The long shadow of Mt. Rainier

By Phil Plait | October 26, 2011 12:49 pm

Here in Boulder we get magnificent sunsets, especially in the summer when the clouds interplay with the mountains to the west. But I have never seen anything like this: the shadow of Washington state’s Mt. Rainier cast along the clouds at sunrise:

Holy (yes, in this case appropriately) Haleakala! [Click to cascadenate.]

That’s amazing. Mt. Rainier is a volcano, climbing to a height of over 14,000 feet (4300 meters). There are no other mountains anywhere near that height nearby, so it’s really prominent in the landscape (by comparison, there are several fourteeners, as they’re called, in the Rockies, so they don’t stick out as much though they’re still breathtaking). The rising Sun catches the peak, and the shadow is cast on the underside of the cloud layer. The dramatic sunrise colors really make this an incredibly beautiful shot.

The KOMO news site has lots more pictures of this, too. Go take a look!

And remember, when you’re outside, it always pays to look around you for a moment. You never know what incredible vista nature may have in store for you.

Tip o’ the snow cap (har har) to John Baxter.

Related posts:

Amazing video of a bizarre, twisting, dancing cloud
The fist of an angry cloud
Time spent doing what you love is never wasted
Windswept clouds over Boulder

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: clouds, Mt. Rainier, shadow

Comments (55)

  1. Tom

    Looks like Mt. Doom to me. The light isn’t really the Sun but is rather Sauron’s gaze from Barad-dur!

  2. That’s one opaque mountain!!

  3. William R. Dickson

    Mount Rainier is an incredible presence; it completely dominates the landscape. One of the many things I miss about living in Seattle.

  4. hhEb09'1

    “Several” > 50 :)

    But they do start from a higher plain. Rainier has a much greater prominence.

  5. Sam H

    It’s like……a pillar holding up the sky. It really makes that cloud deck look like the ceiling of the world….good God. ūüėģ And in this (and all cases) of fleeting, heartwrenching beauty, must he really be necessary?? ūüėČ

    Anyway, song to go with this amazing pic:

  6. Gwif

    Man, at first glance I thought that was smoke trailing from an erupting volcano!

  7. John Baxter

    Tahoma (or Ta’homa–sort of a southern German ch) gave its name to the city of Tacoma. Then we Eurpeans took away its name and called it Mt. Rainier (which gave its name to a brewery).

    More about the mountain:
    (and plenty of other sites).

    Mt. Rainier also does amazing lenticular cloud displays.


  8. Bill



  9. Derek

    I grew up in Tacoma and saw that mountain every day. After I moved to Colorado, the first time I saw Pike’s Peak (14,115 ft) it looked dainty.

    Thanks for sharing this pic Phil.

  10. Larry

    That is pretty spectacular. Too bad I’ll never see something like it cause I refuse to get up at Oh-dark-30 to take a picture.

  11. Bette Noir

    1) What Bill said.

    2) Larry: As far north as this is, in a few weeks we’ll be able to enjoy the sunrise at the civilized hour of 9 am.

  12. Mike

    Desktop background photo instantly.

    Thanks, Phil.

  13. Douglas Troy

    That is something else … sharing this out to everyone I can.

  14. Beautiful photo. I’ve taken quite a few of the mountain, but never managed to catch it like that.

    One of the reasons Mt. Rainier is so prominent is because the surrounding landscape is so low, at least to the west. We go from sea level here to a few thousand feet mostly.

  15. Michael Swanson

    Yes! Finally! Proof positive that the Earth is flat!

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    Whoah! Incredible. Like a reverse lighthouse casting a beam of shadow! ūüėģ

    Awesome picture. When will it erupt next?

  17. Trebuchet


    When will it erupt next? Who knows. It seems to be overdue. I’m glad I don’t live in Orting.

  18. NickBob

    John Baxter, I’d agree with you more often than not on the primacy of Salish naming, but ‘Rainy-er’ is too much of an aptonym for our corner of the country. Besides, most often the pile is simply called The Mountain, despite having plenty of spectacular competition in 2 ranges on the skyline.

    Trebuchet, never mind eruptions. Google Rainier mudflows and read about the history of destructive lahars which are a function of ice, earth, and sulphuric acid from the volcano, sleeping or not. The foothills around the park have developed quite a bit over the last 30 years, the Romans at Pompeii were no less foolish. Even Tacoma and Seattle have dirt in some areas that was washed off the slopes in times passed. Japan’s got nothing on us with geologic peril.

  19. Trucker Doug

    “Heimdallr, open the Bifrost!”

  20. sorrykb

    Excuse me while I pick my jaw up from the floor.


  21. Caleb Jones

    Years ago, my father had a new co-worker who was an avid mountain climber. They told him about Mt. Rainer but it wasn’t until two weeks later that he actually saw it on the first clear day since he moved into the area.

    He turned around a corner in his car that put him facing right at it and had to pull over, get out, and just stare.

    There was a HUGE rock avalanche earlier this year that some people got some good footage of:

  22. Pete Jackson

    When they were alive, my parents lived in Victoria, B.C., and the test of a really clear day was to be able to see Mount Rainier way off to the southeast, from a hilltop (Mount Tolmie) in Victoria. There it would stand, all alone, as a distant ghostly eminence above the far-off horizon.

    As the crow flies, Seattle is 70 miles southeast from Victoria, and Mount Rainier is an additional 60 miles further away, for a total distance of 130 miles ( 210 kilometers)!

  23. Alex S.

    The article at KOMO says: “It only happens when the sun rises farther to the south as we head toward the winter solstice…”

    Why would that be the case? Wouldn’t the sun potentially always do this at first light with position just determining the direction of the shadow?

  24. Here’s a great shot of the shadow of Mauna Kea in Hawaii – looking from above instead:

    Or perhaps more appropriately for your blog, here is a shot of the shadow of Haleakala with the summit caldera in the foreground:

    – Ben H.
    Space City, TX

  25. Srikar

    Simply stunning

  26. DrFlimmer

    Yeah, my first impression was also that that was an actual ash-plume of a volcano. On the other hand, in “sleep mode” it is a much better view.

    Awesome shot, definitely.

  27. I get the same effect here in Orlando,FL. Not from mountains of course but from the skyline of the city of Tampa. The skyscrapers cast it alot if there alot of moister in the sky

    then facing east….

    Due to Earth’s curviture,the shadow’s widest straight up ,but tapers at both ends

  28. Nigel Depledge

    Simply stunning photo.

    Damn, I wish I had taken that.

  29. Nigel Depledge

    Cujo359 (16) said:

    One of the reasons Mt. Rainier is so prominent is because the surrounding landscape is so low, at least to the west. We go from sea level here to a few thousand feet mostly.

    Rather like the main route up Ben Nevis (which, at 1343 m*, is rather smaller, but is still Britain’s highest mountain) that starts only a couple of metres above sea level.

    * Or 1344, depending on where you read it.

  30. DennyMo

    Thanks for posting this one.

    Several years ago, my wife and I were at Haleakala for sunrise. After the sun had peaked up over the horizon, I turned around and looked towards Oahu, and watched the mountain’s shadow retreat from that island across the ocean back towards Maui. That was remarkable, but this is just a whole ‘nother level of “wow”. Also, we’ve had several sunsets recently where the best colors were on the underside of the clouds north and south of us, not in the west. Love the variety!

  31. cope

    Hmmm, since the sides of the shadow are not parallel, I can only conclude that there were multiple light sources illuminating this scene in an abandoned hangar at Area 51.

  32. There’s a few large volcanoes near Rainier that are also very prominent…not 14,000 ft, but still 1,000s of feet above the surrounding mountains. Mt. Hood just to the south in Oregon, Mt. Baker farther north in Washington, and Mount. St. Helen’s just next door (that used to be even more prominent). But equally as prominent at over 12,000 ft is Mt. Adams that lies just to the south east of Rainier. It’s not as tall, but is more remote and comparatively taller next to its surroundings…well, maybe I’m glad it doesn’t get so much attention. Less people show up ther and I can have it all to myself.

  33. XMark

    I think I just heard the sound of a million desktop backgrounds changing.

  34. Joel

    photo credit: Samwise Gamgee

  35. Amber S K

    I consider myself incredibly lucky to see that mountain out my living room window every day unless the cloud cover is very low. Which is actually quite often here in the PNW, actually. It’s still awesome though.

  36. Pete Jackson

    @25 Alex S: Possibly it can happen only near winter solstice because otherwise the sun rises over the Cascade range further to the east or northeast, and it is too high in the sky for Rainier to cast such a shadow by the time it clears those mountains.

  37. TeaPot562

    If you want to forecast the weather, step outside and look in the direction of Mt. Rainier.
    If you can see the peak, it’s going to rain.
    If you can’t see the peak, it’s raining.

  38. I’m currently working on a rather massive project my company has codenamed “Rainier.”

    I could tell you about it, but then I’d have to kill you.

  39. Barb

    I was on my way to a meeting in Tacoma and was able to see this whole gorgeous sunrise materialize with that cool shadow. I get to see our beautiful Mount Rainier almost daily, but this was just an awesome sight to see!!! So glad someone was able to capture it with a camera!

  40. Znachki

    Heading south from Seattle, there is a bend in the road where the Mountain appears right in front of you. A vistor asked me once, do you ever get used to that? I’ve lived here my whole life, and even worked at Paradise, of course I said, nope – not ever. The shadow happens every year, the real trick is having the weather play along. And this time it played as well as I’ve EVER seen it. Sigh…

  41. Dawn

    Saw this approx 735a this morning, sliding down Hwy 119 on way to Hwy 101…first through the trees (Hoodsport area).
    When it is clear, I can usually see Mt Rainier about
    1/3 the way down the hwy. Today, I first noticed the open horizon & the bank of clouds above & the spectacular color– thinking the old “red sky at morning, sailor
    take warning….” At the next dip in the road, I caught the shadow of the mountain
    on the bottom of the clouds before I saw the mountain itself…. knew this was probably a once in a lifetime vision…..


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