The snow-covered peaks of Mount Rainier greet you, rising above the clouds as you approach Washington State from the air. If driving, a view of the mountain greets you from hundreds of miles away; it dominates the southeastern horizon of Seattle, and on a cloudless day, it is visible from as far as Victoria in British Columbia and Corvallis in Oregon.
The tallest peak in Washington State and in the Cascade Mountain Range of the Pacific Northwest, this active stratovolcano stands 14,411 feet above sea level and is home to the most glaciers in the country. Five major rivers originate at its glaciers, subalpine meadows surround its icy peaks, and old-growth forests cover its lower slopes.
Mount Rainier National Park, established in 1899, strives to preserve this unique and diverse ecosystem that includes glaciers, forests, meadows, and subalpine and alpine zones surrounding the mountain.
1. To See All Parts Of The Park, Visit In The Summer (Even If It Means Dealing With Crowds)
Summer is the only time to see the famous wildflowers in the meadows, and it is also the only time you’ll find the whole park open. This is when all the roads and amenities are open and clear of snow at higher elevations. In the winter, most of the roads close since there is too much snow to get them cleared efficiently. In fact, you’ll find foot-deep snow at higher elevation up until late July in some years.
Being only about 85 miles from Seattle, and the closest airport, Mount Rainier National Park gets crowded in the summer. You’ll have to remember this, but don’t let it deter you from visiting. You can always find ways to get around crowds.
The park’s primary entrance, the Nisqually Entrance in its southwest corner, is closest to Seattle and you might find long lines to get through. You can beat the crowds if you arrive early or late in the day (if you plan on staying in the park overnight).
Or, you can drive to the White River Entrance, only open in the summer, which is less congested. Though it’s a longer drive, it is scenic, so it might be worth it.
2. The Longmire Historic District Was The Park’s Original Headquarters
The original park headquarters from 1899, Longmire is a national historic district, open year-round. About six miles from the Nisqually Entrance, it is the area you first reach from the main entrance, and the only one you can visit between November and April.
The original headquarters is now a museum where you can learn about the history of the park. Across from it, the Longmire Administration Building is still home to offices for the park staff, and in the summers it houses the Longmire Wilderness Information Center.
The historic district was once the homestead of James Longmire, the settler who built his home here in 1853 and worked as a guide for early travelers who wanted to visit Mount Rainier. You can still see a reconstructed replica of his past cabin and one of the hot springs nearby on the Trail of the Shadows.
3. You’ll Find The Main Visitor Center In Paradise
You’ll have to drive up the mountain a bit to reach the Henry M Jackson Memorial Visitor Center in Paradise. Built in 2008, it replaced an older one that looked like an ancient spaceship and was under snow most of the year. The present center’s architecture fits in with its surroundings. A large open area in the center acts as an impressive gathering place for sizable groups. An open museum and gift shop run around the perimeter on a second level, reachable by an open stairway.
The museum’s exhibits offer lessons in geology, history, and the nature of the area; viewing stations with telescopic lenses by the windows showcase some of the best views of the mountain.
A small movie theater plays a film about Mount Rainier here, and a snack bar offers meals before heading out on a trail. The restrooms are accessible from outside, so they are open even when the Visitor Center is not.
4. Paradise Is Most Famous For Its Wildflower Meadows
Mount Rainier is famous as one of the best places in the world to see wildflowers, and Paradise is the most popular place to see them. It is the area most abundant in wildflowers, from bright pink and white mountain heathers and purple penstemons to bright yellow arnicas.
In fact, Paradise, which is in the southwestern corner of the park at the foot of the mountain, owes its name to the explosion of colors from the wildflowers in early August. When James Longmire’s daughter-in-law, Martha, hiked up to the area in the summer and saw all the colors, she exclaimed, “This is Paradise!” and the name stuck.
The best time to see all these wildflowers on the meadows surrounding the mountain is usually early August. Though due to fluctuations in weather, it is impossible to predict the peak bloom each year, you’ll see wildflowers from mid-July to mid-August in most years. Check Mount Rainier National Park’s Discover Wildflowers site for updates.
5. Sunrise Point Is The Highest Point You Can Reach Without Serious Hiking In The Park
Sunrise Point, at an elevation of 6,400 feet, is the highest point you can drive to in Mount Rainier National Park. On cloudless days, gorgeous views surround you, with Mount Rainier, Emmons Glacier, and other mountains in the Cascades -- Mount Adams among them -- visible in the distance. Subalpine meadows filled with wildflowers or wild berries add color to the surroundings.
An impressive trail system, plenty of viewpoints, a day lodge, and a snack bar offer opportunities for a great visit. The area is only open in the summer, between July and early October.
It is always colder at Sunrise Point than in the rest of the park; we’ve encountered winter conditions in late July here at a time when we could comfortably hike in Paradise.
6. Mount Rainier Is A Great Place For Hikers Of All Levels
Mount Rainier National Park has over 260 miles of maintained trails, through old-growth forests, near river- and lakesides, and on subalpine valleys, offering views of distant mountains, glaciers, and wildflower valleys. Trails range from easy, paved walks and day-hikes to the famous 93-mile Wonderland Trail that requires a backcountry permit, offering something for hikers of all abilities.
Driving through the park, you’ll see plenty of pullouts and viewpoints, some of them with access to trails, all offering gorgeous views of the surroundings. Drive slowly and stop at as many as you can. Most of these viewpoints also double as trailheads.
When hiking, you should always stay on trails, even when they still have snowed-in areas. Walk on the snow rather than going off the trail to avoid it. Otherwise, you could damage the delicate sub-alpine vegetation, including the wildflowers.
7. Chances Are, You’ll See Wildlife On Your Hikes
No matter where you hike in the park, you will see at least a few squirrels, chipmunks, and deer. Sometimes you might encounter marmots and beavers, maybe elk and red fox.
Though you are unlikely to ever see them, black bears and mountain lions roam the deeper forests of the park. To avoid bears coming close, keep your food closed and secure, and follow these tips for safely viewing wildlife in national parks.
You’ll hear birdsong all around you in the forest. If you look for them, you’ll see many species of birds in the park, including bluebirds and robins, ravens and jays, finches, flycatchers, woodpeckers, sparrows, and birds of prey like eagles, hawks, and owls.
Help keep wildlife wild by not feeding any of the animals. Human food is unhealthy and potentially dangerous for them, and it can encourage dangerous animal behavior.
8. You Have A Few Choices When It Comes To Staying In The Park
The historic Paradise Inn, open from May to early October (but closed for the remainder of 2020), is my first choice place to stay if I can. The rooms are quiet and comfortable, but it is the building itself and its surroundings that make the stay special. Dating from 1916, the building’s rustic appearance and the lobby with its enormous fireplace, ornate grandfather clock, rustic piano, and cedar tables, give you the impression that you stepped back in time. In the mornings, groups of mountain climbers gather here, ready for their trek up the mountain. In the evenings, ranger talks give you insight into the history of the surroundings.
Down the hill, in the historic Longmire District, the National Park Inn is open year-round and offers comfortable rooms, a dining hall, and a large patio with comfortable chairs and coffee tables where you can sit and enjoy the surroundings and views of Mount Rainier.
Besides the two inns, Mount Rainier National Park has three developed campgrounds and many wilderness campsites. Campgrounds are available on a first-come-first-serve basis, but you can reserve sites online for the Ohanapecosh and Cougar Rock sites.
9. And You Won’t Go Hungry, Either
The Paradise Inn Dining Room, open between May and September, offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Their signature meals are always exquisite, and the relaxed atmosphere, rustic setting, and gorgeous views always add to the experience.
The National Park Inn’s Dining Room offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a pleasant setting and is open year-round.
The Wild Berry Restaurant, just outside the park, owned by a Sherpa from Nepal, offers original Tibetan and Nepali fare, along with American staple food. Their Himalayan specials are worth trying, but it is their huckleberry pie I always stop for. You’ll see it on the side of the road, about a mile from the Nisqually entrance.
Mount Rainier National Park is extremely popular in the summer, especially in early August when the wildflowers bloom. On weekends, the parking lots in both places fill up fast. Paradise has an overflow parking lot, but if the lot in Sunrise is full, you’ll have to wait at the White River Entrance until someone leaves. To avoid congestion, visit mid-week or get there early or late in the day.
Weather is unpredictable at Mount Rainier, so always be prepared for sunshine or fog, rain, and snow, any time of the year. The sunniest and warmest (with highs in the 70s) months are July and August, but you might encounter fog and rain. Always carry a light rain jacket, even on a sunny day, especially on a longer hike. It also helps to dress in layers. Stop at the visitor centers for an update. They all post the weather daily, sometimes hour-by-hour, and post information about the visibility of the mountain.