Dege Peak from Sunrise

Elizabeth and I are in Seattle visiting her parents for the weekend, and today we drove to Mount Rainier National Park for a short hike.

We stopped at the Sunrise visitor center, 6,400 feet. Rain was forecast for tonight, but we found high clouds and pleasant temperatures. Mount Rainier filled the horizon to the southwest. I’d never seen it before and it struck me as huge but not spectacular, lacking any dramatic ridges or wild jagged peaks. Instead it was a giant snow cone, a rounded mass of rock covered in ice. It was snow-free this late in the season, and its glaciers’ crevasses, bergschrunds, and moraines were fully exposed, looking like awful terrain. The gray and silver of the glaciers mimicked the clouds in the sky. To our south, Mount Adams, a stratovolcano like Rainier, was just visible through the haze.

The park rangers recommended the hike to Dege Peak (pronounced ‘deggy’), and we got on our way. The subalpine meadows were fading from green to gold and were punctuated by dark blue-green groves of narrow conifers. The meadows were filled with pasque flowers, foot-tall stalks, each with a ball of long, platinum fur on top that glowed in the sunlight.

Subalpine fir and pasqueflower near Mount Rainier Sunrise area

At 7,000 feet on Sourdough Ridge we took in the cool breezes and expansive views. The ridge rolled off gently to the right, but to the left it alternated between dropping down steep scree slopes and rising to rocky peaklets. The short, wind-sculpted trees on the ridge gave it a wild appearance.

Walking on the ridge let me see the forest more closely. The trees in the groves were subalpine fir and Englemann spruce. Between them were a few yellow cedars, their scaly sprays yellow-green and weeping. There were also a few whitebark and lodgepole pines, familiar to me from high elevation forests in the Sierra Nevada. The trees grew no taller than 10 or 20 feet, and on parts of the ridge where they were exposed to the elements they grew even shorter, like bushes.

We got to the spur trail to Dege Peak and took a few switchbacks to the top. The summit gave us 360-degree views that included Sunrise, Mount Rainier, and several smaller peaks around us. We all agreed that the hike offered an excellent reward for little effort and that the rangers had given us a great recommendation.

Mount Rainier, Sunrise, and Sourdough Ridge from Dege Peak

But what I enjoyed most—what I will remember the longest and what will bring me back—was the smell of the subalpine meadows. The air and every breeze carried the balsam, citrusy smell of subalpine fir. I confess that I exploited some of the firs as I walked by them, breaking off a few of their needles and crushing them between my fingers for their fragrance.

By the time we got back to the car, the clouds had gotten darker and had completely filled the sky. Some cumulus had formed below the summit of Mount Rainier, and the western sky threatened rain before nightfall.

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