Follow the road trip from the beginning here.
It was with a sense of anticipation that Jo and I sprang into action upon rising. The weather forecasters had promised us a clear, sunny day to explore Mount Rainier but the dense canopy of trees overhead scattered raindrops down upon us and tendrils of fog crept through the highest branches. Undeterred, we packed our gear into the car and got ready to leave. We still had to pay for one more night of camping but had arrived at the campground late and the automatic ticket machine had clicked over to another day. The ranger station at Ohanapecosh was closed so we figured we’d pay at the station in Paradise, but there was a note on the car window inquiring about the missing night’s ticket so we looked around for a ranger. The note was signed Ranger Rick, which set Jo off giggling. I had no clue why, and when I spied a chap in ranger gear up ahead I shot up to him and asked “Are you Ranger Rick?” He beamed broadly. Not growing up in the United States, I was completely unaware of the famous children’s wildlife magazine of the same name (Jo explained it to me later.) We told Ranger Rick of our predicament and he cheerily waved us on our way with a promise to pay at Paradise. As I was taking my leave, it dawned on me that he’d left the ticket on the car while I was still asleep in the back seat. “So when you left the ticket on the car…” I started and he chortled. “Taking car camping to a whole new level” he grinned and I scuttled off red-faced at my outdoorsy unworthiness.
Our first stop was Box Canyon, about 12 miles west along Stevens Canyon Road. The Muddy Fork of the Cowlitz River churned and danced over river rocks as we walked from the car park to the moss-covered walkway. The river is not very wide, but it is apparently persistent, because it has managed to carve out a narrow slot canyon 115 feet in depth through scarred and polished rock. Walking across the bridge that spans the canyon is an exhilarating experience.
It was the perfect early morning walk; a gentle amble through the softest of surroundings. This was no place to rush, it begged to be savoured, and we slowed our pace accordingly.
Clumps of wildflowers danced in the breeze; startling the eye with their great scattered splashes of primary colour, upstaging the verdant landscape.
A blue jay got in on the act too, puffing up and parading his feathers with unabashed abandon.
Invigorated by the walk, we pushed on further, driving past countless waterfalls bearing delicious names such as Laughing Water Creek and Sunbeam Creek. Some thundered, others trickled, but all were beautiful enough to elicit ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from us as we passed by.
We didn’t stop because we were on a mission. Up ahead lay one of the most iconic views of Mount Rainier, mirrored in the aptly named Reflection Lakes and we were hoping against hope that the volcano would grace us with an appearance. The higher we climbed, the thicker the fog grew and broad banks of packed snow lined the roadway. Our ears began to pop just as we rounded a corner and Reflection Lakes burst into view. Mount Rainier did not, sulking moodily behind swirling mists so impenetrable I would scarcely have believed a hulking volcano lurked nearby, were it not for the helpful sign with a depiction of Rainier on a clear day.
Even without Rainier’s watery reflection, the lakes were dazzling. Icy fog drifted across the surface and the snow smelled so clean and enticing we simply had to walk along the shore, knee deep in sparkling powder that erupted in frosty flurries with each step.
It was exquisitely peaceful; so quiet you could almost hear the fog shifting across the ice. Even the wildflowers here had the good taste to blend in.
Our cheeks rosy with the cold, we drove the final stretch up to Paradise. We intended to take the Nisqually Vista Trail, a pleasant, unassuming hike… in summer. Upon inquiring, however, we learned it was snowed under and would require a little more effort and some sturdy walking shoes. I glanced down at my worn sneakers and decided to chance it anyway. Jo had sensibly come prepared with proper footwear so she took the lead and I followed behind, slipping and sliding and clinging onto tree branches for dear life. We came to the edge of a sharp incline, slick from other hikers’ boots and Jo dropped down into a squat, put her hands on the ground and expertly navigated her way down the slope. She made it look easy, so I assumed the position and inched myself over the edge. My sneakers had absolutely no traction so instead of gracefully maneuvering down the slope, my feet shot out in front of me and I hurtled down the chute with the agility of a gazelle on crutches, ending up in a crumpled heap surrounded by a startled family wearing matching sweaters.
At the bottom of the slope, things got a little easier. I only wiped out twice more before spotting the hazy outline of Rainier.
The end of the trail offered a sweeping vista of the Nisqually Glacier with an icy tentacle reaching out along the valley floor. The view made the arduous trek worthwhile.
The way back was much easier. The snow seemed to have softened and I was able to kick my heels in to stay upright and didn’t fall until the very end, when the ranger station was in sight and I let my guard down, tumbling the last few feet into the parking lot. As I fumbled around desperately trying to regain what was left of my dignity, the bushes next to me rustled and out popped a deer, and then another.
They didn’t seem to mind that I’d just made a complete idiot of myself; they were quite content to hang out in my general vicinity. I stood stock still and let them wander around, chomping on greenery until they were far enough away for me to stealthily reach for my camera and snap a few photos for posterity.
Back at the ranger station, we paid for our missing night at the camp site and got talking to the ranger on duty, Ranger Casey, an intriguing man who told us of places in the park where mountain goats gather and waterfalls appear mysteriously out of nowhere and then disappear just as suddenly. When we joked about the weather he commiserated; the mountain has its own schedule. We were trying to decide whether we should go further into the park towards Longmire, or call it a day and turn back. Ranger Casey helpfully gave us estimates of how long drive times and trails might take. “Unless”, he added, “you’re prone to taking your time, photographing, going off track…” Jo giggled. “That’s Ailsa to a tee” she said. “Really?” he said, fixing me with a gaze. “In that case, should you decide to go to Longmire, and should you spot any sign of blue skies, you need to go directly here.” He marked my map with an X. “It’s not a spot many people know about” he continued, “but if the mountain comes out later today, around maybe 5 or 6pm, then this is the most easily accessible place to go for a clear view.” He raised an eyebrow conspiratorially. I nodded, pretty sure that I’d been let in on something big. Other visitors bustled up behind us so we thanked him and wandered around the station.
I popped into the restaurant to grab a cup of coffee and noticed that the guys working in the cafe were abuzz with excitement. “Ranger Casey’s working today” they whispered to one another with barely contained glee. “What’s that?” I couldn’t help myself. “He doesn’t work here often” one of them told me, “but when he does we are beside ourselves, he knows things nobody else knows. It’s like he knows the mountain. We always learn something new when he’s around.” I was hooked. “So, if Ranger Casey thinks there’s a chance the mountain will come out…” I ventured. “Oh, it will come out” he nodded adamantly. I paid for my coffee and shot off to find Jo and tell her my news.
“Onward to Longmire” she announced, and we hopped back in the car, eyes gleaming and spirits soaring. The deer I had encountered earlier appeared to watch us leave.
A heavy rain was falling and the fog showed no sign of clearing but we didn’t care. I clutched Ranger Casey’s X-marked map in my hand and kept my eyes peeled for blue sky as we drove away from Paradise. Was Mount Rainier going to make an appearance?
Here’s some video highlights of today’s journey