Exploring Washington's wild side: a road trip through Mount Rainier National Park

Travelling through one of the most spectacular wildernesses in the US is a tonic to some of the state's more crowded cities

The 4,392-metre peak is covered in ice sheets and glaciers. Courtesy Rosemary Behan
The 4,392-metre peak is covered in ice sheets and glaciers. Courtesy Rosemary Behan

Central Seattle is frequently gridlocked these days, thanks in no small part to a booming economy that has brought ­dozens of new buildings in its wake. This winter, the city was home to the highest number of commercial-sized cranes in the entire United States – as well as a massive 20 per cent of the country’s new downtown office developments.

So after flying into Seattle airport, located in Tacoma, south of the city, it feels like a satisfying trick to pick up my Hertz hire car and drive not north but south, towards one of the country’s most spectacular wildernesses.

After half an hour of ugliness on the 1-5 motorway, through Tacoma’s long strip of grotty motels and nondescript shopping outlets, I turn left on to Highway 7. This much smaller road is one of four approaches to Mount Rainier National Park, the centrepiece of which is the tallest of a string of volcanoes that once erupted all along the Pacific Coast.

It is about 10am and the cloud has just lifted when I first see the park out of the window to my left, across an early summer meadow filled with daisies. Rising out of miles of forest beyond that is the 4,392m peak, the top covered in ice sheets and glaciers. I put my foot on the pedal, as days like this are rare – most of the time, the mountain is shrouded in cloud.

I’m soon entering the park through Longmire on the western side, which is its oldest developed area. There are historic wooden structures, from the relatively grandiose National Park Inn, complete with a veranda and chairs to rest on after a day’s hiking, to the rudimentary cedar-shingled museum, which tells me that, just as today, the rustic style of the 1900s “appealed to people’s desire to reconnect to wild places at a time of industrial development”.

I’m hiking on designated trails and not setting off into the backcountry, but all visitors are urged by the park rangers to take note of the somewhat stern wilderness regulations, which include sensible precautions such as taking plenty of water and snacks and the effective wake-up call: “Be honest with yourself in assessing your skills and experience.” I set off first around the Longmire Meadow, once home to the very low-key Longmire Springs Resort and now home to silence, some haunting old wood cabins and a beautiful deer that appear as if from nowhere. I make my way uphill through the trees on the Rampart Ridge Trail, which gives me views into the increasingly rugged valleys beyond. There are only a handful of other hikers: the ideal number so as to not feel completely alone.

After lunch at the National Park Inn, I drive to Paradise Inn, another National Historic Landmark even closer to the wheel of glaciers radiating out from the summit. It’s hard not to be distracted by an abundance of waterfalls, the Nisqually River to my right and the roadside wildflowers.

The aptly-named Paradise meadows are filled with rosy spiraea, avalanche lilies, buttercups, alpine speedwell, western anemones, purple mountain asters and lupin, though “peak bloom” in the alpine areas is apparently mid-July. In between flirtatious reveals of the summit are thick clouds that remind me that the weather can change here in an instant, and multi-day or multi-week camping trips would ­require tents and a full range of ­clothing.

It’s comforting to note that over 97 per cent of the park’s 95,505 hectares – ­everything beyond the roads and car parks – is ­designated wilderness, but with the glaciers slowly receding due to climate change, it’s uncertain for how long people will have access to the full range of ­environments here.

I’m pleased to see that although it’s June, the long and heartbreakingly beautiful road to the Sunrise Visitor Centre, at almost 2,000 metres, is surrounded by snowfields, even as the base basks in heat. The fog closes in, so I do a couple of short hiking trails before driving downhill to the Ohanapecosh Visitor Centre, to complete the popular two-kilometre riverside Grove of the Patriarchs Loop, through old growth trees up to 100m high and 1,000 years old.

I finish off with the Silver Falls Trail, a four km hike to the dramatic, crystal clear falls surrounded by huge mossy boulders and thick forest canopy.

Fearing that I may run out of petrol – the new Ford Focus I’ve rented is so efficient that I’ve come all this way on one tank – I beat a hasty retreat out of the park through Chinook Pass to the east, on highway 410, also known as the Mather Memorial Parkway through the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Though it’s no longer a national park, the landscape is still wild and exhilarating, the subtle changes a geography lesson spanning the past five million years.

After the Cascade Mountains were created by volcanic activity, glaciers that formed during the Ice Age two million years ago sculpted the area further, though it’s the weather – the wet side to the left of the mountains versus the much drier east – that’s arguably the most significant marker. As I drive further east to Yakima, the trees gradually recede, to reveal stark river valleys and dramatic mesas reminiscent of Arizona.

Yakima, too, is a huge surprise. A historic farming town on a flat plain, the fertility of the soil, combined with warmth, has made it a major supplier of fresh fruit and vegetables. The small downtown area has recently been overhauled, with trendy restaurants, coffee shops and small hotels taking root.

I’d only expected to spend the night here, but linger for a couple of days, trying out restaurants such as Cowiche Canyon Kitchen + Icehouse, a buzzing, slick showcase for local ingredients and dishes made from scratch: think steaks, calamari salad with chilli and coriander, and Szechuan chicken wings with chopped spring onions. Around the corner there’s E Z Tiger, a Japanese-style space with a designer patio offering a ferociously good line-up of Asian-inspired food.

Yakima is a historic farming town on a flat plain,and a major supplier of fresh fruit and vegetables. Courtesy Rosemary Behan
Yakima is a historic farming town on a flat plain,and a major supplier of fresh fruit and vegetables. Courtesy Rosemary Behan

Amid a backdrop of redbrick terraced housing and rail yards with miles of fruit pallets so perfectly stacked they could be used for a magazine shoot, there’s also a similarly good selection of coffee shops. I like North Town Coffeehouse, positioned in the elegant waiting room of the 1909 Northern Pacific Train Depot. The rest of the building is being used as a co-­working space, and some pleasant new ­apartment blocks signal a small town on the up.

Just north of town, arguably one of the best scenic drives in the whole country, is the 50km-long Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway. The route follows the river to Ellensburg, and the landscape is startling – rolling sage-covered hills giving way to basalt cliffs rising some 80m-high, clear, slow moving water in the river, and eagles, hawks and falcons flying overhead through a hypnotic, saturated blue sky dotted with high white fluffy clouds. Though I get out of the car multiple times, everything somehow looks even better through the windscreen – the result, no doubt, of the engraving of American popular culture on the travelling psyche, but I’m endlessly thrilled nonetheless.

Updated: June 29, 2019 05:54 PM


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