Thursday, February 22, 2018

Fresh Snow in Mount Rainier National Park

In the last post, I talked about snowshoeing above Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park.  As we drove out of the park for the night there was snow falling at the higher altitudes above Longmire and rain pouring at the lower altitudes.  We planned on returning the next day and hoped to go to Paradise again, but we weren't sure what to expect as we entered the park.  At the entrance station we were warned that the gate between Longmire and Paradise was closed and wouldn't open for the duration of the day.

We were disappointed that we wouldn't be able to make it to Christine Falls to capture an iconic picture from below the road, but we knew that there was still a lot of opportunity to hike around the lower elevations.  As we proceeded past the entrance station, we noticed that the snow level had dropped significantly since our drive out.  At the lower elevations, where it had been raining the previous night, there was now a fresh layer of snow.  We started to see snow covered roads and forest only a third of the way to Longmire.  We passed a National Park Service ranger with his emergency lights on next to a small sedan that had spun off the road and into a four foot deep ditch.  I was happy that we had a four wheel drive vehicle to use, but found at cautious speeds the roads did not seem that slick.

When we got to Longmire, there were more cars than the previous night.  We noticed that people were hiking the Rampart Ridge Trail to the north.  We decided that we wanted to walk part of the Wonderland Trail that followed the Nisqually River.  The Wonderland Trail is 93 miles and circumnavigates Mount Rainier.

As we started northeast on the trail there was about an inch of fresh snow, free of any other footprints.  We were the first two people to walk the trail since the snow had fallen.  It made us feel as though we were completely alone and isolated in the park.  Although we had our snowshoes with us, the shallow snow was easy walking in just our boots.  We walked along the gently rolling path as it meandered among the trees with heavy layers of moss.  

Wonderland Trail in January, Mount Rainier.

As we made it about a mile up the trail we noticed bits of blue sky peeking out above us.  We talked about continuing.  There wasn't a lot of opportunity to see Mount Rainier from the trail and we decided to turn around and head back to the car.  We were hoping to find a spot with better visibility, but would be disappointed later when the clouds rolled back in before we could get anywhere with a view.

We tried to stop at a couple different would-be scenic points along the road, hoping for a clearing between the clouds.  We tried Kautz Creek, but found that the snow covered boardwalks were slicker than polished ice.  As we would slide and catch each other from falling we contemplated turning around, but pushed on to the viewpoint along the river.  After walking a mere 30 yards or so of boardwalk, that felt more treacherous than snowshoeing in white out conditions the previous day, we arrived at the creek.  Ironically the viewpoint was just off the road and the boardwalk had just run parallel to the road.  

I took a couple pictures, but was disappointed by the lack of view due to the clouds.  We decided to climb a small fence and walk back along the road instead of navigating the boardwalk again.  Driving back to the west we stopped at the Westside Road, which was closed for the season.  We decided to walk up that way to see if there were any better views.

Small water fall along the Westside Road, Mount Rainier

We walked about a mile and a half up the road.  We never broke out of the giant trees and weren't able to find a viewpoint.  However, there were a number of small waterfalls that fell along the side of the road.  We stopped to photograph a couple of them.  The low clouds and mixed snow/rain along the hike made the trees in the background fade away.  We passed some fresh Blacktail Deer tracks along the road, but weren't able to see the deer.  

As it was getting dark we decided to turn around and head back towards the car.  We finished the last half mile by headlamp.  The thick forest and tall trees around us blocked out any light that the twilight might have provided.

As we drove out of the park, we stopped at Whittaker Mountaineering again to drop off the snowshoes and tire chains.  They had already closed for the night, so we dropped the equipment off in the after hours drop box.  This turned out to just be a door on the side of the building.  As we dropped the snowshoes through the door we could hear them clatter to the ground on the other side.  With the gear dropped off, we headed back to the AirBNB.  

The next morning we would return to Seattle to catch a flight back to Denver.  Despite being an off season visit, I had enjoyed finally getting to visit Mount Rainier National Park and explore the lower parts of the snowy slopes.  We decided as we drove out that we would have to visit again in the summer...

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