Watch the Steam Vents
Hiking on a live volcano. Sound dumb? Not really. Thousands of people hike Mount Rainier annually. In fact, the Native Americans, who call the mountain Tahoma, frequented the mountain hundreds of years before it was “discovered” by the white man. Steam vents at the top attest to the subsurface volcanic activity of the mountain, which last spewed small amounts of ash in the 19th century. The threat of an eruption while you’re on the mountain is next to nonexistent. But the mere knowledge that you’re traipsing across an active giant will give you an extra charge in your already exhilarating hike.
Mount Rainier, in Mount Rainier National Park, is located approximately 2 hours by car from Seattle, Washington. (The area was designated a national park in 1899 by President McKinley.) At over 14,400 feet (4,380m) above sea level (9,000 feet /2,743m base to summit), Rainier is the most prominent and glaciered mountain in the Cascade Range. The mountain is available for great public outdoor activity including fishing, horseback riding, mountaineering, and hiking, along with a host of winter sports such as skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing.
With almost 40 designated trails, the variety of hikes is almost limitless and ranges from short, easy walks to difficult hikes and multi-day or multi-week trips. The Nisqually Vista Trail is a short, easy trail that covers about 11⁄4 miles (2km), from which you can see the Nisqually Glacier and the beginning of the Nisqually River. A relatively easy 4- to 5-hour hike along the Skookum Flats Trail takes you to the base to Skookum Falls, a waterfall with a 250-foot (76m) drop.
Mount Rainier National Park.
A more difficult hike follows the Rampart Ridge Trail to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground. Henry was a Cowlitz Indian, who hunted goats in the area more than 100 years ago. In season, the meadows are full of wildflowers and incredibly beautiful.
The most difficult hike is the 93-mile-long (150km) Wonderland Trail, which circumvents Mount Rainier and should be undertaken only by experienced hikers in very good physical condition. Stretches of the trail go from fairly easy to very difficult with significant elevation changes. Water periodically destroys parts of the trail and can make passage difficult. The views encountered along the way are never–to-be-forgotten spectacular. If you want to see the famous view of Mount Rainier from Mirror Lake, the lake is just north of the junction of the Wonderland Trail and the Kautz Creek Trail. Campsites are small and not always available, so it’s a good idea to reserve sites well in advance. To make the long hike a bit easier, it is possible to cache food at some of the ranger stations to lighten your load.
A few words about weather: Heavy rain and wash can affect the condition of the trails and turn easy treks into difficult and even dangerous ones, so check trail conditions before you start out. And, mountains tend to make their own weather. Conditions can change quite quickly, so be prepared. —LF
Tour: American Alpine Institute, 1515 Twelfth St., Bellingham, WA ( 800/424-2249; www.aai.cc).
When to Go: Mid-June to Oct.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
$–$$ Mount Rainier Cabins, 30005 S.R. 706 E ( 360/569-2682; www.rainiercabins.com).