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Wonderland Wanderlust

Mount Rainier National Park

By Jacob Summers

There are very few places I feel more at home than in the woods. I’m a very cerebral individual; my brain never turns off, except when I sleep—and sometimes not even then. When I can force my mind to slow down for five minutes, I still feel bombarded by new stimuli: the color of the side of a barn; the article I am supposed to be working on for my website; or the numerous adult responsibilities that being a married military man entails.

When I go out to the woods, I’m still me. I still have my thoughts. I still get bombarded by stimuli, but the stimuli are now soothing and natural. The woods inspire me to slow down and think about things one at a time instead of trying to process them all at once. Any place that can do that for me is home.

Mount Rainier National Park is one of those places I feel at home. It stands in good company with places such as the Marin Headlands and Big Sur in California, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and Cherokee in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains.

While I was stationed with the Army in Washington State, I was blessed to have been able to hike Mount Rainier and its surroundings at least four times. I remember the time I hiked to Comet Falls with the chaplain from my base; the time I hiked at Paradise with my wife; the time I hiked at Sunrise with Justin, one of my closest friends; and the time I attempted the Wonderland Trail.

mount rainier national park trail vie magazine

Every one of those times is a memory I would never want to lose, that I wish I could relive in my sleep each night—even my failing to complete the Wonderland Trail. We hiked it for two days, but my body gave out on me and then we had to double back down to get to the car before midnight. Even then, as we sat at our last lunch break before turning back, the beauty of Mount Rainier stunned me, and I felt at peace with our decision.

Besides, I’m going back. But this time, I’ll be better prepared. Hiking ninety-plus miles in ten days with a net elevation change of twenty thousand feet is no laughing matter, regardless of how much you prepare. It’s especially no laughing matter when your friend has to ditch his pack and run the last four miles back to the car while you wait in an abandoned quarry near a washed-out road with night creeping in and the woods beginning to howl.

But that story can wait. Let’s turn back to my love for Mount Rainier.

Mount Rainer is like no other national park I have ever visited. The main peak looms before you, no matter where you are on the trail. From the outset, trailblazers made paths so that you could turn at any time to see the enormous summit. Walking along the trails that branch out from the Paradise entrance, you can see the summit smiling down upon you as you wade through flowery slopes and groves.

mount rainier national park

As you rise and fall with the gradients of the trail leading from the Sunrise entrance down into the White River campground, Rainier peeks out from behind the craggy hillsides and dark-green tree line to remind you how small you really are. While you hike the Wonderland Trail, you can count on seeing the mountain’s peak at least every half hour (if not more often) and frequently at the most unexpected times. It’s a real reward after you’ve just hiked up something aptly titled “Devil’s Dream.”

There is another natural beauty within Mount Rainier National Park: its various ecosystems and animal life. In my handful of hikes, I have seen beautiful rows of huckleberry bushes, bright-pink flowers, golden fields, and even a bit of marshland. At one point, Justin said he felt like he should have pledged himself to a quest with a party of elves and men—the slopes around us seemed right out of the Lord of the Rings.

sunset and tree overlooking mount rainier national park

We also encountered herds of goats that stayed within about a hundred meters of us at all times. A pika darted between and around us as we ate on the rocks—it could scamper from me to the opposite hill in about ten seconds. We even encountered a fox that we might otherwise have missed if a nice couple on the path in front of us hadn’t pointed it out.

I’ve hiked in many parks. I grew up with two parents and four brothers who liked to spend vacations driving around the country and stopping at as many parks and historic sites as we could along the way. I owe my love of the Grand Canyon and other parks to those experiences with my family.

view overlooking mount rainier national park vie magazine

I consider Mount Rainier to be one of the most awe-inspiring American treasures that I have ever had the honor to explore. I love my dear sweet home in Alabama, and I will grace the foot trails of the Appalachians with my walking stick quite often from now on, but nothing will ever replace that mountain in my heart.

It’s easy to see why Theodore Roosevelt was inspired to preserve such scenic wonders as Mount Rainier. I found myself speaking softly in its presence; anything I had to say on that trail, even to one of my closest friends, was drowned out by everything the mountain had to tell me.

— V —

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