National Park Guides

Mount Rainier National Park: Majestic Views and Ancient Glaciers

POSTED ON April 18, 2023 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Mount Rainier National Park is a U.S. national park located in the state of Washington, just southeast of Seattle. Established as a national park in 1899, Mt. Rainier has enthralled visitors with its towering peak soaring 14,000 feet above sea level and offering many attractions suitable for all ages and abilities.

While visiting the park, you can explore miles of trails featuring majestic waterfalls, old-growth rainforest, alpine meadows and wildflower displays or take a nature walk along one of many interpretive trails to see wildlife or learn about the area’s diverse geology or glacially formed landscape.

Mount Rainier National Park History

Mount Rainier National Park has a long and vibrant history that dates back centuries. The area is rich in natural resources, and indigenous tribes such as the Puyallup, Muckleshoot and Yakama lived off the land here for thousands of years before it became a protected national park. While the first documented exploration of Mount Rainier is credited to Edmund Sylvester in 1833, there is evidence of earlier exploration with local tribes living in the area.

The first Euro-Americans to visit this beautiful mountain were sponsored by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1833. Explorer David Douglas was part of an expedition that made its way up to Paradise Valley, near the mountain. Later on, other explorers also visited Mt. Rainier and wrote extensively about their adventures, inspiring tourists to come experience it for themselves.

In 1888 Seattle residents formed a company hoping to make Mount Rainier into a tourist attraction. But when miners arrived hoping to stake claim on valuable mineral deposits on the mountain, President Benjamin Harrison set aside nearly 235,000 acres for a public reserve – what would become today’s Mount Rainier National Park. It was officially designated as America’s fifth national park in 1899 by President William McKinley. Since then, visitors have flocked to appreciate this majestic wonderland and recreate within its forests and trails.

Today Mount Rainier remains an incredibly special place where hikers can journey through meadows blanketed with wildflowers or alpine lakes reflecting snow peaks above them; where climbers attempt daring ascents up icy crags; or simply drive along winding roads traversing past ancient forests all while providing chances to spot wildlife like mountain goats or marmots along the way!

Mount Rainier National Park

Key Facts about Mount Rainier National Park

Size: 368 square miles (956.6 km2)

Number of visitors: 1,670,063 (2021)

Established on: March 2, 1899

Number of hiking trails: 155

Highest point: 14,410 feet (4392 m) at Mount Rainier summit

Lowest point: 1,640 feet (520m) at the Ohanapecosh River.

Other interesting facts:

  • Over 1,000 species of native plants can be found within Mount Rainier National Park making it home to some of the region’s most unique flora and fauna. Among this diverse floral population are several types of endangered plants that have found refuge in this isolated environment.
  • Mount Rainier is an active volcano, with the last major eruption in 1450, but smaller activities range back to approximately 150 years ago and it is still considered an active stratovolcano. It has been closely monitored in recent decades for any signs of increased seismic activity or rising magma levels.
  • Volcanologists consider it to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the United States, due to its size and potential to cause lahars, volcanic mudflows that could be compared to a fast moving wall of concrete destroying everything in its path.
  • Mount Rainier National Park contains over 25 glaciers and 144 lakes, providing stunning views of the region’s natural beauty. The Nisqually River, which feeds into Puget Sound, originates from high up on the volcano’s summit. Visitors come to witness the wildflower meadows in mid-summer, a magnificent sight that adds to the already breathtaking scenery.
  • There are 12 campgrounds located within the park boundaries including five car campgrounds and seven backcountry campgrounds making it easy for visitors to find a suitable camping spot for their next adventure into nature.
  • The summit of Mount Rainier has an elevation of 14,410 feet (4392 m) making it the highest peak in Washington State.
  • The area’s unique microclimate makes it possible for visitors to find snow even during the summer months at higher elevations in the park.
  • Mount Rainier is the most heavily glaciated peak in the contiguous United States with 26 glaciers in the park.

Climate and Weather

Mount Rainier National Park has a wide variety of climates and weather that varies depending on the seasons and altitude. In the summer months, temperatures usually range between 50-80 °F (10-27 °C) while in winter they can drop to below freezing. Visitors should be prepared for rapidly changing weather conditions as rainstorms and wind can roll through quickly.

At higher elevations, snow is common throughout the year but especially during the winter months when snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling become popular activities. The park’s unique microclimate helps contribute to some of its most breathtaking views as ice forms unique shapes covering trees and entire mountainsides around the park.

When visiting you might experience extreme changes in weather from day to day, with sun shining through one minute followed by rain or even a snowstorm shortly after. It’s part of why many return to the park time and time again – to experience its ever changing landscape. Whether you plan on hiking, camping, or just exploring, come prepared for all types of weather when visiting Mount Rainier National park!

Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit Mount Rainier National Park depends on what type of activities the visitor wishes to enjoy.

There are reasons to visit, no matter the time of the year, but depending on your favorite types of activities, some seasons will be better suited.

Spring

For those who want to experience the park’s beautiful wildflowers, then spring is a perfect time to go as all the flowers will be in bloom.

In spring, Mount Rainier National Park is a stunning and bustling place to visit. Temperatures slowly start to rise but can still drop as low as freezing during the night. Storms and rain are common, so visitors should come prepared with rain gear and warm layers. Snow is usually still present in higher elevations while in lower elevations all the wildflowers will start to bloom.

Summer

Summer months bring warmer temperatures, and mark the most popular season for visitors. However, you should still be prepared for stormy weather as rainstorms can roll through quickly. It’s also important to note that snow may still be present at higher elevations. Summer months are also an ideal time for camping, hiking, and sightseeing, but areas of the park could get crowded during peak times.

Fall

For snowshoers, cross-country skiers, and snowmobilers autumn is usually the best season. Fall brings cooler temperatures, usually staying between 30-60 °F (0-15 °C) during the day, making it a perfect time to explore the park’s changing foliage before winter sets in. It is also a good time if you want to avoid the summer crowds or summer heat.

The cooler temperatures can make exploring trails more enjoyable for hikers. Rainstorms are common so visitors should prepare for wet weather, though snowfall at higher elevations isn’t out of the question either!

Winter

Winter can bring some of the most scenic views when snowy conditions cover trees and entire mountainsides around the park; however visitors should note that certain trails may not be accessible or safe during this time of year due to heavy snowfall or icy terrain.

Winter brings cooler temperatures with lows dropping frequently below freezing, and can dip down all the way to -30 °F (-35 °C). Winter storms can cause gusty winds and heavy snowfall making certain trails inaccessible or too dangerous for exploration without proper equipment and knowledge of avalanches or icy terrain. Winter sports such as cross-country skiing, snowboarding and slope skiing are popular activities during this season for experienced adventurers looking for a unique way to experience the park’s beauty!

If you want to go for a hike during the winter months make sure to start with easier and accessible trails, follow park guidelines and read our guide on winter hiking. If you don’t have much experience hiking during the winter consider participating in a park ranger guided snowshoeing tour.

Recommended Gear

Mount Rainier National Park is known for its unpredictable weather, so it’s important to dress in layers. Start with a moisture-wicking base layer, add a warm insulating layer, and top it off with a waterproof and breathable shell to protect you from rain or snow. Depending on the actual conditions you can store the one or two of the outer layers in your backpack. You might need sun protection during the day during summer, but temperatures during the evening and night can drop fast.

If you plan to spend only the day without camping, check out our Day Hiking Checklist for a list of items to bring for your day hikes.

For overnight trips, bear canisters are recommended if you’re camping out in wilderness camps, dedicated tent sites come with bear poles though to hang your food, but use a dry bag for holding & hanging your food. Water filters will also come in handy to get water from one of the many lakes, ponds and streams across the park.

Winter trips to Mount Rainier National Park require you to dress in several layers of winter clothing. Start with a base of light thermal wear, and then layer on more warmth with an insulated coat or parka. For activities like snowshoeing, skiing, or riding snowmobiles you’ll need the appropriate gear for the job. To keep yourself warm consider adding hand warmers and a wool hat to your list of must-haves. Don’t forget flashlights if the hike takes you past nightfall, as well as avalanche safety gear if you’re venturing into areas that are prone to avalanches.

Mount Rainier National Park

What to Do in Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier National Park is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, offering a variety of activities for adventurers of all sorts. Hiking and backpacking are popular activities, as the park boasts numerous trails with varying difficulty levels that cover terrains ranging from meadows to alpine lakes and tundra. Camping is also offered in several locations throughout the park, with a range of options to pitch a tent.

Climbing is another popular activity in Mount Rainier National Park, as it has places to climb suitable for every level of experience. The park also offers winter sports such as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, as well as fishing and boating on its many easily navigable waterways. Finally, visitors can take in the breathtaking views through scenic drives throughout the park.

Hiking and Backpacking

Mount Rainier National Park has some of the best hikes in the United States and is filled with a variety of trails perfect for all levels, from easy strolls to more rigorous climbs.

Hiking and backpacking in Mount Rainier National Park can be an incredible experience for outdoor enthusiasts looking to explore the region’s vast wilderness. Before you hit the trail, make sure to plan your route well with a detailed map and research any local regulations or restrictions. That way, you won’t get lost or fined for entering restricted areas.

Best Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park

  1. The Wonderland Trail: The Wonderland trail is considered one of the best backpacking trips you can take in the United States and rightfully so. This 93-mile loop offers stunning views of the park, including valleys, glaciers and wildflower meadows. It is graded as moderate difficulty and typically takes 9-11 days to complete. With a gradient mostly under 900 feet this trail rewards hikers with breathtaking panoramas and plenty of rest stops for overnight camping.
  2. Rampart Ridge Trail: This 4.3-mile out and back trail is graded as moderate difficulty and features glaciers, wildflowers and waterfalls. The ridgeline views are spectacular at places along this exhilarating hike!
  3. Skyline Loop Trail: This moderate to strenuous hike takes you along ridgelines culminating with stellar views from summit Lookouts at Frozen Lake, Peepsock and Sourdough Gap. At 6.2 miles, it is a challenging but rewarding experience, with plenty of areas to take pictures or snack breaks.
  4. Tolmie Peak Trail: A two mile out and back trail leads to the summit of Tolmie Peak where visitors can enjoy 360 degree views of the park on clear days. Graded as easy to moderate difficulty it’s a great choice for a mid length casual day hike with lots of stimulating scenery!
  5. Fremont Lookout Trail: For a shorter day hike this 1.4 mile out and back trail culminates at an old fire lookout platform providing spectacular scenery of Puget Sound on one side and Mt Adams on the other. It’s easy to moderate grade climbs make this path ideal for families looking for a half day adventure!
  6. Sunrise Rim Trail: This 4.25 mile loop offers easy to moderate hiking through old growth forests teeming with colorful meadows full of plant life . It also includes incredible vistas that offer glimpses into Nisqually Canyon so be sure bring your camera.
  7. Snow Lake Trail: Follow this 7.2 mile round trip popular lake trail for a chance to see some amazing alpine scenery! Graded as easy difficulty, you’ll have ample opportunities to spot waterfalls and wildflowers along the way! However be aware that due its popularity there may be crowds so plan accordingly if peace & quiet are what you’re after!

Camping

One of the best ways to experience the park is to pitch your tent in one of the various campgrounds.

The most frequented camping spot is Cougar Rock Campground, located in the heart of the park near Paradise, the most popular area of the park. This campground has tent sites, picnic tables, fire pits and RV sites (non-electric) and offers access to the mountain’s many trails. It can be booked here.

Ohanapecosh Campground has similar amenities and is located in the southeast of the park, surrounded by old forests. Reservations are available here.

For camping in one of the many wilderness campsites a permit is required. More info on wilderness camping permits can be found on recreation.gov. During peak season (May to Oct) a lottery is determining access, while outside of the main season permits are given out on a first come, first serve basis and may be obtained at any visitor center in the park.

Mount Rainier National Park

Winter activities

Mount Rainier National Park is a great destination for winter activities such as snowshoeing, skiing, sledding and more.

For those looking to explore on their own, the park offers several trails for snowshoeing. These range from easy to difficult and are a great way to experience the beauty of the mountain in a peaceful and serene setting. There are also guided snowshoeing tours available.

Cross-country skiing is another popular winter activity in Mount Rainier National Park. The park offers many trails that range from easy to difficult and span across several elevations. These trails provide beautiful views of the mountain and surrounding areas, as well as plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing.

Skiing is also popular near Mount Rainier and the surrounding area. Crystal Mountain, the largest ski resort in Washington state, is just six miles from the Northeast entrance of the park. Another skiing area White Pass, just 12 miles southeast of the park is a bit more off the beaten path.

Climbing

Climbing is a popular activity in Mount Rainier National Park, as the mountain provides plenty of opportunities for experienced mountaineers. The park has more than 25 established climbing routes, spanning from easy to strenuous and ranging in elevation from 4,700 feet to 14,411 feet.

For those looking to experience the excitement of climbing without the commitment of a full expedition, there are also several guided programs available. These include day hikes up to Camp Muir and technical climbs on crampons and ice axes over the summit ridge.

Whether you’re an experienced climber or just getting started, Mount Rainier National Park offers something for everyone when it comes to mountain climbing.

Climbers, as well as anyone else traveling above 10,000 feet or on glaciers, need to pay a climbing fee, which is adjusted every year according to the consumer price index. The fee for 2023 is $65 and can be paid here.

Additionally, climbers must obtain a Climbing Permit at the Paradise Old Station during the off-season or register for a lottery for the most popular climbing routes.

Fishing & Boating

The park offers a number of small, easily navigable waterways that are perfect for fishing and boating with a total of more than 382 lakes and ponds and 470 mapped streams. Popular species to catch include rainbow trout, coastal cutthroat trout, bull trout, brook trout and kokanee salmon.

The park also has two boat launches where visitors can launch their own kayaks or canoes, as well as several easy-access locations with grills, picnic spots and restrooms. For those wishing to go out fishing with a guide, the park also offers guided fishing tours on the Carbon and White Rivers throughout the year.

For more info about fishing regulations in the park, download this pamphlet provided by the National Park Service.

Scenic Drive around Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier National Park is filled with numerous scenic drives that are perfect for taking in the breathtaking views of the mountain and surrounding areas and were designed to follow the flow of the landscape and offer spectacular views. Check the road status, before heading out, many roads will be closed during the winter season.

For the full experience you can take a trip around Mount Rainier that takes around 4-8 hours in total. The roads are narrow, winding and often steep with a speed limit of 35 mph everywhere in the park with few exceptions.

Start at the Nisqually Entrance of the park via SR706 towards Longmire, where the National Park Inn is located. You might want to stop at Kautz Creek on the way there. Continue driving towards Paradise, with stops at Christine Falls and Narada Falls.

Follow the Paradise Valley Road to connect to Stevens Canyon Road, don’t forget to stop at Reflection Lakes and Box Canyon.

Finish up the trip by heading towards a stop at Sunrise Point via the Sunrise Road. Sunrise Point offers great views of Mount Rainier and the Cascade Range.

Where to Stay

For those looking to stay inside Mount Rainier National Park, there are a variety of options available. The park offers 3 car campgrounds and you’ll also have the option to book a stay at one of the two historic inns or stay at one of the many wilderness camping options located within the park.

National Park Inn has 25 guest rooms and a general store and is the only option open around the year.

The Paradise Inn, built in 1916 is usually open between the middle of May and early October. It has 121 guest rooms as well as other amenities like a post office, cafe and restaurant.

Both inns are operated by Rainier Guest Services and can be booked on their website.

For those who prefer to stay outside of the national park, there are plenty of accommodations available in nearby towns such as Packwood, Ashford, Elbe and Enumclaw.

Packwood is located just a short ten mile drive away from the entrance of the park and offers a range of activities and attractions including shops, restaurants and markets.

Ashford is a small mountain town located only six miles away from the Nisqually Entrance of the park. It has a variety of unique stores and various lodging options as well as several attractions including waterfalls and trails.

Elbe lies at the Nisqually River in Pierce County, Washington and is thirteen miles away from the next park entrance. Elbe is known for its scenic railroad operated with steam locomotives and historic cars, ending at the Logging Museum in Mineral, a former mining and logging town.

Finally, Enumclaw is one of the larger towns near Mount Rainier National Park, with a population of around 12,500 and plenty to offer for travelers looking for easy access to outdoor adventures in the region. It provides convenient options for shopping, dining out and lodging options for any budget.

Mount Rainier National Park

How to Get There and Getting Around

Located only 90 miles from Seattle, the park is accessible via car or public transport. The nearest airport to Mount Rainier National Park is Sea-Tac International Airport, located approximately 60 miles northwest of the park. There are several transit options available from the airport, including taxi, ride share services and public transportation. For those who choose to drive themselves, follow I-5 South in Washington until you reach Highway 7, then continue south on WA-706 for about 11 miles until you reach the park entrance.

Once inside the park, there are plenty of ways to get around. The vast majority of roads are open to all types of vehicles, although some of them require a high clearance. For cyclists and hikers, there are numerous trails winding through the mountains and forests that offer stunning views along the way. You can also take advantage of free shuttle services during peak season if you just want to explore without having to worry about driving. No matter what means you choose to explore Mount Rainier National Park, it is sure to be an unforgettable experience!

The entrance fee is $15, a motorcycle pass is $25 and a private car vehicle pass is $30 and can be bought in advance on recreation.gov.

Conclusion

All in all, Mount Rainier National Park is an incredible destination for outdoor adventurers and nature-lovers alike. With its stunning mountain peaks, winding roads and trails, and plentiful wildlife, the park offers something for everyone.

From the magnificent vistas to the unrivaled tranquility of its wilderness areas, this national park is a unique gem that should not be overlooked. Whether you’re looking for an adrenaline-filled adventure or just a day of serenity in nature’s embrace, Mount Rainier National Park is sure to deliver an unforgettable experience!

For more content on national parks, hiking trails and hiking tips, check out our other national park guides and more on our blog.

 


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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