Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Ramblin' Round Rainier

Leaving Cle Elum and the quiet forests of the Eastern Cascades, we headed west over Snoqualmie Pass and into the madness of five-lane, bumper to bumper traffic that is the Seattle/Tacoma metropolitan area. We lived here 30 years ago while stationed at McChord Air Force Base, but since then the population of the metropolitan area has grown to over 3 million, and now resembles Los Angeles, except here the pine trees are really trees, not disguised cell phone towers. It's still a beautiful area with lots of trees and steep hills overlooking Puget Sound and the many islands of the area. Pulling into Fort Lewis to stay at the their Travel Camp, we were amazed at how much the post has grown; with almost 19,000 military and family members, it’s a city in itself and the shopping and service facilities were very impressive. The one aspect of this area that makes it special is Mount Rainier. On a clear day, the 14,000’+ mountain, perfectly shaped and snow covered year-round, appears to be painted on the horizon. What sets it apart is that the Seattle/Tacoma metropolitan area is near sea level, so unlike the mountains in Colorado, for example where the surrounding elevation is over 5000’, Mt. Rainier truly looks HUGE. While Brenda was shopping at the commissary, I took this picture of the mountain and one of Ft. Lewis's helicopters. It was fun driving around town to see how things have changed; some areas, like downtown, are much nicer now. We even found the house we lived in - it hasn't changed much, but seems smaller....why do they always seem smaller?

We hit the road early one day to make a circuit of the mountain. Our route took us east, then north to the visitor center at Paradise, a place we used to visit during the winter to go sledding. On the way, we passed through old-growth forests and crossed streams with breathtaking views of the mountain. It's a long climb to Paradise (say....isn't that the title of a country western song?) but the drive is worth it. At 5400' you're still a long way from the top, but the views from here, surrounded by meadows and wildflowers, is well worth it. This is the time of year when there's the least amount of snow and ice on the mountain, but even now you can see many of the 26 glaciers and much of the 35 square miles of snow and ice. From Paradise, you can see how rugged the mountain is and get an appreciation for the difficulty of climbing to the top. There's a new, well furnished visitor center at Paradise, and after a look around the exhibits and viewing the movie (thanks, Park Service, for reminding us that we standing on an active volcano) we headed back down the road around the mountain to the visitor center at Sunrise, on the northeast side of the mountain. On the way, the views changed as we saw the mountain from different angles, and the amount of snow and ice increased as we moved to the north. After a couple of hours driving through more forest, we finally arrived at Sunrise, which was a bit of a disappointment - the visitor center was closed, and the position of the sun made it difficult to see the mountain since it reflected off the much heavier snow cover. I guess the time to see the mountain from here is at..duh..sunrise, but since our retirement Brenda and I have avoided that time of day like a vampire avoids bright sunlight. But it was still a nice drive and we had a great, non-eruption day.

No trip to the area would be complete without a visit to Seattle and the Pike Place Market. We decided to go on a Saturday, expecting the traffic to be less....it wasn't. Apparently the people trying to get home from work on Friday were still trying on Saturday morning, because it was bumper to bumper with lots of complete stops. Navigating through the streets of Seattle, we found the market and parking (a mere $4 an hour), and took a walk around the waterfront and admired the skyline. The market is a combination of small shops in an old warehouse and an outdoor area of street-side vendors and shops. We were a bit disappointed in the shopping; it seemed to be more of a group of festival vendors with lots of jewelery, crafts, and unique clothing. The open air market, which we remember as being primarily produce, was reduced to only a few small vendors of produce but lots and lots of beautiful, low-priced flowers. Some things hadn't changed; the neat little stores selling food products from around the world, and of course, the fish vendors with their custom of throwing the fish from employee to employee. You can spend the entire day here looking at all of the shops, and there's also the waterfront area with the excellent Seattle Aquarium, museums, and restaurants.

We enjoyed our stay here; it's a beautiful area with much to see and do; just remember not to be in a hurry to get anywhere. We're heading west from here to explore the northern coast of the Olympic Peninsula - be sure and come back!

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