Thursday, September 24, 2009

Paradise Glacier trail, Mount Rainier, September 23, 2009

Paradise Glacier Trail (MRNP), September 24, 2009

What a difference a few weeks can make!

A few weeks ago the Skyline Trail was bordered with wildflowers; today the trail was framed with fall color. While the colors are not yet at their peak they are off to a good start at higher elevations; the blueberry shrubs are turning crimson, the meadows range from gold to green and the air is spiced with the fragrance of fall.

At Paradise we took the Skyline Trail to the junction with the Paradise Glacier trail, passing junctions for the Fourth Creek Crossing and the Lakes Trail. Our pace was moderate; this wasn’t a hurry-up get-into-shape hike, but rather a meditative walk and exploration.

As we worked our way up Mazama Ridge I couldn’t help but think back to past overnight snowshoe trips with The Mountaineers and with my late ex-husband and our Boy Scout troop in the 1990s. I then realized it was the first time I’d been on Mazama Ridge without snowshoes! In the early1990s there were still enough of the ice caves left that you could venture inside them; now there are only remnants.

We’d encountered a few hikers on the Skyline Trail but once we were on the Paradise glacier trail we met only five; one, a friendly park ranger and two couples. The park ranger pointed out a small speck above the moraine (mountain goat!) – we would have missed it if not for the young ranger’s sharp eyes. We did not see or hear marmots or pikas.

The Paradise glacier trail is an interesting trek, beginning where meadows and moraines overlap. Early in the morning the view of Mount Rainier was sharp and clear; by afternoon the peak looked diaphanous, as if we were looking at it through sheets of tracing paper. Conditions change quickly – the sky went from clear to hazy in less than an hour.

Amazingly a few flowers were still holding on; a sole monkeyflower, a bit of arnica, even a bit of magenta Indian paintbrush below the moraine. The trail leaves the transitional zone and follows the contours of a moraine; the scene is austere, the beauty stern. When we reached the “end of maintained trail” we continued hiking on the trail following the track of the outflow from the Paradise glacier, the birthplace of the Paradise River.

At first glance the terrain appears devoid of life but there’s quite a bit of life on the moraine; it would take an expert to name the yellow-green cushions of moss and dark mahogany-colored sedges that cling to life here. Suffice it to say the colors are remarkable.

We met a young couple on a high point who pointed the way to a remnant of an ice cave at the edge of the glacier. They’d ventured inside – but only long enough for a photo near the entrance.

En route toward the “ice cave” we met the young ranger who warned of the dangers but said it would be OK to look in. He had crossed the glacier to look for mountain goats but admitted he was nervous about crossing (he could hear rushing water underneath the snow). He told us (but didn’t need to) that we shouldn’t cross on the snow or venture inside.

On our way we ran into the deteriorating remains of a once-bold sign warning of the dangers of entering ice caves. Though the ice caves are just about gone, it still remains as a warning to those unaware of the dangers of cave-ins and/or being swept away under the snow.

We found the remnant of an “ice cave”, I peeked in but the drip-drip-drip of the melting snow made me uneasy and I stayed only long enough for a photo or two. Here, I met a young couple also interested in peering inside (Silverback took a took a break as I explored); they, too, only peeked in long enough for a photo.

After lunch on the moraine we headed back the way we came, amazed anew at the vivid foliage at lower elevations, backlit by a low-slung sun.

It was early enough that we drove back to Seattle via the Stevens Canyon road rather than drive back the way we came. We stopped at Reflection Lakes but the fall color was nil as were the reflections. We also stopped at Sunbeam Creek (one of my favorite “little” photo stops), the bridge over Stevens Creek (site of a huge avalanche/blowout) and Box Canyon. We walked part of the little Box Canyon loop but it was too dark for photos.

By the time we were back on SR 410 heading west the sunset we’d hoped to catch en route had come and gone. Dusk descended so quickly we had to brake for elk standing right on SR 410 near the White River trail. We let them have the road and drove more slowly the rest of the way.


  1. I wanted to let you know that your hike reviews are very helpful! We have a place in Packwood and are always looking for new places to hike. I've bookmarked your blog and look forward to reading it before next hiking season.

  2. Thanks, Rob and Madeline.

    I'm glad you are enjoying my hike reviews (I certainly enjoy writing them, especially when the hike is still "fresh" in my mind).