On summer weekends, when "the mountain is out," as the locals say, busloads of noisy tourists descend on Mount Rainier, cameras at hand. But for anyone willing to expend a little bit of energy to get away from the crowds, this mountain, which dominates the Puget Sound and western Washington skyline for miles, has many secrets to share: mountain goats and marmots, streaming waterfalls, ominous walls of ice deep in the rainforest, and thousand-year-old trees set against subalpine meadows teeming with summer wildflowers.
Should you visit on a wet, dreary October day, you may theorize that Mount Rainier was named for the weather. In fact, Capt. George Vancouver named it in 1792 for his friend Rear Adm. Peter Rainier (who never saw it). The region's native people had been calling it Tahoma, or other variations, for centuries, however, and the name remained contentious until the early 19th century (and it still remains a touchy issue for some). Nevertheless, the mountain is known as Rainier to most people, and a sprawling city to the northwest, Tacoma, wound up with the American Indian name. Rainier was finalized as the name when the park was established in 1899.
Native peoples hunted deer, elk, and mountain goat and gathered huckleberries on its lower slopes for thousands of years. Today Mount Rainier is a symbol of the wild Northwest, providing constant reassurance of the beauty that lies beyond the sprawl of suburbia.
Although the early pioneers saw most of the mountains in the West as obstacles, 14,411-foot Mount Rainier so captivated the settlers that as early as the 1850s, less than a decade after Seattle was founded, mountaineers were heading for its snowcapped slopes. In 1857, an army lieutenant, August Valentine Kautz, climbed to within 400 feet of the summit. In 1870, Gen. Hazard Stevens and Philemon Van Trump made the first recorded complete ascent. (Trapped near the summit at dark, they survived the night huddled in ice caves formed by sulfurous steam vents, with the steam providing enough heat to keep them from freezing.) In 1884, James and Virinda Longmire opened the mountain's first hotel, at a spot that now bears their name. In 1899, Mount Rainier became the nation's fifth national park, and by 1916, the system now known as the Wonderland Trail was completed, forming a loop nearly 100 miles long around the mountain.
Because of its massive network of glaciers and unpredictable weather, Mount Rainier is an unforgiving peak. Dozens of climbers have died on its slopes, yet each year about 10,000 people set out for the summit of the dozing volcano. Only about half reach the top, however. The rest are turned back by bad weather, altitude sickness, exhaustion, and hazardous glacial crossings. This is not a mountain to be treated lightly.
Although the mountain is a magnet for climbers, the adventurers make up only a fraction of the 2 million visitors who arrive each year. This mountain is really all about hiking through subalpine meadows, the main activity pursued by the vast majority of park visitors, most of whom visit during the short summer season (July-Sept in the higher elevations).
Scenic idylls through flower-strewn meadows aside, the Cascades are not dead -- they're just sleeping. The eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 drove that fact home. But what of Mount Rainier? Snow and glaciers notwithstanding, Rainier has a heart of fire. Steam vents at the mountain's summit are evidence of that. Though the volcanic peak has not erupted for more than 150 years, it could erupt again at any time. Some scientists believe that Rainier's volcanic activity occurs in 3,000-year cycles; if this holds true, it'll be another 500 years (give or take) before another big eruption. So go ahead and plan that trip. In all likelihood, only the scenery will blow you away.
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