Mount Rainier National Park

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Cloudy, snowy slopes of Mount Rainier. Photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Situated at the center of Mount Rainier National Park is the namesake peak that represents a number of superlatives. At 14,410 feet (nearly 4,400 m) Mount Rainier is the tallest mountain in Washington and the tallest mountain in the entire Cascade Range. It’s also the most prominent and most heavily-glaciated peak in the contiguous United States. Rainier’s abundant ice and snow feed six major rivers and give life to a variety of plants, animals, and other organisms for hundreds of square miles. Situated only 54 miles southeast of Seattle, it’s also one of the most potentially dangerous volcanoes in the world.

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Cloudy, snowy slopes of Mount Rainier. Photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Although Mount Rainier is over half a million years old, small eruptions have been recorded as recently as the late nineteenth century. As the largest active stratovolcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc, Mount Rainier has devastating capabilities. An explosive eruption like the one at nearby Mount Saint Helens in 1980 could release vast quantities of ash, rock, and lava and trigger massive lahars and mudflows. Hundreds of thousands of people could find themselves in serious trouble.

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Mount Saint Helens erupting in 1980. Photo via the USGS.

For the time being, however, Mount Rainier is at rest. In the absence of catastrophic volcanism diverse ecosystems have developed along its flanks. The mountain hosts 26 glaciers and over 36 square miles (93 square km) of semi-permanent ice and snow that provide water to hundreds of square miles of land.

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Alpine glacier exiting the base of Mount Rainier. Photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Meltwater from this ice and snow feeds a variety of rivers, creeks, waterfalls, and canyons that meander down the mountain. A few of these features include the Box Canyon of the Cowlitz…

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Box Canyon of the Cowlitz River. Photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

…this waterfall near the Reflection Lakes…

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Waterfall near the Reflection Lakes. Photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

…and the Nisqually River:

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Glacial meltwater of the Nisqually River. Photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

In some places the water pools in scenic lakes along the way. Lake Louise is particularly impressive…

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Glacial meltwater of Lake Louise. Photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

…and the Reflection Lakes live up to their name:

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Glacial meltwater of the Reflection Lakes. Photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

The abundant moisture and volcanic minerals nurture thick temperate rainforests of large firs (Abies spp., Pinaceae), Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii, Pinaceae), pines (Pinus spp., Pinaceae), hemlocks (Tsuga spp., Pinaceae), and cedars (Thuja and Cupressus spp., Cupressaceae).

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Fog and clouds among the conifer forest. Photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Open areas host lush alpine meadows that are filled with a variety of smaller plant life. Over 1000 species of plants occupy the various life zones at different elevations.

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Small creek and lush meadow near Paradise Park. Photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Flowering plants are at their peak late in the summer, blanketing the lower reaches of Mount Rainier in a palette of colors. Hundreds of species of wildflowers can be found here.

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Meadow flowers near Paradise Park. Photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Some of these plants include Indian paintbrush (Castilleja sp., Scrophulariaceae)…

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Indian paintbrush (Castilleja sp., Scrophulariaceae) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

lupine (Lupinus sp., Fabaceae)…

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Lupine (Lupinus sp., Fabaceae) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

western pasqueflower (Pulsatilla occidentalis, Ranunculaceae)…

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Western pasqueflower (Pulsatilla occidentalis, Ranunculaceae) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

…and pink mountain heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis, Ericaceae):

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Pink mountain heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis, Ericaceae) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

This verdant environment also supports a variety of animal life. Elk, black bears, and mountain goats are all present as well as an array of smaller animals.

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Columbian black-tailed deer (Artiodactyla: Cervidae: Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Columbian black-tailed deer (Artiodactyla: Cervidae: Odocoileus hemionus columbianus), a subspecies of mule deer, can often be seen foraging in the meadows:

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Columbian black-tailed deer (Artiodactyla: Cervidae: Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Sooty Grouse (Galliformes: Phasianidae: Dendragapus fuliginosus) and many other birds are also abundant:

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Sooty Grouse (Galliformes: Phasianidae: Dendragapus fuliginosus) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Stratovolcanoes like Mount Rainier can destroy their surroundings in only a few hours, but between eruptions they can also create beautiful environments that allow life to flourish. Although many parts of the Cascade Range are gorgeous places, Mount Rainier National Park is perhaps the best.

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Muddy Fork of the Cowlitz River. Photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

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About Jeremy Sell

Science and nature nerd.
This entry was posted in Botany, Ecology, Geology, National Parks, Vertebrate Zoology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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