Editor’s Note: Jeff Antonelis-Lapp, teaches environmental education
at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Since 2009 he’s been
at work on Tahoma: The Place and Its People, a natural and precontact history
of Mount Rainier National Park. Here’s his advice for added insight on the drive up to Paradise.
Most summertime visitors to Mount Rainier National Park pass quickly through the lower elevations to Paradise to focus on walks among the exquisitely beautiful flower-filled meadows or to play in the melting snow. Build more time into your schedule and it’s easy to discover interesting and easily accessed natural features hidden in the Longmire area on the road to Paradise. Here are just a few of the amazing things you shouldn’t miss. So grab your camera and a day pack loaded with water, snacks and a jacket for those sudden weather changes the mountain is famous for, and let’s go!
Lava Flow, Meet Glacier
The first thing to do at Longmire is to appreciate the landscape-scale changes that have occurred here over the ages. In geologic terms the mountain is a relatively young 500,000 years, built through a series of volcanic events, mostly lava flows, on top of ancestral volcanoes. Even at its “young” age, half a million years is still an impossibly long period of time for most people to comprehend. To help get a grasp on that, imagine Mount Rainier’s lifespan compressed into a 24-hour clock that begins at 500,000 years ago and runs to the present. The first moments at 12:01 a.m. mark the initial mountain-building events; the last moments at 11:59:59 p.m. mark present times.
In addition to lava flows, glaciers also play a key role in shaping Mount Rainier as they grind rock and carve river valleys. Periods of time when the climate was cool provided the right conditions for glaciers to add to their mass and volume, sometimes extending for miles down river valleys. At 8 a.m. on our 24-hour clock, the Nisqually Glacier stretched thirty miles down valley and at 11 p.m., nineteen miles. In both instances the glacial ice at Longmire exceeded a thickness of hundreds of feet!
A key Longmire-area geologic event occurred at 6 a.m. on the 24-hour clock and the best way to appreciate it is to stand in front of the National Park Inn facing north toward the mountain. Look up at Rampart Ridge, the 4,000 to 5,000-foot high ridge towering on your left from in front of the Inn. The massive escarpment was formed when a lava flow poured from a vent high on the mountain. The ridge gained its shape when the flow made contact with the edge of the hundreds-of-feet thick Nisqually Glacier at Longmire—and you can still see signs of the lava-glacier collision on the flanks of Rampart Ridge. Look for large cliffs of bare, vertical rock that mark the exact point where the Rampart Ridge lava flow met the glacier’s lateral edge. As you gaze up, try to imagine the chaotic, cataclysmic hissing, boiling, and steaming of this mighty event.
Across the road from the National Park Inn, the .7-mile Trail of the Shadows holds evidence that Mount Rainier is anything but a dormant volcano. You may not feel one of the thirty small earthquakes the mountain averages annually, but the mineral springs in the Longmire Meadow testify to its active status. Pioneer James Longmire came upon the springs in 1883 while searching for a stray horse and within two years built accommodations so that tourists could soak in the mineral waters to cure their various ailments. Although water analysis later proved that the springs had no curative value, their connection to the mountain’s volcanic story makes them a must-see.
Like other thermal springs in the park, they begin in the upper part of the mountain’s central “plumbing system” where acidic waters are heated by the volcano’s thermal core. As the water flows down the mountain to the meadow it is diluted by colder ground water to an average temperature of 77° Fahrenheit.
Minerals in the water create small-scale features similar to those found at Yellowstone, including calcium carbonate deposits known as travertine and a porous type of travertine called tufa. These are easiest to observe in the western part of the meadow along the base of Rampart Ridge. The many bubbling areas you’re sure to see are the products of more chemical reactions, the gas of which is almost entirely carbon dioxide.
A great activity for kids and curious adults is to record the water temperature at various locations along the trail (no danger of burns or scalds). To use borrow the free equipment, go to the Longmire Museum and ask for the materials (opens at 9 a.m. daily throughout the summer).
Nature’s Civil Engineer
According to a Native American story told by those living in the shadow of Tahoma (one of the indigenous names for the mountain), “Beaver traded Muskrat out of his tail. It was too big for so small a man. Muskrat was chief of the swamps.” Whether beaver are so clever is not clear, but no other animal figures so prominently in U.S. history nor alters the landscape so dramatically. For the patient and observant visitor, the Longmire Meadow provides an excellent opportunity to see beavers and marvel at their engineering abilities.
One of the beaver’s historic values to society are its castors, anal scent glands that release castoreum, a pleasantly sweet fragrance suggesting a leathery smell. Used for hundreds of years in perfume production, castoreum is now produced synthetically in laboratories. But the beaver hide industry was the animal’s greatest value to the North American economy, as well as the driving force behind the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a factor in the Louisiana Purchase, and a stage on which fortunes were won and lost. Beaver pelts were a standard trade item among native North Americans long before European contact but it was their value in Europe and the U.S. that drove a steep decline in the beaver population that lasted into the 20th century. Fortunately, conservation efforts have returned the beaver to most of its original range except where habitat has been lost to development.
Since beavers are usually seen near dawn or dusk, your best chance to catch a glimpse is to rise early or arrive before sunset and watch quietly from the east side of the pond. The interpretive trail markers are informative, but the real story is the girdled trees balancing precariously on fine points that look like lumberjacks took a break just before finishing the job of felling the tree. Beaver are strict vegetarians and a key menu item is cambium, the tree’s inner bark. These gnawed trees are little more than a beaver’s lunch stand.
Their large webbed feet help make beaver excellent swimmers, and they can remain underwater more than fifteen minutes by using oxygen efficiently and closing their valvular ears and nostrils to keep water out. The beaver’s engineering skills are legendary and on prominent display here in the meadow.
As you wait patiently for a beaver to surface, locate its lodge, a stick-and-log affair with an underwater entrance leading to a living area above the water level. Also notice the extensive dams, the beaver’s signature mark on the landscape that influences hydrologic processes and the plants and animals living nearby. That may be well-known, but the bigger picture is the impact beavers have as their dams affect water levels and rates of flow. As new areas flood, sediments may settle and fill in ponds. Valuable nutrients accumulate that would otherwise flow downstream. And ground water is held longer than it would be without the dams.
All this translates to profound effects on the vegetation, insects, vertebrates, even the topography and overall diversity of the area. Pretty prodigious impact for a 50-pound fur ball.
Make a Plan
Now you’re really ready for Paradise. There’s no doubt that the flower meadows at Paradise rank among the finest in the world. Venerable conservationist and naturalist John Muir wrote that they were, “The most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings.” The recently published Wildflower Wonders: The 50 Best Wildflower Sites in the World advises readers that, “if you only visit one site to see North American mountain flowers, then this should probably be it.” All true, and the view of the summit from Paradise on a clear day is unparalleled. But on your next trip to “the mountain,” make sure that a nature stop in Longmire is in your plans.