Long-standing stay-at-home orders have left Seattle residents chomping at the bit to get outside for a breath of fresh air. Thankfully, Mount Rainier National Park is loosening restrictions, allowing intrepid travelers to explore the park while safely social distancing. Currently, foot traffic will only be allowed in via backcountry access points which are not for the faint of heart. Roads, parking areas, and trailheads will remain closed. Park facilities such as visitor centers, gift shops, and restaurants are also closed until further notice. Hikers that do enter the park through the backcountry are asked to stay at elevations below 10,500 feet. The high camps (Camp Muir and Camp Shurman) are good points of reference to gauge elevation. Recreation is allowed up until these camps. Since the backcountry may be a bit rigorous for unseasoned outdoorsmen, the park offers virtual tours that can be perused from home using an interactive map.
Mount Rainier: An Environmental Icon
Mount Rainier became a National Park in 1899 making it the fifth National Park in the United States but the first park to be established after the formation of the National Forest System. The National Forest System took some of the first steps in making sure the nation’s parks were protected instead of harvested for natural resources, preserving them for future generations. Mount Rainier is the centerpiece of the park and, prior to COVID-19, a popular mountaineer destination and right of passages for climbers across the globe. The park hopes to reopen the higher camps this summer as soon as it is socially responsible to do so. The summit is over 14,000 feet above sea level and the mountain is still an active volcano only 60 miles from Seattle proper. The few expert mountaineers and researchers that make it to the summit have explored the labyrinth of ice caves at the peak. Researching these dangerous and unpredictable ice caves may help advance space exploration technology.
Visit the Rainforest
In the northwestern corner of the park, visitors will find the Carbon River Rainforest. It is a temperate rainforest and particularly rare because it is inland; most temperate rainforests are near the coast. This unique ecosystem gets between 70 and 90 inches of rainfall each year. The rainfall creates a moisture-rich habitat for ferns, lichen, and moss-draped Douglas firs. The Carbon River Trail is a short, 0.3-mile introductory loop through the area. There are, however, other trails that meander through the Carbon River area and are accessible all year because the river valley doesn’t get much snow. The Carbon River is fed by glaciers high up on Mount Rainer’s peak and used to be a life-line for the mines that were active until it was incorporated as a National Park. Tools and artifacts from the mines can still be found along the riverbed.
Ticket to Paradise
Summer is coming and that means it is the best time to visit Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park. In late July and early August, the valleys and mountainsides erupt with color. More than 100 species of wildflowers bloom from the Paradise to the Sunrise visitor centers. There is a network of 16 well-maintained trails appropriate for a variety of skill levels with sweeping views of this natural beauty. Chinook Pass and Tipsoo Lake are alternative locations for wildflower viewing in a completely different environment. Tipsoo is a subalpine lake at the top of the pass. The stunning colors of the wildflowers are painted in the reflection of the lake. The Naches Peak Trail is a wonderful way to visit the lake and see this breathtaking natural occurrence.
Preserving Nature in the Park
The park is home to more than 900 species of plants, 65 different mammals, and over 180 kinds of birds. Grey wolves and Canada lynx are just 2 of 9 endangered species that have found safe haven here, though spotting them is rare. More common animal sightings include flying squirrels, marmot, elk, black bear, and at higher elevations, mountain goats. The park has strict guidelines that help safeguard the natural integrity of the park. “Pack in, pack out” is a mantra all visitors must follow. Leaving no trace is the best way to keep the delicate ecosystems intact.