My sole memory of the Pinnacle Peak trail in Mt. Rainier National Park as a teenager with my family was a steep loose shale path the width of a finger nail with a cliff on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Oh, and terror. It was my first known experience with aeroacrophobia, decades before I knew its name.
Imagine my confusion when a friend told me, followed up by a trip report on the WTA from a hiker with the moniker “oldwoman,” that Pinnacle Saddle (half way to the Peak) was an easy trail with a staggering view and a mountain meadow payoff. Others call it strenuous, but I decided to put it on my summer hike list anyway.
Yesterday was the day. And a gorgeous one it is. I get my adventure latte and gas (which sets me back a few minutes, wanting to get the the Park ahead of the heat and the line-up at the gate), and it’s 5:50 before I head out of town.
I take the route across the valley below my house. Mt. St. Helens is disappeared in haze, but the hay rolls and barn in the wispy fog make me glad to be alive and living in this place as I head across this vast and beautiful county as the sun rises.
I’m third in line at Park entrance at the single ranger booth that’s open this early. Later both booths will be open with a line down the road. Flashing my lifetime pass (cost me $10 a few years back vs the $30 per car single entry fee), I drive into my favorite place on the planet. I wind along the Nisqually River, through the dark forest on the sun dappled road and break out to views of Herself.
I turn onto the Stephens Canyon Road just short of Paradise. A few moments later I’m at Reflection Lake. I lace up my boots, slap on knee straps, slather on sun screen, pump on Deet, grab my poles, sling on my camel pack and walk down to the lake for a couple photos.
I’m on the trail at 8:15. There are a few cars in the parking area, but I have the trail by myself for now. The 1.3 miles to the saddle starts in forest on a soft dirt and fir needle floor. Herself is behind me, the Tatoosh Range above me. The sun hasn’t risen above the ridge line, keeping the trail in the shade. It was 57º when I left the car, but I’m closer to the sun here, and I know when it shows itself, it will get hot fast.
The alpine scent overcomes me. Other places have that scent, but there is something about this Park that is the smell of childhood. The picnic table just below Paradise where my mother passed out paper plates to my father, my sisters and me, the tuna sandwiches she mixed with tiny chopped sweet gherkin pickles and meticulously spread to four corners of the white bread before we left home, packing them in the cooler with the blue frozen gel pack. The grey jays—camp robbers—squawking from the trees waiting for a dropped crumb and the chipmunks that ran right up onto the table and grabbed potato chips from our plates.
I climb steeply above timberline onto shale and past talus fields, where I build an inukshuk to show Mama where to come. The stones I choose refuse to balance, and my eye is on the rising sun. I get a few to stay standing, shoot some film, tell Mama to find me, and move on.
There are no scary parts. I come up with four possible explanations for my memory: 1) faulty memory, 2) it’s beyond the saddle, 3) the trail has been widened in the past 50 years, 4) I’ve become a less fearful person. They are all feasible. Even #3. There is one stretch that could have been it, the up slope side has a long human-made retaining wall and the trail has been extended in width. I won’t solve the puzzle today, because I’m not going to the Peak.
I reach my destination at 9:45. A marmot greets me at the door, as the trail busts open into the sun above the meadows looking out over the Cascade Range. It is breathtaking.
The layers of mountains in the haze remind of the Smoky Mountains, except these newer mountains are more rugged, of course. And today, anyway, it really is smoke. The left coast is on fire, obscuring Mt. Adams, which I know is right ahead of me. I suppose St. Helens is out there too.
Signage (the only one up here) says the maintained trail ends at the door between the cliffs and there are paths everywhere down into the meadow. I know the trail to the left is Pinnacle Peak, and guess the one to the right is Plummers Peak, which I am thinking of going to.
I decide to start with the meadow. There are a dozen two- and three–pronged choices. Which are trails and which snow melt routes? There are boot prints in all of them. There aren’t even any signs like those dotting the meadows at Paradise to tell me what is not a trail. I start one way, then retrace my steps and go another, deciding later I was right the first time. Or not.
No matter, it’s wide open and all trails go to the same place: across the meadow where a streams babbles down, and on across to a ridge where the trail gets lost in the rocks. I keep going, watching boot prints and looking ahead to where I can pick up the trail that’s not a trail again. I want to see what’s around the corner and over the ridge. Probably more of the vast sweep of mountains, and St. Helens and Hood, no doubt. But they will be hidden, and it’s become clear this is not a way to Plummer’s Peak.
I turn back and sit on a flat rock in the stream where a little waterfall drops into a pool in a flat spot then gives way to the tumble again. It’s perfect, though not very photogenic, like it was created for a Pixar movie. The insects are keeping to themselves too. I wish I’d brought Rebecca here last week instead of here.
I don’t have much time today, I have out-of-town guests coming and oodles to do before they arrive. As I clamber back up through the deep cuts from last month’s snow melt, I observe a young couple on the Pinnacle Peak trail. She scampers right around a curve, while he proceeds with extreme caution. I see his foot slip once on what looks like a very narrow trail. Aha! Is that the spot? It looks embarrassingly short to have occupied such a large space in my memory for five decades.
I get back to the doorway and decide to go a little way toward Plummer’s Peak. I go far enough to decide next time I will go farther. Then I go up the other trail to check out the scary spot. It is narrow, and there is evidence that it has been slid off of. But to unintentionally glissade would not be world without end. At the very worst, there’s a large bush that would break a slide. I could do it. Of course, I don’t know what’s beyond. And it’s in the sun from the get go.
Back at the doorway, the young couple is eating lunch in the shade. They offer to take my photo with Herself. I take theirs. I ask them where they are from. They live in Portland, he says, but she is from the Netherlands and he is from Ohio. It’s only later I realize with a chuckle how perfectly that explains their performance I had observed on the trail.
I meet many hikers coming up as I head down, in full on sun. They are panting and red-faced. I’m sorry for them, and congratulate myself on my early arrival. It explains the discrepancy in the assessment of the trail difficulty. Easy to moderate if you hike in the shade, strenuous if in the sun. My inukshuk is still standing!
I get back to Flutterby at 11:45, and head up to Paradise. I need to go to the bathroom, if there’s a parking spot, and I want to see when the parking lot fills up on a weekday, for future reference. Before noon is the answer. I drive slowly past the overnight lot, there are cars circling the two aisles. I go on to the regular lot, cars are circling. I didn’t take my boots off when I finished hiking, because I was NOT going to be seen at Paradise in flip flops even if I was only going to the bathroom. So I’m stuck in them now.
At the edge of the lot, Just before I head down the one road loop route on the other side of the valley, I turn into the lot. What the heck. Maybe I’ll get lucky. I head for the last aisle. An engine starts up and back-up lights come on in the car beside me. I put ‘er in reverse and score the absolute closest spot to the Inn.
The parked cars snake down the road below the Inn. At the Park entrance, 45 minutes down from Paradise, there is a long line of cars waiting to get in. I wonder where they think they will park. Flutterby’s thermometer says 81º. I will be back on Thursday with my mid-Atlantic coast friend. We’ll be arriving early.
Meanwhile, the Pinnacle trail has been redeemed, after 50 years.