(Part I can be found here!)

It's now day four and we've just left Mt. St. Helens, driving to Mt. Rainier National Park (see part I)! The drive there was insane! The weather was cloudy, misty and cold, but it suits this part of the country so well. It was blocking some serious views, but we were literally in the clouds! The wind was blowing up from the valleys below and sending the clouds crashing into the road above like waves on a rocky shore - the ocean in slow motion. 

We reached Paradise... literally, the town is named Paradise. It's in Mt. Rainier National Park and it's home to the park's main and largest visitors center. Walking from the parking lot to the visitor's center, we felt like we were at Disney Land. Everything looked so perfectly manicured and planned... hence the name "Paradise". We all agreed the area we were walking through was maintained and manicured, but it was debated whether or not it was planned for a while. 

Disney World in the mountains

Since it was raining pretty hard on and off, we asked the rangers which hikes were best to do in the rain. A weathered old man (weathered in a good way) told us that Comet Falls was his favorite foul-weather hike and it happened to be on our way out to the national forests. He also gave us directions to a sweet campsite that doubled as a trailhead. We whipped out the ponchos and hit the trail to Comet Falls!

Super stable

Every year the glacial snow melt would take out these bridges so they'd have to rebuild them every summer. Mt. Rainier is the lower 48's most glaciated peak, with 25 major glaciers and many other unnamed ice patches. That's 36 sq mi of permanent snowfields and glaciers. You can only imagine the amount of glacial melt that is sent down its slopes. 

"I've never drank glacial water before!"

After an hour and a half of hiking uphill in non-stop, pouring rain, we got to Comet Falls. We were both cold and soaking wet (aside from my chest where I kept my camera under my poncho), so we quickly looked, marveled, then headed back down the mountain. Under the falls we saw evidence of more glacial melt and the tremendous destructive power that occurs when sun, water and gravity combine forces. Massive trees laid to waste. 

Comet Falls and its fallen victims

By the time we got back we were too ready to be warm and dry. We changed into some fresh clothes and made our way to the advised campsite our ranger told us about. It had stopped raining and it was beginning to clear up ever so slightly. Luckily the clouds opened up juuust enough for the sun to peek through and give us a nice show. 

Sunset on the NF service road on our way to camp

We were staying in the massive and beautiful Gifford Pinchot National Forest, just south of Glacier View Wilderness (which we'd hike into the next morning). The evening was spent eating good food, good conversations and Zoe Keating playing in the background. 

It's morning! Let's hike! Genest and I set out early down the trail, not knowing what was in store!

Beginning of the hike

With no map and only a vague idea of where we wanted to go (Beljica Meadows Lake), we just stuck to the trail. Mostly in silence. My hiking buddy Genest is a quiet person, and that's ok. I tend to be chatty when I'm excited on hikes and express my awe (like a child, I guess), but the silence forced me to stay within myself and I enjoyed that. It was new for me, a different kind of hiking. 

Walking straight into the clouds

The trail forked at one point, a log pointed one way had the words "SUMMIT" carved into it. We didn't hesitate, we knew what needed to be done. The quote, "we climb mountains because they're there" popped into my head. The trail took us up and up, into the clouds and barely above the tree line. That excitement I mentioned was definitely building. Looking up I saw Genest nearing a ridge, silhouetted by the clouds - I saw the shot in my head and I waited patiently, hoping the trail lead her along that path...  

BOOM! Got the shot. 

At the top, nothing to see here...

I followed her up to a pinnacle looking into nothingness. We were at the top, but the clouds were too thick to see anything at all. After five minutes of rest, we mentioned heading back down, but I saw some contrast out in the fuzz... Then the clouds broke. My, what a view. Excitement overload. 

Beljica Meadows opened up below

Soaking

One of the few shots taken of me, but I had to have this one

My current desktop and phone background, because I always want to feel the same excitement and awe that I was in this picture

After summiting Mt. Beljica, we set out to conquer the land we just peered out over. The hike from the summit to the meadow (four pictures up) was full of Huckleberries! I mean, they were everywhere! We ate so much we found out which type tasted sweet and which was more bitter, and where to find the sweeter ones within the bushes. One step closer to my dream of being a bear! 

Not the last time we would see these babies

Green green green

Beljica Meadow

The hike turned being about three hours, which was a great way to wake up but we were starving by the time we got back. We had to eat and get back into the park to hike the Skyline Loop!

Finally, by the time we had driven back into the park, the clouds had opened up and we got some gorgeous views of the valley below the mountain. Unfortunately, the peak was still blocked by the clouds between us. 

Let's begin the most beautiful hike of the trip so far! 

Skyline Loop is 7mi of trails along ridges and through meadows on the southern slopes of Mt. Rainier. While hiking it and seeing where you'll be going, it looks absolutely massive, but on a map, next to the mountain's sheer size, the loop is microscopic. I'll shut up and post pictures.

The beginning of the trail, already blown away. Next picture was taken from this same spot, facing to the right...

Some Sigur Ros would've set the tone for this hike perfectly

Wildflowers never left our side over the whole hike, except on the snowy pass

I've seen some beautiful landscapes in my days - Switzerland, Montana's backcountry, Yosemite, beaches of Honduras, New Zealand, the list goes on. This view has now joined the ranks... 

The view.

A little further down the trail we saw a couple peering at a snow patch in the distance with their binoculars. It made me stop and look, and I saw the tiniest black dot in a sea of white. "Are we going there...???" Excited, but also a little apprehensive, because it looked cold and much higher than we were now. Not to mention the face that I was in a short sleeve shirt, totally unprepared for those temperatures. 

Tiny specks in the distance... "are we going there??"

We went there. But first, some photos from our trek to the snow fields. 

View east

Elevation climbing, temperatures falling

We made it above the tree line and to the snowfield. It was cold and windy. My hands were numb, but I was excited! How often do you get to hike on Mt. Rainier over a snowfield in September!? Such a cool and thrilling experience. 

Families sledding down the (very) steep slopes

We were now the tiny black specks on the snowfield 

Genest treading carefully

After the snowfield was Panoramic Point. A colder, windier lookout over the valley. Once again, we made our stay short due to the weather. 

Panoramic Point looking south

The hike got warmer as we hiked down. The wind also let up and the scenery became sublime. Everything was so tranquil! Flowers swaying in the breeze, the view of the valley always in front of us, abundant wildlife... I'm getting carried away here, but I'm listening to This Will Destroy You while writing this, so blame the music. 

Arguably my favorite picture of the trip. Genest described it simply as, "puzzle pretty", which I thought was genius. This is exactly what I had in mind when I named my dog "Meadow".

The Meadow.

Shortly after this meadow, we came across a family of deer not far off the trail in a tiny clearing, framed by the mountains and pines. Have I mentioned how perfect this hike was?

I can't even... 

Our short stint on the Pacific Crest Trail, some of my usual night sky shots, Dewey Lake and a long awaited view of Rainier to be continued in part III... Thanks for reading!

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