There’s little as enticing to the average road tripper as a fork in the road. To my left lay the quick route to Denver; it was the obvious, responsible choice if I was to make my pre-planned arrival time. But to my right… A tempting, meandering detour through Rocky Mountain National Park. It would at least double my drive time. Taking it would be supremely reckless.
After a brief deliberation, I turned right.
Not for the first time on this trip, I felt the thrill of rebellion. Indeed, this whole drive was something of a revolt against the classic US road trip. I’d previously driven both Route 66 and Route I, so this time I’d made a conscious decision to follow no set highway or preordained trail and instead create something more unique.
Armed with a map, a loose plan to be in Denver a few weeks hence, and the keys to a red Mustang (I wanted to tackle this frontier with some genuine horse power), I started in Seattle, unofficial capital of the Pacific Northwest, sandwiched between salty Puget Sound and serene Lake Washington. As I drove out of the city, the skyscrapers were soon replaced by the serrated edges of the Cascade Mountains; highest among them, caked in glaciers, was Mount Rainier, the stratovolcano that dominates the eponymous national park. Its summit is a challenge for experienced mountaineers only, but thankfully there are plenty of other options.
“If you want to escape the crowds try the Moraine Trail,” suggested interpretive ranger Maureen McLean as I arrived at Paradise, and the visitor centre. “As soon as the tarmac ends, so do the people and you will get to peer into the belly of the mountain.”
I was sold, and half an hour later I’d dismounted the Mustang and was on foot, tracing a faint route through wildflowers. Every now and then I’d hear the rustle of chipmunks, smell the sweet nectar of crushed huckleberries, or see a peregrine falcon swoop.
I reached a slope, climbed up loose scree and reached an edge where the earth just fell away at my feet, the glacier having carved its way through. Before I’d set off, Maureen had told me, “There isn’t a bad walk from Paradise, there’s just a bad walk for you. We always say here: one man’s Paradise is another man’s hell on earth.” From my vantage I watched people in the distance on the crowded Panorama Trail, walking queue-like uphill, and smiled. I knew which one I’d found.