The weekend masses have not yet descended upon Cougar Rock Campground, so it is a cool, quiet morning. I marvel at my good fortune to get two blue sky days in a row in one of the “the snowiest places on earth.” I can see a few wisps of clouds, though, so I know the weather system is changing, so I hurry out for my intended destination for the day, Sunrise.
At elevation of 6,400 feet, Sunrise is Mount Rainier’s highest visitor center. It is also on the drier side. Due to the rain shadow effect, there is not as much snow on the trails, although the mountain itself has a much snowier view from this side of the park.
If you think of the park road as a giant, backwards letter “C,” Cougar Rock campground is at the bottom of the curve’s end, while Sunrise is at the top. Paradise is about a third of the way, with Box Canyon being about half way. So I must retrace my steps from the previous day in order to reach Sunrise.
The estimated drive time from Cougar Rock Campground to Sunrise is at least two hours, so I race past all the stops I visited yesterday in hopes of getting to Sunrise with ample time for hiking. The weather is nothing short of perfect, so I put the top down on the Tracker for the two hour drive. I recently “retro-fitted” the Tracker with a cassette tape adapter that allows me to play my ipod tunes over the four-speaker stereo, so I put on some Allman Brothers to crank me up and over the mountain.
The drive is gorgeous through thick forests with occasional mountain views. Once I reach the end of the road at Sunrise, I hear the “pinging” of my iphone. I have a signal!! Sad to be this excited, but I have been without email for almost three days now. 😉
I stop into the Visitor’s Center to ask the staff for a recommendation for the best wildflower opportunity. She suggests a choice of two hikes; Emmons Overlook Trail to Silver Forest out and back, or a loop around Shadow Lake. I am feeling surprisingly energetic for 6,400 ft so I do both!
The beauty around me is overwhelming. There are lupines, magenta paintbrush, creeping phlox all along the trail. The hills are alive, and the only thing missing is Julie Andrews! Good thing I don’t know how to turn cartwheels, because I sure do feel like it!
The trail to Shadow Lake leads me along a bit of the Wonderland Trail, the 93 mile trail that circumnavigates Mount Rainier. Only an estimated 200 to 250 people per year complete the entire trail. I wander through one of the back country campgrounds, Sunrise Camp, and ponder what a great adventure this would be, to hike around the mountain seeing remote wilderness areas that so few people get to experience. This gives me pause for thought about my own fitness level, and how disappointing it is to be limited by one’s abilities. On one hand, I regret not having “discovered” my love for hiking sooner in life, but on the other hand, I am grateful I still have some time, hopefully…
As I start my two hour drive back to Cougar Rock Campground, I put the top down again, and ease out of the parking lot to Hendrix’s “Red House.” I notice clouds are starting to roll in with the promise of a colorful sunset. I still have the top down, and the sky is painted with a gorgeous palate of salmon, pink, and lavender. I pull over to grab some shots as the sky lights up the mountain. I catch the last of the afterglow at Reflection Lake, and continue back via Paradise as the full moon is rising over the mountains.
I reflect back on what a perfect day it has been, driving through the mountains with the top down, hiking through wildflowers, with a 14,000 ft mountain “in my face,” capped off by a gorgeous sunset and a full moon rising behind the silhouetted mountain. On the scale of unforgettable days, Paradise to Sunrise has to be one of the best.