Last weekend, my wife wanted to take a family trip to Sunrise to see Mount Rainier National Park’s wildflowers, but she winced when I suggested a departure time.
“6:30 a.m.?” she said. “That’s a bit early, isn’t it.”
“Actually, I think it’s a bit late,” I said.
“You know why they call it ‘Sunrise?’ ” I later added. “Because that’s when you need to get there on summer weekends if you want a parking spot.”
We didn’t beat the sun to Sunrise. Not even close. Rounding up a pair of teenagers on a summer morning is a feat on par with climbing the 14,411-foot mountain. We didn’t get to Sunrise until about 8:45 a.m.
There was plenty of parking, and I could sense what everybody else was thinking: “We could have slept in.”
We geared up and headed to Sourdough Ridge where we saw an occasional purple flower and signs with messages such as “Coming Soon: Cinquefoil.”
“This isn’t quite what I expected,” my wife, Kristen, said.
We scrambled to the top of 7,017-foot Antler Peak, where we could see all the way to Mount Baker. The summit shrubbery scratched us up a little and I could sense my family’s confidence in my hike-leading ability starting to wane.
Next we scooted out to wish a happy birthday to the Wonderland Trail (it turns 100 this summer), and then stopped for water and snacks on top of First and then Second Burroughs mountains. We saw a family of mountain goats and listened to rock fall on Mount Rainier.
Sitting on top of Second Burroughs, it was clear the beauty of this place had impressed everybody. But Kristen was still talking about wildflowers.
She thought there’d be more, she said. Friends had pictures on Facebook and the flowers were everywhere, she said.
Oh, this isn’t really the best place for wildflowers today, I said. I just thought this would be a good hike to do before it gets crowded.
Then I lowered my voice so our tired kids couldn’t hear. “There should be plenty of wildflowers back there, near the car.”
And there were. Patches of purple, yellow and red lined the trails around Sunrise Lake. Kristen reached for her camera and said, “This is exactly what I was hoping to see.”
Never mind that we’d turned a 2-mile stroll into a 9-mile hike.
We returned to Sunrise at lunchtime to find a much different vibe. Cars were double-parked, the lot was overflowing, and at least a dozen bikes were stashed near the visitor center.
As we left the park, we saw a 1/3-mile line of cars waiting to get in. Parents walked their kids on the road shoulder, past the cars to the restrooms near the entrance.
When the already stunning park is adorned with wildflowers this time of year (and actually the wildflowers were out earlier than usual this summer), the masses flock to the park. Finding seclusion and flower photo ops can be challenging.
But here are a few tips that might help:
1. Consider a more far-flung place than Paradise and Sunrise. Wildflowers are easy to find around the mountain’s tourist hubs. At Paradise, they blanket the meadows just waiting for you to infuse your Instagram page with color.
But if you are up for a longer hike, it can be relatively easy to get away from the crowds. Berkeley (7 miles round-trip from Sunrise) and Grand parks (9 miles round-trip when approached from Forest Service Road 73) require enough effort that crowds will thin out considerably by the time you arrive. Van Trump Park (6 miles round-trip) is just a short uphill walk past the popular Comet Falls.
2. Go by bike. You zip by avalanche lilies, lupine and other flowers on the roads in and around the park, but it’s hard to enjoy them when you’re focusing on keeping the car on the winding roads.
These flowers are much easier to appreciate by bike — at least on the way up. Some friends and I recently biked up Sunrise and Chinook Pass, and I was struck by how many patches of colorful flowers I’d missed the day before when I drove the same roads with my family.
It’s by no means an easy ride (46 miles and 5,200 feet of climbing to visit Sunrise and Chinook Pass), but it’s well worth the effort.
And while there cab be traffic to navigate, it’s much easier to find a parking spot at popular roadside stops on a bike than it is in a car.
3. Take a day off work. The park is busy all summer, but weekdays are considerably less crowded than weekends.
4. Set your alarm and get there early.