|Distance:||8.5 miles, RT|
|Hiking Time:||3.5 hrs|
|Elevation Gain:||1,885 ft|
|High Point:||6,338 ft|
|Snow Free:||Late-July - September|
|Trailhead Pass:||National Park Pass Required|
Trailhead: N 46° 47' 07", W 121° 44' 06"
On warm September days the phrase "Indian summer" may come to mind so where better to spend a golden afternoon than Paradise? By September most of the flowers on the Paradise trails have faded but fall color displays compensate as blueberry shrubs turn crimson, meadows change from green to gold and the branches of mountain ash are heavily laden with red-orange berries. You may even imagine the icy laughter of winter when the wind shifts and races down The Mountain.
If you have early editions of "50 Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park" by The Mountaineers you might be tempted to look for Mount Rainier's legendary ice caves, especially if you've seen pictures of them in their glory. The bad news is that the ice caves are all no more; the good news is that the Paradise Glacier trail is one of the most interesting and scenic hikes in the park.
Starting from Paradise (find the stone steps across from the Paradise Inn) we followed the signed trail system for the Skyline Trail, stopping to admire Myrtle Falls en route to the junction with the Paradise Glacier trail, passing junctions for the Fourth Creek Crossing and the Lakes Trail (from which you can also reach Paradise Glacier). The trail system is intricate but well signed - be sure to pick up a free trail map at the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center so you don’t miss a junction. With the map there are other variations and side-trips as well.
As the trail climbed toward Mazama Ridge, I recalled overnight snowshoe trips with The Mountaineers in the late 1980s, when there were still enough remnants of the ice caves that we were able to peek inside. Then, the entrance of the structure was festooned with icy stalactites like teeth, the inner chamber lit with an unearthly blue glow.
As we continued on, hiking meadows gave way to the cubistic rubble of a moraine and to large slabs of rock polished by glaciers to a jade-like finish. In the morning Mount Rainier was sharply defined; by afternoon the peak looked diaphanous, as if we were looking at it through sheets of tracing paper as haze moved in.
Compared to the vibrant meadows at lower elevations the moraine may seem devoid of life yet life abounds: look closely, for the will to survive is strong in anything that lives in the zone where glaciers are receding. Small, sturdy plants cling to life though it would take an expert to name the yellow-green cushions of moss and dark mahogany-colored sedges that abide here.
As the rock-lined trail follows the undulations of the moraine; the scene grows more austere, the beauty stern. Most hikers turn around at the “end of maintained trail” sign (6,338 feet, N 46° 48’ 16”, W 121° 42’ 56) though we continued a little further on still-discernible trail following the outflow from the Paradise glacier. There are a few obvious viewpoints along the moraine where you can settle for a break or soak up the views. Witness the dramatic changes in the topography as land once gripped by glaciers slowly returns to life.
The Paradise ice caves were once the most visited attraction at the park. Experts who explored and mapped the caves gave some of passages names like “Paradise Lost”. Over eight miles of the cave system were mapped though by the late 1970s it was estimated that only about 1-1/2 miles remained. As the Paradise glacier retreated the caves shrank into dangerous crawl spaces and they were closed to the public in the early 1970s (the last cave collapsed in the early 1990s).
Ice caves are formed when a stream flows underneath the ice – as it does so, it melts out a tunnel. As warm air is drawn into the tunnel, the tunnel enlarges to a “cave”. As conditions change over time the roof melts out, chunks of ice fall from the ceiling and the structure eventually collapses creating hazards for those who venture inside.
It is difficult to tell where permanent snowfields end and glaciers begin; if you do venture onto the snow, proceed with caution as there are still crawl spaces where ice has melted out above streams. We found such a space at the edge of a snowfield and gingerly peeked inside though the drip-drip-drip of the rapidly melting ceiling made us uneasy and we only stayed long enough for a photo.
After lunch on the moraine we re-traced our route back down, stopping to view the Van Trump Memorial (6, 018 ft) on the Skyline Trail, always worth a visit. The memorial is a stone bench built in 1920. The memorial designates the spot where Chief Sluiskin waited for the return of Hazard Stevens and Philemon Beecher Van Trump who made the first ascent of Mount Rainier in 1870.
By the time we were back on SR 410, dusk was descending and near the White River, elk (looking disconcertingly similar to the lengthening shadows) were patrolling the highway.
- Karen Sykes, Visit Rainier Hiking Expert