Skyline Loop

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After returning from Europe I had a couple of weeks without my girls to catch up on all the things that having a baby has made it harder to do. At the height of a gorgeous Pacific Northwest summer, for me that meant getting up into the mountains.

Mount Rainier National Park is one of my favorite places on the planet. Years of exploring have turned these landscapes from alien to familiar, but each visit continues to fill me with awe and inspiration. I’m lucky to have had two perfect days to experience that feeling again. On the first I went to Burroughs Mountain, a hike that I’ve written about previously. The second day, a week later, I wanted to try something new.

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The network of trails near Paradise, with the Tatoosh Range in the background

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You can see the parking lots at Paradise in the center-left

Skyline Loop is a trail that’s generally rated amongst the park’s best day hikes, but I’ve never gotten around to doing it. That’s probably because it begins at the park’s most crowded spot, Paradise, which I tend to avoid on busy weekends. On this day, though, I tempered any expectation of solitude, set my alarm for 5am, and went for it.

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Early morning calm

The Visitor Center was still closed, and the park was still quiet, when I arrived. The majority of visitors to Paradise never venture further than a mile or so from the Visitor Center, and although I wasn’t exactly alone on the trail, I never felt that it was overcrowded… until I got back to my car about 4 hours later.

The Skyline Loop is one of a maze of different trails in the Paradise area. It ascends at a brisk pace through gorgeous wildflower meadows before skirting the moraine of the Nisqually Glacier. From there it enters the rocky moonscape of the alpine zone, which begins around 6,500′ (2,000 m) above sea level. There were still a few snow crossings left even in mid-August, but luckily none of them were steep or treacherous.

After reaching the aptly-named Panorama Point, I continued upwards a couple hundred more vertical feet to another spot that could also legitimately bear that name. I stopped for a picnic amid the rocks and overly-inquisitive ground squirrels.

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Panorama Point. Mt. Adams is visible on the horizon.

I took a spur trail a few hundred feet higher to Pebble Creek, at 7,200 feet, which is where the maintained hiking trail ends and the climbing route begins. From Pebble Creek, climbers ascend the Muir Snowfield and overnight at Camp Muir. The next day they attempt to summit via a route on the Ingraham Glacier. It’s considered the “normal” route up the mountain, it’s the one John Muir himself used when he climbed Rainier in 1888 (an experience that led him to successfully lobby for the preservation of the mountain, which became America’s 5th National Park).

Back on the trail I descended past waterfalls and through fields of purple lupine. August is spring at that elevation, and the wildlife (deer, marmots, pika, and hordes of chipmunks and ground squirrels) are busy making the most of the season. Winter is coming, after all.

Hikes like this make me appreciate living in the Northwest, and make the warm months even more enjoyable. I’m thankful that people realized 120 years ago realized that places like this are worth preserving. I don’t even mind the Paradise crowds that much if visiting a place like that helps more people realize the value of wilderness.

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