According to local legend, Martha Longmire, who helped found the first hotel in the area, was supposed to have exclaimed, "This must be what paradise is like," upon her first visit to the subalpine meadows that now bear that name. These meadows, now the site of the Paradise Inn and the Jackson Visitor Center, are the most popular spots in the park. Wildflowers cover the slopes, and the vast bulk of the mountain rises so steeply overhead that it is necessary to strain one's neck to gaze up at the summit.
Mount Rainier lies toward the southern end of the Washington Cascades. Here the crags of the North Cascades give way to a volcanic landscape of rolling hills punctuated by Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and, to the east, Mount Adams and Goat Rocks: the latter but a remnant of an ancient volcano, the former, a snow cone as impressive as Mount Rainier.
It is said that Rainier makes its own weather, and more often than not, it isn't what people consider good weather. Rising more than 2 miles above the surrounding landscape, Mount Rainier interrupts the eastward flow of moisture-laden air that comes in off the Pacific Ocean. Forced upward into the colder altitudes, this moist air drops its load of water on the mountain. At lower elevations on the west side, the moisture falls as rain, which creates a rainforest in the Carbon River Valley. However, at higher elevations, the precipitation falls as snow. On average, about 680 inches of snow falls each winter at Paradise on Mount Rainier, but in the winter of 1971-72, 1,122 inches (94 ft.) of snow were recorded at Paradise, setting a world annual snowfall record. And in November 2006, 17 inches of rain drenched the mountain in 48 hours, causing significant damage to the trails and roads.
Mount Rainier is the single most glaciated mountain in the Lower 48. So much snow falls here each winter that it can't melt over the short summer. Each year the snow accumulates, eventually compressing into ice that adds to the mountain's glaciers. There are 26 named glaciers on Mount Rainier and another 50 unnamed ones. Among these are the largest (Emmons) and the lowest (Carbon) in the Lower 48.
These glaciers, in turn, feed a half-dozen rivers. The Muddy Fork of the Cowlitz River and the White River takes its name from the color that the glacial flour (silt) imparts to it. Fortunately, the Carbon River is not as black as its name implies. The river instead takes its name from the coal deposits found in the area. The Nisqually, the Puyallup, and the Cowlitz all retain names given to them centuries ago by the region's American Indian tribes. All these rivers eventually flow westward to the Puget Sound, with the exception of the Cowlitz, which flows into the Columbia River.
Surrounding the park are four national forests: Mount Baker, Snoqualmie, Wenatchee, and Gifford Pinchot. Within these forests are seven wilderness areas and thousands of miles of logging roads and trails.
Flora & Fauna
In a national park, where animals need not fear hunters, you often get unexpected chances to encounter wildlife up close and personal, sometimes whether you want to or not. Yes, cougars live in this park, as do black bears, but neither is seen very often. Much more common large mammals are the park's deer, elk, and mountain goats. Deer, mostly black-tailed, are the most frequently spotted. Elk, much larger and more majestic in stature, are less in evidence but sometimes appear in the Sunrise area in the summer and throughout the eastern regions of the park during the autumn. Mountain goats, which are actually not goats but rather longhaired relatives of the antelope, keep to the rocky cliffs above alpine and subalpine meadows during the summer.
Perhaps the most entertaining and enviable of the park's wild residents are its marmots. These largest members of the squirrel family spend their days nibbling wildflowers in subalpine meadows and stretching out on rocks to bask in the sun. In meadows throughout the park, these chubby creatures seem oblivious to the presence of humans, contentedly grazing only steps away from hikers.
Marmots share these subalpine zones with pikas, tiny relatives of rabbits that are more often heard than seen. Living among the jumbled rocks of talus slopes, pikas skitter about their rocky domains calling out warnings with a high-pitched beep that is surprisingly electronic in tone.
Monkeyflowers, elephant's heads, parrot's beaks, bear grass: They represent just a small fraction of the variety of wildflowers on the slopes of Mount Rainier. This mountain's subalpine meadows are among the most celebrated in the Northwest and the world. Although not as colorfully named as the flowers mentioned above, lupines, asters, gentians, avalanche lilies, phlox, heather, and Indian paintbrush all add distinctive splashes of color to the slopes in summer.
The meadows at Paradise are much wetter than those at Sunrise, which lie in a rain-shadow zone and, consequently, are relatively dry. In the northwest corner of the park, the Carbon River Valley opens out to the Puget Sound and channels moisture-laden air into its valleys. As a result, this valley is a rainforest where tree limbs are draped with moss and lichen, and where Douglas fir and western red cedar grow to enormous proportions. In the southeast corner of the park, in the Grove of the Patriarchs near the Stevens Canyon Entrance, stand some of the oldest trees -- Douglas firs more than 1,000 years old and western red cedars more than 25 feet in circumference.
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