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“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”
Mount Rainier National Park is about 90 miles south of Seattle, and, if you’ve ever been to that city, you know that Mount Rainier, the tallest peak in the Cascade Range, dominates the landscape. While I had seen it from afar on numerous trips, this was my first time in the park itself.
Mount Rainier is actually a massive volcano, technically still active. Yet, this simmering cauldron also receives record amounts of precipitation every year and is home to twenty-five major glaciers, the most permanent ice on a single peak in the continental United States. This mixture of fire and ice results in a short, but incredible, wildflower season.
Mount Rainier is fairly easy to work into a longer road trip as one can enter and exit from opposite sides of the park. Due to lodging availability,* I was not able to follow the road as logic might dictate, but I write below as if did, starting at the Nisqually Entrance in the southwest corner as most visitors do. The park fee for one vehicle is $15 per week, or free with a national parks annual pass.
Longmire is the first distinct settlement you reach (after seven miles) when arriving via the Nisqually Entrance. It is characterized by forests of Douglas firs, western red cedar, and western hemlock. This area, now a National Historic Landmark District, was “discovered” by John Longmire in 1883 and settled by the Longmire family in 1888–1889 as a mineral spring spa, ten years before the park was officially established.
The Trail of the Shadows is a 0.7-mile self-guided loop that explores the history of the Longmire Springs Resort and the plants and animals found in the region. It begins across the park road from the Longmire Museum and the National Park Inn. There are other trails, but they seemed less interesting to me than those in other areas of the park.
The National Park Inn is much smaller (only 25 rooms) and quieter than the Paradise Inn found higher up on the mountain. Like many national park lodges, there is no air conditioning, telephone, or television in your room, so be forewarned. Most rooms in this lodge have private bathrooms, although mine did not. Of course, I was only there for one night, so it didn’t really matter to me. If you are not making last-minute reservations, ask for room 12, 14, or 16, as they are the ones with this incredible view:
As you leave Longmire and travel east along the park road, there are a couple of good places to stop and take in the views. One is Ricksecker Point (seen at the top of this post), an offshoot loop from the main road that provides an excellent view of the mountain. The second is Narada Falls, a 168-foot waterfall in the Paradise River. In addition to the view from above, you can walk down to a viewing area at the base of the falls. Both of these detours are clearly marked and have ample parking.
Just past Narada Falls, at the base of the Nisqually Glacier, is Paradise, so-named (according to legend) by James Longmire’s daughter-in-law, who exclaimed that the gorgeous fields of subalpine wildflowers looked “just like paradise” to her. Having seen these meadows at the height of their summertime glory, I certainly believe it. There are over forty species of flowers that bloom here and I feel as if I saw all of them.
Click here for the complete wildflower gallery.
Unsurprisingly, this is the most popular area of the park, which means there are generally large crowds of people and a huge parking problem, which was extremely frustrating as a guest of the Paradise Inn, conveniently located right next to the park’s main visitor center, with an impressive lobby that itself draws in the tourists. Despite the traffic, especially as compared to the National Park Inn, I think I preferred staying at the Paradise, since the wildflowers really are beyond compare and there is great hiking to be had up and down the mountain. I highly recommend staying at least one night so you can sneak in an early hike while the animals are still out and you have the mountain mostly to yourself. My room had a private bathroom, but only a few of them do so be sure of what you are reserving.
The Nisqually Vista Trail, a 1.2 mile loop that I walked in the early evening after checking in, was a great introduction to the Paradise area. It provided a fabulous view of the Nisqually Glacier, which is 4 miles long and flows downhill 6-12 inches a day.
For a longer hike, you can tackle the Skyline Trail, a 5-mile loop that takes you up to Glacier Vista (via a trail that was still partially covered with snow when I visited) and Panorama Point and past Myrtle Falls on the return. Skyline intersects with many other smaller trails so there are many options in case you are not up to doing the entire route.
Beyond Paradise, the precipitous road follows Stevens Canyon, down to the southeast entrance of the park. Along the way, one passes Reflection, Bench, and Snow Lakes as well as the Box Canyon gorge. If you want to hike, I would suggest the lake area, otherwise this stretch was mostly a series of scenic overlooks and short walks.
Near the Stevens Canyon Entrance is the Grove of the Patriarchs, a 1.5-mile loop over a shaky bridge to an island housing an old-growth forest. While the trees are impressive, they don’t hold a candle to the redwood forests of California, so, if you’ve seen those, I wouldn’t go out of your way here.
At 6400 ft, Sunrise is the highest point on Mount Rainier accessible by car. Although there are some significant hikes here that make this area a popular stop, I saw it on my way out of the park and felt it was a bit of a letdown after Paradise. However, if you arrive late in the day at the Paradise Inn, I might suggest heading here first the next day to catch the morning light and winding your way back to Paradise afterwards, because the 1.5-mile Sunrise Nature Trail would serve as a good introduction to the region’s floral and fauna.
*Mount Rainier National Park has two in-park lodges: The National Park Inn is six miles from the Nisqually Entrance at an altitude of 2,700 feet, while the Paradise Inn is thirteen miles further along Highway 706 and much higher up and closer to the mountain at 5,400 feet. Since my plans were made at the last minute, I had to be persistent and call repeatedly to snag two nights via cancellations. (I was advised to call seven days ahead of my stay since that is when the cancellation policy takes effect. Although I started calling before that, sure enough, it was at the seven-day mark that I managed to finally snag my rooms.) Unfortunately, I was not able to book two nights at the same lodge. While annoying, my Libra nature derived some satisfaction from the fact I wasn’t made to choose between them.
and I must go.”
The North Cascades are often called the American Alps, due to their dramatic peaks. In fact, the town of Leavenworth owes its revival to that fact (see below). As indicated by its name, this park is part of the Cascade Range that extends from northern California to British Columbia. This was not the first of Washington’s three national parks that I expected to see, but on a recent visit to my college roommate outside of Seattle, she was willing and able to humor me and make the trek, family in tow.
For a quick tour, travel along the North Cascades Highway (Route 20), which runs through the center of the park to the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. [Note: As is the case with Lassen Volcanic and Crater Lake, this road closes for a good part of the year due to snow, so be sure to time your trip appropriately and check conditions.]
At Ross Lake, there are a number of trailheads for short (or long) explorations of the interior.
Despite their natural beauty, these are not natural lakes. Both Ross and Diablo lakes, along with Gorge Lake, were created by dams built by Seattle City Light, which together generate one-quarter of Seattle’s peak-time electricity.
The drive to Ross Lake could be completed as a day trip out from Seattle, but I would recommend taking in the whole loop, including the Okanogan National Forest along Route 20 and the Wenatchee National Forest along Route 2, with an overnight stay in either Winthrop or Leavenworth.
Okanogan National Forest, just to the east of the park, is where you’ll find the highest point on the North Cascades Highway, at the Washington Pass Overlook (5477 feet).
Okanogan National Forest is also where we hiked the Cutthroat Lake Trail, which leads to Cutthroat Lake if you want an easy ramble through woods, or up to Cutthroat Pass and the Pacific Crest Trail for those more ambitious. [Note: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, read it!]
Two towns along the way that merit a stop are Western-themed Winthrop on Route 20 and Bavarian-dream Leavenworth (a Solvang of the north as it were) on Route 2. On US 97 between the two were seemingly endless miles of apple and pear orchards. You won’t be disappointed you decided to take the long way around!
“I’ve never been to Boise.”
So stated my father on what I now refer to as the Road Trip to End All Road Trips, the trip I always give as an example when people comment on the mileage I cover on some of my trips today.
The Road Trip to End All Road Trips started and ended, as so many of them did, in Salt Lake City.* We headed north to Montana, through Glacier National Park and into Canada, taking in Calgary, Banff, and Lake Louise. We then headed west to Vancouver and Victoria (on Vancouver Island). Finally, we crossed Washington State, admiring the nighttime lights at the Grand Coulee Dam. It was about then that my father uttered the now immortal words to explain our odd route on the way back. “I’ve never been to Boise.”
So, yes, technically I’ve been to Boise before. Although true to my father’s inclinations to see everything and keep moving always, I’m not sure we stopped. Oh, did I mention? The above trip was only two weeks long—that’s a couple hundred miles a day at least.
In any case, on my most recent trip, I hadn’t planned on stopping in Boise either. However, due to the late arrival of my Southwest flight, I found myself contemplating driving through wildfires on a curvy mountain road at 1am, so I booked a room at The Modern. I had already read about their superb bar somewhere, so I must admit I wasn’t as disappointed with the turn of events as I might have been. I started with the official (although ever-changing) menu and had the Clover Club (gin, lemon, raspberries, egg white). While perfectly refreshing after my longer-than-intended trip, after chatting with the bartender, who claimed to make a mean Sazerac, I went rogue and had him make me a couple of rye-based drinks. He didn’t lie: Best. Sazerac. Ever. It was a great start to the long weekend. (Not to be confused with The Lost Weekend.)
Idaho is absolutely beautiful. Really, the whole state could be one big national park. I had seen bits and pieces on various road trips, most recently with my sister when returning to Salt Lake City from Yellowstone National Park last year, but this was the first trip where Idaho was my destination. Thank you very much to J&J for the invitation.
I wish I could have stayed longer.
First stop was a visit to McCall, on the shores of Payette Lake. In addition to enjoying the beautiful lake, I had the good fortune to arrive at the height of huckleberry season—not only did we pick our own in Ponderosa State Park, but we made managed to hit the Donnelly Huckleberry Festival and the tasty huckleberry pancake breakfast. Yum!
Just off the highway from Donnelly is the historic town of Roseberry, one of many towns I’ve discovered in the West whose fate was decided by where the railroad tracks were laid. Sadly, it was too early in the day for the General Store to be open, but kudos to those working to restore and preserve these buildings.
Next I was off to the Sawtooth Mountains. I’ve been dreaming of staying at the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch for a few years, but the budget just wouldn’t allow it. Plus, it didn’t really make sense for just one night. I didn’t do too badly though, as you can see by my dinnertime view from the porch of the Sawtooth Hotel in Stanley. My room also faced in this direction. The wildfires made the view a bit hazy, but I’ll take it.
Finally, on the way back to Boise on the perilously curvy Route 21, I stopped for a delicious lunch (including black raspberry pie) at Trudy’s Kitchen in historic Idaho City. The waitress was delightful and even gave me a free brochure to take a self-guided tour of Pioneer Cemetery. And I love a good cemetery. While not quite as interesting historically as the one in Jacksonville, Oregon, this one had some fabulous iron work.
Yes, unsurprisingly, I managed to see a lot in only four days. What can I say? I’m my father’s daughter.
But I’m not the only one who has inherited these tendencies. Further proof that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree? My sister on our trip to Yellowstone last year: “I want to go to Pocatello, where the potatoes grow.”
*Flights and rental cars being cheap, especially given that back then (I believe) Alamo was one of the only rental companies to offer unlimited mileage and their locations were limited.
Crater Lake is Oregon’s only National Park—but what a park! At 1,943 feet deep, it’s the deepest lake in the United States, and this, along with the purity of the water, leads to the most extraordinary blue I’ve ever seen.
The window of opportunity to fully experience this wonder is quite small. The park receives an average of 500-550 inches of snow annually and the opening of the Rim Drive (33 miles) is completely dependent on when this snowpack finally starts to melt. This past season’s snowfall was a whopping 673 inches, and therefore the complete Rim Drive opened just days before my arrival, on July 24th.
Many hiking trails and side roads were still closed due to snow. Here is the first part of the road to Cloudcap Overlook (a 1-mile spur that takes you to the highest overlook on the lake). Sadly, I could drive no further than this, as the snow soon overtook both lanes completely. However, as long as you can get around either side of the lake, I encourage you to do so. The snows return again in early fall.
Seriously, the lake really is that blue.