Seattle, WA

Visiting Mount Rainier and the Old Ohanapecosh Forest

Rene Cizio

I got a late start heading for Mount Rainier National Park and it threatened to derail my day, but I was able to turn it around – six hours later than expected. My troubles were self-inflicted, as they often are, and came with a lesson I must have needed.

I'm usually an early riser, but, on this Saturday, I slept in. To make matters worse, instead of heading straight for the park, I dawdled, and it was 8 am before I headed toward the mountain. Two hours later than I'd planned. As I drove over the Gig Harbor narrows bridge, paying the customary $6 to cross, I was surprised to see the amount of traffic already on the road and it made me feel late - a feeling I loathe.

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The drive to Mount Rainier took me mainly through small towns and two-lane highways. I passed through industrial seaport areas filled with gas stations, which would have been convenient since I was running low on gas. But because I was “running late,” I didn’t stop. Instead, I measured the miles to the park and the miles I had left in gas and decided that I had enough. Anyone who’s ever been to a national park (I’ve been to 17) knows that they include additional hours of driving once inside. But I didn’t account for any driving I would do inside the park.

Around the Park

One of my favorite things about national parks is the area around them. Often, this is the most unique, beautiful, and sparsely populated land for many miles. Mount Rainier was no different. A few small towns peppered the roadside as I got closer.

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I stopped at a stand to buy Rainier Cherries and gawk at the small-town. Many of the towns I've passed through on my travels were like this one. So small you don't realize you're passing through until it's behind you. This one caught my attention because of the cherry signs that lined the side of the road for a mile. It had an old train and depot with a big black engine like you'd see in a children's picture book. Further down the road, the caboose had been converted into a pizza parlor. There was also a small white, one-room church with a big steeple that reminded me of the type you see in ceramic Christmas villages.

Entering Mount Rainier

Close to the park, the trees became denser and there were glacial lakes along the roadway, so much bluer than other lakes, but the morning fog and smoke from California fires were still too thick to see the mountain.

At the Mount Rainier entrance, I had to wait about 20 minutes in a line of cars. I drove into the park and made my way to first, to the closest section – Longmire. The groves of tall pine and cedar trees along the roadside crowded in so close they looked like they were about to cross the street.

At Longmire, I looked at my gas gauge and realized I had a quarter tank or less than 95 miles to go. In my experience, which wouldn’t be enough to drive all day and make it to a gas station outside before I ran out. What, I wondered, had I been thinking?

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I asked a ranger and he told me there were no gas stations in the park, that I’d have to go out to the small town which, from where I stood, was about 20 minutes' drive back the way I’d just come, where I’d stopped for the cherries.

I did the math: 20 minutes there, 20 back and another 20 in line to get back in. I debated not driving further into the park, and just hiking where I was, but the place I wanted to see most, Ohanapecosh, was about an hour further drive into the park.

Stupid is as Stupid Does

Cursing myself mightily, I headed back out the way I’d come. I As a solo traveler, I must do all the thinking for all things all the time. As a control freak, I like this. But sometimes, it would be nice to have someone else do some of the thinking, or in this case, any thinking. Clearly, I’d given my brain the day off.

By the time I made it to the gas station, all the pumps had cars; then I had to go inside to pre-pay, then my pump wouldn’t work; after several attempts, the clerk reset it. I decided to buy a coffee while I was there and when I walked up to the register, the line was long, and one woman had at least 12 items. Once I made it back to the line to get into Mount Rainier, it was twice as long as before. I laughed out loud. So much for trying to save time by not stopping for gas in the morning.

Clearly, the universe was giving me a lesson.

Entering, Part 2

It was noon before I made it into the park again and headed for the old-growth forests in Ohanapecosh. As I drove through the park this time, the snowy peak of Mount Rainier was visible in the distance. Around me were big old trees and glacial lakes and glorious views. I got out of vanGo many times to slowly breathe the mountain air, take pictures and sit still.

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In Ohanapecosh, I wanted to find the Grove of the Patriarchs where the biggest and oldest trees were clustered. I inadvertently passed it by and 30 minutes later I was exiting the park. I turned around and had to wait in line again. With directions from the rangers, I finally found it. I’ve never been happier to get on a trail.

Grove of the Patriarchs

I joined groups of other people on the trail to see the big old trees. Despite the crowds of people, I was able to find brief pockets of time where I was alone with the trees in the woods. Stopping to read the signs – I’m often the only one who stops to read the signs on trails – I saw massive Douglas Firs, Western Red Cedars, and Western Hemlocks. Some were 12-feet around and 300 feet high. They’d lived in this forest for 1,000 years.

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I crossed a narrow but long, metal suspension bridge over a river where families played in the chilly water. As I walked, I craned my neck back to look up at these old giants. I’m amazed that they’re still here. Somehow, despite people, a few of these glorious creatures have survived. Standing next to these giants, I am small and insignificant.

Somehow, it seems almost like they have heat coming off them. That there is a lifeforce here—a quiet listening. I think of the Ents of the Lord of the Rings - giant tree people - and imagine them as old friends and wonder at the conversations they must have. I know that they do not notice me here below them. I am blissfully alone with a big old Cedar at the end of the trail for a few moments. I stand there in silent communion. Giving thanks for its existence.

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My Small Problems

As I stand there, recalling how upset I was over the gas, I imagine telling my problems to these trees and realized how stupid they were. My tiny problems that had me so worked up are the most boring and unimportant thing imaginable. My ego is so much larger than I can ever hope to need. Standing there, I am nothing and no one and I will be dead and gone and these trees will still be here. I am no more than a fly on their bark that passes one second and is gone without even being noticed. I am not enough to form one ring of their trunk.

Sometimes we just need to be reminded of the smallness of our problems and even ourselves.

Mount Rainier

As I headed to the Paradise section of the park to hike underneath the icy caps of Mount Rainier, I stopped at an overlook. In the distance, the mountain stood tall and grand as it always has. It, too, like the trees, has seen many insignificant human problems come and go.

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A glint to the right caught my eye and I saw someone had hung a dream catcher in a pine tree. I took a long, slow deep breath, and exhaled gratitude. I was where I needed to be when I needed to be there. Getting there isn’t always easy, but it’s the journey that matters. I spent the rest of the day on the trails remembering that.

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Digital nomad, solo road tripping through the USA in my van. I write about travel, adventure, culture, and self-improvement. Pictures on Instagram @renecizio

Chicago, IL
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