Sunday, September 27, 2009

Alpine Meadow

I imagine that many people visit Mount Rainier National Park to see the mountain. At 14,411, Mount Rainier towers above all other neighboring peaks in this part of the Cascade Range in southern Washington. Like Mount St. Helen's, which lies to the southwest, Rainier is volcanic, and will erupt sometime in the future. Unexpected mudflows can happen anytime, so they warn in the park brochure.

Even novice hikers can come close to the high peak. A relatively easy hike brings you to 6,800 feet, well short of the peak and the glaciers, but close enough to pick up snow from an ice field. After the initial awe of the rugged, glacier-glad peak, the beauty of the alpine meadow comes into focus.

Twenty miles of trails, some paved to allow handicap access, lead from the Paradise Visitor's Center through the alpine meadow to grand vistas. Signs border the trail telling hikers to stay on the trail and off the fragile meadow, this because over time careless or uninformed visitors have hiked off trail trampling the fragile alpine community.

Skyline Trail
Golden-mantled ground squirrels are common companions on the busier trails. The squirrels that appear friendly are likely fed by people, another common sin of visitors. This rodent looks like a chipmunk, but lacks facial stripes.

Golden-mantled ground squirrel, Spermophilus lateralis

The trails are well-marked and offer close-ups of meadow plants and animals, especially the trails that see fewer hikers. The windy paths that zigzag across the alpine meadow were my favorite.

Golden Gate Trail
Another meadow denizen, the hoary marmot, was busy fattening up for winter. They will soon go into hibernation, sleeping away the winter in their burrows buried under deep snow pack.

Hoary marmot, Marmota caligata

The marmot is slightly larger than our eastern woodchuck, but behaves the same way. They happily munch on grass and flowers in the alpine meadow, but scurry back to their burrow if danger gets too close. Sensing harm they give a high-pitched whistle, which we heard as we hiked. This earns them the nickname "whistle-pig."

Hoary marmot, at one entrance to its burrow, wary of our passing.

The alpine meadow is said to be spectacular in mid-July when many of the meadow plants are flowering. We visited a few days ago in mid-September, the vivid fall colors striking under a high mountain blue sky.

Pausing along the path to absorb the vistas and catch a breath gives time to kneel down and notice the colors and forms of alpine meadow plants.

Huckleberry and blueberry turn the hillsides red.

Small flowering plants gone to seed
tucked into dense mats of red heather.

Western anemone or pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis) gone to seed

Mountain Gentian, Gentiana calycosa

Scarlet paintbrush, Castillega miniata

Stream flowing through the alpine meadow

The sun sets on our day spent exploring the meadow and the mountain.

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