“Of all the fire mountains which like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest in form…Its massive white dome rises out of its forests, like a world by itself, to a height of fourteen thousand to fifteen thousand feet.”

-John Muir in Our national parks

Looking southeast from the waterfront in Seattle, Mount Rainier stands alone, a snow-capped mountain so prominent, massive, and singular that it can scarcely be credited as real, but must be the result of Hollywood tricksters having moved a thousand miles north in order to perform some special effects magic.  It looms over the city, firing imaginations and daydreams instead of the lava and ash and lahars that would cause massive amounts of damage and loss of life should Rainier ever erupt.  For, as Muir knew, Rainier is a fire mountain, a volcano, one that last erupted in the 1800s.  Let us hope it never erupts again.

Such thoughts were not on my mind as Daisy, Desi, and I made our way from Seattle in the dark of predawn one day at the beginning of August.  The goal was to get to Sunrise by shortly after sunrise, that is, to the portion of the park in the northeast corner called Sunrise just a bit after the sun crested the horizon.  This plan was in place with the hope that Desi would sleep for most of the car ride and be wide awake and ready to explore when we arrived.  As all plans do, this one fell apart in the first few minutes when Desi awakened before we even left the hotel room and refused to fall back asleep for the entire ride.  At least he wasn’t crying and screaming.

Anyway, our ride out to Chinook Pass on 164 and 410 was uneventful, and once we reached the boundaries of national forest and then Mount Rainier National Park we were simply agog at the beauty.  We paid our $15 entrance fee and made our way slowly up the gorgeous road to Sunrise, a thirty-minute, view-packed drive into the park.  Though we arrived well after sunrise it was still very early and the only other folks that had made it there before us were dressed in “serious hiker gear” which made us feel all the more intrepid.  We (especially I) were pleased with our welcoming committee and it did not take us long to be ready to go on a hike.  We decided on the relatively easy walk to Shadow Lake and set out on our mission after Desi first chased off a curious Yellow-pine Chipmunk.

It didn’t take too long for a bird to catch my interest.  A finch went jip-jip-jipping overhead and then landed on the top of a tree with the sun behind it.  Not the best views I’ve ever had of a Red Crossbill but not too shabby either.  We were in the mountains!  The second life bird of the day, after the Clark’s Nutcracker welcoming committee, was Cassin’s Finch in the form of a small flock that flew over that sounded different than Purple Finches.  Yeah, I wasn’t terribly happy with that kind of look at a lifer either so I was pleased to see a pair much better later on in the picnic area.  But I am getting ahead of myself…

We made our way down the Shadow Lake Trail to the sound of Mountain Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches and the sight and smell of a host of wildflowers.  The immense snowpack was (and is) slow to melt this year due to a cool and cloudy spring and early summer so the blooming of many wildflowers was apparently retarded a bit, not that we western mountain novices had any idea that anything was different from usual.

“Oregon” Dark-eyed Juncos twittered from everywhere, the chip notes of “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warblers became familiar, and, hold on, what are those finches?  Oh, Pine Siskins – a small flock feeding in the trees.

Our walk continued, a fine stroll over occasional patches of snow, freshets running off from snow melt, and a fine carpet of evergreen needles shed over years and years.  I kept one eye and both ears out for birds and one eye on Desi, who seemed content to carry a stick and poke everything within reach with it, or carry two sticks while announcing “two” every five seconds.  Even Desi had to stop playing stick games and pay attention, however, when two curious juvenile Gray Jays came flying quietly in to make sure we weren’t up to no good (Gray Jays have a monopoly on being up to no good in the mountains).

Eventually, we found ourselves at Shadow Lake, a rather anticlimactic point to have walked to.  We had ourselves a bit of a snack and rested for awhile while watching chipmunks and robins and juncos forage in a meadow.

It was a nice interlude and once we got our breath back we decided to make our way via the Sunrise Rim Trail up a ridge from which one of those well-equipped hikers had let us know there was a great view of Mount Rainier and Emmons Glacier, from which springs the White River.  Though it wasn’t easy getting a tired toddler over the couple of snowbanks that stood in our way we found the view quite worth the effort.  Now this was a destination worth hiking to!

All too soon we started to get chilly in the wind and Desi was getting crankier, though, in his defense, we had awakened him before dawn, gone on a drive of over two hours, and then force marched him into the mountains, so we turned and made our way back to the visitor center.  En route, Desi fell fast asleep, so he missed our not finding White-tailed Ptarmigan but he also missed our encounter with a Hoary Marmot.

And Desi slept and slept and slept on our entire hike back to the visitor center and through half of our picnic lunch.  Once he was awake and we were all fed we made our way up the top of the hill to the north of the Visitor Center via the Nature Trail and enjoyed the stunning view to be had there, to say nothing of the herd of five Mountain Goats that were pointed out to us climbing the opposite ridge.

While we would have liked to have stayed all day we did need to get back to Seattle eventually so we reluctantly walked back to the rental car and made our way out of the park, stopping for scenic vistas, rushing rivers (to look for and fail to find American Dippers) and for a short walk on a path through some really big trees.  Vaux’s Swifts foraged overhead and Golden-crowned Kinglets called from high above and it was a marvelous way to end our time at Mount Rainier National Park, a magical place that I hope to visit again some day.

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.