Mount Rainier – Washington’s High Point


Mount Rainier is one of the most famous, striking, and prominent peaks in the United States. 

This beast of a crag racks up an impressive list of superlatives.  At 14,417 feet above sea level, the mountain is the High Point of Washington, as well as the eponymous National Park in which she sits. Rainier also crowns the entirety of the Cascade Range, which stretches from British Columbia to northern California. Among the 50 state High Points, Rainier ranks fourth highest!

Rainier is also the most topographically prominent mountain in the contiguous United States. Translation: the mountain packs serious relief. 13,246 feet of prominence means Rainier rises dramatically above the surrounding countryside. That’s more prominence than K2, the world’s second-highest mountain! The peak is 59 miles from Seattle. So suddenly does Rainier climb that, even nearly 60 miles away, she dominates the metropolis’ horizon. Omnipresent, locals simply call her “The Mountain.”

Seattle's Space Needle and Mount Rainier - photo by Long Bach Nguyen

The Cascades are part of the Ring of Fire, which means Rainier is a volcano. Specifically, a stratovolcano, traditionally the most explosive brand.

Rainier has not burst since the 1800s but has a steep history of cataclysmic eruptions. The mountain is one of the Decade Volcanoes, a list of the world’s most dangerous. These rock bombs all contain two key features: a deadly, fiery past and proximity to major populations.

Mount Rainier could easily impact the greater Seattle region. As the most heavily glaciated peak in the United States south of Alaska, a significant explosion would send massive ice into the air as tephra (flying debris) and could potentially produce lahars (massive mudflows) that would scour the surrounding areas clean.

An aerial view of Mount Rainier - photo by Stan Shebs

Native humans had several names for Rainier, including TalolTacoma, or Tahoma. A few theories about these words exist. It might mean “mother of waters” from a word in the Lushootseed language spoken by the Puyallup. Linguist William Bright prefers the translation of “snow-covered mountain.” Another hypothesis places Rainier in a comparative position in regards to cousin mountains. In Lushootseed, Tacoma might mean Ta (larger) + Koma (native word for  Mt. Baker, another large volcano in the northern Cascades), or “larger than Baker.”

The current official name comes from Rear Admiral Peter Rainier, a friend of George Vancouver, who was the first European to see the mountain when he mapped the region in 1792. By the time Lewis and Clark rolled through the Pacific Northwest, their maps read Mt. Regniere. Multiple attempts to revert to native names have bubbled up over the centuries. The effort to potentially dub the mountain Tacoma has perhaps grown since the successful rebranding of Denali in 2015.

Amusingly, when the professional football team from the state reached the Super Bowl in 2014, officials temporarily altered Rainier’s name. In Colorado, the governor had renamed 53 mountains after the players on the Denver Broncos. So, in Washington, the High Point became Mount Seattle Seahawks. Rainier’s power prevailed, as the Seahawks smoked the Broncos.

The former Mount Seattle Seahawks - image by Walter Siegmund

The first known ascent of Rainier occurred in 1870 when the fantastically named Hazard Stevens and P.B. Van Trump summited and returned to sea level. Fay Fuller became the first woman to stand atop Rainier in 1890, a historically early climb. Just two years earlier, our patron hermit, John Muir, climbed Rainier. He then joined, as he always did, the movement to protect the mountain and its surrounding areas. President William McKinley established Mount Rainier as the fifth National Park in 1899.

In odder history, the origin of the term “flying saucer” owes a debt to Rainier. In 1947, a pilot named Kenneth Arnold claimed to see nine unidentifiable flying objects as he moved past the mountain. His characterization of the crafts – saucers skipping on water – blossomed into a phenomenon. Just weeks later, the Roswell UFO incidents transpired. The nation had flying saucers on the brain.

Hazard Stevens on Rainier a second time in 1905 - photo by C.E. Cutter
Fay Fuller circa 1890 - Mt. Rainier National Park Archives and Museum Collection

Though the mountain is a prime destination for mountaineers, the National Park contains a myriad of resplendence.

Hikers circumnavigate the volcano on the Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile odyssey. If one arrives at the right time, a world-class wildflower exposition might please one’s eyes. Because of the glaciers and the elevation, growing seasons are short on Rainier, which allows for an explosion of color as the flowers bloom. Old-growth forests surround the crag, as hemlock, Douglas fir, and red cedar rise majestically from the soil. 65 species of mammals call Rainier home, including cougars, mountain goats, elk, and marmots. 

The 26 major glaciers provide the headwaters for at least six rivers. If strenuous climbing is not your forte, all the aqueous activity on the slopes carved some inexplicably beautiful waterfalls.

Subalpine wildflower meadow in Mount Rainier National Park - photo by Jasmine Horn
On the hike to Comet Falls - photo by Kyle Stout
Comet Falls at Mount Rainier National Park - photo by Kyle Stout
The Mountains Are Calling at Mount Rainier National Park - photo by Kyle Stout

Even a simple driving tour will nourish the soul.

Mount Rainier is so massive and its geological history so extensive that the volcano looks different in each direction. Viewpoints along the road that circles this mountain offer fantastic opportunities for eye therapy.

One famous location is Reflection Lake, where the angles work out perfectly for the aspiring photographer. Standing at such a location, one struggles to deny the notion of the artist in the cosmos. Conditions were not ideal for a professional-level photo when this explorer visited Reflection Lake, but the experience still left a professional-level impression!

Reflection Lake - photo by Alan Cressler
Reflection Lake Clouds - photo by Kyle Stout

Further Reading and Exploration

Mount Rainier National Park – National Park Service

Mount Rainier – SummitPost

Mount Rainier – PeakBagger

VisitRainier – Official Site of Mount Rainier Tourism

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