving way to large puffy clouds that Mt Rainier was trying to hide behind.  But after tiring of fighting traffic - it was Saturday afternoon and the park roads were busy - I ended up back at Reflection Lake when a parking spot magically opened up.

Louise Lake from Reflection Lake trail

According to my hiking guidebook several trails led from this lake, one climbing all the way up to Paradise.  Although I wasn't ready to go that far, a shorter 3-mile path looped around the lake.  Perfect!

Flowers and mountain

After another look at the lake as I passed by (muted by clouds, the mountain reflections were much better first thing that morning) the path turned away from the water and began climbing a ridge above.  Eventually it flattened out into a lovely alpine meadow, where blooming paintbrush and lupine brightened the landscape.

Orange paintbrush lined the roadways

When I was about halfway through the loop, I noticed dark clouds looming overhead.  It looked like the area was in for a dousing!  Time to move it.  As I was descending back towards the lake, thunder rumbled from above.  Uh oh....I really didn't want to be stuck high on a ridge (holding metal trekking poles) during a thunderstorm.

Fireweed was everywhere too

I came upon an overlook with a killer view of Louise Lake below and craggy peaks beyond.  A couple I'd been leapfrogging was perched on the rocks, the man working a camera on a tripod.  I couldn't believe this couple was calmly sitting on a very exposed point (with a metal tripod, no less) when the sky directly above looked like it was going to storm at any minute.  However, the view was so nice that thunderstorm or not, I couldn't resist taking a few minutes to stop and capture the scene.  Then I quickly hightailed it down the trail!

Paradise visitor center with ominous clouds

Safely back at my car, I contemplated my next stop.  Since yesterday's trek above the Paradise visitor center had been a miserable rainy experience, I thought about trying again.  Maybe arriving during early evening I'd miss some of the crowds?  It was worth a try.  So around 6 pm, I headed back up the steep, winding road towards Paradise.

Beautiful aster

At first it looked as though I'd succeed in getting a hike on the high alpine meadows above the famous lodge.  The earlier thunderstorm seemed to be gone.  Happily, I chose a path and began to climb.  I passed some lovely wildflower fields, and had stopped to take a few photos, when I heard thunder rumble.  Oh no, not another storm!

Magenta paintbrush

More dark clouds had moved in.  A series of booms echoed across the mountain.  By now I was above treeline - and totally exposed to any lightening.  Not a good place to be!  Sadly, I turned tail and retraced my steps back to the visitor center.  On my way down, I noticed several people still heading in the opposite direction.  (I couldn't believe the number of people!  They must have been clueless or had a death wish)  The sky opened up just as the visitor center came in sight.  I ducked inside, grabbed a piece of pizza from the snack bar, and watched the deluge.  Pea-size hailstones began falling, and I was doubly thankful I'd decided to turn back when I did.

Mountain view from Paradise trails

Foiled again!  Would I ever get a chance to hike the lovely trails above Paradise in good weather?  I was beginning to think it wasn't in the cards for this trip.  But I still had one final day at Mt Rainier National Park.  Maybe the third time would be the charm?

Find out in the next post - a recap of my third and final day at Mt Rainier.