Mount Rainier National Park is full of amazing and dramatic views, plunging canyons, sheer cliffs, demanding trails and much, much more. But it also has the Trail of the Shadows, sort of a baby cousin to a serious hike, and a gem all by itself.
The trail is only three-quarters of a mile long, and it's mostly flat dirt paths with an occasional root in the way; perfect for families with small children, for the orthodpedically-challenged and people who'd just like a short walk with signs to point out what otherwise I wouldn't have known was there.
Because, like so many woodland walks around the country, it's not really just a path through a forest. It's actually a complex microcosm of geology, botany and zoology, overlaid with a now nearly-hidden but fairly-recent human history.
As you start the walk, one of the first sights is a marshy area with a succession of colors across it; at the near edges it's dry, and the abundance of vegetation hides how wet other parts are. Above it is a high ridge, Rampart Ridge, formed 375,000 years ago when Rainier erupted, and lava filled the valley between two glaciers; the glaciers cooled the lava. When the glaciers later retreated, the ridge was exposed.
In the early 1880s, James Longmire, an early settler in the Cascades Mountains climbed Mount Rainier and built a small cabin for himself, right here on the Shadow trail. Not much to look at, it's the oldest building in the entire park. And it wasn't the end of Longmire's ambitions.
In the area around the cabin, now called Longmire Meadows, he found several dozens of natural mineral springs, whose temperatures ranged from warm to hot. Longmire and his sons cut a 21-mile trail into the area, built a small hotel and began advertising the mineral springs as a cure for just about everything: "rheumatic pain, catarrh, piles and other afflictions that have been pronounced incurable." Ads called it "Nature's Own Laboratory."
The Longmires built stone enclosures in which the guests could sit and immerse themselves in the waters. The red color in this one gave it a nickname of Iron Mike because of its high iron content.
As you might expect, the Longmires had no medical background and there's no science to the claims for the springs, but they were a successful draw for years, and facilities expanded. By 1916, shortly before they sold out to a rival park concessionaire, it looked like this, with the hotel expanded into a tent city.
While the Longmires are long gone, there are still residents in the neighborhood, but their dwellings are less visible; the best evidence of them is in the construction scraps they've left behind, and unusual water levels in parts of the ponds in the area. Yes, beavers.
The area also attracts a good number of swallows and other migratory small birds who feast on rich insect life; there are frogs and mice in large numbers and deer graze at the edges of the marshy area, which is supported by a whole network of above and underground streams.
Continuing the walk around the trail's loop, you pass by evidence of nature's forces in the form of uprooted and lightning-struck trees, left to continue the cycle as they eventually return to the soil...but sometimes with spectacular colors or shapes as they go.
Almost unbelievably, this torn and tangled root has a live shoot growing from it, several feet tall and with promise of a new trunk down the years.
City boy that I am, my first assumption was that there were redwoods growing here, but no. The dominant species in the area are Douglas Fir and Red Cedar. Guess which one these are...
Time for a brief rest on a log bench...
At points, it seemed as if there were more bridges than streams along the trail, but it really wasn't so; all the bridges were visible, but many of the streams come and go with the seasons and the rains.
If it seems like we're too focused here on trees, look down near the bases of the trees, where one of the many interpretive signs along the way explained about lichens and mosses.
By now, we've wound our way around the trail to the far side of the meadow and marsh we saw at the beginning of the trail, and are in what the signs call an "edge environment," where two different ecosystems meet, in this case, the forest and the meadow, a place where species of both communities survive in the same area.
As I moved through this area, I found myself looking at places that seemed firm enough for me to move in and find a good camera angle; in many cases that was an illusion. The twin logs below extend out into very squishy places and the grass in the picture below that supported a rabbit I saw run through it, but it would not have supported me!
Also in this area, I started seeing a variety of ferns, abundant here, but not in sight at all on the other side.
And, almost too soon, a last bridge, and back to the starting point.
Practical: Trail of the Shadows begins across the main park road from the National Park Inn at Longmire, about six miles in from the Nisqually entrance to the park. The park's museum as well as an information center share a parking lot that's free to use.