Things to do in Mount Rainier National Park
Welcome to this post about the best things to do in Mount Rainier National Park. This place was pretty much the icing on the cake for me during my visit to the American Pacific Northwest. I had beautiful weather, made beautiful hikes and had a nice camping spot. It’s the kind of place where as a nature lover you can easily spend a week without getting bored. After leaving Olympic National Park behind, I traveled on to Mount Rainier National Park. In retrospect I should have stayed there longer, but I didn’t know that then. Or as John Muir says:
A short impression
Before you continue reading, check out the short video that I made of my visit to Mount Rainier National Park below:
Where is Mount Rainier National Park located
Mount Rainier National Park is about a two-hour drive southeast of the city of Seattle, in northern Washington state. You can reach the national park from Seattle by taking Highways 5 and 7 south. The park consists of several access roads and entrances, about which I will tell more later in this article. I came from Olympic National Park near Port Angeles myself and drove via Tacoma to Mount Rainier National Park, a half day drive.
Mount Rainier facts and figures
At 14,411 ft / 4.392 meters, Mount Rainier is the highest mountain in the Cascade Range and the fifth highest in the US lower 48, i.e. the states outside Alaska and Hawaii. Only Mount Whitney in California and some peaks in Colorado are higher. Additionally, Mount Rainier ranks third on the list of ultra-prominent mountains in the United States. Only in Alaska are the mountains more prominent. Mount Rainier is an active volcano that last erupted about 1.000 years ago and is covered by no less than 25 glaciers.
Good to know before you go
As you may have read in one of my other America articles about the Pacific Northwest road trip I made, I didn’t plan my trip very well in advance. I wanted to travel in freedom, but that’s not always easy in the middle of the high season. Of course we have to wait and see what it will be like after the pandemic, but my experience is that in the summer it’s almost impossible to travel in complete freedom inside the national parks. Many campsites are fully booked well in advance and the ‘first come, first serve’ campgrounds are usually occupied already early in the morning.
As I came from Port Angeles, I left there around sunrise because I wanted to get a camping spot at Cougar Rock Campground inside the national park. In the end I got there without a reservation and got one of the last spots. However, it wasn’t really a relaxed drive because I drove there and had no idea if I could actually find a spot. As I was traveling alone, it was a little stressful. In other words, if you travel in high season (June – August), it is smart to book your campsite or overnight stay well in advance.
In addition, it’s useful to know that Mount Rainier is very high and that you also go up high when you go hiking. It’s therefore smart to take the following into account:
1. possible altitude sickness
2. there’s still snow on the hiking trails well into the summer.
I’ll tell you more about the hikes in Mount Rainier National Park below. So if you want to go here for a hike, it’s best to go as late as possible in the season.
Many facilities and in around the park are also only open from July 1st. There’s not really a lot of things to do in Mount Rainier National Park outside of the summer season. Most facilities close at the end of September, so the season is relatively short.
The entrances to Mount Rainier National Park
Because this mountain giant takes up a huge area, you can’t ‘just’ drive from one side of the national park to the other. There are several entry points to Mount Rainier National Park:
– the Nisqually Entrance in the southwest, which you take if you are coming from Seattle. This is the main entrance. From here you can drive to Paradise for beautiful hiking trails. And finally through the Stevens Canyon Road to the Stevens Canyon Entrance and the Mather Memorial Parkway.
– The Stevens Canyon Entrance to the southeast. You use this when you come from the south. Here is the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center.
– White River Entrance, the gateway to Sunrise, the highest point of the national park accessible by car. This entrance is in the northeast of the park.
Then there’s the Carbon River Entrance to the northwest of the park, but it’s less used. If you only have one day to spend, I recommend going to Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park.
Paradise in Mount Rainier
Paradise is the touristic heart of Mount Rainier National Park. As mentioned, this is also the place to go for a hike and visit if you have limited time. The aforementioned Cougar Rock campsite is on the way here. This campsite is already open from the end of May. The famous Skyline Trail starts from here, as well as the beautiful Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center. Visiting this area is one of the top things to do in Mount Rainier and should not be missed.
It can be challenging to find a parking space here. To ensure that everything runs smoothly, a one-way route and a parking system are in place. Keep in mind that you may have to park along the road and walk a bit more up to the visitor center. It is best to go as early in the morning as possible to avoid the crowds here.
The Paradise Inn is also located here, a beautiful lodge where you can spend the night. However, book these well in advance because overnight stays here are very popular!
The Skyline Trail
The Skyline Trail is one of the most beautiful hikes I made during my visit to the Pacific Northwest. I knew that Mount Rainier is big, but when I felt like I stood at the foot of this volcano, I felt very small. The entire trail is 5.5 miles long and you can only walk it for a limited number of months per year. I was there at the end of July and there was still so much snow that walking the entire round was strongly discouraged. In the end I got to a point where the snow got too deep and I didn’t want to go any further because here people slid down on their buttocks through the snow.
From the visitor center it is quite a climb to Panorama Point, which is at an altitude of more than 2,000 meters. You can already suffer from shortness of breath and altitude sickness here. The trail is well marked and you can’t go wrong. On the way mountain marmots shoot away and you not only have beautiful views in front of you, but also behind you, provided it is a clear day. I was lucky because in the morning Mt Rainier was still in the clouds, but in the afternoon it opened up.
From Panorama Point you have beautiful views of the Nisqually Glacier and the top of Mount Rainier. In the summer the flowers are in full bloom and you have beautiful views over the wide landscape. I returned to the visitor center from here because there was too much snow. Do you want to do this trail? Then inquire at the visitor center about what is and what is not possible and try to go as late in the season as possible to be able to walk without snow.
On the north side of Mount Rainier is Sunrise, the other tourist gateway. This is the highest part of Mount Rainier National Park accessible by car, you drive up to 1,950 meters. Also from here you have beautiful panoramas and you can take beautiful hikes, including the Silver Forest Trail. You cannot stay overnight at Sunrise, the lodge here is a ‘day lodge’ and only open during the day.
Another beautiful place to visit are the Reflection Lakes south of Paradise. As the name suggests you have a reflection on Mount Rainier here, only I had a lot of wind and therefore no reflection. However, you do have a beautiful view of Mount Rainier here and you can take a short walk there. Also further on at Bench Lake you have a number of beautiful viewpoints, before you descend again towards Stevens Canyon to continue your journey.
Trail maps and other things to do in Mount Rainier
A simple national park map is available at the visitor centers. If you are going to do one of the recommended hikes, then this will be sufficient, as they are well marked. Various information brochures about the area are also available. If you want to climb Mount Rainier, don’t forget that this is a big expedition that can only be done with a guide for trained mountain hikers who have experience on snow and ice.
Mount Rainier lodging, campings, gas and groceries
The range of places to stay in the park is limited. As mentioned, Cougar Campground is a great place to stay overnight when camping. If you don’t want to pay the top price for the Paradise Inn or the National Park Inn in Longmire, book a place to stay outside the park. View all options and prices here.
Gasoline is not available in Mount Rainier National Park, so make sure you fill up the car as full as possible at your last stop. Due to the mountainous roads I had more gas consumption than planned so I was slightly stressed during my visit. I left the park through Stevens Canyon and was only able to refuel further on Highway 12. It’s also best to take groceries etc. with you from, for example, Seattle or Tacoma. There are a few restaurants in the park at the visitor centers, but they generally have a limited and very unhealthy menu.
And else …
I really thought Mount Rainier National Park was one of the most beautiful places in America that I have visited. The mountain is so dominant that it sometimes gave me goosebumps just seeing it. In retrospect, I would have liked my visit to be longer, especially since my next spot, North Cascades National Park, was covered in smoke from the wildfires that had broken out in Canada. Are you, like me, a fan of beautiful nature and hiking, then a visit to Mount Rainier National Park is definitely worth it.
More information about things to do in Mount Rainier National Park can be found on the NPS website.
Book your stuff
It’s well advised to book everything in advance as mentioned before so you don’t have to waste time looking for accommodation on the spot. Here’s what I did:
– I flew Icelandair to Seattle via Reykjavík from Amsterdam. Find cheap flights on Skyscanner.
– Check rental car rates here, always make sure to check your deductible and go with a reliable company such as Herz or Alamo.
– Accommodations can be found via Booking.com
Also make sure to order your copy of Lonely Planet and the Rand McNally Roadmap before traveling. It makes planning your trip so much more fun!
Conclusion and disclaimer
Hopefully you found this article with the best things to do in Mount Rainier helpful and I answered all your questions about this magnificent place. However, if you still want to know other things, feel free to leave a comment below.
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