I can see clearly now, the rain is gone…
I wanted to see the color of autumn at Paradise. Two weeks ago it had barely begun. (Read that log here.) Last week it snowed, right down to the parking lot. Monday and Tuesday it rained. Friday’s forecast is rain and snow and 20 degrees cooler, and the ten day forecast is freezing or near freezing temperatures every day. But Wednesday and Thursday the forecast was clear, sunny, and warm. The mountain was calling.
I shouldn’t have taken the day. I have a frighteningly long to-do list before I leave for North Carolina next week to see the bigs (my two older grandsons, whom I haven’t seen in over a year). Also it was yoga and Daughter on Duty blog day. But the mountain was calling.
My mother’s caregiver called in sick for the second time this week just as I was finishing a website project for work so I could get on the road. It was a project I got up at 5:00 to do because the day before my internet provider went down for 8 hours just as I figured out how to do what I needed to do. Rebecca was out of town for the day too. But the mountain was calling.
I picked up my road latte at 8:00 and headed down the interstate feeling a little guilty about leaving Mama in town alone. The hell with it. The mountain was calling.
For an hour and a half as I drove, my brain was on overload. How in the world was I going to get it all done? This was stupid and irresponsible. I should not have come.
Then came that view of Herself just north of Mineral. She in her new white coat (albeit a bit worse for the wear after the rain) rising to the blue sky above the foothills across a meadow. All the brain chatter fell away. I was practically orgasmic. This was the only thing I should be doing this day.
I flashed my senior access pass at the park gate and turned off my recorded book (about a woman trying to get her addled mother to move to assisted living, then dealing with her unhappiness about the horrible food while cleaning out her parents house in which they had kept every thing for 50 years). Time to breathe.
When I passed Christine Falls and the trailhead to Van Trump Park, I had another little niggle. Maybe I should have planned to go there, another feather in this summer’s “new trails” hat. But Paradise was calling. I’ll go to Van Trump next summer. Maybe when the wildflowers bloom.
I beat the crowds I expect to be descending on this, the last good day, and three days before the Inn and visitor center close for the winter. I scored a primo spot in the parking lot, knowing by afternoon the line of cars would extend well down the road.
I realized two weeks ago that my favorite part of Skyline Trail is the winding ridge section back down to the Inn from the top of Golden Gate Trail. It’s only about four miles, and, except for the beginning and end, from the Inn to Myrtle Falls—the darling of the flip flop and purse crowd—it’s the least populated. Ding ding!
I usually don’t take the Golden Gate, and I’ve never been up it. It is lovely, and far fewer people than the trails to Panorama Point.
It wasn’t a long hike, but there were lots of marmots begging to be photographed. (I trashed most of the photos. You’re welcome. You can see a few more here on Flora & Fauna Friday.)
And there was the couple from Florida I talked to for several minutes, who thought I was incredibly lucky to live here (yes, I am) and wondered where they should go in the rain tomorrow. And the couple who stopped where I was ogling the crimson slopes who turned out to live in Chehalis, my town’s sister city. Talked to them for a long time. So, it took almost four hours. Whatever. The mountain called, and I went.
At first it seemed the colors seemed more subdued than previous autumn visits. And perhaps they were. And the meadows were smooshed from last week’s snow. But once I got up higher, and the sun rose higher, the huckleberry reds and Sitka mountain ash oranges started popping. Yes, this is what was calling.
As I finished up the last bit of my hike, a woman coming up the paved trail toward me stopped short and, with wide eyes and a shake of her head, breathily exclaimed to her mates, “Magnificent!” Oh yes.
Sadly, I arrived at Base Camp Grill in Ashford an hour before they opened. They close for the season on Sunday. The salmon burger and Rainier ale will have to wait until next summer. I’ll be there. For now I am complete; bring on winter.
Dateline: September 11, 2017
Paradise, Mt. Rainier National Park, Skyline Trail
It’s fitting that my final regularly scheduled adventure of the season is Paradise. However I may whore around, trying other sides of the mountain, other mountains, other trails—exclaiming that each one is my new favorite—it’s the Skyline Trail at Paradise that will always be the lover I come home to. Just ignore me when I say otherwise.
I was going to go last week, but the smoke was so bad the webcam didn’t even register that there was a mountain. Next week I’ll be in Seattle with the littles, and besides the forecast at Paradise is “a wintry mix.” I wasn’t really up for it Sunday night, I was tired and a bit grumpy; but the weather looked better for Monday than Tuesday and deteriorated after that. The lesson of the mountain: be willing to throw plans and moods out the window and be spontaneous.
I double check the webcam when I get up. The rising sun is a golden glow on the snowy peak. I’m out the door and at the coffee kiosk at 7:05. A little late for me, but there’s no reason to leave before daybreak this time.
I’m on the trail at 10, after getting gas, my pit stop in Morton before cell service is lost, road construction near Mineral again, putting on all my straps and guards and ankle brace. It’s already hot. I leave three of my five layers in the car. I always forget the heat index a mile closer to the sun.
I head toward Dead Creek, skip down Moraine a little ways looking for marmots, then back to meet up with Skyline. The first part, up to Panorama Point, is tough going; but I learned from experience to take this loop clockwise. Get the up over with in this first lung-burning charge, after that it’s gentle down until the up at the end. The other way, the gentle down is relentless up. I feel bad for all the exhausted-looking people I meet on the backside, heading toward the apex.
I leave my camera in my pocket, determined not to take pictures of views I have a thousand pictures of already. I’m just going to hold it all in my heart this time. Uh huh.
I can feel a blister forming on my right foot. When I put my shoes on in the parking lot I noticed my favorite socks are worn thin at the heels, and the ankle brace makes my right shoe tighter. I stop on a rock for moleskin. As I’m putting my shoe back on, there is a group of 19 seniors and their guide coming up the trail. I groan and quickly finish my task, grab my pack and poles, and jump half ready back on the trail just ahead of them. I figure they will be slow and difficult to pass. I don’t want to be behind them in line at the hobbit toilet at Panorama.
They aren’t slow. Their guide is acting as a pace car, setting both the speed and the record for conversation. I pick up my pace. I need to rest, but I don’t want them to catch up. I keep glancing back, but I haven’t put any distance between us, like a car on the interstate with cruise control set at the exact speed mine is. I keep thinking they will stop to rest at one of the large areas with sitting rocks. But they keep coming like the zombies in “Night of the Living Dead.” I really need to rest.
I pass two more guides telling someone the group is attending a camp and they will climb the mountain later in the week. Then I notice they have packs. I have a new respect for them. But I still don’t want to be behind them at the hobbit toilet.
I pass another large group resting on a snow patch, younger people. They are gearing up to take off again. The elders exchange places with the youngers, while I get ahead. I know they will go faster, so I do too. I don’t want to be in line behind them either.
There’s a marmot on the trail, grazing just a few feet ahead of me. I stop short. The boy guide for the youngers practically plows into me. “Marmot,” I say, pointing. “Oh, yes, it is a marmot.” I tell him I was pointing it out, not asking for confirmation of its identity. He doesn’t hear me. “I work here (la di dah); I see them all the time. They’re filling up for winter, they’re everywhere.” My point was not that it was a rarity, or that maybe he didn’t know what it was, but that I was going to stop and watch and he would have to wait. He acts like he’s going to try to pass me. I don’t think so. I wish I had pointed out that maybe his group would like to observe, even if he was snobbishly uninterested. What an ass hat. I’m forced to move on.
Somewhere after that, I lose both groups. I figured they would continue to the High Skyline above Panorama and then take Pebble Creek trail toward Camp Muir, but later I realize there was a lower entrance to the trail. I see another group below me and guess that’s where they went.
I don’t spend time at Panorama, I’m eager to get to the higher viewpoint. There is a group of four women, well into their 70s, at the hobbit toilet. As I climb up the trail, I think it’s them breathing down my neck. Impressive. I step aside to let them pass. Turns out it’s two fairly fit 30-something men. “I dunno,” the one in front says breathlessly, leaning on his pole, “you are setting a pretty good pace.” Damn, nice compliment.
There are a lot of people up here for a weekday after the traditional end of summer vacations, but I don’t come to Paradise for solitude. I have discovered other trails for that. Usually it’s a babylon of languages, and a variety of shoe fashion. Today, though, it seems to be a sturdier crowd of people hiking through. Though there are some young folks (and no families), most are my age. I like it!
It is a spectacular day. I know I say this every time I go, but is this the most beautiful day ever up here? I don’t know where the smoke went, but the Triple Crown is standing in stark relief against blue sky. Adams, Hood (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Hood from here), St. Helens. Baker can’t be seen, it’s behind a ridge. And there is a plume of smoke rising and shape shifting in that direction, a reminder that Washington is still on fire.
I have a passing thought that maybe I could hike to Camp Muir some day—with a guide. I’m feeling strong. Maybe when a certain hiking friend in Colorado comes to visit. At the top I find a small group of young Asians with a white-haired guide (volunteer, according to his name badge; also a bit of a prick. Maybe it’s a job requirement). They ask him about Camp Muir. He points out where it is, and informs them that it’s a very difficult climb. “More people die between Paradise and Camp Muir than anywhere else on the mountain.” He tells them there is a 5000 foot elevation gain in five miles, the last 2.5 on snow and ice, which is soft on a warm day like this one, with lousy traction. And, at 10,000 feet, it’s hard to breathe. Okay, never mind. Someday, though, I may go to the edge of that snowfield.
I spend a good bit of time at the top, drinking it in. I put another layer of moleskin on my right heel, the first blister of this epic hiking season. I’m disappointed not to find this promontory covered with inukshuks. It was just that one time, the first time I was here five years ago, when a crowd of them populated the rocks. Today there is not a single one, except mine.
The other thing about doing this loop clockwise is that the hard part is over and my favorite part is yet to come. I head down through the barren talus slopes toward the creeks and meadows looking into the layers of view: the valley below, the Tatoosh, the triple crown of peaks in the Cascades, the cerulean sky. And behind me, Herself. Though seriously, the imposing mountain is not what I love here.
Off to my right an unkindness of ravens suddenly lifts off with an audible whoosh from a snow field, dozens of them twirling upward together before splitting out in small groups on private sky paths. Their shadows on the snow as they rise, multiplies their number. (I wanted to call them crows so I could say “murder of crows,” even knowing they were probably ravens. But who knew a group of ravens are an “unkindness”?)
I cross paths several times with the group of four women. I learn they are from various places in the northeast. Three of them are sisters and they have visited many national parks together in their “elderly years.” I’m envious. I tell them they are living right to have lucked into this day at Paradise.
I take a new trail on my way down: Paradise Glacier. I’ve dawdled so long getting there, though, that I only go a little way down its length. But I get to where I was hoping the trail went. It doesn’t, but I see a spur up the hummock when I turn back that may or may not be a real trail. I am hoping for a view of Mt. Baker, but she is still out of range. I do discover the source of the gushing, rumbling, falling water I have been hearing. I’m guessing it’s the Nisqually River far down in the ravine. A new view, after all these years.
The flowers are long gone here, even the old man on the mountain is past prime. I’m surprised to discover that autumn color has not begun, other than the orange berries of the Sitka mountain ash. I wonder if I can get another visit in before the snows come, when the slopes will be awash in red, orange, and gold. First a trip to western North Carolina to visit the bigs, then I will keep a close eye on the web cam.
Back at Myrtle Falls at 4:00—the end destination of the majority of visitors, just beyond the Inn—I find the flip flop wearing, purse and iPhone camera toting crowd that was missing earlier this morning. There is a mix of Asian and European languages punctuating the alpine air. I love this place. Even this. It’s part of the gift. All are welcome in Paradise.
I stopped on my way up to the Park to see if Basecamp Grill is still open. The last time I came in autumn, I was disappointed to discover it was not open everyday late in the season. It hadn’t said on the website, and there was no definitive signage. I’m holding my breath as I approach Ashford. It’s open! It’s closed on Tuesdays until the end of the month when it closes for the season; I am so glad I didn’t wait until Tuesday.
What a perfect day. What a Paradise. And only 203 photos.
I may not pass this way again, but when I am old and living in the home, this is the day, this is the place I most hope to remember. And if my brain forgets, surely my heart and soul will hold it always.
The hike from Longmire to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground—so named for a Native American mountain guide who lived in the still-existing cabin (or so I thought, but now I realize it was built as a patrol cabin, the year my mother was born and on the National Register of Historic Places since 1991)—was a real butt-kick for this 65-year-old. It is the most strenuous, and at nearly 14 miles round trip the longest, hike I have tackled to date, and with the most elevation gain at 3200 feet.
I was on the trail at 8:30, an hour later than I had hoped on a day that was to reach 87 degrees at the mountain: a bit of a late start, phone communications at Morton before I lost contact for the day, 20 minutes of road construction delay at Mineral, donning knee straps and bunion guards, bathroom, stopping in at the ranger station to make sure of the route.
Very shortly into the hike, the trail begins its relentless climb, sometimes with switch-backs and lots of steps (which I find most difficult) for the first two miles. Oddly, I took no photos of the steps.
It levels out some then between the ups, before going steeply down to Kautz Creek (which is a river by most standards, at least in early summer, now a maze of fast creeks). And you know what down means: up on the return.
The river was interesting, necessitating several crossings of it and its tributaries, sometimes with a foot bridge and some rock hopping. There was also the path at the base of landslide area. (Just before I got there on the return, I heard what sounded like rolling rock or a falling tree, and arriving above the edge of the river, I saw a dust cloud very high up. Yikes.) And then a distance of boulder hopping with the route marked by a series of cairns, which I didn’t notice until I passed the last one. Oh, did I mention the trail follows a not-quite-dry creek bed part of the way? I followed the footprints of others, or I might have lost the path. Wilderness survival.
After the river, yep, steep upshit again. What comes down must go up.
The trail is seven miles of the Wonderland Trail that circles the mountain. It was a dream of my father’s to hike the Wonderland. I thought of him often. I read that it is considered more strenuous mile-for-mile than the Pacific Crest. Take that, Cheryl Strayed. I figured I did two miles an hour going up, knocked off an hour or so coming back.
Three hours in, Devil’s Dream Camp, with a toilet! And a bear pole. I was almost there.
The ranger at Longmire had given me a map. She wrote “Devil’s Dream Camp” on it. The next point on the map is an arrow pointing to Indian Henry’s. Not specific enough for me, as it turned out. I hiked on.
Finally I arrived at a small meadow, and a hint of the mountain. I walked on.
Another meadow, bigger. This might be it. Nice, not Spray Park, but sweet. But wait, where’s the cabin? Maybe this isn’t the destination? I should have paid more attention to the trip logs and photos. I walked on.
Finally, I came to a pond-filled meadow. It snatched my breath away, such enchantment! That Indian Henry was a lucky dude. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place. (The photos are just not enough to convey.)
I slowly traversed the trail past the lakes, Mirror Lakes as it turns out, stopping several times to drink in the extravagant beauty with its crystal clear waters. But there was still no cabin; could there possibly be more? It seemed hardly possible.
I ate my lunch on a rock next to water tumbling over small boulders. I swear what went through my head was that it was like a Hollywood set: too perfectly perfect to be real. I hope it doesn’t sound snobbish if I admit that the fact the vast majority of the population will never see this, made it even more attractive. I know how lucky I am: lucky to live here, lucky that my body allows me to stretch it this far, lucky that my parents instilled love for the wild places. I told myself over and over, “Someday you won’t be able to do this. But right now, this is the moment. You are here. Remember.”
As I sat, I imagined the meadow in three months, covered in snow, silent. So, so silent.
I walked on. Another meadow. No cabin. Kept going. Another meadow. No cabin. I was getting confused. Really should have paid more attention to the WTA website. I climbed up out of there, through a bit of woods and bear grass, into yet another meadow. No cabin.
I walked on in search of the elusive cabin. Thank goodness I knew to look for it, at least. I could tell from the open sky beyond the next copse there might be another meadow. It was more up, more darn steps. I really wanted that one to be it, prayed it would be; I was tired. It was a bigger meadow; so beautiful! I really thought this one was it and I just couldn’t see the cabin.
But I had to be sure. I knew I would flagellate myself if I got home and found I hadn’t gone far enough.
I continued across the meadow and up a rise, imagining Julie Andrews and the helicopter-toting camera swooping up the mountain and over the top into the magnificent vista. I could feel it, something was coming.
I topped the open-meadow hill, through the lupine and paintbrush and abundance of the Sitka valerian. What a tease. More meadow. More trees. A gateway, as it turned out.
Oh. My. Goddess. I stopped. And stared. And wept. And whispered the best prayer I know: “Thank you.” Here was the meadow. Here was the blue canopy sky. Here were more flowers than I thought possible. Here was Herself in full glory.
There was the cabin.
There were also the bugs. I had applied repellent and left it in the car. Mistake, especially since I had long sleeves on then. If the cost of admission was a tablespoon of blood, though, it was well under-priced.
I sat on the cabin porch, discovered another toilet up the hill in back, with a lovely view out the door, wandered to the edge of the meadow until it started down, overlooking another meadow.
I wished I never had to leave. The ranger was away, the shutters locked, but couldn’t I just stay there? Forever? There was firewood.
I don’t know if I will do this hike again: so many hikes, so little time. And it was really hard. But, like childbirth, you kind of forget when the payout is so great, so maybe I’ll return if body allows. And, by the way, thank you body.
A woman in the meadow told me she had been there many times, and never had she seen such a floral show. Maybe I don’t want to go back; I just want to hold this one glorious day. Some things are best left alone in singular splendor.
And at the end: Base Camp Grill.
A few days ago someone wrote in the guest register on the cabin’s porch bench: “If Paradise is next door, surely this is heaven’s gate.” Amen. For the record, I was there. If this place is not in my heaven, I don’t need an afterlife.