Emblazoned on every Washington license plate and visible throughout much of the western state, Mt Rainier is the contiguous USA's fifth-highest peak and, in the eyes of many, its most awe-inspiring.
Close to Puget Sound's urban areas and unobstructed by any other peaks, the mountain's overwhelming presence, set off by its 26 glaciers, has long enraptured the millions of inhabitants who live in its shadow. Though it's an iconic peak to bag, climbing Rainier is no picnic; old hands liken it to running a marathon in thin air with crampons stuck to your shoes. Approximately 9000 people attempt it annually, but only half of them make it to the top.
Beneath Rainier's volatile exterior, even darker forces fester. As an active strato-volcano that recorded its last eruptive activity as recently as 1854, Rainier harnesses untold destructive powers that, if provoked, could threaten downtown Seattle with mudslides and cause tsunamis in Puget Sound. Not surprisingly, the mountain has long been imbued with myth.
The Native Americans called the mountain Tahoma or Tacoma, meaning the 'mother of waters', George Vancouver named it Rainier in honor of his colleague and friend Rear Admiral Peter Rainier, while most Seattleites refer to it reverently as 'the Mountain' and forecast the weather by its visibility.
Encased in a 368-sq-mile national park (the US' fifth national park when it was inaugurated in 1899), the mountain's forest-covered foothills harbor numerous hiking trails and huge swaths of flower-carpeted meadows. When the clouds magically disappear during long, clear days in July and August, it becomes one of Washington's most paradisiacal playgrounds.
For information on the park check out the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov/mora, which includes downloadable maps and descriptions of 50 park trails.
Park entrance fees are $15 per car and $5 for pedestrians and cyclists (those under 17 are admitted free), and are valid for seven days from purchase. A $30 annual pass admits the pass-holder and accompanying passengers for 12 months from date of purchase.
The driving loop around the mountain is 147 miles (driving time is about five hours without stops) and the main roads are usually open mid-May through October.