Despite the crowds, social media posts of fantastic wildflower meadows were enough persuasion to plan an early August trip. Not having campground reservations, I worried about snagging one of the few "first-come, first-serve" sites at nearby Cougar Rock Campground. Increasing my odds meant leaving Portland at the crack of dawn Friday morning.
In this case, the early bird did catch the worm. Not only did I find nonexistent lines at the Nisqually Entrance (where traffic backups often extend for miles) I also landed a sweet campsite in the "generator free" loop at Cougar Rock. (That's what a 7:30 am weekday arrival will get you!)
Campsite procured, and tent set up, it was time to explore. First stop, lovely Christine Falls. Directly adjacent to the main park road, it's easy access meant battling crowds. But persistence paid off, and after waiting for a couple of photographers to clear, I had the place to myself for several minutes. Situated in a gorgeous rocky canyon perfectly framed under the highway's decorative rock bridge, lens candy doesn't get much better!
Still fairly early in the morning, I then pointed my car up the steep, winding road to Paradise. Knowing that the parking lots filled up quickly, a mid-morning arrival was imperative. Although the main lot was already full, I did manage to find a spot in the overflow. Shouldering my backpack and camera bag, I eyed the heavy clouds but neglected to grab gaiters and umbrella. (After such a dry spell, it couldn't possibly rain, could it?) I'd later regret that decision.
|Damp, foggy Skyline Trail|
After grabbing a map at the visitor center, I followed a paved walkway to a huge trail junction. Which way to go? Seeing a patch of purple asters, I impulsively started in their direction.
Fog hid Mt Rainier from view, and a light mist hung in the air. I grabbed a few shots of the raindrop-soaked flowers before stashing my camera inside my rain jacket.
|Flowers were out!|
It didn't take long before the light mist transitioned to heavy raindrops. After several weeks of hiking in scorching temperatures, I reveled in the cool, wet weather. Boy had I missed the rain! Delighted, I splashed through a few puddles that were forming on the asphalt path.
|Love the Magenta Paintbrush|
Wildflowers in Rainier's high alpine meadows were putting on a fine show. I wanted to take zillions of photographs, but the rainy weather put a kibosh on that. Instead, I kept my camera safely stashed away, only braving the elements for a few truly beautiful sights. Trying to cut down on weight, I'd brought my Fujifilm XT-1 mirrorless camera for this trip, and unlike my diehard Canon 7D, it wasn't quite as weather-resistant.
|Into the fog|
I wandered about two miles on the Skyline Trail, taking in the foggy wonderland and flower-filled meadows. I passed by lovely Myrtle and Sluiskin Falls, and huge fields of Western Pasqueflower (aka "Hippy on a Stick") and Magenta Indian Paintbrush. But the now-constant rainfall began taking it's toll. My feet started to get wet, and water began seeping through the seams of my jacket. (Yeah, I was kicking myself for leaving those gaiters and umbrella in the car.) Although I'd had big plans on hiking the entire Skyline Loop Trail, a sign noting a 1-mile return to the visitor center via the Golden Gate Trail made me decide to cry "uncle."
|Fantastic roadside flower garden|
I drug my waterlogged self into the visitor center's cafeteria, ordered a hot tea, and located an open table. The place was crammed with tourists, most like me taking refuge from the wet weather. Since I'd brought one rain jacket and only one other change of clothes I lingered for a long time in the warm cafeteria, hoping these garments would dry out a bit. The disadvantages of tent camping, I had no other heat source.
I found a seat by the heater on the visitor center's upper level, and spent a good 40 minutes watching folks wander by while my clothes dried. But eventually the itch to see more sights won out, so I took my slightly damp self back to the car. Once inside, I cranked the seat heater and fan and spent extra time driving around enjoying the warmth. Seat heaters do an amazing job of drying wet hiking pants!
|Paradise River's rocky plain|
Surprisingly, once I descended from the Paradise area, the rain stopped. Arriving back at my campsite, although the skies were still cloudy, it looked as though it had never rained. (Amazing the difference 2500 feet in elevation makes!) I was thankful - having paid for two nights, I didn't want to begin my weekend in a wet tent.
|Single log footbridge|
By now it was mid-afternoon, and I still had time to explore a bit more. Consulting my maps and guidebook I discovered a trail that led right from the campground and followed the Paradise River past two waterfalls. Perfect! It's always a bonus when you're able to hike right from your campsite.
|Ulp! (It looks worse than it really was)|
So off I went to get in as many miles as I could before nightfall. The trail wound through mossy woods before coming out onto the barren, rocky plain of Paradise River. A glacial stream, the Paradise was lined by large, round boulders and it's water ran milky with sediment. Being late afternoon, the river was churning with the day's snowmelt.
A single log bridge led hikers across this scary waterway. I watched a lady ahead of me traverse the log first before scampering across. Although intimidating, the crossing was actually much tamer than it appeared.
|Old pipe paralleling the trail|
Once across the river, my path climbed steadily through more dense woods. I came upon an old wooden water pipe following the trail. A relic from the past, this huge pipe once diverted water to a generator, supplying the park's electricity.
|Carter Falls hid by vegetation|
After a mile and a half, I came upon Carter Falls. Hidden behind thick vegetation, it was kind of a disappointment. But just a short distance beyond, Madcap Falls was smaller but much more visible.
|Huge bridge spanned a tiny creek|
I'd hoped to make it all the way to Narada Falls, another 2 miles down the trail, but I lollygagged enough that approaching darkness forced me to turn around a mile short of my goal. After balancing on that narrow log crossing raging Paradise River, I did have to laugh when I came upon a wide, sturdy bridge spanning a tiny trickle of a stream.
The icing on the cake was rounding a corner and nearly walking into a deer on the trail. After glancing up at me, the doe calmly resumed her evening dinner. I stood firing off photos in the dwindling light until she got tired of the paparazzi and ducked into the woods.
Reaching my campsite shortly before sunset, I enjoyed dinner before turning in for the evening. Despite the wet start, it had been a successful first day at Mt Rainier National Park. Having a couple big hikes planned for tomorrow, I hoped the weather would be a bit drier.
Stay tuned for day two!