As an avid explorer and photographer of the volcanoes of the Cascade Mountain Range, I’ve found that what really amazes me about them is how different they can be at different times of year.  Especially Mt Rainier, (which is often misspelled:  Mt. Ranier, Mt. Rainer) with its high elevation trails and snow capped peak and creaking glaciers, all easily accessible right onto the very slopes of the majestic volcano.  In order to truly appreciate this icon of the northwest, I’ve found that visiting in all the seasons of the year really brings home just how amazing it is to live in the Pacific Northwest.

Winter, the most predominant of seasons by far at Rainier, is often filled with overcast days and deep snow, blown by the wind to form fantastic cornices.  During this season the mountain’s mood is one of silence, as visitors plummet, the wildlife lay low and the snow simply absorbs most of the rest of the sounds, except for the cracking of an ice shelf or the roar of a particularly nasty wind gust.  The weather that maintains the mighty glaciers of Rainier falls entirely within this season, as storm after storm hits the area, dumping vast quantities of snow.  But on days when the sun breaks through completely, the haze of other seasons and the spires of volcanic rock are softened and sharpened in the pure light of the brightest sun and the bluest skies to be found anywhere in the Cascades.  Access during winter is sporadic, but the road to Paradise Visitor Center is plowed most weekends as safety permits, even though the Visitor Center itself is closed. The area allows for incredible snowshoeing and skiing adventures on the nearby slopes.  Climbers on the mountain find this time of year to be one of the safer seasons as the vast crevasses of the mountains glaciers are buried in hard packed snow and more easily crossed.

©Orion Ahrensfeld
©Orion Ahrensfeld
©Orion Ahrensfeld

As winter gives way to spring in the lowlands, the mountain trails are still snow covered, and fresh snow can fall any time through the spring season.  With lengthening days, the animals start to awaken, the pikas dig out from their rocky burrows and find tunnels in the snow to the surface.  The birds are more plentiful and at lower elevations the green starts to emerge.  Black Bear, foxes and deer also emerge at the lower elevations to find food and await the thaw of the upper slopes.  Snowshoeing, skiing and climbing are again the preferred mode of travel during the spring on the slopes of Paradise, with the added danger of melting snow creating more frequent avalanche conditions as well as crumbling snow cornices.  As spring progresses the alpine lakes surrounding the volcano, such as Tipsoo Lake to the north and Reflection Lakes to the south, begin to emerge from the snow as the warmth of  spring days chip away at the frozen snow coating them.  Sun lit days become more frequent in spring and access to the mountain becomes easier, with Paradise open 7 days a week and the roads on the northeastern side of the mountain often opening at the end of May or early June depending on elevation and snow conditions.

©Orion Ahrensfeld
©Orion Ahrensfeld
©Orion Ahrensfeld

Summer is short and busy on Mt Rainier. Possibilities for exploration are literally almost limitless.  Paradise and Sunrise both burst with wildflowers in July and August, some years so many that literal carpets of vibrant color glow across the hillsides.  It goes without saying that sticking to the trails is absolutely required as the growing season for these high alpine meadows is exceedingly short and the repeated trampling damage can turn a patch of meadow to a dirt clearing easily.  Some of my favorite trails for the mountain during summer have been the Skyline Trail at Paradise and Spray Park off the Mowich Lake road on the western side of the mountain.  Trails to magnificent waterfalls also open up in the summer, with Comet Falls being a highlight among them in terms of trails and waterfalls.  Along with wildflowers, visitors too abound during summer, but escaping the crowds is often simply a matter of hiking further and higher than the hordes below, or simply finding a less popular trail to hike.  I find Skyline to be best during early morning and late afternoon when photography is better and the crowds have thinned themselves out, but if you’re looking for solitude during mid day the hike from Cougar Rock Campground to Narada Falls is a beautiful forest trail with far fewer hiking crowds than those found higher up.  But of course nothing can quite compare to the feeling of having a full on view of the mountain. Between the volcanoes reflection in the still waters of Reflection Lakes or the full on views from the Burroughs trail at Sunrise there are simply too many amazing trails at the mountain to choose.

©Orion Ahrensfeld
©Orion Ahrensfeld
©Orion Ahrensfeld

As summer wanes and the wildflowers pass into seed, the air grows chillier and the weather reverts to a more spring like atmosphere.  Snow again becomes something to consider on the trail and early morning frost and ice start to become regular occurrences on the high mountain slopes.  As the color of wildflower disappears however, it is replaced by one of the most intense and stunning color displays in all of North America.  Huckleberry bushes and vine maples begin to change color, every shade of the warm spectrum begins to spread as if from an artist’s paintbrush across the hillsides.  Hints of gold turn to fires of orange and the deepest red you’ve ever seen, overwhelming both your senses and your camera with their intensity.  The valleys of the Edith Creek basin and portions of the Skyline trail at Paradise, as well as Tipsoo Lake and Naches Peak near Chinook Pass, literally explode in dizzying color in places, a sight that certainly gives the wildflowers of summer a run for their money.  Clouds in the sky become more prevalent as well, and an overcast day will accentuate the fall color even more.  The mountain begins to form its own weather again as well, and the sight of lenticular clouds over the mountain becomes more common, especially in November and December when weather systems roll in from the coast.

©Orion Ahrensfeld
©Orion Ahrensfeld
©Orion Ahrensfeld

Having seen all of these seasons first hand over the years, it is simply impossible to pick a “favorite season” to visit the mountain.  Most prefer the warm summer months of wildflowers and waterfalls, but the solitude and crystal clear blue of a rare sunny winters day is almost impossible to describe in words without using the word “breathtaking”.  I highly encourage anyone to visit the mountain in its “off season” seasons to truly take in what makes the mountain so unique and beautiful.

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