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Puyallup Indians respectfully called it Tahoma -- God's home. God of destruction who spews fire and molten rock when angry. Now we call this dormant volcano in the Cascades, Mt. Rainier, or simply, The Mountain.
When anywhere near the vicinity of the Cascade mountain ranges in the Northwest, it's easy to understand why so many superlatives are attached to Mt. Rainier. It towers like a giant, nearly two miles above the surrounding foothills, dwarfing every other mountain in the Cascades.
It is part of the Ring of Fire -- volcanic mountains circling the Pacific Ocean including the Aleutian Islands, the North and South American continents, Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan. Volcanic activity formed this mountain, but it gets its exquisite shape from the 26 glaciers that spread down from its summit.
At nearly 14,400 ft, it is a striking landmark in the Northwest. The awesome views of this mountain from aboard any flight to Seattle or Portland are unforgettable. But to experience its grandeur, one has to get close and spend a few days in the backcountry.
A scenic drive from the Nisqually entrance leads to Longmire. About 10 miles from here is a heavenly place called, well, Paradise. The panoramic views of the ice-capped mountain peak, field of glaciers, dense evergreen forests and meadows are breathtaking.
Reaching the summit of Mt. Rainier is challenging and hazardous, though several mountaineers attempt it successfully every year. But from Paradise (elev. 5400 ft), the Skyline Trail reaches very close to the Nisqually Glacier. It is the highest trail in Paradise. It is quite strenuous but a very rewarding experience.
The trailhead is near the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center in Paradise. In spring and summer, the meadows are a riot of wildflowers -- magenta paintbrushes (Castilleja parviflora) and white avalanche lilies (Erythronium montanum).
The trail starts off with a steep gradient and quickly branches into two, the Alta Vista ridge separating them. To the east it leads to Myrtle and Sluiskin Falls and connects with another trail toward the Paradise Glacier. The west Skyline Trail continues toward Alta Vista Point (elev. 5940 ft).
Glacial streams run down the rocky, lava terrain. This region is wetter and colder than the lowland forests near Longmire. Stormy winds have shaped the trees here as they get twisted into weird formations. Alaskan yellow cedar and hemlocks can be seen rising from the slopes.
A little higher is the subalpine terrain with trees amidst vast open meadows. Above the tree line sits a brutal, windswept alpine zone near Glacier Vista (elev. 6336 ft.). Cold winds blow hard here -- even in summer.
Views of the Nisqually Glacier are spectacular from Glacier Vista. Emanating from the summit, the Columbia Crest crater, this "river of ice" descends slowly. As gravity pulls the heavy ice blocks down the slopes, it moves as much as two to three feet per day, scouring and sculpting the mountain along the way.
Beyond Glacier Vista is Panorama Point (elev. 6800 ft.). On a clear day, it is possible to view Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams.
Sudden changes in weather are common here. Clouds gather from nowhere, dropping the visibility to less than a few feet and shroud the peak from view. But often, in a few minutes, a swift wind blows the clouds clear. It is an awesome experience to witness this unveiling ceremony provided by Mother Nature.
From Panorama Point, the trail branches into the High Skyline trail, which is less strenuous, particularly when the Skyline trail is covered with snow. The trail toward Camp Muir (elev. 10,180 ft.) can be taken from here. Camp Muir is the starting point for mountaineers climbing to the summit.
On the way back, a different route, offers splendid views of the Sluiskin falls.
It takes about five hours to hike this trail. It is a memorable five hours experience first hand the process of glaciers sculpting a mountain.
Best time of year: Late spring and summer.
Maps: Free trail maps can be obtained from the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center in Paradise.
Access for people with special needs: The Skyline Trail is strenuous. The Trail of the Shadows ( 0.7 miles) starting in Longmire has wheel chair access. TDD assistance is available at (360) 569-2177.
Getting there:From Seattle, I-5 south, WA-7 toward Elbe and east on WA-706 to the Nisqually Entrance.
Entrance Fees:$5 per vehicle payable in the entrance to the national park. Golden AccessPassport (for disabled US citizens and permanent residents) is free.
Useful Phone Numbers: 24 hour info line: (360) 569-2211. TDD: (360 569-2177).
Lodging: Paradise Inn is open from late-May to early October. National Park Inn, located in Longmire is open year-round. For reservations in these national park inns, contact (360) 569-2275. Mount Haven log cabins near Ashford (close to the Nisqually Entrance) is located on the foothills, secluded in a forest of cedars. For reservations contact (360) 569-2594.
Camping: About 577 campsites are available. For availability, reservations and weather conditions, contact the ranger station at (360) 569-2211.
Caveats: Paradise gets heavy snow during winter. Most trails are closed during winter when freezing temperatures and severe snowstorms blow in this region.