During our all too brief stints of beautiful weather here in the western Pacific Northwest, we Northwesterners dash outside in a manic frenzy. So of course I had to get out and play in the great outdoors last week with a string of warm sunny days—my destination was Mount Rainier National Park, just a 90-minute drive south of Seattle.
My friend Don and I drive up to Sunrise, a complex of historic old wooden buildings on the northern flank of the mountain and starting point for many great hikes. And at over 6,400 feet in elevation, we’re already high enough for spectaculars views without even getting out of the car.
We’re headed to the Mt. Fremont fire lookout that sits on the prow of a ridge above Sunrise, one of four old fire lookouts still remaining in the park. This 5.5-mile roundtrip hike is fairly easy, with only 800 feet of gradual elevation gain along well-maintained dusty and rocky trail.
At first the trail is paved, but not for long. Soon we stroll past meadows strewn with alpine flowers, very late this year. Purple lupine, Indian paintbrush, and lots more cheerful and sweet blossoms line the trail.
The trail along Sourdough Ridge towards the mountain is relatively flat. Although it's a weekday, we still see numerous other hikers out today.
After passing Frozen Lake, which is not frozen but is roped off to keep visitors away, we come to a junction at 1.5 miles. Instead of continuing up the mountain towards Burroughs Mountain (and close-up views of glaciers), the Mt. Fremont trail forks off to the right through a large meadow, away and then parallel to the mountain, before angling up a rocky ridge.
Topping out just above the lookout, I scramble to the highest point before being waved away by some park rangers. “Please get down a ways, we’ve got a helicopter coming in for some pickups,” they shout.
Besides the incoming helicopter, there’s also an unwelcome welcoming committee as we sit down to have lunch—vicious mosquitoes. I foolishly didn’t bring bug juice, thinking it would be too late in the season. Wrong!
And then there’s the very aggressive chipmunk/ground squirrel, which at first seems cute. But after he runs up Don’s back, bites a big hole in my sandwich bag, and crawls into my pack, cute morphs into pesky.
From up here we look right down to Grand Park, a volcanic plateau traversed by the Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates Rainier. Beyond we can see the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound, but due to some forest fire haze Seattle is not visible.
In front of us Mount Rainier looms spectacular and awesome in the truest sense of the word. We can clearly see huge crevasses gouging the massive glaciers, thousands of years compressed into these icy tongues snaking down the mountain face. (Factoid: Mount Rainier’s glaciers cover more area than all other Cascade volcanoes combined.)
Ambling back down brings a whole new vista of gorgeous views of the eastern flank of Rainier and its meadows. Right now there’s an odd juxtaposition of summer’s peak wildflowers along with shrubs turning autumn crimson.
Our hike took just about three hours, just like the park guide says. And if you’ve read my blog, you know I usually describe where to grab a treat on the way home. This trip we stop at Wapiti Woolies in Greenwater for ice cream cones out back on the deck. Don was bummed he didn’t notice the (famous) huckbleberry milkshakes until after he already ordered his cone. Next trip!
When You Go
The road to Sunrise is easily accessed from the White River entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, east up Highway 410 enroute to Chinook Pass. The road usually closes by the end of October, some years earlier, depending on the snowfall. Here’s a link to a map of the Mt. Fremont Lookout trail.