So. A week and a half ago, we were having temperatures in the 80s here in the Puget Sound lowlands. We’ve had a summer for the record books — the most 90 degree days in one year, the most 80 degree days in one year, the hottest June, July, and August on record… The weather forecasters were beginning to sound like a broken record (and far too chipper for their own good, given the circumstances).
Then, a week ago today, the switch flipped. The temperatures dropped to the 60s, the wind picked up, and — you guessed it — we had the biggest August windstorm on record. All of a sudden it was October (the main harbinger of autumn here is wind — google Inauguration Day storm, Columbus Day storm, and Hanukkah Eve storm if you don’t believe me).
I’ve already got a second quilt on the bed, too, because the nighttime temps have started dropping to the 40s.
And then, to celebrate completing my new novel Reunion (the second Tale of the Unearthly Northwest), my friend L and I drove up to Sunrise today, on the eastern side of Mt. Rainier, and were greeted with this beautiful sight:
Oh, and the 6000 steps? Sunrise is at 6300 feet. We hit snow at about 6200 feet (Sunrise Point, about a mile from Sunrise proper, is at 6100 feet, and there was no snow there).
My friend Loralee and I went to Mt. Rainier for a wildflower jaunt on Wednesday. This just goes to prove that I have an unending jones for wildflowers, because I’d just seen tons of them on my trip to the Canadian Rockies.
It was hot in the lowlands, our 14th consecutive day above 80 — we tied a record yesterday with another one — so the 70s predicted for Sunrise at 6300 feet (about 1920 meters) on the east side of the Mountain sounded wonderful. (it’s been remedied by the long overdue return of our onshore flow, the wind off the ocean that we often refer to here as our natural air conditioning — so far, today’s high’s been about 70F (about 21C)).
We stopped to pick up what I always think of as an insta-picnic at Subway on our way up, and got to Sunrise around noon. We had a lovely picnic, then I went for my usual jaunt around back behind Sunrise to Shadow Lake while Loralee strolled closer by.
If I hadn’t known for a fact that it was July 8th, I’d have sworn it was the middle of August. There’s usually at least some snow on the ground near or on the trail this early in the season, the pasqueflowers aren’t quite over, and there’s glacier lilies everywhere.
On this July 8th, there was no snow whatsoever except way up on the Mountain, the phlox that normally blooms in late July was all but finished (I found maybe two clumps that hadn’t gone to seed), the lupines were past their prime, and there were August asters everywhere.
It was still gorgeous, as usual, but still.
Here’s some of what I saw today:
All in all, given the lack of winter and a so-far unreasonably hot spring and summer, not bad.
But, as I said to Loralee on our way down the mountain, “Harebells! In early July!”
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to make my annual wildflower reconnaissance up to Sunrise on Mt. Rainier. It was a beautiful day, if a bit too hot in the lowlands, the best kind of weather for escaping to the Mountain.
So I got up early, and packed a lunch, and made the two-hour drive — only to discover that the story we’d been seeing on the news about a 64-year-old man who’d gotten lost on the Wonderland Trail would have a direct effect on my day, as well as the day of a lot of other people hoping to visit the park. Not nearly the effect it was having on that poor hiker’s day, thank goodness, but the search and rescue effort had closed the parking lot at Sunrise so that the helicopters from Joint Base Lewis-McChord could use it as a landing pad.
So, now what to do?
I hadn’t driven all the way around Mt. Rainier in at least a dozen years, and to the best of my knowledge I’d never done it in a clockwise direction. I’d also been intending to go to Tipsoo Lake, just inside the eastern border of the park almost to Chinook Pass, for a long, long time. I was already headed in that direction, and had a good jump start, so, I thought, looking at my full gas gauge, why not?
Tipsoo Lake isn’t more than about ten miles to the southeast of the turnoff for Sunrise, on the road that leads to Yakima. It’s a beautiful alpine lake which, in still and sunny weather, reflects the Mountain in its water. Today wasn’t still, but the view was still pretty spectacular, as were the early wildflowers. I was surprised to still see snow on the ground, too, which made me wonder if I was really missing anything by not going to Sunrise — I’m not all that fond of hiking in the snow.
After an enjoyable hour on the footpath encircling the lake, I headed south — and downhill a few thousand feet — to Ohanapecosh, at the southeast corner of the park. Ohanapecosh is back down in the deep, lush forests that surround Mt. Rainier, and a trail winding through them is appropriately named the Grove of the Patriarchs. The grove itself is on an island in the middle of the river, reached by crossing a sturdy but fragile-feeling suspension bridge, which gave me the weird sensation of still feeling like I was on it even after I was back on dry land.
From Ohanapecosh I drove up Stevens Canyon, which is a spectacular drive clinging to the sides of cliffs and passing through avalanche chutes.
The Stevens Canyon road leads up to Paradise where I had planned to walk the Nisqually Vista Trail before heading home. However, when I got there, I discovered that Paradise was still snow-covered, in the middle of July! Normally the snow is almost gone by then, but we had a very late winter this past year, and a very heavy snowpack, and it was still snowing up there in May.
So, as I said, not being a fan of hiking in the snow (and the main reason I’d wanted to hike the trail being wildflowers), I decided to head on home.
Not exactly the day I’d planned, but I’m still glad I did it. It’s fun to explore different parts of familiar places, and Mt. Rainier is just about as familiar to me as my own back yard.
I’m just really sorry they never found that poor hiker.
Actually, it may be my 19th. I moved here twenty years ago this month, but I don’t remember if I went up there that year. I know I’ve gone up there twice in a summer at least twice, so does that count?
I love both Paradise and Hurricane Ridge, and I’ve been to a lot of other wonderful wildflower hunting places (including Yellowstone, which doesn’t seem like a likely place to find a lot of wildflowers but most certainly is, and an incredible little state park in Indiana called Clifty Falls, which is absolutely amazing in April), but my favorite wildflower hunting grounds of all time are at Sunrise at Mt. Rainier National Park.
This year I was slightly late getting up there — my beloved alpine phlox was all but over except in a few favored places — but I still managed to rack up 36 different kinds of flowers. That’s my best total this summer!
One of the really neat things that the rangers do up at Sunrise (and at Hurricane Ridge) is put little signs near clumps of blooming plants that tell you what they are. I also have a couple of ID books, and I take photos of everything I see, so I can examine them better when I get home.
Here’s a sampling of what I saw today:
And here’s the list, pretty much in the order I saw them:
Monkeyflowers (Mimulus), pink and yellow
Broad-leaved and dwarf lupines
Paintbrush, scarlet and magenta
Polemonium (Jacob’s ladder)
One lonely Columbian tiger lily
Oh, and I saw a bear! In all the times I’ve gone hiking up at Sunrise, this is the first time I’ve seen a bear. It was at the Sunrise Camp, which is an ex-auto camp that’s been turned into a backpacker’s camp about a mile and a half behind Sunrise visitor center. There were about twenty of us watching it browse from a safe distance when I was there. It obviously knew we were there, and it equally obviously couldn’t have cared less. It was a bit closer to the trail than I was comfortable with, so instead of making my usual loop, I went back the way I came, along by Shadow Lake.
And I saw this bird. It’s got some blue on its back and rust on its front, and it’s about 6-8″ long, maybe?
It’s summer still, barely. At this latitude (a little over 47 degrees north) in late August, we’ve already gone from a peak of sixteen hours of daylight at the summer solstice, to about fourteen hours and losing minutes by the day. Headed towards Christmas, and barely eight gloomy hours, alas.
But it’s still summer now, and while I thought I was going to be too late this year for my annual wildflower pilgrimage to Sunrise on Mt. Rainier, happily I was not.
It was a gorgeous day. It was only supposed to get to 59dF at Sunrise’s 6400 foot altitude, but it went well into the sixties. It was also supposed to be overcast most of the day, and I suspect it was at sea level, but since Sunrise is on the east side of the Mountain, there was plenty of blue to go along with the gray.
Because I was late getting up there this year, I even got to see two new-to-me kinds of wildflowers, a yellow spire called rainiera , and two varieties of the sadly-named lousewort, which are much prettier than the name would make you think. The smaller white lousewort looks from a distance, almost like a cream-colored lupine. The taller lousewort is lemon yellow. Both are in the same genus as one of my favorite flowers, elephantella.
Asters were everywhere, and lupine was still blooming in great blue pools. I love lupine, especially the variations of color from almost white to dark reddish and bluish purple. This time I saw one with stripes, which I haven’t seen often. The phlox was all but over, but there were a few patches still blooming. The yellow daisy arnica was still going strong, as was the paintbrush, from almost pink through red to orange. The other usual suspects, bistort and pearly everlastings, were still out, too.
The Mountain played hide-and-seek with the clouds most of the afternoon, but I did get some good glimpses as I walked the almost three miles of one of my alltime favorite trails, down the service road past the backpacker camp, and around by Shadow Lake.
The fog began to roll in as I climbed into my car. Altogether perfect timing. I’m so glad it wasn’t too late for wildflowers.
Where is your favorite place to go wildflower hunting?