Glimpses of our National Parks
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Special Characteristic: Complicated Glacial System Flowing from One Peak

IN the northwestern corner of the United States rises, from the Cascade Mountains, a series of extinct volcanoes ice-clad from summit to foot the year around. Foremost among them, counting from south to north, are Mount Shasta in California; Mount Hood in Oregon; Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, and Mount Baker in Washington. Once, in the dim ages when America was making, they blazed across the sea like huge beacons. To-day, their fires quenched, they suggest a stalwart band of Knights of the Ages, helmeted in snow, armored in ice, standing at parade upon a carpet patterned gorgeously in wild flowers.

Easily chief of this knightly band is Mount Rainier, a giant towering 14,408 feet above tidewater in Puget Sound. Home-bound sailors far at sea mend their courses from his silver summit. Travelers overland catch the sun glint from his shining sides at a distance of more than 150 miles.

This mountain has a glacier system far exceeding in size and impressive beauty that of any other in the United States. From its summit and cirques 28 named rivers of ice pour slowly down its sides. There are others unnamed. Seen upon the map, as if from an aeroplane, one thinks of it as an enormous frozen octopus stretching icy tentacles down upon every side among the rich gardens of wild flowers and splendid forests of fir and cedars below.


Every winter the moisture-laden winds from the Pacific, suddenly cooled against its summit, deposit upon its top and sides enormous snows. These, settling in the mile-wide crater which was left after a great explosion in some prehistoric age carried away perhaps 2,000 feet of the volcano's former height, press with overwhelming weight down the mountain's sloping sides.

Thus are born the glaciers, for the snow under its own pressure quickly hardens into ice. Through 28 valleys, self-carved in the solid rock, flow these rivers of ice, as they may be roughly called, now turning, as rivers of water turn, to avoid the harder rock strata, now roaring over precipices like congealed waterfalls, now rippling, like water currents, over rough bottoms, pushing, pouring relentlessly on until they reach those parts of their courses where warmer air turns them into rivers of water.

There are 48 square miles of these glaciers, ranging in width from 500 feet to a full mile and in thickness from 50 feet to many hundreds, perhaps even more than a thousand feet.


Mount Rainier is nearly 3 miles high, measured from sea level. It rises nearly 2 miles above its immediate base. Once it was a complete cone like the famous Fujiyama, the sacred mountain of Japan. Then it was probably 16,000 feet high. "Then," says Matthes, "a great explosion followed that destroyed the top part of the mountain and reduced its height by some 2,000 feet. The volcano was left beheaded."

Indian legends tell of a great eruption.

The National Park, which incloses Mount Rainier, is about 18 miles square, containing 324 square miles. It is easily reached by railroad and automobile from neighboring cities. A new automobile road enables stages to bring visitors to beautiful Paradise Valley, whose flowered slopes are bordered by the great Nisqually, Paradise, and Stevens Glaciers. One may reach this point in four hours from Tacoma and return the same day. But it is a spot where the visitor may well spend weeks.

Showing its winding course from its Cirque near the Summit.
Photograph by Curtis & Miller, Seattle.

The Nisqually Glacier is the best known though by no means the largest of the glaciers. It is 5 miles long and at Paradise Valley is half a mile wide. Glistening white and fairly smooth at its shining source on the mountain's summit, its surface here is soiled with dust and broken stone and squeezed and rent by terrible pressure into fantastic shapes. Innumerable crevasses or cracks many feet deep break across it, caused by the more rapid movement of the glacier's middle than its edges; for glaciers, again like rivers of water, develop swifter currents nearer midstream.

Professor Le Conte tells us that the movement of Nisqually Glacier in summer averages, at midstream, about 16 inches a day. It is far less at the margins, its speed being retarded by the friction of the sides.

View from wild-flower-carpeted Paradise Valley.
Photograph by Curtis & Miller, Seattle.

It is one of the great pleasures of a visit to Mount Rainier National Park to wander over the fields of snow and climb out on the Nisqually Glacier and explore its crevasses and ice caves.

Like all glaciers, the Nisqually gathers on its surface masses of rock with which it strews its sides just as rivers of water strew their banks with logs and floating debris. These are called lateral moraines, or side moraines. Sometimes glaciers build lateral moraines miles long and many feet high, as you will see when you visit the Mount Rainier National Park.

The rocks which are carried in midstream to the end of the glacier and dropped when the ice melts form a terminal moraine.

The end, or snout, of the glacier thus always lies among a great mass of rocks and stones. The Nisqually River flows from a cave in the end of the Nisqually Glacier's snout, for the melting begins miles upstream under the glacier. The river is the color of the rock when it first appears because it carries sediment and powdered rock, which, however, it deposits in time, becoming quite clear.

There are many glaciers as large and larger than the Nisqually, but they are little known because so hard to reach. The National Park Service has now completed trails around the great ice mountain and all of these glaciers are now accessible.


Many interesting things might be told of these glaciers were there space. For example, several species of minute insects live in the ice, hopping about like tiny fleas. They are harder to see than the so-called sand fleas at the seashore because much smaller. Slender, dark-brown worms live in countless millions in the surface ice. Microscopic rose-colored plants also thrive in such great numbers that they tint the surface here and there, making what is commonly called "red snow."


But this brief picture of the Mount Rainier National Park would miss its loveliest touch without some notice of the wild-flower parks lying at the base, and often reaching far up between the icy fingers of Mount Rainier. Paradise Valley, Indian Henrys Hunting Ground, Spray Park, Summerland—such are the names given to some of these beauty spots.

Let John Muir, the celebrated naturalist, describe them here.

"Above the forests," he writes, "there is a zone of the loveliest flowers, 50 miles in circuit and nearly 2 miles wide, so closely planted and luxuriant that it seems as if nature, glad to make an open space between woods so dense and ice so deep, were economizing the precious ground and trying to see how many of her darlings she can get together in one mountain wreath—daisies, anemones, geraniums, columbine, erythroniums, larkspurs, etc., among which we wade knee-deep and waist-deep, the bright corollas in myriads touching petal to petal. Altogether this is the richest subalpine garden I have ever found, a perfect floral elysium."

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Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009