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Hiking the highlands of Rainier: family fun in nature's playground

Apprehensively, you survey the huge pad of snow that lies across the steep path ahead. It sits at a jaunty 50-degree angle. For one thing, your pack, which creaks like a ship at anchor, weighs at least a third as much as you do. For another, your best friend's adorable six-year-old niece, whom you have clenched by the hand, understandably wants to sit down and howl in protest against the whole expedition. Much as you share her feeling, you proceed, cleverly chipping places in the slush for your foot with a hesitant boot. Before you know it, you're both on the other side. And the next patch of snow doesn't look nearly so formidable.

The confirmed urbanite finds that hiking builds character. Here in Mt. Rainier National Park, where a foot-high heather plant can grow as little as a quarter of an inch in a decade, your ecological conscience demands that you bravely cross the pad of snow rather than clamber around it. This subalpine environment is fragile -- especially at the higher elevations, where a patch of lichen the size of a quarter can be 1,000 years old or more.

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Our little band of three women and three children climbed the 4.3 miles up to Summerland -- a high meadow (elevation 5,920 feet) on the northeast side of the mountain -- as if through an antiques shop. And, judging from the appearance of the mountain, most of the 1.5 million people a year who use Rainier treat it the same way. There are few ``social trails,'' as the rangers call the unofficial paths created by hikers. As for litter, we didn't observe so much as a scrap of paper in our five days in Rainier's back country. This is in the heart of ``Ecotopia,'' after all.

The hike to Summerland is only one of those listed in ``50 Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park,'' a booklet available at any of the four ranger stations. For a good hiker with a light pack, most trips can be done in a day; if you have time, you might want to do more than one. Mt. Rainier has many different aspects distributed over its giant bulk -- ice caves, lakes, glaciers, meadows of wildflowers, various zones of plant life, a wet side, and a dry side.

And if you don't feel like hiking at all, there's Paradise, which offers a hotel, a ranger station, and a very nice visitor center with a panoramic view. Paradise has more wildflowers than any other part of the park; you view them from paved trails, however, accompanied by hordes of other people, as 80 percent of all Mt. Rainier's visitors come here.

The Paradise visitor's center has some fascinating features. I pushed a button at random and was rewarded by a time-lapse movie of a glacier (Rainier has 27 of them, the record for the lower 48 states); the general effect was like a white sea crashing against rocks in a storm. There were also hands-on exhibits -- like the one of the fur of various local animals.

At Paradise and other ranger stations, the rangers lead free nature walks. Paradise offers a different one every three to four hours.

I took the 7:30 ``evening stroll''; the ranger, an extremely friendly, knowledgeable chap, explained how various plants adapt for winter. (This is a fairly critical point, as Mt. Rainier has the world record for snowfall). Hemlock, for instance, is so flexible that snow just slides off, while firs -- whose skinny silhouettes dominate the skyline here -- don't accumulate much snow because of their narrowness. This latter protection is not the most effective, however. ``Usually if you see a tree on the ground it's a fir,'' the ranger said.

The highlight of the walk, for me, was when he whistled like a marmot, and a marmot actually answered.

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``The naturalist programs are not known to a number of visitors. We speak to a relatively small segment of the visitor population,'' according to chief naturalist Bill Dengler. The guided walks also enable the visitor without much time to see a little of what the mountain really has to offer. ``Some people [only] stop at the developed facilities -- the gift shops and visitors centers; those people are missing the most.''

Any park ranger will tell you all about the zones and the plants that inhabit them. But as you head up the mountain there are obvious changes that even the non-outdoorsman can observe for himself.

Our walk up to Summerland seemed to me like a stroll through a series of gardens. In the first, the lower woodland, tiny white wildflowers flourish at the feet of firs that shoot up, absolutely straight, almost out of sight. Ferns cover the ground; an occasional small waterfall flows over moss -- the sort of thing that generations of Japanese emperors worked to imitate. Every so often, a mini-Niagara can be seen through an opening in the trees.

Higher up is a meadow where you find sheets of purple lupine, gaudy yellow cinquefoil, and columbine. On the approach to Summerland, avalanche lilies, gorgeous floaty white things that favor steep upper slopes, abound in spaces between the snow.

We were able to stay in the shelter at Summerland, a solid stone structure -- like a cave with a view, as one side is open. From it we viewed mountain goats. The two boys, my friend's nephews, counted 17 of them in the distance, cream against the grass, dirty beige against the snow, crossing a ridge ahead of a cloud of fog.

From it, too, we offered a limited hospitality to animals who immediately became elevated to the status of pets, as the children delighted in naming them all: Chip and Dale, the chipmunks; Nutsy, the gold-mantled squirrel; and Fluffy, a pigeonlike bird that surveyed our lunch affably down a long ebony beak. You aren't supposed to feed the animals, for very good reasons. Nonetheless, the whole crew turned out handsomely at mealtimes.

Less outgoing were the marmots, waddling about in baggy yellow-brown coats; one grumpy porcupine, its tail bare of quills; and a family of weasels.

At a diorama back down at the Sunrise Lodge ranger station, featuring (alas) a stuffed version of Fluffy, we were able to identify him as a Clark's nutcracker. A ranger there was also able to clear up a point of dispute -- whether our porcupine could actually throw its quills or simply smacked them into the nose of any animal unwary enough to be within reach (the latter is correct).

With the help of a good little flower book available there, we were able to pick out some of the ones we had seen. And yet another ranger explained that marmots are true hibernators in winter; thus presumably they need that little extra avoirdupois.

Having a remote mountain meadow mostly to yourself and then descending to a personal explanation -- what could be nicer?

Practical details: Those wishing to do overnight trips here should know that Rainier has a reputation for being a very tricky mountain -- snow in August is not unheard of. My pack contained a bikini, a parka, and just about everything in between. Wet feet are a common problem because of all the streams and snow, and rain gear should be carried, though we didn't use ours. Fires are not permitted, so we made do with a small backpacker's stove.

We arrived on a Sunday night and had no trouble getting into a campground; on the other side of the road was a steady stream of RVs heading out. Being only 21/2 hours from Seattle and a bit less from Tacoma, Rainier's a popular weekend destination.

A reason for trying to avoid the crowds: You can't get reservations for shelters anymore. (I overheard one older ranger say that on a rainy weekend they used to get 80 to 90 percent no-shows.) Now you go to a ranger station to find out what is available that night. Rangers are a rare and valuable resource: generous with information, eager to do their best for you. They know what trails are covered with snow or impassable for some reason, where flowers are, and which places offer the best bird watching. Let them know of your level of skill and special interests.

Reservations are possible, in fact essential, for Paradise Lodge. The cost is $45.50 single, $5 for each additional person. It is grandly rustic accommodation built in 1915 (I met a woman who said her mother had enjoyed skiing off the roof back in the '20s). Its huge beams and stone fireplaces look as if they could withstand 90 feet of snow. And they have. Highly recommended.

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