Insider's Guide to Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier.
Mount Rainier. Adam Fagen
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Much like the Grand Canyon, one overwhelming land form dominates Mount Rainier National Park. That land form would be, of course, Mount Rainier itself, which local American Indians called some variation of “Tahoma” and which many Puget Sound residents reverently refer to as “The Mountain.” This undisputed king of the Cascade Range, this 14,411-foot stratovolcano is colossal. Muscling some 8,000 feet above neighboring highlands and glistening in a white 35-square-mile robe of ice (more than the rest of the Cascades’ combined), this imposing summit seems to float in the sky but is only about 40 miles from Puget Sound saltwater. It’s hard to think of a peak in the Lower 48 more regal, more magisterial, more utterly showstopping.

So yes, Mount Rainier National Park is a place to, as the cliché goes, have your breath taken away by one of North America’s preeminent snow-capped peaks. But the park’s splendor isn’t only about an epic tower of rock and ice that spends much of its time swirled in clouds. There’s also a fantastic spread of alpine parklands, plunging waterfalls, picturesquely-posed mountain goats, backcountry lakes aplenty, and titanic old-growth timber, including an outstanding inland expression of temperate rainforest that wouldn’t look out of place on the Olympic Peninsula.

Congress declared the park back in 1899, partly thanks to the efforts of the iconic Scottish-American naturalist and hardy-as-hell mountaineer John Muir. Muir was part of the 1888 party that pulled one of the early successful ascents of Mount Rainier. The area had already been set aside as a national forest reserve in 1893, one reason why it remains among the most significant reservoirs of old-growth in Washington State—from cathedral river-terrace stands of western red-cedar and Douglas-fir to lichen coavered mountain hemlocks and yellow-cedar in the sub-alpine woods.

The park is also a national historic site on account of its old-school Park Service architecture, not least the resplendent Paradise Inn (built in 1916) at timberline on Mount Rainier’s southern flanks.

It’s worth noting, too, that Mount Rainier’s one of the most closely watched peaks in the world. Whether or not they actually see the summit, visitors to the national park pay their respects to the scariest volcano in the U.S., liable at some point to spew devastating slurries of mud, rock, water, and debris down its draining valleys all the way to the densely populated Puget Sound lowlands. So add that dormant suspense to the bowl-you-over scenery.

Classic Adventures

Narada Falls.
Narada Falls. RootsRated

With more than 300 miles of footpaths at hand, day hikers and backpackers can perambulate to their hearts' content in Mount Rainier National Park. One of the best-known trails is the Skyline Loop, which ascends from Paradise—the busiest Rainier hub—to Glacier Vista and Panorama Point. These well-named vantages deliver up-close views of the Nisqually Glacier and Mount Rainier’s dome as well as broad prospects south to the Tatoosh Range—gnarled peaks on the park’s southern border—and beyond, to stocky Mount Adams, surly Mount St. Helens, and the ravaged Goat Rocks (the remains of an older, much-eroded Cascade stratovolcano).

Spray Park is another classic Mount Rainier hike. This trek goes to one of the almost-unacceptably gorgeous high-country parklands the Cascade’s highest mountain is famous for. A popular detour takes you to Spray Falls, bounding some 300 feet down lava-rock cliffs.

And then there’s the mother of all Mount Rainier trails, the Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile loop around the base of the volcano that, hugging timberline for the most part, affords downright divine views of the ice-clad behemoth from all aspects. Given the elevation ups-and-downs and the intimate face time a Wonderland pilgrim shares with Mount Rainier, this multi-day trek ranks right alongside a summit attempt in terms of adventure.

And speaking of climbing, mountaineering is a legendary pursuit in the park. The most popular routes are the Disappointment Cleaver/Ingraham Glacier Direct approaches, accessed from Camp Muir (where Muir and his climbing buddies bivouacked back in 1888) above Paradise Inn. The less-technical slog up the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers on the northeast slopes (via Camp Schurman) draws many as well, while the demanding ascent via Liberty Ridge—the steep cleaver piercing the intimidating Willis and Liberty walls on the north face—ranks as one of the most esteemed climb on the mountain.

Secrets of the Park

Trails below the mountain.
Trails below the mountain. Adam Fagen

Better than a million people visit Mount Rainier each year, but there’s plenty of remote backcountry in the park for those put off by crowds. Quieter trails include the huff-and-puff switchbacking out of the Carbon River valley to the colorful palisades called the Yellowstone Cliffs and the high gardens of Windy Gap, not to mention the slogs up Crystal or Shriner peaks, both of which deliver some homerun east-side views. The Wonderland Trail, celebrated as it is, includes some high-and-lonesome stretches, especially that between Panhandle Gap and Indian Bar—the loftiest segment of the Rainier roundabout.

Climbers, meantime, also have numerous routes with more elbow room than those out of Camp Muir or Camp Schurman, including the drawn-out Success Cleaver traverse. Plus there are less-popular climbs to tackle than the giant volcano, such as the sharp-tooth crests of the Cowlitz Chimneys and Governors Ridge in the east, or the outback scramble up Mount Wow in the far west.

Immerse Yourself

The mighty Mount Rainier.
The mighty Mount Rainier. RootsRated

Hike the Carbon Glacier Trail (17 miles round-trip) for a mesmerizing traverse from deep western hemlock and Pacific silver fir forests to the Lower 48’s lowest-elevation glacier, its snout a mere 3,600 feet in elevation.

The park’s supersized conifers are, in their way, just as grand as Tahoma. The short-but-sweet Rain Forest Nature Trail reveals the Carbon River valley’s temperate rainforest in full glory; it’s unique in the presence of Sitka spruce, which elsewhere in Washington and Oregon is primarily a coastal, fog-belt tree. As goggle-eyed as you’ll be amid the mammoth trunks, you’re bound to be impressed, too, by the rank swales of devil’s-club, a tall, big-leafed, and formidably spiny shrub indicative of some of the dampest Northwest forests. In the east-side Ohanapecosh drainage, meanwhile, the Grove of the Patriarchs Trail shows off some mighty Douglas-firs and western red-cedars.

If you’re a climber willing to accept the very real hazards, the Willis Wall—Mount Rainier’s sheer north face—is one of the mountain’s heraldic features. This great headwall of the Carbon Glacier cirque, largest in the Cascades, mounts nearly 4,000 feet to a brow of ice cliffs; climbers attempting its routes court clattering rocks and ice, not to mention frequent avalanches. Dangerous? Definitely—and also unforgettable.

Getting the Most Out of Your Trip

Reflection Lake.
Reflection Lake. Adam Fagen

  • Each season at Mount Rainier has its charms, from the sub-alpine wildflower riot of summer to the fox tracks of deep winter. While storms rule from autumn to spring (typically bringing rain at lower elevations and voluminous snow on high), Rainier’s proximity to the Pacific and its weather-making bulk mean overcast and precipitation can hit year-round. Mountaineering weather’s typically best from midsummer through early autumn, although winter and spring climbing—challenging as it can be—has plenty of allure.

  • It follows that raingear should be part of your supplies on any visit to the park, even in the height of summer.

  • If you’re planning to backpack in the park, you need a wilderness permit. If you’re going above 10,000 feet or traversing glaciers, you need a climbing pass (plus a wilderness permit if you’re camping).

  • Respect Mount Rainier’s volatile landscape. Debris flows and glacial outburst floods needn’t be triggered by volcanic activity. Temperatures promoting rapid melting may be all that’s necessary. Such events place roads, trails, and campgrounds in river valleys at risk. If you hear a roar like an oncoming train, observe rivers rising rapidly, feel the ground tremble, or hear a warning siren, head as far uphill as you can. 

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