Mt Rainier is an iconic landmark that rises above western Washington in the United States. On a clear day, the white cone stands out against the landscape and can be seen from a hundred miles away. It has a presence that you can’t escape. The flight paths of many airplanes into the Seattle airport often go near the mountain and I have listened to the awe of passengers as they gazed at the volcano through the window. To be there, in Mt Rainier National Park, is a mythical experience. On 8 August, I went to Sunrise on the northeast side of Mt Rainier to hike into the park and experience this majestic mountain up close.
I arrived at the trailhead just as the sun rose above the horizon and began to walk up the trail toward Sourdough Ridge. I planned to hike west along the ridge and then up onto Burroughs Mountain, which sits right against the volcano. Climbing to the ridge I passed through a large alpine meadow. The grasses glowed golden brown in the morning sun and the dark green patches of subalpine firs and whitebark pines contrasted with both the meadow and the white glaciers on Mt Rainier. A pair of Clark’s nutcrackers squawked as they flew between conifers. The bowl shaped Burrows Mountain sat to the right of Rainier and represented my first target for the day. Burroughs Mountain has two more, slightly higher tops, behind the first.
A large andesite lava flow formed Burroughs Mountain and Sourdough Ridge several hundred thousand years ago. This flow occurred early in the life of Mt Rainier. I remain intrigued by the knowledge that Mt Rainier is less than a million years old. It is built near the eroded base of an older volcano in the Cascade Mountains. The drifting of plates on the earth’s crust helped to form Mt Rainier and the Cascades. The San Juan plate in the Pacific Ocean is slowly subducting under the North American plate causing the rise of the Cascade Mountains and the formation of volcanoes such as Mt Rainier. From the ridge, I looked north where I could see Mt Baker, another Cascade volcano, rising through the misty blue-hazed mountains.
The summit of Mt Rainier rises 14,410 feet above sea level and is one of the highest mountains in the contiguous 48 states. Glaciers begin at the summit and flow down the mountain. From Burroughs #2 I watched the Emmons Glacier flowing down the left side of my view and the Winthrop Glacier down the right side. Both are large rivers of ice several hundred feet thick. Lava that flowed when Mt Rainier was higher than it is today formed Willis Wall on the right and Little Tahoma Peak on the left. I still can’t imagine the Osceola Mud Flow that happened 5,600 years ago. Volcanic activity then caused a large chunk of the mountain to liquefy and many cubic miles of debris flooded the White River and crashed toward Puget Sound. The event decreased the height of Mt Rainier by more than a thousand feet, some have suggested even more. This slurry of rocks, mud, ice, and water reached the edge of where Seattle now sits. The possibility of another large debris flow represents a serious threat to people in the floodplains of all rivers originating from Mt Rainier.
Behind Steamboat Prow, I saw where the Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers separate from each other. I had a hard time imagining how hard the rocks of Steamboat Prow must be to resist the erosive power of these glaciers. The smaller Inter Glacier sat in front of the Prow and I tried to envision what it must be like to be a mountain climber trying to ascend to the summit of Mt Rainier. Climbers using the route from the White River, tend to cross the Inter Glacier and drop down behind Steamboat Prow to rest at Sherman Camp before launching their summit attempt. They begin their ascent in the middle of the night and climb Emmons Glacier to the summit. They want to reach the summit by dawn so they can descend the glacier before the warmth of the day increases the danger of crossing the glacier.
While I climbed to Burroughs #3, a flock of gray-crowned rosy finches flew by and I begged them to stop amongst the lava rubble, pumice, ash, and scrappy vegetation. I wanted a good look, but they ignored me and flew on. This represented my first every view of this alpine species. At the top of Burroughs #3, I felt as if I could reach out and touch the mountain. The scene mesmerized me as I inspected the Winthrop Glacier and Willis Wall. I heard a crack and saw rocks tumble down the edge of Willis Wall and onto the glacier. I could hear water cascade around the glacier as the warm temperatures increased melting. From the edge of Burroughs, I looked more than a thousand feet down to Winthrop Glacier and contemplated the erosion these glaciers do to Rainier.
I found the view spectacular from the 7800-foot top of Burroughs Mountain. Looking east across the rubble of andesite, I saw my hiking path and could gaze down the White River Valley. To the north and south, I became enthralled by the Cascades, which now had clouds drifting over and had taken on the blue cast of the afternoon. Clouds had now covered the summit of Mt Rainier. I spent more than an hour just sitting, enjoying the view, and slowly consuming my lunch. A pair of ravens lazily flew along the ridge above where I sat and called repeatedly. Several other people rested on the ridge and appeared as enthralled with the place as me. I could have stayed much longer but needed to get back before dark.
Heading back to the trail head, I took a different route. Between the First and Second Burroughs, I hung a right on the trail that curls around the south side of Burroughs giving me spectacular views into the White River Valley. Meltwater from Emmons Glacier formed the headwaters of the White River. Goat Island Mountain sat across the river. A lava flow well before the birth of Mt Rainier formed Goat Island. To think that during the last glaciation, this valley had been filled with more than a thousand feet of ice continues to captivate my imagination. Scientists have determined that the lava flow that formed Burroughs Mountain and Sourdough Ridge happened during a glacial period and the lava flowed along the sides of the glacier forming the ridge on which I hiked. The once colossal Emmons Glacier has now receded to its present but still impressive size.
Hiking back to Sunrise on the Rim Trail allowed me to pass through sub-alpine meadows and forests. Juncos, sparrows, and siskins flitted from grass stems as I passed. Washington received little rain during this summer than normal and the meadows had already taken on fall colors. The yellows, golden browns, and greens gave a wonderful warm mood to the close of a wilderness experience.
Plan a visit to Mt Rainier if you are in the Seattle area. The grandeur of the mountain will capture your soul and revive your spirit. The Sunrise Area in the Park is open from June to mid fall. The Paradise area on the south side of the mountain is open all year. This mountain continues to captivate me. How does a mountain or mountains affect you?
Here is a video tour of my hike.