Hikers follow the Skyline Trail on the flank of Mount Rainier. (Alex Bruell / Enumclaw Courier-Herald)

Hikers follow the Skyline Trail on the flank of Mount Rainier. (Alex Bruell / Enumclaw Courier-Herald)

A first-time Rainier hike encounters Paradise on Earth

There’s still time to visit the massive mountain before the snow starts coming down. To avoid equally massive crowds, try to make the trip on a weekday.

By Alex Bruell / Enumclaw Courier-Herald

If you’ve never visited the Paradise area of Mount Rainier, there’s still time this summer to correct that grievous error.

Embarrassingly late for a Washington resident, I visited that jewel of the mountain’s south slope on a recent weekend, intending to catch some prime-time summer hiking.

What I did not expect was to be struck with spiritual awe, my mouth agape, my eyes greedily taking in every sight as I huffed and puffed my way through the most beautiful place I’ve ever been on Earth.

Describing places in such superlative terms is ordinarily a journalistic faux pas. But Paradise really does live up to its name.

I selected the Skyline trail, which sent me northwest toward sweeping views of the valleys below, gushing glacier-fed waterfalls and what felt like a face-to-face meeting with the mountain itself.

On the way, I hiked alongside fields of red, blue, yellow and white wildflowers, navigated the patches of dripping snow and yielded to a few scampering chipmunks and marmots. Mostly, I talked to people; this late in the summer, the trail is easy to navigate and popular among hikers of all skill levels.

Not to be dramatic, but the thought occurred to me that if there is an afterlife, I hope it looks like Paradise: Not a flat, formless plane of clouds and golden arches, but a soaring, untamed mountainside, challenging you to push yourself and feel the blood rushing through your body.

A fellow hiker that day put it best: “You could point your camera literally anywhere and get a beautiful photo.”

I’ll tell you what didn’t feel like paradise: Driving to the recreation area on a Friday afternoon. Somehow I thought I’d be spared the traffic and crowds by going on a weekday. I wasn’t. The lines getting into the park itself, as well as navigating the construction and roadwork leading into the mountain, added around 45 minutes to my travel time. I came in from the west through Ashford.

If you do visit Paradise this summer — and you should — try to play hooky on a less busy workday and budget extra time for work on both highways 706 and 410. Check the road status on the National Park’s website before you go.

Parking can be a little tricky: Past the main parking lot the road becomes a one-way that loops back around. Go slowly and keep your eyes peeled for a spot. If it’s too crowded for your liking, there are plenty of great hikes on the way back down through the National Park, too.

I’d recommend bringing your own food from home. The visitor center has food for sale, but the stuff that isn’t cookies and chips is mighty expensive. Your stomach and wallet will thank you for preparing some nourishment ahead of time.

Once you arrive, it’s hard to go wrong: From the Paradise parking lot, most of your options are “go up.” The most commonly used trails are steep at first and your legs will probably be screaming after your first 15 minutes of hiking. While you never stop going up, the paths ease up and the views open up after the first half mile or so.

The other great thing about Paradise is that climbers bound for the mountain’s summit can start from this area, too. If you dream of summiting Tahoma one day, get your start hiking the Paradise trails now — you’ll know what to expect when you come back next time for the ultimate hike.

For casual running-shoe hikers like me, the basic trails are more than enough. If the weather holds, you still have another two or three weeks to take in the blooming wildflowers and sun-baked paths. Seize the chance now before the mountain regains its snowy attire.

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