Image: Jeff Marsh

Ever been on a flight into Sea-Tac and seen a passenger smush her nose to the window when the airplane passes Mount Rainier? Ever been that gawker?

It’s hard not to rubberneck at our massive lump of a mountain. It’s at turns regal and coy, reassuring and ethereal; always 60 miles southeast of downtown Seattle and always squatting 14,410 feet high. We just can’t always see it.

People have been poking around, sleeping next to, and sitting atop Mount Rainier for centuries. Its subalpine meadows, thick with wildflowers, were the hunting grounds for native tribes. They didn’t have to worry much about the volcano blowing its top; it has always been quieter than Mount St. Helens next door and hasn’t fully erupted since the early days of the Holy Roman Empire. It was 1792 when, in the logbook of the H.M.S. Discovery, explorer George Vancouver slapped the name “Rainier” on the mountain, but the name wasn’t fully settled until 1939. Many preferred “Tacoma,” a variation on an Indian word—especially in the city of Tacoma.

Rainier brings out the enthusiast in everyone. Theodore Roosevelt once, while making a case for the “Tacoma” moniker, called it “our noblest landmark.” Naturalist John Muir, better known for wildlife contemplation than bagging summits, visited in 1888 and told his wife, “I didn’t mean to climb it, but got carried away.” Just as soon as the National Park concept was invented, the peak was up for preservation: In 1899 it was the fifth chunk of land to get the status, coming in soon after Yellowstone and Yosemite. 

The park became everyone’s playground, home to horseback pack trips and alpinists in wooly sweaters and wooden skis on a rope tow. An inn anchored the main visitor’s destination of Paradise on the south side, while to the north, Sunrise was named for its idyllic dawn view. For climbers, the 25 glaciers are our own private Everest, and 5,000 reach the summit every year. 

Today nearly two million visitors enter the national park annually, not to ski or ride but to hike, camp, and drink in the grandeur of our giant. It hovers maternally over our city, but we can never forget that Rainier is a wild thing. The people who protect it perform great heroics; in 2012 alone we grieved for ranger Margaret Anderson, killed on New Year’s Day while keeping a wild shooter from Paradise, and ranger Nick Hall, who rescued stranded climbers in June before a fatal fall into a high-mountain crevasse.

Our mountain traces an indelible impression on the Northwest landscape. It’s not hard to make a case for Mount Rainier; it’s practically our state logo, our totem. We all stake a personal claim on the craggy monster in the mist, even when it isn’t out.