A SHORT VISIT TO THE NW #2 - Mt St. Helens to Paradise in Mt. Rainier

July 08, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

September, 2015


A SHORT VISIT TO THE NW #2 - Mt St. Helens to Paradise in Mt. Rainier

This edition takes us from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on the east side of Mt. St. Helens up to the Paradise area of Mt. Rainier National park.  On the way we stopped at Silver Falls, Grove of the Patriarchs, Box Canyon, and Refection Lake.

Our Route

01 2015-09-29b Map - Portland to Mt. Rainier01 2015-09-29b Map - Portland to Mt. Rainier

Gifford Pinchot National Forest

As Mt. St. Helens was fading off into the distance behind us, we continued north along various secondary roads in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest that I talked about last time. 

Mt. St. Helens

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For the most part we followed what our AAA map called WA-25, however it was really a collection of NF (National Forest) roads.  These were 2 lane (1 each way) roads with very good and smooth surface – except for one section.  Let me tell you about this section.  As the road all along had been quite good and having little traffic (we passed one car going the other way over a 2 hour time frame in the middle of the day) it was easy to be doing 55mph on the straight sections and maybe 30 or 40 on the curves.  Then with no sign or warning there was a crack going across the whole road where the far side was 4 to 5 inches higher than the near side.  What with the up till then great road surface, and dappled sunlight filtering through the trees, this ‘defect’ was impossible to see and I hit it at about 40 mph.  I’m amazed my tires stayed intact and nothing fell off the front suspension.  As it turns out in-between miles of great road, there would be these sudden sections of a quarter to full mile of roadway with these cracks and pot holes several foot wide.  Then just as suddenly all was good again.  In some sections, 15 mph was too fast – and no signage letting you know that you’re about to hit one of these sections.

About 10 to 15 miles into this there was one sign that said “Rough Road Ahead”.  Gee, thanks, but where were you when we needed you?  Interestingly enough the road for several miles after this sign was perfect.  I suspect that some supervisor told some road crew to go and put this warning sign 100 yards south of “curve 7” (or some such designation) and the crew didn’t count curves so well and put it in the wrong place.  But, the car seemed fine so on we went.

As a kid, if you ever had a mental image of what a “forest” looked like before you actually saw one, this is that kind of forest.  Tall evergreens that I think were mostly Douglas Fir and Western Cedar, with sun dappled deep shade on a carpet of every imaginable shade of green on the forest floor – and all with a sprinkling of yellow and orange from some plants getting ready for winter.  Add to this a smattering of small streams gurgling through and there you have it. 


What a forest should look like

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From time to time we’d go over a bridge over a round rock laden creek or small river with pools of emerald green, white or turquoise water.  Some streams have a color somewhere between white and milky turquoise.  This is caused by “glacial flour”.  These are streams fed by glaciers where the glacier has pulverized the rock bed as it crept down the mountain side and this pulverized rock in the stream is the glacial flour and gives it its milky white or turquoise color. 

Eventually we made it to US-12, which was a faster road, and we headed east to Mt Rainier.


Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier NP in Washington State is roughly 370 square miles in the shape of a rectangle ~20 miles across and ~18 miles tall with the 14,000 foot Mt. Rainier (tallest in the Cascade range) in the middle.  The park was established in 1899 as the 5th national park in the country.  There are several entrances to the park by car.  Two are at the Northwest corner, one of which becomes a bicycle trail at the park border and the other is a dirt road that leads you to a lake and campground a few miles inside the park border.

The main entrances are on southern and eastern sides.  Folks coming from the West and Northwest, such as from Seattle or Tacoma will come in at the Nisqually Entrance in the Southwest corner of the park.  This entrance leads you up the Nisqually River to the developed Paradise area on the southern flank of Mt. Rainier.  If you’re coming from the South or Southeast, you’ll enter at the Steven’s Canyon entrance – which is the one we used .  This entrance leads you over a couple of ridges then up Stevens Canyon and on to the same Paradise area.  The third main entrance is midway up the eastern edge of the park.  This is the White River Entrance which leads you up to the Sunrise area that we’ll talk about next time.

Mt. Rainier NP Map

02 2015-09-29b Map - Mt. Rainer Park02 2015-09-29b Map - Mt. Rainer Park

While Mt. Rainier itself dominates the landscape the park is made up of much more than alpine terrain and the 25 glaciers on the mountain.  There are pristine river valley’s, dense forests, eye catching waterfalls, flower filled meadows and hikes galore.  Within the park, 97 percent of the land area is a designated wilderness and is not developed.  We didn’t go to those parts.  But there’s still plenty to see that you can drive to.  But first let’s talk volcano’s.

Mt. Rainier is part of the volcanic Cascade Range which stretches from northern California up into southern British Columbia.  This volcanic region is caused by the movement of tectonic plates along the “Ring of Fire” which circles pretty much the entire Pacific Ocean.  In this case the somewhat small Jaun de Fuca plate just off the coast is heading eastward.  The North American plate that all of us “lower 48er’s” live on is just sitting there.  I should point out that the coastal section of California from Pt Reyes (just north of San Francisco) to the Mexican border and on down the Baja California peninsula in Mexico is on the Pacific Plate rather than the NA plate.  Anyway the Juan de Fuca plate is slamming into the North American plate along the Washington and Oregon coast and being the smaller of the two has no place to go but down and under the western edge of the North American plate.  This is called a subduction zone or fault.  As this happens, the top of the Juan plate scrapes along the bottom of the NA plate and as it slides underneath that scarping generates a lot of heat and the rocks melt into lava.  Where the NA plate is a bit weak or at thin spots that lava rises to the surface and forms volcanoes.  Those volcanoes are the Cascade Range and sports no less than 18 of them going from Mt. Lassen in Northern California all the way up to Silverthrone in Southern British Columbia.  Now, don’t you wish you paid attention in science class when you were a kid.


Mt. Rainier from Steven’s Canyon Rd near Buckhorn Ridge

Mt. Rainier from Buckhorn RidgeMt. Rainier from Buckhorn Ridge


Mr. Rainier Weather

The 14,000 ft. Mt. Rainier acts like a giant hand that catches moisture laden air flowing in off the pacific on the Jet Stream.  As this moist air rises to flow over and around the Cascades in general and Mt. Rainier in particular, it cools and most of the moister is squeezed out of it falling as snow and rain.  According to the National Park Service, the Paradise area at Mt. Rainier is the snowiest place on earth that has regularly measured snowfall.  The record here was during the 1971/1972 winter where they logged 1,122 inches (or 93.5 feet) of snow.  That’s about a 10 story building.  The average precipitation is around 10 feet of water per year which includes an average 55 ft. of snow.  And, it rains or snows roughly188 days out of the year.  So, we brought our umbrella.

In addition to the wet coming in off the Pacific, the mountain itself creates clouds from the cold air coming off the glaciers near the top.  So you can see that finding the mountain in sunshine is somewhat rare.  But, as luck would have it we had perfect weather – take that Iceland.  Bright sunny days, a few clouds wafting by.  Daytime Temps in the mid 70’s.  Couldn’t have been better.

Great (and rare) Weather at Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier #1Mt. Rainier #1


Silver Falls

The Steven’s Canyon entrance is at the Southeastern corner of the park.   Very close to the entrance is the Grove of the Patriarchs and Silver falls.  Our first hike in the park was down to Silver Falls along the aptly named Silver Falls Loop Trail.  The loop trail itself is about 2.7 miles long with a 300 foot elevation change but we only did a smaller portion of it – around ¾ mile – but also with a 300 ft elevation change – aren’t we lucky – a loss going one way and the same as a gain going the other way.  This part of the park is much lower than other parts, around 2000 ft.,  so the vegetation is much thicker with more non conifer types of plants.  Many of these plants in the understory, along the forest floor were showing their fall colors

Getting ready for winter

Wildflowers on Silver Falls Loop TrailWildflowers on Silver Falls Loop Trail

Silver Falls on the Ohanapecosh River is a not a grand water fall like Yosemite Falls but it is quite picturesque.  The water is crystal clear as it tumbles down the river over the falls and into a dark blue pool.  The trail from where we parked leads you downhill through the forest where you can hear the river but not see much of it.  Then, as it nears the falls, there are a few places where you can see an upper falls and then you descend to a bridge that is just below Silver Falls. 

Silver Falls

Silver Falls #1Silver Falls #1


Another falls upstream from Silver Falls

Silver Falls Loop TrailSilver Falls Loop Trail


Silver Falls

Silver Falls #2Silver Falls #2


Grove of the Patriarchs

From the same parking area, on the other side of the road is the Gove of the Patriarchs loop trail.  This trail leads you down to a suspension bridge that takes you over to a rather large island in the river.  The grove is an old growth forest made up of ancient Douglas Fir, Hemlock and Western Cedar as well as Maple for some added color.  Many of these trees are over 300 feet tall and were over 500 years old when Columbus landed in North America in 1492.   This was a very nice, and easy, 1.5 mile little hike, much of which is on elevated board walks.  Having perfect weather and being there when the deciduous trees were turning color made it even nicer

Suspension bridge over the Ohanapecosh River

Suspension Bridge on Ohanapechosh RiverSuspension Bridge on Ohanapechosh River


Ancient Doug Fir

Douglas fir in the Grove of the PatriarchsDouglas fir in the Grove of the Patriarchs


Western Cedar

Western Cedar Tree TrunkWestern Cedar Tree Trunk


Fall Color

Fall Color at in the Grove of the PatriarchsFall Color at in the Grove of the Patriarchs


Box Canyon

As we continued up Steven’s Canyon Rd on our way to the Paradise area of the park we came to Box Canyon.  This is a slot canyon with a stream through it (Muddy Fork Cowlitz River) waaaaay down at the bottom.  The only way to see the stream is to look straight down.  Fortunately you can do this from either the Steven’s Canyon Rd bridge or the Wonderland Trail Bridge a short walk up stream.  Box canyon follows a fault line, or crack in the earth caused by volcanic activity. 

Box Canyon from Wonderland Trail Bridge

Box Canyon from Stevens Creek RdBox Canyon from Stevens Creek Rd


Box Canyon from Steven’s Canyon Rd.

Box CanyonBox Canyon


Fall Color at Wonderland Trail Bridge over Box Canyon

Maple Colors at Box CanyonMaple Colors at Box Canyon


Reflection Lakes

Our last stop before arriving at Paradise was Reflection Lakes.  This is actually two lakes side by side, but the larger of the two offers the better views.  These lakes are right by the road so no hiking is required. 

Let me digress.  Back when the idea of National Parks was quite new in the world, the whole concept was to expose the population to the wonders of nature.  As such, they put in roads, lodging, eating facilities, campgrounds and other amenities to make getting to and seeing such parks and popular park features easy for the city folk who they were trying to encourage to come.  This was the case during the massive construction phases through the WPA and CCC programs (many of which were part of the New Deal) as well as other initiatives.  This idea of National Park ‘access’ continued through the early 1960’s when it started changing.  Over a decade or two the entire philosophy changed from one of “access” to one of “protection”.   As a result, new parks are not being outfitted with paved roads or lodging or other ease of access features, and many construction projects in older parks are removing such access.  And in the cases where roads are being put in, they tend to now put them away from the most popular features of the park requiring a fair amount of hiking to see the popular features.  This is fine for the younger set, and I was all for it in my younger years, but now that I’m in my latish 60’s, hiking 5 or 10 miles to see a canyon, or waterfall or geyser is no longer that appealing.  At this stage of life, 1 to 3 mile hikes from a road are still fine but I’m sure that in a decade or two even that will be too much.   So, even though I’m an environmentalist, I would like to see this needle swing a bit more back to the “access” way of thinking in National Parks (but not in Designated Wilderness areas).  Ok, I’ll stop now.

Back to Reflection lakes.  As the name implies these lakes are perfectly positioned to give a grand reflection of Mt. Rainier and they are in a sheltered spot that helps minimize wind on the surface of the lake.  As a photographer, this is great.  Easy access, great reflection sight lines with no obstruction, smooth water and as luck would have it, no clouds obscuring the mountain.  Couldn’t be better.  Just gorgeous.

Mt. Rainier and Reflection Lakes

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Mt. Rainier and Reflection Lakes

Mt. Rainier in Reflection LakesMt. Rainier in Reflection Lakes


In the next edition we’ll discover more of Mt. Rainer NP including the Paradise and Sunset areas.

- You can see images of this area on my website at
http://www.danhartfordphoto.com/wa-cascade-mountains and

- My websie home page

Thanks for reading -- Dan


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