Visitors to national parks during the summer have surged since the COVID-19 pandemic and Mount Rainier National Park is no exception. Expect long wait times at the busy Nisqually and White River entrances on weekends. Paradise and Sunrise parking lots, two of the more popular areas of the park, are full by late morning on weekends.
It is easy to see why this park draws so many crowds. Mount Rainier soars 14,410 feet above sea level and dominates a skyline beckoning visitors. It has more glaciers than any mountain in the contiguous United States. Five major rivers and the creeks flowing into them create stunning waterfalls. Wildflowers turn subalpine meadows into nature’s impressionism with swaths of color. Old-growth forests, hiking trails, and wildlife viewing are just a few of the things that draw guests from all over the world.
I live less than an hour from Mount Rainier National Park. Here are my tips for avoiding crowds:
1. Off Season
Summer is the peak season at Mount Rainier National Park. I recommend visiting in the fall before the snow starts or late spring in May or early June. You’ll experience less people in the park. The trade-off is you are likely to have a rainy day or two, but if you dress for the weather, I feel it is a worthy trade. The park is beautiful in the winter, but Mount Rainier receives record snow. The weather is very unpredictable so it can be difficult to plan a trip if you are not from the area. The National Park Inn at Longmire is open year-round and the area is a good option to explore in the winter due to its lower elevation.
If you must travel during peak season, then visit the park on a weekday. Avoid days around holiday weekends when travelers tend to spend more time. It will still be busy but not as packed as the weekends are. Plan to arrive early.
Sunrise the time, not Sunrise the destination. One of the best experiences I ever had in the park was arriving at Reflection Lake just past Paradise in time for the sunrise. I looked out on a cloudless calm so that as the Sun began to rise, I observed Mount Rainier in golden hues while reflecting in the calm waters of the lake. Even though it was summer, there was only one other person in the parking lot. This was such an incredible experience for me. You must go on a cloudless night and hope for no wind so the lake is calm enough for reflections. It was so quiet as the night turned into day.
4. Nisqually Entrance
This is the busiest entrance in the park but there are some things you can do to make it smoother. Use your annual National Park Pass or purchase a 7-day Mount Rainier National Park Pass online. Make sure to have all your documents ready when you enter the park. Download the National Park Service app and the Mount Rainier National Park section within it so you can use it offline as cell service is limited in the park. Check the park’s Twitter account for updates. This is the most up-to-date source of information on the park and can help with planning your trip.
Pro Tip: It is quite a distance to the first restrooms in the park, so plan to stop at the rest area in Elbe for a break before continuing to the Nisqually Entrance.
5. Skip Mount Rainier National Park
There are incredible views of Mount Rainier throughout Tacoma and the small towns surrounding the mountain. If things are too crowded, head to the Crystal Mountain Resort and take a scenic ride on the Mount Rainier Gondola to the top for stunning views of Mount Rainier and plenty of hiking trails. Visitors have a choice of easy or difficult trails and can explore around the summit and enjoy the summer wildflowers. Hike down to the base or skip the gondola and hike to the top for a challenging adventure.
Pro Tip: Enjoy lunch at the Summit House at the Crystal Mountain Resort towering 6,872 feet — the highest-elevated restaurant in Washington. Enjoy Pacific Northwest flavors crafted from locally sourced ingredients.
6. Off-The-Beaten-Path At Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier National Park is over 369 square miles, so there is plenty of space for visitors. You may just need to get off the beaten path with these recommendations from the National Park Service. I love the old-growth forests within the park. The Twin Firs Trail is lesser-known, not far from the Nisqually Entrance, and just about 2 miles from Longmire. The trailhead is on the left when entering the park. It’s easy to miss if you aren’t watching for the sign because the parking is just on the side of the road but with no parking lot. This short trail has amazing specimens of large trees.
7. Chinook Scenic Byway
This route will take you to less crowded areas of Mount Rainier National Park as well as the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The Chinook Scenic Byway is a designated, 92-mile All-American Road that climbs up to the 5,430-foot Chinook Pass. Along the way, glimpse breathtaking views of Mount Rainier and the rocky ridges of the Central Cascades and old-growth forests. It is a diverse landscape.
Start the road trip in charming Enumclaw, a cute town with a logging history. Along the way is Skookum Falls Viewpoint just off the byway. There are plenty of scenic day hikes along the 92-mile byway. Another not-to-miss stop is Tipsoo Lake. The area has a nice flat trail that loops the lake. On clear, calm days, visitors can see Mount Rainier reflected in the lake. It is a very popular spot for photos.