Mount Rainier National Park is a mountain wonderland of dense forests, dazzling wildflowers, tremendous snowfields, and rugged glaciers. Enjoy the fresh smell of trees and soil, the soothing - and sometimes deafening - sound of falling water, and the refreshing cold breezes off the glaciers.
Towering above all this scenic display is magnificent Mount Rainier. This is a complex of landscape, but the explanations of its origins are simplicity itself: fire and ice. The mountain is a volcano born of fire and built up above the surrounding country by repeated eruptions and successive flows of lava. It is a relatively young volcano only about one million years old. By contrast, the mountains of the Cascade Range that Mount Rainier looks down upon are at least 12 million years old, created by the folding, buckling, and uplifting of the Earth's surface.
Mount Rainier is not an isolated volcano, for from Lassen Peak in California to Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia an entire line of volcanoes defines the north-south march of the Cascades. These peaks dominate the skyline, ever a reminder that they are only dormant and may at anytime, like Lassen Peak in 1914-21 and Mount St. Helens in 1980, erupt in fury and rage at the fragile world built by humans. One of the unexpected side benefits of these eruptions has been the deposit of ash and pumice layers that are rich in nutrients and support the abundance of wildflowers throughout the mountainous Pacific Northwest. Even as volcanic forces were building up this land, the slow, inevitable power of glacial ice began to shape and form it. Glaciers come from snow that does not melt from year to year-it accumulates to greater and greater depths. The weight of the snow presses the air out, packs it tight, and compresses it into ice. Gravity pulls the ice down the mountainside, both scouring and smoothing the bedrock as it goes. Freezing and thawing break rocks from the adjacent stones, and they fall onto the glacier's surface. More debris is picked up by the passing ice. This is an inexorable process that continues today and will alter the mountain in the tomorrows to come.
Nisqually Glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers on Mount Rainier. It can be viewed readily from Nisqually and Glacier Vistas located less than 1-mile from Paradise visitor facilities. Nisqually Glacier advanced and retreated three times between 1965 and 1992. The most recent period of retreat occurred between 1985 and 1991 during which time the glacier thinned by 52 feet in the region immediately west of Glacier Vista. The retreat that has been occurring since the late 1980's may be slowing.
Cowlitz-Ingraham Glacier is best seen from the upper slopes of the mountain, either from Cowlitz Rocks (above Paradise Glacier) or from the summit climbing route byway of Camp Muir. At its farthest extent perhaps more than 35,000 years ago, the Cowlitz-Ingraham Glacier terminated approximately 65 miles downvalley of the mountain near the town of Mossyrock, Washington. The Cowlitz-Ingraham Glacier made a notable advance in the mid-1970's and continued to advance slowly until the mid-1980's. It is currently thinning and retreating.
Emmons Glacier, on the east slope of Mount Rainier, has a surface area of 4.3 square miles, the largest area of any glacier in the contiguous United States. A 0.2-mile walk to Emmons Vista is rewarded with an excellent view of Emmons Glacier. For a closer look, hike the 1-mile trail from White River Campground to the end of the lateral moraine. In 1963, a rockfall from Little Tahoma Peak covered the lower glacier with rock debris. The debris cover insulates the ice from melting. As a result of decreased melting, the glacier advanced rapidly in the early 1980's. That advance continues today, but at a slower rate. Ice beneath the rock debris is melting irregularly and forming a vast hummocky area.
Carbon Glacier has the greatest measured thickness (700 feet) and volume (0.2 cubic miles) of any glacier in the contiguous United States. It is best viewed via a 4-mile trail from Ipsut Creek Campground on the north side of Mount Rainier. The glacier has retreated less than 0.6 miles since the Little Ice Age. The glacier terminus is at a relatively low elevation and is surrounded by mature forest and shrubbery. During the advance of this heavily debris-laden glacier in the late 1970's, visitors watched vegetation being crushed by rocks rolling off the advancing terminus. Currently, the Carbon Glacier terminus is undergoing a minor retreat.
Named for the coal deposits found in the area, Carbon River is located in the park's northwest corner. Of all park areas it has the heaviest rainfall and most luxuriant forest. Some botanists suggest that rather than a lowland forest what you find here is an example of a temperate rainforest. Trails lead into the wilderness and connect with the Wonderland Trail. The Mowich Lake area, though nearby, is reached by a separate road. Campgrounds are located at both sites; Mowich Lake is walk-in only.
This is the park's oldest developed area, the site of Mineral Spring Resort that James Longmire opened in 1884. After the park was established in 1899, Longmire became the park headquarters. Today the original administrative building houses a museum with exhibits that tell the story of those early days. The National Park Inn, a concessioner-operated hotel, it open year round for guests. The road from the Nisqually Entrance to Longmire is one of the world's most beautiful forest roads.
Here the lowland forest reigns supreme and reaches its true glory in the Grove of Patriarchs, which is a short walk from the parking area near the Stevens Canyon Entrance. Here Douglas- fir, western red-cedar, and western hemlock rival the grandeur of the costal redwood forests in California and Oregon. Exhibits in the visitor center tell the story of the northwest forest. Ohanapecosh is the major approach to Paradise and the high country for travelers coming from east of the Cascades.
When Elcaine Longmire's wife first saw this subalpine meadow, she exclaimed, "This must be what Paradise is like!" The name is appropriate and remains with us today. With its spectacular view of Mount Rainier in the distance, the meadows and forests in the foreground, and the clear mountain air all around, it is almost beyond description. Because many trails radiate from here into the subalpine meadows and because of the nearby access to the Wonderland Trail, this is a major point from which to begin a hike.
At 6,400 feet this is the highest point in the park that is reached by road. From here the views of Emmons Glacier, the largest on Mount Rainier, are breathtaking. On very clear days, this is also the spot for views of some of the other volcanoes in the Cascades Range. Sunrise lies in the rain-shadow of Mount Rainier, thus the are is much drier than Paradise. Nevertheless, these high mountain meadows about with wildflowers, too. The visitor center exhibits focus on the subalpine and alpine environment.
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