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Special Characteristics: Complicated Glacial System Flowing From One Peak; Varied plant life; dense forests; the mountain, an old volcanic cone, which rises nearly 2 miles above its immediate base

Mount Rainier National Park
Edge of Nisqually Glacier showing the south side of the mountain—Mount Rainier National Park

IN THE northwestern corner of the United States rises, from the Cascade Mountains, a series of extinct volcanoes ice clad 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. Today, 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 forests and wild-flowered meadows.

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 its ice-clad summit. Travelers overland catch the sun glint from its 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, as well as from many glacier-carved basins or cirques just below the summit, 28 named "rivers of ice," move slowly down its sides. Seen upon the map, as if from an airplane, 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, hemlock, and cedar below.


Every winter the moisture-laden winds from the Pacific, suddenly cooled against its icy flanks, deposit snows of great depth which change to ice and move slowly down deep canyons on the mountain's side.

Thus are born the glaciers, for the snow under its own pressure quickly hardens into ice. Through many deep, glacier-carved canyons flow these "rivers of ice," as they maybe roughly called, now turning, as rivers of water turn, to avoid the harder rock strata, now passing over precipices like congealed waterfalls, now rippling, like water currents over rough glacial beds, 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 more than a mile, and in thickness from 50 feet to many hundreds, perhaps even as great as 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 F. E. 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 Nisqually Glacier is the best known, although by no means the largest of the glaciers. It is 5 miles long and near Paradise Valley is half a mile wide. Glistening white at its shining source on the mountain's summit, its surface near the terminus or "snout" is soiled with dust and rock debris and squeezed and rent by terrible pressure into fantastic shapes. Innumerable crevasses or cracks many feet deep may be seen. These are caused by the difference in the rate of flow of the ice as well as by the rough, irregular surface of the glacial bed over which the ice passes. Glaciers, again like rivers of water, develop swifter currents near midstream. Experiments made by Prof. Joseph N. LeConte in 1905 tell us that the Nisqually Glacier in summer moves downward at a maximum rate of 16 to 24 inches a day in midstream. Recession measurements of this same glacier conducted by the National Park Service since 1918 show that in spite of this downward flow, the ice is slowly melting back at the average yearly rate of 70 feet.

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. 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 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 not so well known because harder to reach. 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, exploring its crevasses.

Paradise Glacier is of a radically different type. Locally it is known as a "dead" glacier for it does not move downward. It is readily accessible from Paradise Valley and its snowfields offer the favorite summer sport of "nature coasting"—one merely sits and coasts downward, attired, of course, in special clothing.


Many interesting things might be told of these glaciers were there space. For example, several species of minute insects live on the ice. Slender, dark-brown worms are also found on the surface of the glaciers. 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. In all, over 600 species of flowering plants are native to this park.

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. All together this is the richest subalpine garden I have ever found, a perfect floral elysium."


This national park is easily reached by rail or automobile from nearby cities. The new Naches Pass Highway provides an easy and enjoyable cross-state route and is one of the links in the Park-to-Park Highway which connects all the major western national parks.


Last Modified: Fri, Sep 1 2000 07:08:48 pm PDT

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