The first rays of sun hit the summit of Mount Rainier before anything else. At 14,410 feet above sea level, it’s the tallest peak in the state and regarded as the undisputed icon of the Washington landscape. Ringed with ancient forests and wildflower-studded meadows on the fringes of a sprawling metropolis, it’s an impressive sight to behold.
A Mountain Under Threat
Mount Rainier—known as Tahoma to the Indigenous people of the Puyallup tribe—means “Mother of all Waters”. As the birthplace of five rivers, the Indigenous people have long acknowledged Rainier as a critical life source.
For how long is another question. The amount of snow the mountain receives each winter is directly related to the amount of water that will be available in the coming year. With glaciers shrinking due to global warming, the reduced snowpack disrupts the flow of mountain streams. Many of them are drying up entirely.
Declining snowpack isn’t the only threat. Mount Rainier is listed as a Decade Volcano, one of 16 volcanoes worldwide with the greatest potential for catastrophic damage if it erupts. Were Mount Rainier to explode, it would be deadly for those living in the immediate vicinity. Scientists explain that its glaciers could melt instantaneously due to the heat and major debris flow would have repercussions all the way to Seattle. Bottom line: Visit while you have the chance. Mt. Rainier might not be around forever.
Walking in Wonderland
In 1899, the area encompassing Mount Rainier was established as the country’s fifth national park. It sits on the ancestral lands of seven different Indigenous tribes, still respected as the mountain’s sacred caretakers. Today, people from all over the world come to visit, whether it’s to experience some of Washington’s best rock climbing areas, go for a hike, or just take in the views.
If the idea of being on an active volcano doesn’t excite you, the scenic hiking around Mount Rainier National Park might. With easy, paved loops to multi-day treks, there’s an adventure for everyone.
The Wonderland Trail is among the best experiences in the park and one of top backpacking trips in the country. With 22,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain over the course of 93 miles, this epic multi-day hike takes you on a 360-degree traverse around the base of Mount Rainier.
It’s a strenuous hike that demands backpacking experience and logistical planning. You’ll need to secure wilderness permits in advance and plan where to cache your food.
One of my favorite backpacking trails: The Northern Loop
For something less intense, consider the Northern Loop, a 32-mile trek that gives you a taste of the area.
It’s best to start at Sunrise and head out on the Sourdough Ridge trail toward Frozen Lake. After a day of hiking up steep switchbacks, you’ll pop out of dense forest onto an alpine meadow called Windy Gap.
The meadow feels remote in a way not a lot of other places do. There are wild blueberries for picking, mountain goats strolling by, and fields of Pasque flowers, making me feel like I’m walking into a Dr. Seuss book. It’s my favorite place in the entire world.