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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The magenta paintbrush was especially thick here.
Climbing higher, pointy peaks of the nearby Tatoosh Range began to come into view.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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