The Noble Giant – Mount Rainier

Our First View of the Sleeping Giant

Our First View of the Sleeping Giant

Wildflowers, alpine meadows, gigantic old-growth trees, glaciers, deep canyons, waterfalls, snapped trees piled up to look like twigs for a giant’s bonfire, lush green forest floors, and I could go on and on.  Mount Rainier was awesome!  If someone told me that they were visiting Washington State and only had three days, I’d tell them to spend all three days at Mount Rainier – it was that amazing.

We spent our mornings hiking amongst wildflowers and through snow and our afternoons hiking amongst ferns and dripping old-growth trees.  We relaxed on the porch of a lodge in awe of the giant before us, and counted our lucky stars we were able to find a great campsite in the popular park.  Although this park doesn’t seem to suffer from the incessant traffic jams that others do (I’m thinking of you, Yellowstone), available campsites were hard to come by.  Fortunately, we found a fantastic site under towering evergreens.  The campground was filled with families on one last hurrah for the summer.

We ran into many experienced campers at the park, but two families stuck out.  The first was a family camped a few sites away, between us and the bathroom.  Each time I walked by, I marveled at the kitchen set-up that these folks had.  Somehow, out of the back of a small pick-up truck, they managed to create a luxurious compound, replete with a massive tent and intricately overhanging tarp (necessary in these wet woods), chairs for the whole fam, a regular-sized sink complete with two 5-gallon collapsible buckets to serve as a water source and a graywater tank, a waist-high drying rack, a table for other important kitchen items, cords running all over the site with kitchen implements hanging within reach over the kitchen area, and a propane stove powered by a tank the size you’d have on your backyard grill.  They win the prize for the most intricate campsite we’ve come across on this trip.

The second family outdid us all.  While were out hiking for the day, Alan came across a backpacker with an eight month-old strapped to her chest.  She had just arrived at a trailhead and was talking with other hikers.  Curious about her story, Alan overheard her explaining that she had just been out backpacking for twelve days with the wee one.  TWELVE DAYS!  Backpacking!  And it wasn’t clear that the backpacking was over for the happy family – they may have just been refueling.  Sometimes people tell us that it’s impressive that we’ve been on the road camping with a two-year old for over five months.  Do not be impressed!  We have not attempted backpacking, we haven’t even camped for twelve straight days – we always tend to take a one night break (or sometimes more) every week or so.  And we’re not camping with an eight month old!  Our little guy can walk, can tell us what he needs, and can even help out quite a bit around camp.  Twelve days.  Backpacking.  Amazing!

And so, amongst the backdrop of these extraordinary campers, we explored many nooks and crannies of this intensely beautiful park.  The glaciered peak was as imposing as it was beautiful, and hiking up its flank amongst the wildflowers was a lesson in gratitude.  Gratitude that we were able to see the peak on multiple days (a treat not granted to all park-goers given the common cloud cover), that we chose a time to visit when nature was showing off her finest colors, and that we were healthy enough to hike up, up, and up to see the massive glaciers that blanket the peak.

I’m not sure what was more beautiful, each individual wildflower or the mass of wildflowers dotting a slope.  Regardless, lupines will always be my favorite.

The massive, wet trees were a significant change from our forays through the Rockies and the Utah canyons.  Although the trees were impressive, Van’s favorite thing was to point out the ferns (which he calls “F F Terns”) and then turn over the fronds to let us know whether or not there are spores.  He can barely walk by a fern without checking for spores, which made for lengthy forest walks given the abundance of ferns in the lower elevations of the park.

John Muir said it best, “Of all the fire mountains which like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest.”

Confronting Fears in Glacier National Park

I may have mentioned this before, but I have two fears that I’m trying to conquer, flying in planes and bears.  This is a bummer since I love to travel and to spend time outdoors, often in bear country.  I’ve come a long, long way since the beginning of this trip, frequently camping in black bear territory without a second thought.  Although I loved spending time hiking and camping in the past, it was seldom that my enjoyment wasn’t tempered with thoughts in the back of my mind about what large, furry creature might be around the corner or over the ridge.  I’m happy to say that I now have a healthy fear of black bears that all humans should have and no longer obsess over every breaking twig or food smells that may remain around camp.  Well, Alan would probably say I still obsess a little about food smells, but I think that’s healthy for both us and the bears.

Grizzlies, my friend, are another thing entirely.  When our Eurovan came to its tragic end in Memphis, and we decided to camp with only a tent to call home, we made the agreement that when in grizzly territory, we’d stay somewhere with four walls.  Not knowing when we’d be somewhere made this all the more difficult.  You see, we were in grizzly country during high tourist season, which only lasts a couple of months.  If I were a hotel owner in an area that only sees frequent tourists during one season out of the year, you better bet that prices would be significantly higher during that season.  Not only were prices insane, most places were already booked!  So, we opted for the least expensive option that would give us four walls and a roof and stayed in Motel 6s (or as Van says, Motel Number Six) in Missoula and then in Kalispell, outside of Glacier National Park.  I could spend all day telling you our thoughts of Kalispell, but instead I’ll turn to more positive topics – our visit to Glacier.

Glacier smelled amazing!  Seriously and phenomenally amazing.  It was beautiful, no doubt, but the smells took top honors.  While we enjoyed our time in the park, it was clear that to really appreciate the park, you need to spend more than a couple of days and you need to stay within the park.  We’ve already added this to our mental list of places to which we’d like to return when Van gets older.  While there, however, we enjoyed every minute.  The views were astounding, we ate lunch in incredible settings, Van continued his routine of rock throwing to great effect, we went on several stunning and rewarding hikes, and saw wildlife aplenty – including bears!  My proudest moment was when Van hiked the farthest he’d ever hiked without assistance, a full mile and three-quarters.  He spent most of the rest of the hike enjoying his perch on Alan’s back, but hopped out again for the last half mile of the hike.  And this wasn’t a flat path – it was a serious uphill hike with plenty of obstacles for him to maneuver.  My other proud moment was hiking without obsessing over bears, even though the first sign at every trailhead encouraged hikers to carry bear spray, and we did, in fact, see three bears.

To set your mind at ease (or maybe just mine), we didn’t come across the bears while we were out hiking.  Instead, we came across gaggles of people along the side of the road with binoculars and large lenses.  Piquing our curiosity each time, we stopped and joined the fray.  On our first stop we were witness to a black bear (who was blonde – go figure) and a grizzly in different directions up a fairly steep hill.  Neither was close and I loved having the opportunity to watch them amble about.  On our second stop, we got out and quickly realized that we were only twenty-five yards from a grizzly.  Twenty-five yards!  Too close for comfort for both us and for the ranger.  We watched the bear for a few minutes before consciously realizing we were too close.  As we returned to the car, the ranger had the same idea and ordered everyone back in their cars immediately.  It’s not a good thing for bears to become habituated to people, and this sort of bear-watching at close range is just the sort of thing that can do that.

Bear!

Bear!

People!

Are we bear watching or people watching?

If you’re contemplating a trip to Glacier and are interested in seeing glaciers, I recommend that you travel here sooner rather than later.  There are far fewer glaciers in the park than there were just over a decade ago when I first visited the park.  Although the signs of glaciers are everywhere, from the steep, glacier-carved mountains to the glacier-fed lakes, the glaciers themselves are becoming smaller and smaller each year.  Although the disappearance of glaciers in this park is all but inevitable in our lifetime, the landscape that owes its beauty to these icy beasts is well worth a trek to northern Montana.