So after making the turn north to leave the Portland area we didn’t know what our next month in the Pacific Northwest would hold, but we did know one thing - that we’d be making a stop at Mt. Rainier. We knew the massive volcano that holds the title for highest point in the Cascades was surely not one to disappoint, but we had no idea just how wonderful of a place it would be.
We visited on the second weekend in October, which happened to be the last weekend that many of the park’s facilities and campgrounds were open. Now, we knew that October would be pushing it for a visit to tall mountains in the rainy PNW, but we weren’t entirely prepared for just how much it would rain. Our first week in Washington was spent camped near a tucked away little lake where we could get our work done and prepare for a weekend of exploring the mountain. It was honestly the first time that living in an RV felt small because it rained every single day and we simply couldn’t do anything outside. Luckily, on Friday the sun peeked out and we had a nice day driving up to the National Park.
Once inside the park we began the drive up to Cougar Rock campground, a large campground located in the SW of the park at a few thousand feet of elevation. As soon as we passed the entrance gate and began the drive up the mountain, we started to realize that the snowy peak was just one of the treasures in this place. The dense, old-growth forest springs to life along the road right where the pavement ends. Massive trees wider than we’d ever seen seemed to creep into the roadway, narrowing turns ever so slightly with each passing year. We had never seen anything quite like this, and it was only the beginning.
Once we got to the campground we found ourselves in a very different situation than we’ve had in other National Parks. Where we are used to vulching for sites at 7am, we found this campground to only have half the loops open, and still seem nearly empty. I am sure that this isn’t the story in mid-July, but we did not complain as we spent longer than usual deciding between a dozen or so really nice looking sites. Speaking of the sites here, we have never seen such a well laid out campground. It is a little tight in places, but the care that was taken to designing each unique campsite and they way that it embraces the old growth forest around it, rather than just clear and pave like many other campgrounds, is truly impressive.
We woke up on Saturday determined to see as much of the park as we possibly could in one day, while making our way down to the other open campground in the SE region of the park. So we set out up the park road, stopped at a cool waterfall, and then made it to Paradise by the late morning. Now, by Paradise I mean the name of the area right at the base of the serious part of the mountain, not that it was warm and lined with palm trees. In fact it was cold and there was a snowstorm surrounding the peak of the mountain. The storm clouds began just above the elevation that the visitor center at Paradise is at… so despite the fact that we were at the base of the mountain where many wonderful photographs of wild flowers and a snow capped peak are taken, all we saw was white clouds. It was a disappointment, but after talking to a ranger who said it is common this time of year to not see the summit for may days at a time, we decided to try our luck enjoying the rainforest of the lower elevations.
So we got to the Ohanapecosh campground, which was equally empty and situated by the rushing waters of one of Mt Rainier’s many glacial rivers. Once set up, we set off for some hiking. There luckily was a trailhead right at the campground that offered a hike along the river for a few miles before ending at another trailhead for the Grove of the Patriarchs, which yes, is just as cool as it sounds. The trail along the river had us stopping every few minutes to take in the beauty of the area. Having never seen such lush old-growth forest it was an incredible experience to walk through. But the real headline of the day was the Grove of the Patriarchs - this trail leads through a particular area of forest in a valley between two rivers. There must be just the right conditions here for long tree life, because it boasts a collection of Western Redcedars, Douglas Firs, and Hemlocks that all were many hundreds of years old, and a handful that were over a thousand. When you’re standing next to an eight-foot wide tree that’s been growing for over a thousand years, it's hard to tell whether the magnitude of size or time is more impressive. Either way, it sure makes you feel small. While in the grove it began to rain so we donned our new hiking ponchos, (very high fashion) and continued enjoying the day. It is hard to be upset about rain when you’re hiking through lush rainforest - I don’t think it would look the way it did if it didn’t rain so much.
On the return trip we continued to marvel at the forest and rivers that all owed so much to the shrouded volcano that we had yet to set our eyes upon. We may not have seen the mountain once during our weekend there, but we would see it from Seattle eventually. The clouds turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we may not have ever known what a treasure lay just 12,000 feet below the summit.