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Adventurer’s Guide To Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

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Established in 1899

With its towering peak and untamed wilderness, Mount Rainier National Park is a beacon of adventure for those seeking an escape from city life. The rugged landscape boasts stunning vistas, diverse wildlife, and cozy lodges steeped in history, drawing in intrepid travelers from bustling Seattle and beyond.



Nestled in the lush forests of Washington state lies Mount Rainier National Park, a true gem of the American wilderness. Established in 1899, it boasts over 236,000 acres of diverse landscapes, from the towering peak of Mount Rainier to its expansive valleys, glistening waterfalls, and untouched subalpine meadows. As the highest point in the Cascade Range, this stratovolcano offers unparalleled opportunities for adventure and exploration.

Brave adventurers can trek through 91,000 acres of old-growth forest, marvel at more than 25 glaciers descending its slopes, and bask in its surreal beauty as they navigate through ever-changing cloud cover and abundant rain and snow. Discover an unforgettable experience at Mount Rainier National Park – where nature reigns supreme and adventure awaits at every turn.

The majestic Mount Rainier looms over a picturesque landscape, its snow-capped peak glistening in the sun. The Wonderland Trail winds around its base, leading brave adventurers through 35 square miles of awe-inspiring glaciers and snowfields.

Among them, the massive Carbon Glacier reigns supreme as the largest by volume in all of the contiguous United States. But for those seeking an even greater challenge, the expansive Emmons Glacier presents itself as the largest by area. With over 10,000 annual attempts and a success rate of only 50%, conquering this iconic peak is no easy feat. But for thrill-seekers and nature lovers alike, it is an irresistible call to adventure.

Camp Muir in Mount Rainier National Park.

Deep within the embrace of Mount Rainier awaits Paradise – a fitting name for the picturesque trails that wind through fields of dazzling wildflower blooms. As you trek, your senses are treated to sweeping vistas of Unicorn Peak and its majestic mountain companions to the south. And as you journey along the winding road from the Nisqually Entrance, wondrous waterfalls and breathtaking peaks reveal themselves at every turn, offering an exhilarating communion with Mother Nature herself.

While hiking is easily the best way to experience the region, Mount Rainier National Park has numerous sights to see that don’t require much hiking. The park was established as a National Historic Landmark District because of how well the original architecture at the base camps has been preserved. Each year, hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the three main base camps for impeccable views of the mountain as well as the rest of the park.

Paradise sits at 5,400 feet and is the starting point for the main route up Mount Rainier. Longmire sits at a lower elevation and is the second most visited section of the park. Lower elevations allow for Longmire to be open throughout the year. Lastly, Sunrise sits at the northeastern section of the park. At 6,400 feet it is the highest point in the park that is accessible by car. True to its name, Sunrise is known for impeccable sunrise views of the mountain and its surrounding forests and meadows.

Views of Mount Rainier at Paradise in full bloom.


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History

Long before the region was established as a National Park, the land was home to Native Americans dating back to 4,000-5,800 BC. The Columbia Plateau Tribes inhabited the region from around 1000 to 300 BC. Prior to becoming a national park, the surrounding land was designated as a national forest. However, in 1899 then President William McKinley passed a bill that established Mount Rainier National Park. The park was the fifth national park in the entire nation.

In 1888 John Muir visited the park with a few other explorers. This trip is often attributed to his reinvigoration for conservation. His work helped transform the once national forest into the national park that it now is today. Finally, on the sixth attempt at pushing the bill, it passed and the park was established just before the turn of the century. Today the camp that sits at about 10,000 feet is named Camp Muir after John Muir and his work for helping establish the park.

Mount Rainier National Park is enjoyed throughout the year by locals and visitors alike, though most popular during the summer months. However, the park had to be closed in late 2006 when extreme flooding took place. The park received over 18 inches of rainfall in just a 36-hour period. Severe damage was caused to many riverfront campsites while some roads were completely washed out. The park reopened in the late spring of 2007 to allow tourist access.

Alpine reflections on Tipsoo Lake at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Geology and Geography

Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington State, is renowned for its stunning geological features and diverse geography. Dominated by Mount Rainier, an active stratovolcano, the park’s landscape is a testament to the dynamic geological processes that have shaped the region over millions of years.

Geology

Mount Rainier, the centerpiece of the park, stands at 14,411 feet, making it the highest peak in the Cascade Range and one of the most prominent volcanoes in the contiguous United States. It is a composite volcano, formed by alternating layers of lava flows, volcanic ash, and other volcanic debris. The volcano’s current form has been shaped by multiple eruptive episodes, the most recent significant activity occurring around 1,000 years ago.

The mountain is composed primarily of andesite and dacite, types of volcanic rock that result from the subduction of the Juan de Fuca Plate beneath the North American Plate. This subduction zone, known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone, is responsible for the volcanic activity that created not only Mount Rainier but also other notable peaks in the Cascade Range.

Glaciers are a significant feature of Mount Rainier’s geology. The mountain supports more than 25 glaciers, including the Emmons Glacier, which is the largest glacier in the contiguous United States by area. These glaciers have carved deep valleys and created distinctive U-shaped valleys as they advanced and retreated over millennia. Glacial erosion and deposition have significantly influenced the park’s topography, leaving behind moraines, glacial erratics, and other features indicative of past glacial activity.

Geography

The geography of Mount Rainier National Park is as diverse as its geology. The park encompasses over 236,000 acres of rugged terrain, including alpine meadows, old-growth forests, and river valleys. The mountain itself serves as a climatic barrier, creating distinct ecosystems on its windward and leeward sides. The west side of the park receives heavy precipitation, fostering lush temperate rainforests, while the east side, in the rain shadow of the mountain, experiences a drier climate.

Elevations in the park range from around 1,600 feet in the river valleys to the summit of Mount Rainier. This wide elevation range contributes to a variety of habitats, supporting a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Subalpine meadows, like those found in the Paradise and Sunrise areas, are famous for their vibrant wildflower displays in the summer. Below the tree line, dense forests of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar dominate the landscape.

The park is also characterized by its hydrology, with numerous rivers and streams originating from the glaciers on Mount Rainier. Major rivers, such as the Nisqually, Carbon, and White Rivers, flow from the mountain, creating vital watersheds that support both the park’s ecosystems and downstream communities.

Overall, the geology and geography of Mount Rainier National Park create a complex and dynamic landscape, offering visitors a glimpse into the powerful natural forces that have shaped this region and continue to influence its stunning scenery.

Ecology

Mount Rainier National Park, with its diverse ecosystems ranging from lowland forests to alpine meadows, is a vibrant hub of ecological diversity. The park’s varying elevations, climate zones, and rich volcanic soil create habitats that support a wide array of plant and animal species, each uniquely adapted to the park’s dynamic environment.

Vegetation

The park’s vegetation is stratified into distinct zones, largely determined by elevation. At lower elevations, dense old-growth forests dominate the landscape. These forests are characterized by towering conifers such as Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar, which can reach impressive heights and ages. The understory in these areas is lush, featuring ferns, mosses, and a variety of shrubs, creating a dense and verdant environment.

As the elevation increases, these forests give way to montane and subalpine zones. The montane zone, situated between 3,000 and 5,000 feet, is characterized by a mix of conifers and broadleaf trees. Species like noble fir, western white pine, and Alaska yellow cedar are common. In the subalpine zone, between 5,000 and 7,000 feet, trees become more sparse, and the landscape transitions to meadows filled with wildflowers such as lupine, paintbrush, and avalanche lily, creating spectacular displays of color during the summer months.

Above the tree line, in the alpine zone, vegetation becomes sparse and consists mainly of hardy grasses, lichens, and mosses that can withstand the harsh conditions. These areas are crucial for studying the impacts of climate change, as they are particularly sensitive to shifts in temperature and precipitation patterns.

Wildlife

The rich variety of habitats within Mount Rainier National Park supports an equally diverse array of wildlife. Mammals such as black bears, elk, mountain goats, and mule deer are commonly seen, while smaller mammals like marmots, pikas, and various squirrel species thrive in the park’s varied environments. The presence of apex predators like cougars and bobcats highlights the ecological health of the park, ensuring balanced ecosystems.

Birdlife is abundant, with over 180 species recorded. The American dipper, which frequents the park’s fast-flowing streams, and the Clark’s nutcracker, known for its symbiotic relationship with whitebark pine trees, are among the notable avian residents. Raptors such as peregrine falcons and bald eagles can often be seen soaring above the rugged terrain.

Conservation and Challenges

The park’s ecological integrity is maintained through dedicated conservation efforts. However, Mount Rainier’s ecosystems face significant challenges, including the impacts of climate change, which alter precipitation patterns, increase the frequency of extreme weather events, and cause glacial retreat. Invasive species also pose a threat to native biodiversity, necessitating ongoing management and restoration efforts.

Mount Rainier National Park’s ecology is a testament to the resilience and diversity of nature. From the ancient forests at its base to the austere alpine meadows near its summit, the park offers a unique opportunity to witness the interplay of various ecosystems and the species they support. The continued protection of this natural wonder is essential for preserving its ecological richness for future generations.

Views of Mount Rainier at Paradise, Washington.


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Best Places To Stay

Mount Rainier National Park in Washington is a paradise for nature lovers, offering stunning landscapes, diverse wildlife, and a variety of outdoor activities. Whether you prefer rustic cabins, charming lodges, or convenient campgrounds, there are plenty of great places to stay in and near the park.

Paradise Inn: One of the most iconic places to stay is Paradise Inn, located within the park itself. This historic lodge, built in 1916, offers a rustic charm with modern amenities. The inn is open from late May to early October and provides easy access to the popular Paradise area, known for its breathtaking views and numerous hiking trails.

National Park Inn: Another excellent option within the park is the National Park Inn at Longmire. Open year-round, this cozy inn offers a more intimate setting with 25 guest rooms, a casual dining restaurant, and a delightful gift shop. Longmire is a great base for exploring the park, especially for those interested in the park’s history and easy access to trailheads.

Ashford: For those looking to stay just outside the park, the town of Ashford is a popular choice. Only a few miles from the Nisqually Entrance, Ashford offers a range of accommodations, including bed and breakfasts, cabins, and motels. Alexander’s Lodge is a charming bed and breakfast with a history dating back to 1912, providing a unique and comfortable stay. Copper Creek Inn is another favorite, known for its cozy cabins and delicious restaurant featuring local cuisine.

Packwood: Further east, the town of Packwood offers additional lodging options. This small town is about a 30-minute drive from the Ohanapecosh Entrance and is known for its friendly atmosphere and scenic surroundings. Cowlitz River Lodge and Packwood Lodge are popular choices, offering comfortable rooms and easy access to outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, and wildlife viewing.

Camping: For those who prefer camping, Mount Rainier National Park has several campgrounds. Cougar Rock Campground, near Paradise, and Ohanapecosh Campground, near the southeastern entrance, are both excellent options, offering well-maintained sites amidst beautiful natural settings. White River Campground, located near Sunrise, is another great choice, particularly for those interested in exploring the Sunrise area, known for its stunning alpine views.

No matter where you choose to stay, Mount Rainier National Park and its surrounding areas offer a variety of accommodations to suit every preference, ensuring a memorable and comfortable visit to this majestic destination.

Major Attractions

On February 18, 1997, the entire park received its official title as a National Historic Landmark District in recognition of its amazing preservation and beautifully crafted rustic-style architecture by the National Park Service. Within the park’s boundaries, there are 42 specific areas that have been added to the National Register of Historic Places, with four of them receiving additional recognition as National Historic Landmarks. In every corner throughout the vastness of Mount Rainier National Park, visitors can experience their own unique delights.

Road to Sunrise

Paradise (located at 46.79°N 121.74°W): is an area situated at an elevation of approximately 5,400 feet (1,600 m) on the south slope of Mount Rainier within the national park. It is the most frequented destination for tourists visiting Mount Rainier National Park, with a staggering 62% of the over 1.3 million visitors in 2000 making their way to this picturesque spot. Paradise is nestled near the subalpine valley of the Paradise River and is home to notable structures such as the historic Paradise Inn, constructed in 1916; Paradise Guide House, built in 1920; and Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center, originally erected in 1966 but reconstructed in 2008.

Paradise boasts stunning vistas and vibrant fields of wildflowers. As Martha Longmire first set her eyes on this breathtaking landscape, she could only exclaim, “Oh, what a paradise!” The main visitor center, named in honor of Henry M. Jackson, sits atop the upper parking area.

In the winter, when an average of 640 inches (53.6 feet/16.2 meters) of snow blankets the area, Paradise becomes a haven for adventurers seeking to snowshoe, cross-country ski, or sled through the picturesque wonderland. Although the road between Longmire and Paradise is plowed, it closes at night during this season – but don’t let that deter you from experiencing this winter paradise! Make your way 19 miles (30 km) east from the Nisqually Entrance or 12 miles (19 km) east from Longmire to reach this enchanting destination.

Paradise Inn with Tatoosh range in background, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington


Interesting fact: The Paradise region was once home to the world’s highest recorded amount of snowfall in a single year, reaching 93.5 feet (28.5 meters) during the winter of 1971-1972.


Longmire (located at 46.75°N 121.81°W): Longmire is a visitor center within Mount Rainier National Park, situated about 6.5 miles (10.5 km) to the east of the Nisqually Entrance. It was named after James Longmire, one of the first settlers in the Puget Sound region. The area, surrounded by old-growth trees like Douglas fir and western red cedar, sits between The Ramparts Ridge and Tatoosh Range at an elevation of 2,761 feet (842 m).

In Longmire, visitors can find the National Park Inn, the Longmire Museum, and the former 1928 National Park Service Administration Building, now serving as a Wilderness Information Center. The National Park Inn is the only year-round accommodation available within the park. It’s also the second most popular destination for visitors after Paradise; according to 2000 data, 38% of the more than 1.3 million people who visited the park made their way to Longmire.

Located in the National Historic Landmark District at Longmire, the Administration Building serves as the seasonal home for the Longmire Wilderness Information Center. Photo: NPS

For outdoor enthusiasts looking to explore more of the park, Cougar Rock Campground is located approximately 2 miles (3.2 km) northwest of Longmire and offers 173 individual campsites and 5 group sites from late May until late September. Lastly, Longmire is a starting point for those embarking on the renowned Wonderland Trail adventure.

Sunrise (located at 46.91°N 121.64°W): Situated in the northeastern area of the park, Sunrise is a popular lodge and visitor center. It holds the title of being the highest point in the park that can be reached by vehicle, with an elevation of 6,400 feet (1,950 m).

During the summer season, the meadows are filled with colorful wildflow ers. Surrounding the lodge are numerous hiking trails, including Mount Fremont, Burroughs Mountain, and Sourdough Ridge. On clear days, visitors can enjoy awe-inspiring views of Mount Rainier and Emmons Glacier from Sunrise. At Sunrise Point, one can take in panoramic vistas of the surrounding valleys, other Cascade Range volcanoes such as Mount Adams, and of course, majestic Mount Rainier. With its stunning scenery and well-maintained trails, it’s no wonder that Sunrise is the park’s second most popular destination.

Sunrise Lake from Sunrise Point in Mt Rainier National Park

To reach Sunrise, one must travel 60 miles northeast from the Nisqually Entrance. The easiest way to access this location is through a 10-mile (16 km) turnoff from State Route 410 near the White River entrance.

Ohanapecosh: Nestled in the southeast corner of the park, Ohanapecosh gets its name from a Taidnapam Indian settlement along the river, meaning “standing at the edge.” Surrounded by lush Douglas-firs, western red cedars, and western hemlocks, Ohanapecosh offers visitors the chance to explore an old-growth forest and all its intricate beauty. The east side of the park is typically drier and sunnier compared to the west side, making it a great option for those seeking refuge from wet and foggy conditions in Paradise and Longmire.

The Ohanapecosh campground offers 188 individual sites and 2 group sites, open from late May to late September. Along with a visitor center and ranger station, this is the only developed section of the park without a Mount Rainier view. Surrounded by towering trees and located at an elevation below 2,000 feet, it serves as a tranquil escape for visitors. Nearby attractions include the beloved Ohanapecosh Hot Springs, Grove of the Patriarchs, and Silver Falls.

However, Ohanapecosh is not accessible during the winter months. You can find Ohanapecosh 3 miles (4.8 km) north of the park boundary on State Route 123, and about 42 miles (68 km) east of the Nisqually Entrance.

Stafford Falls drops 30 feet into a clear plunge pool. To reach it, follow the Owyhigh Lakes Trail 0.4 miles from Highway 123 to the Eastside Trail, then about 1.4 miles south on the Eastside Trail. A short spur trail leads to a viewpoint.


NOTE: The Grove of the Patriarchs is CLOSED to all public entry until further notice, due to flooding which caused significant damage to the suspension bridge that provides the only safe access to the area (News Release, 11/17/21).


Carbon River Entrance Station: In the northwest section of the park, off State Route 165, lies the Carbon River Entrance Station. This is the only location within Mount Rainier where a rainforest can be found. Visitors can explore a short trail through this unique ecosystem, as well as a path to the Carbon Glacier, which is one of the lowest glaciers in the contiguous United States.

Located south of Carbon along State Route 165 is Mowich Lake, the largest and deepest lake in the park. A variety of recreational activities can be enjoyed here, including camping, picnicking, and hiking. The major roads leading into this area were heavily damaged by floods in 2006. During the summer season, rangers are stationed at the Carbon River entrance station to assist visitors. Beyond this point, motor vehicles are not allowed.

Mowich Lake

Activities

The great outdoors beckons with endless possibilities for all types of adventurers. Take a leisurely stroll or challenge yourself with a steep climb – the choice is yours.

Timed Entry Requirements:

Mount Rainier National Park has experienced an approximate 40% increase in visitation over the last 10 years, leading to overcrowding during the summer and damage to fragile ecosystems. In 2024, Mount Rainier National Park will implement a pilot timed entry reservation system to improve the visitor experience to the park by reducing wait times, congestion, and resource impacts on trails caused by overcrowding.

A timed entry reservation is required for two areas of the park: (1) Paradise Corridor coming from the southwest (near Ashford, WA) or southeast (near Packwood, WA), and (2) Sunrise Corridor coming from the northeast (via Enumclaw, WA) from 7:00 am to 3:00 pm. Each corridor requires a separate vehicle reservation. Timed entry reservations are for good a single day, per vehicle, and are required in addition to an entrance fee or park pass.

  • May 24 through September 2  timed entry reservations are required to enter the Paradise Corridor on the south side of the park from 7:00 am to 3:00 pm.
  • July 3 through September 2  timed entry reservations are required to enter the Sunrise Corridor on the northeast side of the park from 7:00 am to 3:00 pm.
  • Visitors entering the park in a vehicle or on a motorcycle in one of these areas during these dates need two things:
  • The park is open 24/7 and visitors may enter timed entry reservation areas before 7:00 am or after 3:00 pm without a reservation. Learn more about visiting without a reservation.
Hiking:

By far the most popular activity in the park is hiking. The expansive park offers a vast network of trails totaling 260 miles. There are plenty of options for hikers, ranging from leisurely walks to challenging climbs, making it a suitable activity for all levels.

A highly recommended route is the Skyline Trail leading to Panorama Point, which covers a total distance of 5.5 miles (9 km). Beginning at the picturesque Paradise area with its inviting picnic benches, this trail takes you up the steep southern slope of Mount Rainier. Along the way, you’ll get to experience the thunderous Myrtle Falls and pass through majestic pine forests before being surrounded by the sheer beauty of the mountain. If the weather permits, you’ll also catch a glimpse of Mount Adams, St. Helens, and Hood in the distance. As you continue on towards Camp Muir, which sits at an elevation of 10,118 feet, be prepared to be awestruck by the spectacular views that the park has to offer. These sights will be etched in your mind forever.

The most iconic trail in the park is known as the Wonderland Trail. This 93-mile loop trail circumnavigates the entire mountain, taking hikers and backpackers through nearly every landscape within the park boundaries. While permits must be obtained to hike the entire loop and camp in the backcountry, day hiking is permitted. Encountering wildlife while hiking or backpacking is not uncommon at the park. Though most hikers may see marmots, mountain goats, and small woodland animals, black bears and elk are also present.

There are numerous fire lookouts throughout the park that offer panoramic views. Popular hikes include the Tolmie Peak, Mount Fremont Lookout, Naches Loop, and Panorama Point. Whether hikers are looking for a multi-day backpacking adventure or a short walk around alpine lakes, Mount Rainier National Park has something to offer. While most visitors use these trails for hiking, the region is popular amongst trail runners as well. During the summer months many runners explore the park by trail running and fast packing.

It can be noted that day hiking at Mount Rainier does not require a permit. However, if you plan on camping overnight, a wilderness permit is necessary. You can reserve permits in advance through Recreation.gov or obtain them in person at park Wilderness Information Centers. For more information, please visit the Wilderness Permits page. During winter months, permits are still required and can be obtained through self-registration at designated Wilderness Information Centers or at the SR410 entrance arch when the road closes for the season.

Mountaineering:

As the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States, thousands of mountaineers travel to Mount Rainier National Park each year. Roughly 10,000 people attempt to climb the mountain each year with about 50% reaching the summit. Though there are various routes on the mountain, each requires technical mountaineering skills with crampons, ice axes, harnesses, and ropes. The most common route is via Disappointment Cleaver which passes through Camp Muir before ascending the final 4,000 feet of elevation up to the summit. Other well-known routes include Emmons Glacier and Liberty Ridge Route.

Hikers on the way to Camp Muir in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Fishing:

Fishing in Mount Rainier National Park is a popular activity for many visitors who enjoy the scenic views and the variety of fish species. However, there are some rules and regulations that you need to follow to protect the native fish and the aquatic ecosystems. Here are some of the main points:

  • You don’t need a state fishing license, but you need a Washington State catch record card for salmon and steelhead.
  • You can fish in most lakes and streams, except for some closed waters that are listed in the Mount Rainier National Park Fish Regulations pamphlet.
  • You can only keep non-native kokanee and brook trout, and you must release all native fish species.
  • You can only use artificial lures and flies in streams, and you cannot use any live or dead bait fish, amphibians, eggs, or roe.
  • You must use single-point barbless hooks in streams, and you cannot use lead fishing tackle.
  • You can fish from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset, and you cannot fish from a motor road bridge.

Long exposure shot of Narada Falls in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Snowshoe:

While most visitors come to the park during the summer months, the park offers a variety of activities throughout the year. Snowshoeing can be found throughout the park with popular routes being Deer Lake, Narada Falls, and Sun Top.

Skiing and Snowboarding:

Both Crystal Mountain Ski Resort and White Pass Ski Area are located near Mount Rainier National Park. However, there are no designated ski areas within the park boundaries or on the mountain. Cross-country skiing, along with backcountry skiing and snowboarding can be accessed within the park for those who are equipped.

Treat Yourself To A Guided Adventure

If you’re looking to explore a new activity or deepen your mastery of an existing sport, it pays to invest in a professional. Guides not only ensure your safety when doing something for the first time, but they can also lead you off the beaten path and offer enlightening details about history, culture and geology. Plus, prepare yourself for captivating narratives no one else can tell. To hire an experienced local pro, you can use services such as 57Hours or REI Adventures.

Nearby Cities

Located along the Puget Sound, both Tacoma and Seattle are under an hour and forty-five minutes from Mount Rainier National Park. While a day trip from the big cities is possible, there are also numerous small towns that surround the mountain. Enumclaw and Eatonville sit at opposite ends of the park, both about 40 minutes from their respective park entrances. Though not established towns, Ashford and Greenwater offer a final stop of civilization before visitors enter into the park.

A trip to Washington state wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the gorgeous Mount Rainier National Park. As a symbol of state, the mountain alone draws people in to marvel at its rugged yet beautiful landscape. Whether visitors are looking for a short hike to a viewpoint, or attempting to reach the summit, Mount Rainier will be a park one won’t soon forget.


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