We had one main goal for our visit to Mount Rainier National Park: See Mount Rainier.
We lived 3 hours away from the mountain for over a decade and the most we’d seen was a glimpse of Rainier’s snow covered top from a distance. We’d never been up close and personal with the behemoth. Seeing Mount Rainier sounds pretty easy right? It’s a giant mountain after all—just look up! Well it didn’t turn out to be quite that simple. Wildfires this year are exceptionally bad so visibility is highly reduced. Our first view of the mountain didn’t come until we were well inside the park. It was a hazy blurry glimpse of the peak.
Wildfires are a part of nature but they’re devastating nevertheless. Currently they burn an average of over 7 million acres of land in the US each year and this number is only expected to increase with rising temperatures.* The atmospheric effects of wildfires are on the rise as well due to hotter weather. Heat plus smoke equals poor air quality which is dangerous to many. Cough. Cough. During our 11 years in the Pacific Northwest we’ve never seen fires like this year. Smoke has hung heavy almost everywhere we’ve been in Washington and it blankets Oregon as well.
We didn’t let the smoky weather get us down though. With the help of a friendly ranger at the Paradise Visitor Center we identified a half dozen hikes throughout the southern portion of the park. We wanted to see an assortment of the park’s offerings—old growth forests, mineral hot springs, mountain views, and snowy reflections in wooded lakes.
Exploring Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier is one of the oldest parks in the nation. It was established in 1899 and became the 5th US National Park. Longmire is part of a National Historic Landmark District. There’s an inn and museum which were originally part of a mineral springs resort on the mountain. The Trail of Shadows sounds like a Halloween outing, but it’s actually a short trail around the springs with signage telling the area’s history. There’s also an administration building that’s a prime example of rustic park architecture. This style of architecture sought to harmonize with the surrounding environment. It’s characterized by large timbers, organic lines, and other native wood and stone elements.
This is the most trafficked area of the park. It has stunning mountain views, wildflower meadows, waterfalls, a sleek new visitor center, and the Paradise Inn—part of another National Historic Landmark District. Just behind the visitor center is the start and end of the Skyline loop trail which brings you up, and up, and up to amazing views of the giant that is Mount Rainier.
We knew that the mountain was large, but we weren’t prepared for just how large. You climb by vehicle and then by foot and and then you’re standing in front of the enormous mountain which still towers far above you. The base-camp for the summit is over two more steep miles away. 10,000 people attempt the summit each year and only half succeed. Whether you reach the top or not, I have a lot of respect for all the brave folks who attempt this journey. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart (or should I say the afraid of heights?).
This area is on the southeast side of the park. There are more waterfalls and more hot springs with trail access from both the visitor center and the campground. Our favorite trail here was the Grove of the Patriarchs. It’s a short almost flat hike through old growth forest containing trees over 1,000 years old. The majesty of these ancient giants makes you think about the Earth’s cycles and nature’s power to withstand and adapt to changing environments. Also, if you’re a sci-fi nerd like us you’ll probably also think of the piggies from the Ender’s Game sequel—Speaker for the Dead. (If anyone gets this reference please leave us a comment so we know we’re not alone.)
Technically the reflection lakes are part of the Paradise area but these were one of our “must do” activities so I think they deserve their own section. The biggest challenge with this hike was the smoke. We really wanted to capture those quintessential photos of the still lake waters reflecting Rainier like a mirror. This meant we needed less smoke and no wind.
We kept hearing that the smoke was expected to clear anytime. Each morning we’d wake up to a hazy view. Finally on our last morning things were looking their clearest. We got an early start because we were camped a bit outside the park and wanted to get there during the calm morning hours. Fortunately our early rising paid off. The lakes are right along the road so we were able to get some shots at the beginning of our hike while the wind was calm. The entire hike was lovely—through dense forests and small meadows of wildflowers. It was well worth setting our alarm for. Who would’ve thought we’d ever become early risers?;)
One of the really great things about Mount Rainier NP is that it has very accessible roads and trails. Even though many of the roads were engineered back in the early-mid 1900s, they’re spacious and have gentle grades compared to some other park roads. Ahem, Glacier. They’re also really well maintained. Road construction is currently underway in the park so expect delays but a nice smooth ride. There are loads of trails available right off the main paved roads as well. Anytime we don’t have to bump down a dusty dirt road it’s a good day for Stan (and our budget). We’ve had our fill of flat tires!
If you’re visiting during peak summer travel be prepared for crowds. Rainier is one of the busiest parks we’ve been to. The parking lot at Paradise fills by 10 or 11 am. Often trailhead lots are full and you park at an overflow lot or on the side of the road. Some people were even parked half in the driving lane—please don’t be that guy/gal. Minimizing and containing human impact on natural park lands is an ongoing challenge for the Park Service. If you’re visiting Rainier our advice is to get an early start and be considerate. These public lands are protected for everyone to enjoy so we have to share them. You’ll get there eventually and eventually a parking a spot will open up. Okay, PSA of the post is done.
Budget Camping in Washington State
One last thing I want to mention about our time in Washington is an awesome cheap camping opportunity—the Washington Discover Pass. It costs $35 and is good for a year. The pass provides not only free access to over 100 Washington State Parks, but also free camping at many of the DNR managed campgrounds. We were able to use the pass to stay at multiple DNR campgrounds just outside both Olympic and Rainier National Parks which brought our per day camping cost down to under $5. We wish we’d known about it sooner!
Overall we were enchanted and delighted by our time in Washington. Our neighbor state for over a decade held many surprises. We can’t wait for our next visit!
Have you ever been to Mount Rainier? What’s your favorite area?
* Source: www.fs.fed.us/managing-land/fire