In every effort to keep Washington green this first week of June, the rain gods are doing their thing for our visit to Mount Rainier National Park. As a family we Rothermels drove 4500 miles to Denali National Park between Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska; and due to the cloud cover, we never saw Denali, the highest mountain in North America. Two years ago, Hannah and I came to southwest Washington to hike Mt. St. Helens. Hiking in our ponchos in a cloud, we barely saw 150 feet in front of us all day.
Today there is no chance in hell that we will see Mount Rainier as the overcast and precipitation has descended on western Washington. Checking my Weather Channel app on my iPhone, I see that there is 34% chance of rain at 9A, 53% chance at 10A, and 94% chance at 1P. Connecting the dots, we decide to hit the road early for today’s hike.
Our jumping off point is Packwood, WA, which is a rural outpost that gives off an Alaska vibe. Two years ago we spent time in Cougar, WA, the gateway to Mt. St. Helens; and Packwood has the same out-of-the-way feel where it seems residents have happily left fast-paced America behind. The front desk clerk at our motel wouldn’t live anywhere else.
At the Crest Trail Lodge, just outside of town, we have a breakfast worthy of hikers preparing to climb America’s premier volcano. Hannah has her biscuits and gravy while I have scrambled eggs with buttered biscuits with my decaf. Last evening, we each were served two complimentary glasses of Cabernet from Two Vines, a local vineyard.
In light sprinkles after breakfast, we head northwest on Skate Creek Road for the town of Ashford, WA and the Nisqually (western) Entrance to Mount Rainier National Park; this road has been recently reopened after being closed all winter. Taking this winding road with bumps and depressions that rock our personal under carriage, we try to beat the predicted heavy rain that is on its way. I use the windshield wipers as little as possible under the theory that the less I use them, the less it will rain.
Arriving at the Nisqually entrance I ask the ranger for a hiking recommendation. Her choice is the Comet Falls Trail, just 11 miles into the park. Though it is strenuous-rated, it is a lower level hike, which means we will not be dealing with snow today.
Preferring to be eaten by a bear than be wet and cold, Hannah is leery of hiking in this morning rain with temperatures approaching 50F. Not me; being a bear’s morning snack sounds as bad as it probably is. I’ll take a little cold rain. As we leave our rented VW Beetle, it seems the rain gods have gone fishing.
Though we have had from drizzle to light rain for the past hour’s drive to the Comet Falls trailhead, it’s not much more than misting as we prepare to hike. Hannah pulls on her poncho while I adhere to a similar theory of the windshield wiper. The less I wear my poncho, the less it will rain. (You have your theories of life, I have mine!)
Over the next nearly three miles of trail we will gain 2100 feet in elevation on a morning that is overcast to say the least. (At the main Paradise Visitor Center further into the park, the predicted high for this first week of June day is 44F. Atop Mount Rainier itself the high will be 11F.) Starting at a trailhead at 3600’, we have a steady climb into the Douglas fir forest on a trail that is wet but not muddy.
Over the first two miles, we are constantly stepping over well-worn roots and up and over rock after rock. My theory of not wearing a poncho to avoid the likelihood of rain is paying off as any misting has stopped. Overheated in her poncho, Hannah soon returns it to her backpack.
Following the lower reaches of the Van Trump Creek as it rushes by in all its white water glory, we find a rocky and steep trail, though not perilous as we hike above the ravine-ous terrain. With the rushing water as a backdrop, we have our own personal hiking symphony. A crib ladder, built due to landslide that closed the trail in 2012, allows us to climb the cliffside.
With no markers indicating how close we are to Comet Falls, I use my watch to gauge that after 45 minutes we must be close. Soon a sign appears that indicates we are 200 feet from Comet Falls. Pleased we have climbed the 1400 feet to the falls in under hour, I get my iPhone ready to video the white water falls. The video below reveals my exuberance as I call the falls the Casco Falls (the Portland, ME bay?) rather than the Comet Falls. Enjoy.
Most pleased, we decide to hike the additional mile to the Van Trump Park some 700’ more up into the foothills of Mount Rainier. Taking a bridge over the creek, we see a tributary and then boom! A dramatic 124 foot falls – something out of Yosemite or Multnomah Falls on the Columbia River Gorge. The video below is the real Comet Falls filmed three minutes later.
The park service rangers have done yeomen and yeowomen’s work to clear the trails. We see 20 to 40’ snapped-off trees littering either side of the trail due to wind storms that have blasted through the area.
The trail rises with switchbacks through the forest to a meadow worthy of Julie Andrews and the Sound of Music. The Van Trump Park is a meadow with views to the mountain snows above. Ninety minutes into our hike, we still have had no rain, though here in the higher reaches we are clearly immersed in a cloud.
On our descent we step gingerly as our knees, most willing in our climb up, are not quite as thrilled, as we use them to brake on the way down. With the clouds/fog descending, we pick up the pace to avoid the inevitable rain. Thirty minutes down, we find the Comet Falls not as brilliant as the clouds begin to obscure its majesty.
Every so often a little mist falls, but not wearing a poncho has worked and kept the rain at bay. With three hours of hiking in the books and none of it in rain, we are again the fortunate ones. Though we don’t see Mount Rainier itself, we focus on the journey, grasshopper, to a falls worthy of Mother Nature herself.