“If in the making of the West, Nature had what we call parks in mind – places for rest, inspiration, and prayers – this Rainier region must surely be one of them.”
– John Muir
It is the most glaciated mountain in the contiguous United States, where 25 glaciers and 35 square miles of permanent snow and ice fields are the source of six major rivers. It is the most topographically prominent peak in the lower 48 states—exceeding even the independent stature of K2, the second-highest mountain on Earth. And brewing beneath this stunning landscape, Mt. Rainier remains one of the most dangerous active volcanoes in the world.
It is a daunting description, to be sure. But one of the many beauties of this 14,410-foot peak—the highest in the state of Washington and the Cascade Range—is its potential for universal enjoyment. Experienced mountaineers and novice hikers alike will find “places for rest, inspiration, and prayers”—and if your timing is right, one of the most spectacular displays of subalpine wildflowers in the world.
So pack your bags. We’re off to the Cascades for the next three days.
I’ve Got Two Tickets To Paradise
When Martha Longmire, the daughter-in-law of local hotelier and hot springs developer James Longmire, first set eyes on the south slope of Mt. Rainier in the late 19th century, she exclaimed, “Oh, what a paradise!” Apparently others agreed with her, as Paradise—the site of the main park visitor center—has since become Mt. Rainier’s most popular destination. In winter, an average annual snowfall of 53.4 feet has led the National Park Service to declare Paradise “the snowiest place on Earth where snowfall is measured regularly.” But in summer, the cross-country skiers give way to hikers as this winter sporting ground transforms into a colorful showcase of glacier lilies, magenta paintbrush, and broadleaf lupines.
Your day begins at one of the many trailheads near the Paradise Inn, the rustic and beautiful lodge that has welcomed guests since 1916. For a short, family-friendly walk with big glacier views, try the one-mile Nisqually Vista Trail—while the five-mile combination of the Golden Gate, Skyline, and Deadhorse Creek Trails will treat more ambitious hikers to views of Myrtle Falls, the Nisqually Glacier, and the magnificent peak that looms over them.
No Time To Wallow In The Longmire
In 1888, legendary naturalist and preservation advocate John Muir made his first ascent of the summit of Mt. Rainier. His written chronicle of the journey—in which he described “the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld”—was instrumental in building momentum for the creation of America’s fifth national park in 1899. During the expedition, Muir and his fellow climbers made their first camp at Longmire, which is now a visitor area 12 memorable miles west of Paradise on the park road. So follow the Nisqually River for a relaxing sunset drive to Longmire, stopping at every scenic pullout along the way.
The Sun Also Rises
Some 5,600 years ago, Mt. Rainier stood even taller than it is today, at an elevation of nearly 16,000 feet. But during a period of eruptive activity, a series of avalanches caused the summit and northeast slope to collapse, creating a one-mile, horseshoe-shaped crater and a massive mudflow that traveled all the way to Puget Sound. And although the mountain has remained dormant for more than a century, geologists point to the Osceola Mudflow as an example of its unpredictable destructive power—especially for the hundreds of thousands of people who now reside on mudflow remains.
The Emmons Glacier—the largest glacier in the lower 48 states—has since filled the gap on Mt. Rainier’s northeast slope, and it is a sight best enjoyed from Sunrise, the highest point in the park accessible by vehicle. And if you complete the 54-mile drive from Paradise before dawn, you’ll discover that the sunrise at Sunrise is a spectacular sight.
Such an early start will also ensure your solitude on the Sunrise-area trails, which—like those near Paradise—promise a little something for everyone. The 1.5-mile Sunrise Nature Trail and the two-mile Silver Forest Trail are stellar options for families and light hikers, offering sweeping views of the Emmons Glacier without significant elevation gain. Distance hikers, meanwhile, can follow the Sourdough Ridge Trail to Frozen Lake, where the Mt. Fremont Lookout Trail leads to an old fire lookout and commanding views of the surrounding Cascades.
And I Saw My Reflection In The Snow-Covered Hills
Each morning at dawn, a flock of amateur and professional photographers gather to watch the sunrise at Reflection Lakes just below Paradise. It turns out they’re enjoying a glimpse of one of the most iconic views in the park—the summit of Mt. Rainier, bathed in the early morning light, perfectly reflected in the still water below.
But the Reflection Lakes parking area is also the launching point of the Lakes Trail, which, when combined with the High Lakes Trail, forms a tidy 2.75-mile loop with views of the Tatoosh Range, Louise Lake, and the surrounding valley. More ambitious hikers should note that the Wonderland Trail—the 93-mile path that encircles Mt. Rainier—passes through Reflection Lakes as well, and is a lovely means of reaching Narada Falls to the west or Box Canyon to the east.
What’s Your Name? Who’s Your Daddy?
In a park full of majestic settings, the Grove of the Patriarchs still manages to stand alone. Although this 1.1-mile trail just inside the Stevens Canyon Entrance is modest in length, it leads hikers through a magnificent old-growth forest of Douglas firs, western hemlocks, and western red cedars—all on an island in the middle of the Ohanapecosh River. After crossing a small suspension foot bridge, you’ll walk among giants—trees as old as 1,000 years with circumferences that reach nearly 50 feet. And in the presence of such natural splendor, there is no better way to bring this weekend to a close.
A Few Notes
With only two options for hotel accommodations within the park—the wonderfully rustic Paradise Inn and the smaller, 25-room National Park Inn at Longmire—the competition for a room can be fierce. Keep in mind that reservations fill up months in advance, and that the Paradise Inn closes between mid-October and mid-May.
With its designation as a national park, Mt. Rainier has been protected for the future benefit and enjoyment of the people. Unfortunately, with that designation also came the curse of bad food. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll pack some picnic supplies—and plenty of them.
TITLE: Mt. Rainier, as seen from the road between Longmire and Paradise | FRIDAY: Wildflowers near Paradise; the Nisqually Glacier; the road between Longmire and Paradise; sunset on that same road | SATURDAY: The Emmons Glacier; the route to Frozen Lake and Mt. Fremont; wildflowers near Sunrise | SUNDAY: The Lakes Trail; the Tatoosh Range.