The three kids'my 12-year-old son, Nate, and 10-year-old daughter, Alex, plus my 15-year-old nephew, Marco'are slightly less than enthusiastic about our plan to hike the Skyline Trail Loop above Paradise, on the south side of Mount Rainier National Park. My 76-year-old mom, Joanne, normally an eager hiker, shuffles along this morning, still recovering from a long, hard hike up Mount St. Helens two days ago.
Our group isn't exactly the picture of bubbly cheerfulness at the outset of our six-mile day-hike, despite the cobalt sky overhead and made-for-hiking mild temps and slight breeze'the kind of weather for which Pacific Northwest hikers patiently wait out nine months of rain every year, a sign of devoted, true believers. But I know 'The Mountain' will charge up my little group's energy level very soon. Hiking in Mount Rainier National Park, where another five-star panorama usually awaits around the next bend, does not require much patience.
Sure enough, before long, we emerge from a copse of resilient confer trees'still outflanked by snow in August'to the kind of view that can make you wonder whether the alpine sun and elevation have conspired to tamper with your delicate brain. But it's real. Looming very large over a huge chunk of our visual horizon, 14,409-foot Mount Rainier's visage of snow, gray rock, and cracked, blue-and-white ice towers several thousand feet above our sprawling, wildflower-filled meadow.
Minutes later, we come upon a fat, furry marmot posing for photos on a trailside boulder. Then the kids bound over to a nearby snow slope to run laps up it and 'ski' back down on their boot soles, delighting in the anomaly of playing in snow on a balmy summer day. When we are able to pull our eyes away from Rainier and turn around, we look out at the decapitated ruins of Mount St. Helens and another snowy and icy hulk, 12,280-foot Mount Adams, second-highest peak in Washington, both volcanoes rising high above the forested mountain ridges and valleys.
For families or anyone who likes a scenery payoff to match more than their effort, Mount Rainier National Park is a day-hiking paradise'and not just at Paradise, probably the most popular trailhead in the park. Besides views of The Mountain and some of the best wildflower shows in America, park trails offer vistas of some of the biggest glaciers in the Lower 48, waterfalls, roaring whitewater rivers gray with glacial flour, dense rainforest, and occasional sightings of mega-fauna like elk, mountain goats, and black bears.
After several visits to the park, I have some favorite day hikes. Go in the first half of August, when the substantial snowpack of winter and spring has melted away enough to reveal a riot of lupine, beargrass, pink monkeyflower, and other wildflowers.