Exploring the Park

Trip Start Jun 18, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of United States  , Washington
Saturday, August 21, 2010

Short Version:

            Our first day in Mt. Rainier
            National Park.

            A foggy Ranger hike; that is
            a Ranger hike in the fog.

            Paradise Inn is beautiful.

            We did better for a camping site.

Wordy Version:

Even though we were in a restaurant gravel parking lot off the main western entrance to the National Park, Karen and I spent a comfortable night and slept soundly. I'm not sure exactly what traffic we heard first during the morning that woke us up; it could have been the close highway traffic, it could have been the slow moving cars crunching the gravel in the parking lot or it could have been the sound of a slow moving diesel vehicle just outside our window.

Regardless of which noise it was, all were worth getting up to be investigated. It turns out that there was a combination of people getting an early start driving into the park, people driving in the parking lot to look at some craft fair tables that had been set up right next to us and the diesel vehicle was a shuttle bus making its stop to pick up people to take into the park. We probably couldn’t have picked a busier parking lot to spend the night in if we had scouted for weeks; at least nobody came knocking on our door in the middle of the night to tell us we had to move!

Vehicle mystery solved and gravel parking lot or not, it’s Saturday so French Toast it is; there are just some constants in life that are going to be adhered to no matter what extenuating circumstances arise. We quickly complete the breakfast, clean-up, rig-down routine and we are on our way back to the west park entrance (the Nisqually Entrance). Once again this lifetime senior’s National Park Pass pays off for us as we pick up a park map and proceed on without additional entrance fees.

The 7 mile drive into the park to reach the Wilderness Information Center is a winding two lane park road that climbs 700’ in elevation and has seen better days in some places; it is, however, one of the most scenic wooded drives you could ever find. It passes numerous car pull outs, trail heads and Kautz Creek Bridge. This bridge crossing provides visitors with their first glimpse of Mt. Rainier from within the park, on most days. Yep, today is one of our heavy mist, low hanging cloud mornings that seems to have followed us from Alaska; at the moment, we can only read about these spectacular views and vistas because we’re certainly not having any this morning.

Due to our somewhat Spartan overnight accommodations, we lack any knowledge of the weather forecast or activities happening in the park so we stop at the Logmire Complex and talk with a park ranger at the Info Center. She confirms that about half the mountain road going up and the top are socked in with little chance of clearing for the day; she does provide us with several alternative sites to visit and hikes to take which should be interesting to see whether it is clear or not. We decide to stroll around the various buildings which include the National Park Inn and gift shop (concessionaire operated), a small park museum and restored 1938 Kenworth built Red Bus similar to the ones we encountered in Glacier National Park. While this one bus is on display at this complex, there are no Red Bus tours available in Mt. Rainier National Park; there is, however, a park operated free bus shuttle system that operates only on the weekends during the summer and it only operates on this west side of the park.

We decide to take the free park shuttle up to the top Visitor’s Center area called Paradise. This segment of the park road is about 12 miles long and climbs 2400’; the ride takes us past Cougar Rock campground, Christine Falls, Narada Falls and several additional trailhead pull outs. From looking at the park map, one sounded particularly interesting named Rampart Ridge Trail. As the name implies, it traverses a ridge running north east off this park road; this trail is much more than we would want to do in length and elevation change, but what a view you could have from it on a clear day. On the way up, we decided to hop off the shuttle and visit the Narada Falls because the bus driver informed us that it was worth the 30 minute hike and that the downhill bus does not stop at that site due to lack of a proper pull out.

Narada Falls has plenty of parking for private vehicles and several picnic tables; the hike down to the falls was short but steep and very crowded today. A few quick Kodak moments overtake us and then it is back to the parking lot to catch the next uphill shuttle. During the remainder of the shuttle ride up, the driver tells us how pretty this turn out is and the view around that curve has such and such and we’re so depressed that we can’t see anything that we vow then and there we are staying over an additional night or two because we’ve got to see this place on a clear day.

Eventually we arrive at the Paradise area; it has the Visitor’s Center, Paradise Inn and a Ranger’s Station all locate at 5400’ elevation. Within these buildings, there are the typical gift shops, signs for ranger hikes and food; we partake of all of these offerings. As we split a sandwich and have some soup, the clouds seem to thin out and we quickly finish lunch to join a ranger on an easy one hour interpretative hike around the Nisqually Vista Trail. Even though the grand distant vistas are obscured, once again, the mist and fog adds a certain mystique to all the forest conifer trees, the abundant wildflower carpeted hillsides and the occasional spotted fawn. Although a thoroughly interesting hike and lots of opportunities for pictures along the way, Karen and I both agree that we must take this trail again on a clear day before we leave this Park.

We take a slightly different route back that routes us along some of the 1.5 mile trail that we took from the Visitor’s Center, however, we divert over to the Paradise Inn to view the much discussed guest lodge area. This inn, like most of the other national park lodges, does not disappoint; when measured on the "massive built scale", everything from the open log structure, to the fireplace, to the furniture pegs the meter. It would be easy to spend the better part of a day just sitting in the oversized chairs or couches admiring the workmanship that went into building this magnificent open concept vaulted ceiling structure.

After completing a few gift shop purchases, we hop back on the park shuttle for the 12 mile ride back to Longmire to our RV. We still have no campsite for tonight and we have had no luck with the park campgrounds; they remain full. When it starts getting to be time to get off the road for the night, it is somewhat of a lost feeling when you have no cell service or internet access to help find a campground; we’re starting to think back about the Good Samaritan restaurant owner’s gravel parking lot. As we are heading that way back out of the park, Karen spots the Mounthaven Resort which was one of the RV parks she called the previous night; we pull in and wind up getting the last site available.

Mounthaven is a small independently owned park that was conveniently located about a mile from the west park entrance. Craig and his wife Janet were the owners and they were as friendly and helpful as any we have encountered. Craig’s help in getting parked and Janet’s suggestions on things to see the next day were invaluable. If you’re headed to Mt. Rainier National Park toward the west Nisqually Entrance, try the Mounthaven; you won’t find any friendlier owners and you’ll enjoy the deer that wander through the park at dusk.

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