Goodbye Washington, I Love You

A hoary marmot rests on a rock in the late afternoon on the Summerland Trail in the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier National Park

Washington lies across the Columbia River just to our north. I’ve spent a lot of time at Ridgefield and I’ve written about my love for that little refuge but there are two more parks that are near and dear to my heart: Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier National Park. The Olympics literally go from the rugged coast (and tide pools) to rain forests to the snow-capped Olympic mountain range, along with plants and animals endemic to the Olympic peninsula. Rainier has its massive namesake where you can easily hike trails from the lodges and within minutes see pikas and marmots. There are many other trails too, such as the Summerland Trail in the Sunrise area where I met this hoary marmot sunning itself on the rocks. Sometimes I saw bears in both parks, sometimes quite close, sharing the trail with me. Deer and elk, birds, ground squirrels, so much wonderful wildlife living in such breathtaking scenery.

Washington has many other wonders I never explored, I never even visited Seattle for that matter apart from one quick business trip. But I could have explored these parks alone for the rest of my life and never gotten bored. Goodbye, I love you.

Mouthful

A hoary marmot collects a mouthful of grasses and flowers

A hoary marmot collects grasses and flowers late on a fall day in Mount Rainier National Park. I didn’t think it could add more without dropping what it already had, but I was wrong. After adding that last bit it was either satisfied with its collection, or felt unable to collect any more, and trundled off towards its den.

A hoary marmot with a mouthful of grasses and flowers

Dinner Time, Decision Time

A hoary marmot eats the leaves of wildflowers late in the day in Mount Rainier National Park

A hoary marmot eats the leaves of wildflowers late in the day in Mount Rainier National Park, taken soon after I arrived on my trip to the park last fall. I’ll be deciding within the next couple of weeks on my trip for this fall, the two major candidates are returning to Mount Rainier and/or Olympic National Park, or heading out to Yellowstone and possibly the Tetons. Also might look into Glacier National Park or taking several small trips so I could also hit the Oregon coast and the redwoods in California.

Usually it comes down to lodging availability, road construction, weather, how long it’s been since my last trip, and how much driving I feel up to. Sometimes I feel a particular pull to see certain types of wildlife, and at the moment the marmots and pikas of Mount Rainier are calling me back, even though I was there just last year. I didn’t see them as much as I would have liked, and it poured rain during much of the trip. Except it didn’t rain when I was in the Hoh Rain Forest like I wanted, so maybe the fifth visit will be the charm.

On the other hand, I haven’t been to Yellowstone in four years. The last trip wasn’t as much fun as other years, although a couple of days were two of my favorites of any trip, and even a lesser visit to the area is still a pretty great time.

The other little wrinkle this year is my cameras. My Canon 7D II and 100-400 II lens were both released too late last year for any major hiking trips, so it would be fun to try them out in the wildlife-heavy parks. I did cancel my pre-order for the new Sony A7R II, I would have been a part of the initial shipment but it was just too much expense to risk without waiting for more thorough reviews. If I had kept the order I’d lean towards Yellowstone, as the Sony can shoot lovely 4K video and I’ve long wanted to video the geothermal features there. It’s high-resolution full-frame sensor would also be fantastic for still shots, so I probably would have spent the entire week in Yellowstone and split my time between the scenery and the wildlife.

Strangely enough it’s the scenery of Yellowstone that is attracting me more this year than the wildlife, I should probably check myself for a fever.

I wouldn’t complain about a week of hiking in the Tetons either except I’m out of good hiking shape and all that elevation change while carrying the cameras might do me in. I love photographing the mountains at sunrise but I’ll want a better camera before making that a priority, the full-frame cameras are much better suited to that than the 7D.

The good news is these are all fun places to visit so there are no bad choices. It’s the planning I hate.

Dining on Wildflowers

A hoary marmot eats wildflowers on a rainy fall afternoon in Mount Rainier National Park

A hoary marmot eats wildflowers on a rainy fall afternoon in Mount Rainier National Park. The pouring rain reduced the crowds on the trails compared to the previous sunny day, but the marmot has to eat rain or shine, for a cool wet afternoon is nothing compared to the brutality of the coming winter that will drive it into hibernation.

Life Finds a Way

A hoary marmot sits in front of Mount Rainier

I had been photographing this hoary marmot with telephoto lenses when I decided to switch to a wider angle to show the amazing landscape that this animal calls home (the waterfall in the background on the far right is at the end of the Nisqually Glacier on Mount Rainier). That’s when I noticed that a small collection of plants was growing underneath the lip of the big rock, protected not only from wind and snow but also from being crushed by hiker’s shoes. I like photographing plants growing in seemingly inhospitable locations as I’m intrigued by how often life can take root if given the chance.

The Living Rock

A hoary marmot sits in the driving rain beside the Sourdough Ridge Trail in the Sunrise section of Mount Rainier National Park

Late in September of 2008, I was hiking for the first time in the Sunrise portion of Mount Rainier National Park. It was cold and pouring rain but it was the start of a week of hiking and I was in a good mood. As I came across a talus field I noticed an unusual rock at the edge of the path. But when my rock moved as I approached I realized I had just seen my first hoary marmot.

My camera didn’t have any weather sealing and a previous accident had left a gaping hole at the top of the camera, but I couldn’t resist a few pictures.

Remind Me Why I’m Not Hibernating Yet?

A hoary marmot sits near snow-covered rocks at the end of the Summerland Trail in the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier National Park

The higher elevations in the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier got a light dusting of snow on the morning of my last day there but it melted when the sun rose. After hiking a bit on the Sourdough Ridge Trail early in the day hoping to see marmots, pikas, or grouse (and not seeing any), I went a little lower in elevation to the trailhead of the Summerland Trail. The trail is an uphill march mostly through a forest before you pop out into a mountain meadow at the very end of the trail, I chose it since there was a chance of seeing hoary marmots and elk in the meadow (the mountain views from the meadow are also spectacular and make up for the lack of views in the forest).

I didn’t see any elk but I did see a few marmots when I first entered the talus field. The afternoon sun didn’t make for good light for pictures but this marmot was shadowed by rocks where the snow hadn’t melted. I followed the trail through the rocks and saw more and more marmots until I realized just how large the colony is at the end of the trail, this was by far the largest marmot colony of any species I’ve come across.

I spent the rest of the afternoon watching the marmots as at least one was usually close to the trail, taking advantage of every passing cloud to improve the light. I had thoughts about staying until sunset but I still had a long hike back down and while I had my headlamp, I was hiking alone and didn’t want to risk it. When the marmots that had been near the trail were no longer around, I took that as my cue and headed back down the trail.