Sometimes the Clouds Meet You Halfway
It was late in the afternoon when we parked at the Sunrise Lot in Mt. Rainier National Park. It was partly cloudy, breezy and about 42 degrees. Quickly donning our backpacks, we used the facilities and hit the trail. We had driven about an hour and a half to make the hike to Mount Fremont Lookout.
While it’s always correct to check the weather forecast prior to setting out for outdoor adventures, it’s best to be prepared for anything and for sudden changes, especially at higher altitudes. We dressed warmly and brought rain gear, just in case. With plenty of water and our staples of hummus, cheese and pita bread, we were all set. The parking lot was pretty full and the sun was peeking through, illuminating adjacent ridges and peaks. Rainier was hidden in cloud.
Utilizing the signage we set off in our determined direction. The trail started gradually and continued upward. The time of day put us on the path when most hikers were making their return journeys. There was only one other person heading out at the same time so we had the trail mostly to ourselves.
The trail was a combination of dirt and rock, turning to mostly rock near the end. The surrounding scenery was awash in the golden and green hues of meadows and scattered trees. The light played beautifully from above, almost highlighting certain areas to draw the eye. A few hardy flowers still had blossoms, but the flora was definitely turning to its Fall wardrobe. The first half of the trail greeted us with numerous finches, nuthatches, chickadees, etc. They chirped and flitted in the nearby brush and to and fro across our path.
Soon we reached Frozen Lake (which wasn’t frozen) and followed the trail around and up the ridge. There were numerous trail intersections in this area that led to other adventures. We stuck to our route, and made our way upward again. The trail turned almost entirely to rock at this point. While well maintained, footing can be hazardous as your eyes are constantly on your beautiful surroundings, rather than your feet. Being higher up offered more amazing views. In the distance the clouds were descending and beginning to obscure our view.
A chipmunk or two hopped around, and there were little squeaking sounds coming from the rocks. We stood for a moment to try and determine where the sound was emanating from: this was Pika country! Yes, these are real creatures. About the size of a guinea pig and resembling a teddy bear hamster, they’re pretty darned cute. Their “eep” sounds were reminiscent of a squeak toy. We encountered quite a few on the second half of our journey, which would have been enough if they were all we got to see.
The terrain got rockier as we proceeded and the clouds set in all around us. Larger rock formations stood as sentinels along the path, one even having the profile of a face. While bright, sunny days make for great pictures, we’ve also come to appreciate what the mist and clouds add to our journeys. The quiet shroud and gaze into nothingness adds a sense of mystery to the surroundings. We were quite at home.
Not far from the lookout tower, the ridge looked down on a valley to our right. The few tree clusters, ribbons of water and golden meadows were a sight! The clouds hadn’t descended that far, so we were able to take in the gorgeous landscape before us. The wind was rather brisk, and we kept hearing strange, distant, high pitched noises. The lookout was finally just ahead of us, and we made our way up the stairs.
We were cloaked in cloud and mist, so seeing Rainier from this viewpoint would be for another day. As we explored the locked lookout and the grounds surrounding it, we realized there were mountain goats in the meadow and hillsides below us. The wind blew the clouds in and out of our location, so we were gifted with the ability to see a lot.
We took the opportunity to rest and eat on the side of the lookout that blocked the cold wind. Sitting still on the overhead walkway we could see Pika going about their business below. A chipmunk also made an appearance here. We took many photos, and feeling nourished, we packed up for the return journey.
The strange bugling sounds were once again in the air. Looking down in the valley below, we realized it was the bugling of the bull elk. We could just make out an elk coming out of the trees and now a bit closer to us, we knew the sounds were coming from him. We saw 3 elk as we closely surveyed the area as the clouds permitted.
This hike was a bonanza: a lookout, pika, mountain goats and elk. It was so much more than we expected.
Our journey back was wrapped in the same intermittent cloud cover. Mt. Rainier never made itself visible to us on this day. But even though the clouds were low, our spirits were high!