Mt. Rainier, WA from White River Campground

I’ve seen Mt. Rainier from the air on countless occasions, but nothing compares to the experience of approaching it on the ground.  At 50 miles away its 14,000-plus feet already dominate the skyline, and by the time we reach our campsite at its feet on the White River it dwarfs us.

Before dawn the sky here is pitch black and covered densely in stars that shine brightly through the thin mountain air.

Mt. Rainier at sunrise

As dawn ripens into sunrise, snow-capped Rainier glows in rosy hues.

Mt. Rainier at sunrise

The White River flows brightly and turbulently from its invisible source at the foot of the glacier, carrying ancient and ashen volcanic pumice and rock through emerald forests at the mountain’s feet. Along its bank cairns built by hikers from river stones stand like miniature prehistoric monuments.

White River footbridge, Mt. Rainier Nat’l Park

Rock cairns on the White River

Riverbank rock cairn, White River

Wildflowers and rock cairn, White River

We’re only 6 miles from Rainier’s summit as the crow flies, but there’s no straight line route anywhere within its surrounding park, and distances are measured at least as much in altitude as in linear miles.

Wildflowers along the White River

The day’s hike covers connecting trails about 6 miles long.  The route ascends 1,100 feet from the Sunrise Visitors’ Center at 6,400 feet and then descends 3,000 feet back to the campground.  The hike will take more than 6 hours, but with no wireless coverage and no clocks time is measured only by the sun’s position and its shadows.

Wildflowers, Mt. Rainier Nat’l Park

The first leg of the climb winds through shallow elevation and dense evergreen forests broken by meadows covered in a riotous carpet of wildflowers.

Brown bear, Mt. Rainier Nat’l Park

Not an hour into the trip a young brown bear grazes his way slowly on a converging path not 150 feet away, and we slip quickly and quietly past and ahead before the trail narrows.

White River from Burroughs Trail, Mt. Rainier Nat’l Park

The route begins a steep ascent, at times shrinking to no more than a couple of feet wide above steep drop-offs.  The August skies are sunny and the temperature is T-shirt warm, but at one point we work our way gingerly through remnants of winter snow.

Mt. Rainier and Shadow Lake

Rainier and its surrounding peaks loom ever larger across the White River valley, and Shadow Lake sits far below us, its waters turned bright aquamarine by mineral-rich runoff.

The pines become shorter, slimmer, and fewer until they vanish at the tree line, leaving only grasses and the riotously colored carpet of wildflowers.

Wildflowers, Burroughs Trail

Looking eastward from Burroughs Trail

Burroughs Mountain, the highest point of our climb, sits between the fingers of two of Rainier’s many glaciers, and as we approach its summit ridge a stiff wind cools us from the rigorous climb and glaring sun.

Here a breathtaking panoramic view unfolds across all points of the compass.   To the east rows of mountains stretch as far as the eye can see. The Cascades are draped across the horizon to the north and Mt. Rainier still towers more than 6,000 feet above us only three miles away, the details of its glaciers now crisp and clear.  Only to the west do the mountains subside into a flat skyline. The terrain is rocky and desolate here.

Burroughs Trail summit, Mt. Rainier Nat’l Park

Mountain goats on Burroughs Mountain

A small herd of mountain goats, the only animal that can survive in this inhospitable terrain, grazes in a closely-cropped meadow on a plateau separated from us by a shallow valley.

We begin our descent through a grade more than twice as steep as our ascent, weaving through a seemingly endless series of tight switchbacks.

Beginning the descent, Burroughs Trail

Wildflowers and grasses are the first to reappear, followed by pines which grow steadily taller and sturdier as we drop below our departure altitude.  Within a couple of hours we are hiking among trees up to three feet in diameter packed so densely that only occasional patches of sunlight filter through to the forest floor.

Burroughs Trail, Mt. Rainier Nat’l Park

Here all is quiet except for the ever-present sound of rushing water and tumbling stones in the White River far below.

Burroughs Trail, Mt. Rainier Nat’l Park

Small creeks begin to appear out of the mountainside, tumbling downward toward the river through pint-sized waterfalls that we sometimes ford and sometimes cross on narrow log footbridges.

Burroughs Trail, Mt. Rainier Nat’l Park

Burroughs Trail, Mt. Rainier Nat’l Park

By the time we reach the campsite we’ve crossed through several microclimates and geographic formations layered upon each other like some giant archeological dig.

It’s hard to experience nature as we have without reflecting upon man’s brief existence on this planet and his insignificance in the face of the forces of nature.

Mount Rainier is a memory that will remain vibrant for the rest of a lifetime for all who are fortunate enough to experience it.

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