Some come for renewal and relief, refuges from the drought-ravaged American heartland.
Others, gathering for family vacations, travel vast distances over meridian and parallel to capture a glimpse of Mount Rainier’s most profligate expression – its wildflowers.
Long slumbering under a mantle of snow, acres of wildflowers have exploded into life in the sub-alpine meadows between 5,000 and 7,000 feet on the mountain. The profusion of color, which attracts national and international attention, peaks in August and early September and astounds nearly all who visit.
“Awesome,” said a group of teenage girls from Germany as they paused on the Skyline Trail near Panorama Point and looked onto the meadows of scarlet paintbrush, lupine and asters.
A visitor from France, acting as if he’d seen a vision, almost face-planted while doing a 360-degree sweep to capture the beauty with his video camera. Japanese and Chinese families, slowly walking along Paradise’s pathways, stooped for close-up looks at the multitude of blooms.
Waves of purple and white in a meadow of green cover both sides of Golden Gate Trail above Myrtle Falls. Standing amid the lupine and Sitka valerian blooms, Mavis DeVoe of Indiana was on a wildflower vision quest.
The luxuriant meadows and the colorful wildflowers, she said, refreshed her spirit after she’d baked in the triple-digit, slow-cooker temperatures back home.
With tripod and Nikon camera at hand, she hovered almost motionless over the scene – a canvas of flowers topped by the majesty of Rainier. Adjusting focus and f-stops with her right hand she worked to perfect her composition.
Nearby, her husband Mark stood motionless, wrapped up in his own world – the racy best-seller “The Quickie” by James Patterson.
“She can take a half hour to take one picture,” he joked, adding he too thought the wildflowers were beautiful.
But for Steve Redman, an interpretive ranger who leads daily tours of the meadows from Jackson Visitors Center, there is a dark side to the beauty.
The wildflowers are being “loved to death,” said Redman, who has worked with the crews that each year rehabilitate meadows damaged by off-trail hiking, In areas such as Glacier Vista and the upper Dead Horse Trail, he said, visitors have turned lush alpine meadows into barren rocky landscapes.
Paradise is the most visited sub-alpine meadow in the state, with more than half of the 1 million-plus visitors who come to Mount Rainier National Park each year going directly to Paradise. In August, the wildflower meadows and the trails above Paradise “are the biggest draw,” Redman said.
But every year, despite signs and the threat of $50 fines for going off trail, the meadows are trampled, he noted.
The sub-alpine or alpine zones are home to the majority of the park’s imperiled or rare plant species. The Rainier Lousewort, for instance, grows only on Rainier. Lyall’s anemone and fringed grass of Parnassus are found on a few other places.
But with the growing season as short as 40 days in the sub-alpine zone, many plants once damaged have little time to recover and be pollenated by hummingbirds, bees and moths, Redman said. In response, park staff members and volunteers cultivate 50,000 to 100,000 native plants in a greenhouse in Ashford for fall planting at Paradise and Sunrise.
While leading his “Morning Meander” tours Redman tries to educate the public about the fragile nature of the wildflower meadows and the park’s effort to protect them. Sometimes he delivers a personal message.
“The sub-alpine meadows are heavenly,” he said. “Open views, freedom and the fresh air. This is what we live for – to become enthralled and mesmerized in nature.”
Redman said he wonders whether future generations will be able to enjoy the meadows.
“These are really sacred areas,” he said. “It’s important to develop a conservation ethic and learn to leave no trace.”