Visible from just about anywhere in the western half of the state as it rises in regal solitude, Mount Rainier, at 14,410 feet, is the highest of the Cascade volcanoes. Wildflowers cover the park’s subalpine and alpine slopes in mid- to late summer, spreading upslope as they follow the receding melting snow. Butterflies (and flies) can be abundant up here. Mountain Goat herds reside in Panhandle Gap, Emerald Ridge, and Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground. Elk, Mountain Lions, Black Bears, and many Mule Deer inhabit the park. Birds of the summer alpine zone include White-tailed Ptarmigans, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, and American Pipits. Blue Grouse inhabit the subalpine area, sometimes dust-bathing on the main hiking trails. Migrating raptors, including Prairie and Peregrine Falcons, follow the mountain ridges.
Mount Rainier is the most seismically active volcanic peak in the Cascades, generating more than 30 earthquakes annually. A huge glacier field, with 27 major glaciers, covers its slopes, making it one of the most potentially dangerous volcanoes in the world. During an eruption of the glacier-covered volcano, meltwater combines with hot volcanic debris and slides rapidly down the mountain as a highly destructive mudflow called a lahar.
There are four main entrances to the park, more or less at each of its four corners. The Nisqually Entrance at the park’s southwestern corner brings visitors through tall montane forest filled with the entrancing songs of Varied and Hermit Thrushes. Take a side trip up Westside Road to see the results of a massive lahar from the glaciers above. Farther up the main park road are the Longmire Museum and the Longmire Visitor Center; continue along the road to reach Narada Falls.
Drive up to 5,400 feet and you will come to the Paradise area, which has several excellent trails for hiking up into the subalpine and alpine realms. The wonderfully varied expanses of wildflowers above Paradise peak in July and August include the brilliant and assorted colors of lupines, paintbrushes, monkeyflowers, bistorts, heathers, and fragrant Sitka Valerian. Subalpine Firs and Mountain Hemlocks dominate the small, isolated groves of subalpine conifers here, and provide cover for Blue Grouse and smaller birds and mammals.
Other outstanding features include Reflection Lakes, home to nesting Barrow’s Goldeneyes; Stevens Canyon, with breathtakingly steep walls; Box Canyon, a narrow gap in the rock walls; and Grove of the Patriarchs, with stupendous old-growth Western Red Cedars, Douglas Firs, and Western Hemlocks up to 1,000 years old.
The road at the White River Entrance near the park’s northeastern corner heads into the Sourdough Mountains to Sunrise Ridge and finally to Sunrise Visitor Center. The subalpine region here lies on the drier side of the mountain and has a more porous, pumice-based soil. Whitebark Pines are more prevalent, and grasses and sedges mix with the wildflowers on the meadows. Sunrise gets fewer visitors than Paradise, and offers an easier route into truly alpine surroundings and ptarmigan habitat.
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