Mount Rainier is the biggest single-peak glacial system in the US, with a unique ecosystem and incredibly varied scenery – from an inland rainforest to waterfalls, placid lakes, subalpine wildflower meadows, ancient forests and canyons. Freya Godfrey takes to the trails in Mount Rainier National Park to discover what lies beneath the famous peak.
The indigenous Puyallup tribe believe that Mount Rainier was once a woman whose power was second only to the moon. Given the opportunity to decide how she would be reincarnated, she chose a mountain so she could continue to feed her children for evermore. It is fitting, then, that the original name, Tacobet, means “mother of mountains”.
Mount Rainier has played an integral role in Washington State for millennia, and its significance endures today, contributing to six major rivers in the area and drawing visitors from around the world.
Preserving the landscape as it would have looked thousands of years ago, the surrounding national park offers a fascinating glimpse into the past.
Open expanses of flower-scattered meadows sloping down to tranquil pools and forests crowded with hundred-year-old trees feel a world away from civilisation, untouched by the modernity that defines twenty first-century America.
Almost two million people, locals and tourists alike, visit Mount Rainier National Park each year, and it’s not hard to see why.
As we crawl slowly in a queue of cars, a wooden arch, created from the very trees surrounding us, rises above, proudly heralding the park’s entrance. Many of the Washington State number plates in front of us depict the very mountain we’re here to see. Mount Rainier, after all, is a mountain to be proud of; at 4300m it rises majestically out of the earth, towering over the national park.
Our first stop is Narada Falls. As we weave through queues of school children posing for photographs, the sound of the rushing water crashing onto the rocky terrain below is deafening. Its cascading falls are mesmeric, and – following the river’s course with my eyes – I realise the sheer size of the park for the first time, stretching far below us from the source a long way above.
In 1920, the park’s superintendent described it as “a veritable wonderland of beauty and grandeur”, and its splendour is no less impressive today.
The park seems incomprehensibly old, especially as we wander through the Grove of the Patriarchs. In this area of primeval forest, new saplings twist and curve around towering gnarled trees, growing at odd angles in the remains of what has been before. It’s a poetic insight into a centuries-old natural process, as fallen and rotting trees give life to new growths.
Finally, we climb the Paradise Loop, which was given its name when explorer James Longmire’s daughter-in-law exclaimed “Oh, what a paradise!” on her first visit. As the trail curves around towards Mount Rainier, which has been obscured by cloud all day, the mist clears and – like a piece of meticulously planned theatre – reveals the summit in all its splendour.
It’s a spectacular sight; the picture-perfect snow-topped peak against the vibrant blue sky and rich green meadows that lie at its feet. Hands on cameras we snap away, but no picture can capture its majesty.
Despite the crowds on the trails, seeing the mountain reveal itself is oddly isolating. It utterly dwarfs its surroundings, truly appearing like the mother of all mountains.
At the end of Paradise Loop, is the aptly named Reflection Lake, its calm, still waters perfectly mirroring the trees behind. The main show is over, though, as once again, Mount Rainier has covered itself in cloud. It’s even believed that the mountain is so large that it controls its own weather.