Monday, January 6, 2014

Enjoy the beauty and solitude of Mt. Rainier's Palisades Lakes

First published in The Longview Daily News.

"Watch out for the hamsters!"
With this dire warning from a tourist, we started our hike to Palisades Lakes in Mount Rainier National Park.
The Palisades Lakes are part of a quiet back country hidden in plain sight of millions of visitors to one of the most famous parks in America. Chances are, if you've toured Mount Rainier, you have stopped at Sunrise Point, that impossibly sharp curve in the road that takes you in a moment from the green depths of the forest to the fantastic park-land of Sunrise. You have no doubt peered down to the emerald pools twinkling below, but then you probably hopped back in the car and, with the rivers of ice looming above, continued on to Sunrise.
Backpacker magazine recently featured the Palisades Lakes trail as one of the best places to find silence and solitude in the national park. The article featured Gordon Hempton, a "professional sound photographer" who measures silence in periods of 15 minutes or more without human-caused sound. He has claimed that Palisades Lakes are one of only 35 places in western Washington to qualify as a quiet place. Thus intrigued, we wanted to find out for ourselves if the claims to quiet so near to a busy tourist destination could possibly be true. Sunrise road usually closes around early October, so time was running out for our visit.
Forward planning is a gift few are blessed with. I am not one of the few. At 6 a.m. we started packing, doing the farm chores and rousing grumbling children from their beds. They had all been awakened in the night by the call of bugling elk (or possibly by a neighbor playing with a hunting toy), so were difficult to rouse. By 9:30 a.m. we had finally piled into the van — which proceeded to make a sound like a dying cat. The solution to a mostly dead battery was to push our 2-ton VW van up the driveway to position it for jumping, a process made more difficult by the reluctant hikers in the family who made only a pretense of helping to push. By the time we managed to jump the battery, it was 10:30, but were determined to make the trip despite the late hour. The long drive was thus accompanied by the moans and groans of angry teenagers and car-sick children. We were on the trail at 2 p.m. — a ridiculous time of day to start any hike. After a morning like that, killer hamsters didn't seem an out-and-out impossibility.
The trail is not as advertised in guide books — there are more ups and downs, with the return trip being considerably harder. The hike is still perfect for children, however, with lakes to wade in and flowers to admire. We ran out of time to get to the actual Palisades Lakes, however. The shadows were growing long when we reached Tom, Dick and Harry Lakes and while the rest of the family decided to turn back, I elected to hoof it up the short side trail to hidden lake, a little piece of the Caribbean at 5,000 feet above the sea.
When I returned, the family was waiting for me in the boulder fields near Sunrise Lake. They were anxious to catch a glimpse of the elusive "Ninja Hamsters." The rocks were indeed full of small, chirping rodents, but they were pikas - high country residents that were as curious about us as we were about them.
What about the quiet? Well, our arrival coincided with a rush of overhead jet traffic, and later the chop of helicopter blades echoed off the rocks, but there was no road noise. Truthfully, when traveling with a large family, there is little chance for quiet, unless everyone is intent on listening for the chirp of the wild mountain "hamster".

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