July 4th weekend marks the unofficial start to summer in Seattle. Many years, we’re told, the endlessly sunny days that mark the brief 3-month Pacific Northwest summer hesitate and dawdle their way through May and June, hemming and hawing with rain showers, teasing sun-starved Seattleites with fleeting patches of toasty vitamin D. Somehow, this year, we lucked out. May was unusually warm and clear, giving us ample views of the Olympic Mountains across the Puget Sound to the west and of the Cascades to the east. As we settled into our new house and got used to working our new jobs, we had little time to travel and discover much outside of the city. By the time the 4th came around, we were eager to hit the road again for a long weekend of hiking and campfires on the slopes of the Pacific Northwest’s iconic peak: Mt. Rainier.
The Vibe was in the shop getting some small repairs after our long trip, so we decided we’d tent camp and go light for the weekend. We left the city under a mantle of smothering morning fog, headed south and east through the Muckleshoot Reservation (with a brief stop for fireworks) and into the densely forested foothills past Enumclaw, the names of the towns through which we passed rolling off our tongues like poetry. Where we come from, cities and towns and forests and lakes are named after stodgy, long-dead Englishmen or even after other cities and towns and forests and lakes named after stodgy, long-dead Englishmen. The First Nation names of many Washington towns take on an exotic air, stirring in us a mystical excitement, swirling around us like the mist through the stately firs lining the road. According to the map, we were close to “The Mountain,” as Seattleites lovingly refer to Rainier, but the fog had lingered and her broad, glaciated flanks were hidden from view. The road into the National Park meandered south for a few miles before we banked left over a short bridge and began climbing in elevation along the White River, a line of milky glacial runoff bisecting a massive, boulder- and tree-strewn gorge, the aftermath of the torrent unleashed during spring rainstorms. Several miles later and a few thousand feet higher in elevation, we arrived at White River Campground where we picked a site a few yards from the edge of the steep river embankment and set up for a relaxing afternoon of fireside reading and lazy summer naps in the quiet shade of ubiquitous Douglas Firs. As the afternoon wore on and we began to prepare for dinner, the sun finally burned through the fog, revealing The Mountain in all it’s glory, looming above valley cut by the river, draped in brilliant ice, crisscrossed by electric blue crevasses like scars, a rooster-tail of snow streaming from the summit in the southerly wind. We snapped a few photos as the sun set and retired to our fire.
As darkness fell, our neighbors, absent all day, returned to their campsite, speakers blaring reggaeton music, where they draped a Colombian flag over a clothesline and began hanging what appeared to be, for all intents and purposes, a portable LED disco ball beside it. The driver pumped up the tunes as the other three cracked cans of beer and twisted the tops off of plastic Smirnoff vodka bottles. We had no idea Mt. Rainier could be such a party! The disco ball swayed slightly in the breeze, changing colors every few seconds from magenta to blue to green to yellow, all the most synthetic of tones, bathing the Blue, Red and Golden glory of la Republica de Colombia in unnatural hues. A Park Ranger finally appeared to put a stop to the revelry, but not before a half dozen irate campers took turns storming into their site to demand peace and quiet, libertad y orden.
The next morning broke crystal clear and we rustled up a few flames on the fire. Soon, with a pot of coffee and a cast iron skillet of sizzling bacon, navy blue skies beckoned us into the thick shade of the pine forest and onto the mountainside. We set off from our site on the fabled Wonderland Trail and immediately crossed the White River on a series of ramshackle wooden bridges, emerging on the far bank before stepping onto the trail into the woods.
The section of the Wonderland Trail up to Summer Land–a broad, open meadow sprawling across the eastern haunches of Rainier just below Fryingpan and Emmonds glaciers–has three distinct sections. The first meanders through tall firs, cedars and hemlocks along Fryingpan Creek, a narrow chute of white water that carves the rock into a steep channel during its descent from the upper glaciers and snowfields. Throughout this section we were greeted through breaks in the trees by stunning views of the craggy lower ridges leading up to the broader open expanses further up on the mountain. Snowmelt from higher elevations created hundreds of waterfalls, whose constant dull roar was audible throughout almost the entire hike.
The trail eventually leaves the forest, cutting a narrow swath through verdant meadows of wildflowers (though many were not yet in bloom), inviting us on a gentle ascent towards the main upper peak, now completely visible, directly ahead. From there we reentered the forest and began kicking in our boots to gain whatever traction we could as we zigzagged up a series of switchbacks, still buried under several feet of dirty, icy snow. Though we didn’t posthole much, at times we wished we’d brought crampons to mitigate the risk of a rapid, slippery, uninvited descent.
At the top of the switchbacks we emerged, at last, at Summer Land, the alpine meadow crisscrossed by tiny creeks and streams whose frigid waters derived directly from the glaciers hanging just a few hundred feet overhead. Patches of snow still lingered despite temperatures in the 80s. We found a warm, flat rock alongside an idyllic stream and unpacked our lunches, pausing only to admire the view, revel in our solitude (we shared the view with only one other human soul whose profile we could barely make out as he traversed Fryingpan Glacier higher up), and free our burning feet from sweaty boots. I alternated warming my feet on the rock and cooling them in the arctic waters while we downed a few sandwiches. The sky was a pristine blue save for a few wisps of clouds rising up the western side of the summit, condensing briefly on the heated air, then evaporating just as quickly. Everything was green, white or blue, two-thirds a perfect patriotic display.
Summer Land is another one of of those places we found where its name so aptly describes its best feature. It’s not a place to be for much of the winter when endless storms batter and bury the meadows, scouring them with bitter winds. While there are many, including myself, who would love to see it covered thick with white fluff beneath a cobalt winter sky, its true glory is revealed during those two brief months when the snows melt enough to unleash rolls of green dappled with a full spectrum of wildflower bouquets. Sitting beside a giant pile of snow on Independence Day in shorts and a t-shirt, just below the behemoth summit we pine after on clear Seattle days, gazing up at the lithe tongue of Emmonds Glacier stretching to Rainier’s peak, it was clear to us that this place was meant for summer days like these.
Here are a few more photos from our trip to Mt. Rainier National Park: