The wildflower season at Mount Rainier is at its peak but the beauty is fleeting.
In two weeks, the weather will be drier and hotter and the wildflowers will fade and die, says Darby Robinson, a Mount Rainier National Park Ranger who works at Paradise.
So now is the time to take in one of the Northwest’s most scenic sights.
On Thursday, Paradise was filled with groups seeking to get a glimpse of the mountain’s range of blooms. Robinson said Paradise has the highest concentration of wildflowers on Mount Rainier.
For some, like Olympia resident Chris Chapman, the trip is an annual priority.
Chapman and her husband visit Mount Rainier every August to see the wildflowers as part of their wedding anniversary celebration. She said they’ve been doing it for 35 years now.
“The wildflowers are, of course, always spectacular up here and it’s always enjoyable,” Chapman said.
Here’s how to make the most out of a trip to the highest peak in the Cascades for wildflower season.
Yes, it is summer. But you are hiking up a mountain. With the elevation over 5,000 feet, the air is thinner and temperatures drop as you ascend. Wear either a form of leggings or outdoor pants coupled with breathable attire because you will get a steady workout. And don’t wear sandals — instead, bring running shoes or hiking boots. Also, a hat is highly recommended to guard against sunburn.
How tough is this hike?
You don’t need to be in elite-athlete shape to make the trip — the hike along the Skyline Trail is a trek people of all ages can do. You do need to be mentally ready for a substantial hike. Right away at the mouth of the Paradise Trails is a steep incline, and the elevation gain doesn’t stop there.
Those with a walking disability will have a difficult time because only the first portion of the trail is paved, and the remainder is rocky dirt path with stairs in some places and few railings. According to the Washington Trails Association, you’ll gain 1,450 feet of elevation on the Skyline Trail, a loop that is 5.5 miles long.
The WTA rates the trail a 4.5 out of 5.0.
Tips and tricks
Get there early. If you arrive after 9 a.m., finding parking is tough at Paradise. Even on a weekday the trails were busy.
Don’t walk off-trail. There are very clear boundaries, so it’s easy to distinguish. The meadow is quite delicate and one step off the trail could kill up to 20 flowers at once, Robinson said. You won’t see the flowers though — they’re in the seedling stage.
Bring a camera. You’re going to want to capture the beauty once up there. You may even catch a glimpse of two marmots fighting or a deer eating shrubs.
Pack along water. It’s not a long trip up, but having refreshments on-hand is important.
Paradise trails are a hotbed for wildflowers and are one of the more popular destinations on Mount Rainier, but there are other options as well: Sunrise, Carbon River and Mowich Lake also have wildflower trails.
You’ve made it. Now what?
What awaits you is a sight to remember. Once you reach the point on the trail where the meadow opens up, about a half hour into the hike, you really get the full image.
The sun is likely to be beaming down on the grass that’s scattered with wildflowers, which vary in color from purple to red to blue. A glacier serves as the backdrop, and the running water from a mountain stream is the soundtrack.
You feel as if you can reach out and grab the clouds with your hands.
This is the zone that’s perfect for wildflowers, which ranges from 4,500 to 6,500 feet in elevation.
Indian paintbrush — with its tropical-like magenta and bright red colors — can be found here. So can Cascade Aster, which features a purple-blue color with a hint of white. The one flower you’ll see a lot of is Bear Grass, a plant with a fuzzy, light yellowish bulb at the top.
Other abundant wildflowers include: lupine (whose color resembles a blue jay), Pearly Everlasting (a simple bright white flower with a golden center) and phlox (white with streaks of purple mixed in).
This, combined with the fresh alpine air and a possible dose of wildlife, makes a summer hike at Paradise an iconic trip to remember.