Summer treks to ‘the mountain’ supply plenty of sore muscles, family memories

lpemberton@theolympian.comSeptember 1, 2013 

The water flowing over Narada Falls at Mount Rainier National Park plummets 168 feet.


Growing up in Eatonville, Mount Rainier has always been a big part of my life.

During high school, I spent a summer working in the national park with the Youth Conservation Corps. I shoveled asphalt, flagged traffic, tried to hold my own in all-out water fights with the other teenagers and learned first-hand about fire ants and devil’s club.

Every winter, we headed up to Paradise with our folks to inner tube in the snow. And out-of-town guests were always treated to a road trip to view some of the park’s best sites.

Mount Rainier — well, we just call it “the mountain” — has always meant so many things to different people in my life. It inspires artwork. It brings in tourist money. For many of my friends, it’s the ultimate man-versus-nature feat, especially for those who can live without cellphone service for a day or a week.

This summer, I had the chance to see the mountain in a very different way: Through the curious eyes of our children, ages 6, 8 and 12.

In August, we set out on three day hikes on the mountain with friends. Here are the trails we tried:

1. Myrtle Falls

After a picnic below Paradise, we caught the Skyline Trail to Myrtle Falls. Our goal was simple: Enjoy a nature walk around Paradise with some friends who had little hiking experience. We only had about an hour to spend up there.

The trail is paved for the first half mile and is accessible for wheelchairs and baby strollers — although it is fairly steep at certain points.

It’s a popular hike for tourists, and we had to wait in line to get photos in front of Myrtle Falls. The 72-foot falls are gorgeous and are one of the most photographed areas of the park.

Along the trail, we saw magenta paint brush, purple lupine and other wildflowers in full bloom.

Skyline to Myrtle Falls is a one-mile roundtrip, with a 100-foot elevation gain.

Average hiking time is about 35 minutes, according to a trail map from the park service.

The sun was coming at us straight on, and it was a hot day, so the kids were glad there are plenty of benches made out of logs along the trail on which they could rest.

On the way back to the car, the kids also enjoyed counting all of the different state license plates in the Paradise parking lots.

2. Narada Falls

We arrived at the park at about 8:30 a.m. and parked at Cougar Rock Campground to catch the Wonderland Trail to Carter Falls and Narada Falls.

Our goal was to get up to the falls, eat lunch and burn enough calories to warrant waffle cones with a few scoops of huckleberry ice cream at Whittaker’s Bunkhouse in Ashford.

I knew it was going to be an adventure from the start when we had to use a log footbridge to cross the Nisqually River.

On this route, the Wonderland Trail meanders through a forested area, with a gradual climb. The trail is rated moderate; however we had a 3-year-old in our party who managed to keep up most of the time. In fact, he complained less than some of the bigger kids.

The 53-foot Carter Falls is about 11/2 miles in, and that’s a popular place to turn around. We decided to keep working for ice cream, and continued another 11/2 miles to Narada Falls.

Along the way, we saw plenty of blue huckleberries along the trail. Once we got to the end, we were joined by dozens more tourists, who were walking from a nearby shuttle stop.

But the spray of water on our faces, and the view of the rainbow-filled falls were worth the wait.

Narada Falls plunges 168 feet over an old andesite lava flow to the valley floor, according to the National Park Service.

Our total elevation gain was about 1,375 feet, and I could definitely feel that in my abdominal muscles as we hiked our way back down.

3. Rampart Ridge Trail

I’ll admit I was a little nervous when a bunch of my friends decided we should take our kids — 14 in all — on this trail.

It’s a 4.6-mile loop and rated moderate, with an elevation gain of 1,339 feet.

My personal goal in this hike: Surviving three or more hours without the convenience of a bathroom. I brought everything we’d need in the event of an emergency — including plastic bags to pack everything out — I just didn’t want to have, uh, to use them.

We set out in Longmire near the National Park Inn, and followed the trail clockwise.

I won’t lie: The first 1.3 miles were brutal. It was a series of switchbacks, followed by more switchbacks, and then, yes, more switchbacks.

We rested. We laughed when my friend’s phone suddenly got service along the trail.

We slowed down a little when one of my son’s friends was stung by a bee. Fortunately, we had plenty of first-aid supplies between us to take care of it.

I had the chance to joke around and pose for silly photos with my daughter, and hold my youngest son’s hand on the way up to the ridge. I think he must have overheard us talking about what we’d do if we encountered a bear on the trail, because he usually isn’t that clingy around his friends.

On the way down, I walked alongside our oldest son, who wasn’t able to keep up with the other kids due to sore muscles from peewee football and a pair of new hiking boots that weren’t quite broken in.

We talked about where we’d take emergency shelter along the trail if we needed to, the benefits of pup tents and mummy bags and all of the other things he’s learned in Cub Scouts. We sampled some salmonberries and some very sour blue huckleberries along the trail. He pointed out cool moss, big trees, weird rocks and other things he saw along the way.

For me, it was a great reminder of why we were there in the first place: Not just to see a close-up of the mountain we can see from our backyard, but to experience its beauty and wonder — as a family.

Staff writer Lisa Pemberton is one busy mama with three children. She can be reached at 360-754-5433 or

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