The AFT Guide to Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier National Park is all about its namesake mountain—and it is spectacular.

With over 13,000 feet of vertical relief, Rainier can be seen from hundreds of miles away. Its slopes are covered in 25 glaciers and scattered with wildflowers.

Rainier is also considered the most dangerous volcano in the Cascade Range. Because of its dense snowpack, an eruption would create lahars, a deadly mixture of lava and snow that would flow through hundreds of miles of valley like a river of concrete, carrying off everything in its path. 

Read about our first visit to Mount Rainier here.

Where Mount Rainier National Park is located:

Mount Rainier is located in west-central Washington, about 85 miles from Seattle and 135 miles from Portland, OR.

Getting to Mount Rainier National Park:

The closest major airports to Mount Rainier are Seattle (85 miles) and Portland (135 miles.) There is no public transportation to the park and no shuttle in the park itself, so you’ll need a car for this one.

How Long to Stay in Mount Rainier National Park:

We recommend at least 3 days to cover the park’s easily accessed highlights. More time is always better! But if your time is limited, you can maximize a day trip and fit in a hike or two and some beautiful driving time.

When to Go to Mount Rainier National Park:

Like most parks in the PNW, Mount Rainier is best experienced in the summer and fall if you want to be able to go everywhere. Most roads are closed during the winter, and some aren’t cleared until early July. But winter brings its own highlights, with cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and tubing options.

Where to Stay in Mount Rainier National Park:

There are two lodges inside the park, National Park Inn and Paradise Inn. Reserve well in advance for both.

National Park Inn has 25 rooms and is open year-round. Paradise Inn has 121 rooms and is usually open from mid-May through early October.

There are loads of options outside the park, too. Check this site to see some of your options.

Camping in Mount Rainier National Park:

Mount Rainier has 3 car campgrounds. Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh are open from late May to late September and allow reservations. White River is open late June to late September and is first come, first served.

Backcountry Camping:

There are loads of wilderness camping options in Mount Rainier. You’ll need a permit, which you can reserve in advance if your trip is June to September. During the rest of the year, register in person at a ranger station.

Best For:

  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Mountaineering
  • Winter Sports
  • Wildflowers
  • Scenery
  • Backcountry Camping

Pair With:

If you’ve got the time, you could see the best of the Pacific Northwest by making a loop of Washington and Oregon’s 4 national parks.

Activities:

Scenic Driving:

One of the cool things about Mt. Rainier is its planning: it was the first park to present an organized, thoroughly thought-out plan of development from its inception, and I think that’s why it’s such a pleasant park to explore. The roads, for example, weren’t designed for ease of building but for the views, which means the driving experience is stunning. Everywhere you look are waterfalls, craggy snow-capped peaks, reflective lakes, and miles of pristine forest.

That means that wherever you choose to drive within the park, you’ll be met with some of the most beautiful views in America.

One good route: start at the White River Entrance and drive up to the Sunrise Visitor Center, then back down to the Stevens Canyon Entrance.

The drive up to the wildflower-covered meadows of Paradise is also a stunner. Flowers peak in early August.

Biking:

Bikes are allowed on all park roads, but not on any hiking trails. There are no designated bike trails. Fall is the best time for biking, with milder weather and less traffic than the summer season. Explore routes and learn the regulations here.

The Redmond Cycling Club hosts a Race Around Mount Rainier in One Day (RAMROD) event each July. Find more information here.

Mountaineering:

The 14,410 ft. Rainier is a bucket-list summit that requires planning, permits and some technical experience and equipment for traversing glaciers and dealing with very changeable weather. Find out more on the park’s website here.

If you don’t want to figure it out on your own, go with a guide; check approved guide companies here.

Wildflowers:

For about one month each summer, the slopes and meadows of Mount Rainier are awash in wildflowers. The bloom depends on weather, and you can check this website to get an update on what is flowering when and where.

Peak bloom is usually in August, the park’s busiest month. Paradise and Sunrise both have visitor’s centers and are both easily accessed spots to check out the flowers.

A few of the many great hikes for viewing wildflowers in Mount Rainier are:

  • Glacier Basin (7 miles; moderate)
  • Naches Peak Loop (3.5 miles; moderate)
  • Alta Vista (1.8 miles; easy-moderate)
  • Skyline Trail (5.4 miles; moderate)
  • Summerland (10.5 miles; moderately strenuous)
  • Dege Peak (4 miles; easy)

The most important things to remember about enjoying the wildflowers is to STAY ON THE TRAIL. Even if there are bare spots in the meadows or places where you can walk on grasses without trampling the blooms, you can damage roots and create social trails that will lead more people off-trail. It’s illegal and it’s a real jerk move. DON’T DO IT.

Winter Activities:

The road from Nisqually Entrance to Longmire is kept open during the winter (barring extreme weather.) Paradise is the center of snowy activities, with a snowplay area in Paradise for tubing and ranger-guided snowshoe walks on weekends and holidays during the winter season. You can cross-country ski or snowshoe anywhere in the Paradise Valley.

You can also snowshoe in the Longmire section of the park, on the Trail of the Shadows or the Wonderland Trail (among other options.)

Snowmobiles are allowed on some sections of the Westside Road and the loops of Cougar Rock Campground.

History

The Longmire Museum is a great place to explore the natural and indigenous history of this area, as well as the history of the park.

You can also take a self-guided walking tour of the Historic District to check out examples of the “National Park Service Rustic” style of architecture.

Hiking

Mount Rainier maintains more than 260 miles of hiking trails, including a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail as well as the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that circles Rainier.

Trails are generally grouped by the 5 areas within the park: Paradise, Longmire, Sunrise, Ohanapecosh, and Carbon River & Mowich. There are so many options, and rangers at one of the visitors centers can help you choose the best trail for your fitness level and time constraints.

Here are a few highlights from each area:

Sunrise

Sunrise Nature Trail

An easy 1.5-mile loop with mountain views. Perfect for kids.

Sourdough Ridge Nature Trail (West to Frozen Lake)

A moderate and family-friendly 3-mile trail with good views and lots of plants and animals to spot.

Emmons Moraine Trail

A 3-mile, moderate climb takes you to beautiful views of Rainier and the moraine in the glacial valley. You can also spot brilliant blue glacial lakes in the valley below.

Burroughs Mountain Trail

For panoramic ridge-top views of Rainier and the Cascades, summit First Burroughs (5 miles roundtrip); continue on to Second Burroughs via an additional half-mile climb.

Rainbow cloud on Emmons Moraine trail. That triangle of dirt coming down from the mountain is all glacier underneath; Emmons is one of 25 glaciers on Mt. Rainier, the highest number of glaciers on any one peak in the lower 48. We’re becoming real glacier nerds up in here, except Margi, she’s still unimpressed.

Longmire

Trail of the Shadows

A 0.7-mile interpretive loop features local flora and fauna, plus a replica of a homesteader’s cabin.

Rampart Ridge

For long views, traverse this moderately steep 4.6-mile loop up to the ridge top.

Wonderland Trail

Longmire is a good place to hop onto the Wonderland Trail and hike a shorter section of the 93-mile loop. Start at the Longmire Wilderness Information Center and head either 6.7 miles to Indian Henrys or 6 miles to Paradise. Both options involve over 2000′ of elevation gain, making them more strenuous options.

Paradise

Nisqually Vista Trail

An easy 1.2-mile loop with views to the Tatoosh Range. Perfect for families with strollers.

Panorama Point

A strenuous 4-mile out-and-back trail takes you up to Panorama Point via the Skyline and Golden Gate Trails.

Ohanapecosh

Grove of the Patriarchs

Walk across a suspension bridge to a grove of ancient trees on an island in the Ohanapecosh River. The loop is 1.5 miles and easy for families (as long as you’re comfortable crossing the swaying bridge.)

Carbon River & Mowich

The less-explored northwestern corner of the park has a number of trail options, including portions of the Wonderland Trail, but because the Carbon River Road is only open to hikers and bikers, you’ll have to log more miles to get to the good views.

Tolmie Peak Lookout Trail

This 5.6-mile trail circles Mowich Lake, then climbs to a fire tower on Tolmie Peak.

Spray Park Trail

The 6-mile roundtrip route takes you to the 300′ Spray Falls and alpine meadows with views of Rainier’s glacier fields.

Bringing Kids:

Mount Rainier is a great park for families, with plenty of easy trails, developed facilities, a good Junior Ranger program and lots to see.

Rainier creates its own weather, so be prepared for quick-changing temperatures—have jackets ready even in the high summer. Many trails will still have snow even in July. If you’ll be in the high alpine regions, it’s a good idea to have sunglasses for each kid since the glare off the snow can be intense.

If you’re staying outside the park, get to the entrance early as there can be long lines. Arriving before 9 or 10 a.m. will help you beat the crowds.

There’s not a lot of food available inside the park, so be prepared with plenty of snacks and drinks. Also make sure you’re fueled up!

Although its not in the park, the Mount Rainier Gondola at Crystal Mountain Resort is a fun way to get panoramic views of the area. Find all the info here!

FAQ’s:

What is the best scenic drive?

You really can’t go wrong here—all of Mount Rainier is incredibly scenic. The drive to Sunrise is the classic park experience, while driving around the Ohanapecosh area is a more wooded (but no less beautiful) option.

What are some good photography spots?

There are so many beautiful spots in Mount Rainier! It depends entirely on what you like to take pictures of. The roads were designed with views in mind, so be ready to pull off and get some shots wherever the scenery strikes you.

Reflection Lakes is a popular spot, though you’ll need a clear day and smooth water to get a good shot of Rainier’s reflection. Many of the hikes, especially in the Paradise and Sunrise areas, have great views of the mountain. Head to one of the ridgetops on a clear day and you’ll have plenty to shoot.

What are some of the easy/moderate wildflower hikes?

Dege Peak and Alta Vista are easy hikes that’ll take you into the meadows. But you can also explore anywhere around the Sunrise or Paradise visitor centers and see loads of blooms. If your visit is timed right, you’ll see flowers pretty much wherever you are.

What’s a good waterfall hike?

Try Narada Falls for a short and easy jaunt or Spray Park Trail for a more vigorous walk.

What are the best hikes for kids?

Grove of the Patriarchs is a wonderful option. We also love Emmons Moraine, Sourdough Ridge, the Sunrise Nature Trail, Silver Falls, Myrtle Falls and Nisqually Vista.

Tips from Our Readers:

“Give yourself time to enjoy the many hikes. I had underestimated this park.”

“Snowshoes can be rented in the visitor center.”

“We snowshoed in June because trails were snowy! So much fun!”

“The rangers there do not mess around with the Junior Ranger stuff. Do every activity.”

“Pinnacle Sadie trail is a family favorite! And Naches Peak Loop.”

“Hike the Skyline Trail! It’s popular but SO beautiful and worth the crowds.”

“Sunrise is less crowded than Paradise and I think it’s much prettier.”

“We did the Mt. Fremont Lookout hike with two toddlers a few years ago. A challenge but worth it!”

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