Monday, August 29, 2016

Skyline Trail

Way back when, around the year 2000, give or take a few, Dollie and I took daughters Jessie and Aislinn on a week-long vacation in Mount Rainier National Park. We had been there for most of the week and had yet to see the mountain, as it was cloudbound the entire time we were there. Finally, in desperation, we decided to hike anyway and went up on the Skyline Trail. The trail climbed relentlessly and eventually entered the cloud cover. Panorama Point was socked in with bitter cold fog but we slogged on anyway and then one of those hiking miracles happened. The fog thinned out and what hikes into the clouds can also hike out of the clouds. And just like that, there was Mount Rainier in all its snowy and rocky glory, rising above a cottony sea of clouds with a blue sky above. It is no small coincidence we have not stopped hiking since.

Pillsbury Doughboy
Of course, we really didn't know what we were doing back then, we carried no water and I sported a soft pudgy physique that pretty much resembled the Pillsbury Doughboy. On the plus side, I did have a lot more hair! We thought we were pretty badass hikers, impressing ourselves with our incredibly long 5 mile hike. A lot of trail miles have since flowed under my feet, and I'm about 35 pounds lighter than I was back then, with most of the lighter weight being attributable to hair loss. However, until this late August weekend, I had never returned to Mount Rainier.

I call "Dibs!"
What I remember about hiking the Skyline Trail in 2000 was all the huffing and puffing on wobbly legs going up a very steep trail. Some things never change! On the 2016 version of this hike (this was the annual Friends of the Umpqua campout venture) it all came back to me: the trail was paved for the first mile or so but paved or unpaved, the trail was unrelentingly steep, gaining 1,700 miles in the first 2 miles. And since we started at 5,300 feet the exertion took place in thinner air that had hearts beating madly in our ribcages. Nearby deer were calling "dibs" on my hiking poles should I keel over. They even started a betting pool on how far I'd make it before collapsing in a heap of exhaustion.

Nisqually Glacier
Like I said, after a mile or so, the pavement changed to dirt and rocks, and we took a slightly longer route by choosing the Glacier Vista Trail. And speaking of vistas, it was a gloriously clear day and wherever we were, there was Mount Rainier looming above in one postcard view after another. The mountain was covered with icy glaciers coursing down the slopes like frozen rivers which in essence, is exactly what they are. The nearest glacier was the imposing Nisqually Glacier and at the glacier's toe, the Nisqually River sprung forth from a muddy ice cave. We were staring down the river canyon, lined with rocks from the constant flooding that takes place every winter.

Pretty chill marmot
Marmot sentries whistled warnings as we approached and occasionally we could hear the "meeps" from pikas, although we never did see one. Periodically, we were overtaken by fully laden mountain climber groups, walking faster with full packs than us with day packs. Some things never change!

Some things never change!

The trail topped out shortly after Panorama Point and we ate lunch with Mount Rainier at our backs. The terrain was rocky tundra and sloped away into the deep canyons of Stevens Creek and the Paradise River with the jagged peaks of the Tatoosh Range rising on the other side. Beyond the Tatooshes were the much larger volcanoes of Mount Adams, Mount Hood, and Mount Saint Helens. Way, way, cool!

Mount Adams rises over the Tatoosh Range
The trail dropped down through some snow fields dotted with climbing groups performing legally required ice-skills training. All the downhill hiking would wind up taking us into the the Paradise River drainage. Small creeks flowed with crystalline snow melt and wildflowers bloomed wherever water flowed. A female ptarmigan wandered across the trail, practically at my feet and chirped a few stern commands. A family of chicks emerged from where they had been hiding (again, practically at my feet) and followed their mother into the woods. Mount Rainier commanded attention and we could see a number of waterfalls cascading on the slopes of the magnificent peak.

Bistort flowers up a ridge crest
The trail left a high ridge and dropped down to the Paradise River, which was more like a creek at this point. The bare rock morphed into green meadows and rampant vegetation and the hiking crowd morphed into "The Casuals", or people who normally don't hike. We could easily spot the Casuals because they either carried no water, hiked in wingtip shoes, or pushed baby strollers.

Flowers in Paradise Park
The crowds were huge at Paradise Lodge and we ate expensive ice cream and people-watched for a while. All in all, a nice reintroduction to the wonders of Mount Rainier National Park and even after this fairly short 6 mile hike, I felt like one badass hiker. Some things never change!

Pearly everlasting
For more pictures of this magnificent hike, please visit the Flickr album.


  1. Ok, now we're, now we waant to retire. Pictures are beautiful and we would imagine being there in person was even better. We have Mt Rainier NP on our bucket list and the hike you did is also on our have wetted our appetite! Love the last picture of your "Ta Da". Your group picked the right day to hike since I know Mt Rainier if often in the clouds.

  2. Wait til you see the pictures from Burroughs Mountain, also in Ranier Park. One of the most spectacular hikes I've been on and it wasn't even paved! And unfortunately, the last two days were spent camping in the rain so it wasn't all sunshine and happiness

  3. Oh yeah! Mt Rainier is spectacular isn't it? I'm so glad I went there this year too. I certainly won't wait several years before I go back again either.