From Seattle, WA, Mount Rainier beckons like a bright white beacon. Snowcapped all year round and within a two-hour drive of the city, it is a popular destination. My favorite day-hike takes me through the Paradise Meadows and along a high ridge, providing spectacular views.
Seasons matter in the high mountains, so hiking the Skyline Trail on Mount Rainier is best in later summer. Unless I feel like snowshoeing, July 1 is too early, as the snow is still generally about two stories high in the parking lot.
The Skyline Trail begins at 5,000 feet. In this part of the Pacific Northwest, we generally use July 1 as the “start “of summer, but the higher you go, the later summer arrives. I hike this trail between August 1 and September 1 each year.
John Muir, the American conservationist, visited the Paradise Meadows in the summer of 1889, and the park service has paid tribute to his astonishment at the flowers during peak season. His comments are inscribed on the stairs at the main trailhead from the parking lot.
The first portion of all the trails through the meadow are paved. The wide, smooth asphalt protects the fragile flowering plants, and allows better access for visitors in wheelchairs or with limited mobility. There is also a modern visitors’ center with exhibits, restrooms, and a cafeteria.
A day spent wandering the low meadow trails is never wasted, and I have had a chance to talk people from all across the world in this natural garden.
I like to hike higher, beyond the paved sections. The wooden bridge crossing Myrtle Falls, which I can hear cascading away below, marks the start of the upper meadow. Wide trails with wooden cross pieces to control the flow of water on rainy days lead up across the meadow, all the way to the facing ridge. Most first-time visitors are drawn ahead. I was, too. The endless blooms on the carpet of green are mesmerizing.
Typically, a light breeze carries the scent of all these flowers on the wind.
These days, though, I like to take the first fork to the right, off to the last of the timber stands. My choice gets me started on a loop that will return to this spot, with the advantage of finishing the hike coming down from the ridge ahead, instead of climbing up from the valley to the right.
Across the Hanging Valley to the Ridge
The side trail ducks back under trees, providing a lovely bit of shade in the summer heat. This will be the last shelter from the sun, so if I have forgotten, I stop here to apply sunscreen and pull out a brimmed hat.
This three-mile loop hike will climb up another 1,500 feet. Protecting my eyes and skin makes the difference between a gorgeous day out or the next two days in sunburn misery.
This is also a great spot to drink a bit of the water I brought. It is easy to forget a body will need more water going higher, so I make a habit of stopping to drink here, at the stone chair, and at the top of the loop. I generally carry a few extra bottles of water, too.
There are always people who have not hiked before on these trails. Their excitement carries them higher up the mountain than they are prepared for. Handing out spare water, sharing some sunscreen are not only nice to do, but make for easy conversation starters.
Once back out of the trees, the trail drops into a small hanging valley, with small meadows that cling to the steep slopes. Waterfalls and small creeks pour down through this valley, adding water music to the scene. There are several rock falls where I might hear pica (the cutest mouse/rabbit critter on the mountain) and I definitely start to see marmots. A quick climb back up on the other side puts me high enough to see for miles to the south, east, and west.
Along the Spine
Now the trial climbs even higher, heading toward the mountain top along the spine of the ridgeline. There are flowers even here in high season. Bear grass blooms with masses of tiny white flowers gathered on the top of a single stalk.
Glacier lilies gleam white and yellow in the areas where the snow has most recently melted back. Paintbrush, lupine, and heather pop up under the trees that have been stunted by years of heavy winter snow and winds.
My second water spot is the stone chair. It was constructed in 1921 by a local mountain climbing club, the Mountaineers and is angled perfectly to sit and enjoy an unobstructed view of the summit. It is also amazingly comfortable; the stones having been worn smooth by one hundred years of resting hikers.
There is one more small patch of high meadow before the trails climbs up steeply. If it is a particularly hot day, I’ll take a pretty level half mile side trail back to the snow fields and cool off before tackling the more strenuous section. Very few people take this route because it is an “out and back,” so there is the additional pleasure of a private hike on this little spur.
For the last push, the trail has stone stairs. The elevation gain here is the greatest of the entire trail, but the view at the top makes it worth it. And there is space to step off the trail and enjoy the vistas along the way. There is no need to rush.
About the Marmots
By this elevation, the marmots are out in force. In late summer they are eating as fast and as much as they can, preparing for the winter ahead. They have minimal concerns about people in this part of the park, so I see them eating in meadows, warming themselves on the rocky outcroppings, tumbling and playing along with their kits, and always, at least one sentry keeping an eye out for predators.
Relatives of low-land groundhogs, these densely furred alpine residents stand up on their haunches, looking for all the world like two neighbors having a chat over the garden wall. And they do keep an eye on all goings on.
If I keep a sharp eye, I see them sitting above groups of rookie climbers practicing with their ice axes before making their climbs to the summit later in the week.
Two words of caution. One, if you put down your pack and look away, a hungry marmot may come loping up to see what you have.
They are protected so they do not fear hikers and have learned people have goodies in their packs. Being sure to pack out any food wrappers helps to keep the marmots out of trouble.
Two, if the marmots disappear, there is a predator nearby. They will give a shrill warning whistle. All marmots in the area will dive for their holes. It’s worth taking a look around yourself. The most common predators are hawks, eagles, and foxes.
Seeing them adds to the beauty of the day.
Occasionally, black bears shamble through. They tend to steer clear of people, but if one is in a rush, it may use the trails briefly. Its always better to see them first. If the marmots disappear, be sure to look around. They are a reliable early warning system.
The Big View
At the top of this section of trail, the entire Paradise Meadow opens up below. I can see not only the parking lot, the visitor’s center, and the Paradise Inn, but the trail back throug the meadow.
Just past the parking area is Goat Rocks, the next ridge south, and on a clear day, the flat top of Mount Saint Helens is visible, blown down to 8,000 feet after the eruption of 1980.
Back through Paradise Meadow
The walk back down goes right through the largest section of the meadow. Because it is often later in the day, the flowers are fully open, adding a light perfume to the air.
The Paradise Inn
Finishing back at the parking lot, I always stop at the Paradise Inn. Their enormous lobby, with stone fireplaces on either end, is called the “living room” of the park. It is a perfect place to rest on comfy chairs, listen to a ranger or docent presentation, and get freshened up before the drive back down the mountain. I always get a soft serve ice cream cone and sit outside on the southern porch before heading home.