A mountain above the clouds

Snuggled in a sleeping bag with two pairs of socks, a hooded sweatshirt and my warmest pair of pants, I hugged my knees and watched my breath in the air as I tried to fall asleep. Never before have I been so cold in the middle of summer.

Snuggled in a sleeping bag with two pairs of socks, a hooded sweatshirt and my warmest pair of pants, I hugged my knees and watched my breath in the air as I tried to fall asleep. Never before have I been so cold in the middle of summer.

It sounds strange, but in July, it's foolish to expect the trails at Mount Rainier National Park to be clear of snow. In the high elevation of the Cascade Mountains in Washington, you'll need boots and maybe mittens to hike comfortably. If you dislike walking in snow, don't visit the park before mid-August. And if you intend to camp, dress warmly at night. When the sun sets, it gets chilly, even for a Minnesotan like me.

The main draw of Rainier is obviously the park's namesake. For a great view of the mountain, hike the segment of the Wonderland Trail near Cougar Rock Campground. A short hike takes you to the Nisqually River, which runs from the southern slope Mount Rainier. From both the riverbed or a narrow bridge crossing over the river, you get an unobstructed view.

To get closer to the peak, many visitors hike trails near Paradise. It is the most popular and crowded region of the park, and while many fine hikes can be found away from the mountain, hiking one of the trails near Paradise is sure to be memorable.

The route I hiked with my brother followed the Golden Gate Trail up to Panorama Point and looped back on Deadhorse Creek Trail for a total distance of only about five miles. A dense fog and light mist greeted us when we reached the trailhead, so we grabbed two bright yellow rain ponchos before heading out. I put the hood up, hoping I might look less like a crazed hobbit, but that just made things worse. I have the pictures to prove it.


The first half of our hike was deemed "strenuous" by the map we carried; however, the only challenge was locating the trail itself. Because of the snow, we followed the footprints of previous hikers and a series of small red flags that marked the correct path. We kept on the trail easily until we reached a long switchback climb.

Many hikers before us had chosen to leave the designated trail for a shorter climb straight up the pass, trampling fragile vegetation. In addition, the rangers who marked the trail had neglected to place flags at important turns.

It didn't take long before we had wandered away from the path, following a pair of footprints that went up what seemed like a very steep climb. As I kicked in my toes and used my hands to keep from sliding back down the snowy incline, I thought how unfair it was to include such a steep climb. Surely it would be nearly impossible for casual or elderly hikers. Never once did I think we were off the trail; we had followed the flags faithfully.

I'd just finished a particularly slippery section of the climb when I heard my brother behind me.

"That looks like a flag over there." He pointed toward a mound of snow on our right. "Do you think that's the trail?"

I looked closely at the red speck. Definitely not a flower.

A few choice words came to mind as I scrambled over the snow to get back on track.

More than an hour later, we reached the first lookout on the trail. Mount Rainier was apparently right in front of us, but with visibility at less than 20 feet, I saw nothing.


We trudged on, and I began to think the entire hike would be a waste. I had lost all sense of direction in the fog and was convinced we were going in circles. It seemed to me we should be heading down, but we started another climb and soon noticed blue sky through the clearing fog.

When we reached the top, fog blanketed everything beneath us. A huge snow-covered mountain was visible nearby. Still very disoriented, my brother and I thought it was one of the many smaller peaks in the park, but we took pictures anyway because it was pretty. Only when I returned home and started comparing my photos did I realize we had actually been looking at Mount Rainier.

After our brief hiatus from the fog, we plunged back in on the hike down, happy to have at least seen something on our hike. The day improved further when we spotted a portly little creature resting on a boulder just off the trail. In the deep mist, I couldn't identify the animal until I was right next to it: a hoary marmot. The large rodent looked at me and scrunched down on its rock but seemed unconcerned.

Running, and at some points skiing, down the eastern slope was another bright point of the trail. I felt like a kid home from school on a snow day. And I acted like one too.

The actual trail was so far beneath the snow we were guided on an alternate route, marked with the same red flags we had followed on our trek up. I took the lead and swerved from flag to flag, more like a slalom skier than a hiker as I ran and slid down the snow.

A number of other hikers gave us strange looks as we zipped by, including a group that started conversing in what sounded like German. I'm not sure what they said, but I imagine it had something to do with the strange Americans in bright yellow ponchos. It feels nice to know we made a good impression.

With our faster pace, it took only about 20 minutes to get back to the bottom. It had taken us hours to climb up.

What had started out as a disappointing hike ended up being my favorite in the park. We had the trail to ourselves, and the fog gave the mountain an otherworldly feel.


Still, I wouldn't pass up the chance to hike the trail again on a clear day. Maybe then I'd recognize Mount Rainier when it was right in front of me.

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