The early Northwest summer (i.e., when the snow finally melts) at Mt. Rainier bedazzles both the casual and hardcore hiker. Paradise unfolds a wildflower canvas like few other floral brushstrokes on the entire continent: Mountain and fleabane daisies, native columbine, violets, two species of saxifrage, and three varieties of monkeyflower are just one bouquet of the hundred species of common blooms that have begun to spill off the trail between the Nisqually Glacier and Paradise Inn.
Visiting Mt. Rainier among the hordes over Memorial Day weekend may seem an unnecessary imposition, but this year’s early spring means Seattleites can enjoy June blooms before the truly massive amounts of visitors “cruise” in by land and sea. Why not catch a little summer inflorescence before novice mountain lovers descend upon the park?
National parks remain almost pornographic in their excess of unobstructed wilderness, a bevy of trails and valleys explored by but a handful of the scores of thousands who visit the parking lots and visitor centers; Mount Rainier National Park is no exception. The reward from delving deeply into these parks is isolation from the masses, especially at the popular Paradise Inn , the 121-room inn in Mt. Rainier National Park that dates back to 1916.
A great starting point for hiking at Mount Rainier is to jump off the primary path onto Eagle Peak, Lake George, and other trails to explore more of this 235,404-acre park on your own.
Eagle Peak, 7.2 miles round trip, winds into prime old growth as the trail climbs sharply for two miles before reaching a stream and into a pristine alpine meadow. The trail ascends steeply again for the final half mile before terminating at an exposed saddle 5,700-feet above sea level that provides stupendous views of the park’s peaks and valleys.
The Mt. Rainier landscape provides plenty of gawk-worthy geography, which only makes the Lake George/Gobblers Knob (8.8/11.8 miles round trip, respectively) hike to Mount Wow quite appropriate. (Though it's fitting for the awesomeness of this peak, its name, Wow, also is a Native American translation for the word goat.) The mellow incline through wildflowers and along the shores of Lake George make this hike especially appealing to multigenerational groups.
The hike also offers full views of Mt. Rainier and its Tahoma Glacier sweater. Every prominent peak of the Northwest Ring of Fire, mounts St. Helens, Adam, and Hood come into view on a day that’s free of cloud cover.
Hikers earn their views on the 16-mile round trip (about nine hours total) Emerald Ridge Trail, unless they choose to travel the nine road miles on a mountain bike. This trail remains very popular even though it moves through an active rock fall zone. Five of the seven trail miles require scrambling up steep, rocky slopes. Hexagonal andesite columns, formed from rapidly cooling lava, are visible along this trail after hikers emerge from the first two miles of old growth forest. Subalpine flora matches the views of Mt. Rainier.
Heads up, waterfall lovers: This is the Cascade Range, after all, and now is the time to make the commitment to the 3.8-mile round trip to 320-foot Comet Falls, which are among the tallest cataracts in the park. The consistent uphill climb leads to the base of Comet Falls. Hikers may wish to continue just under one mile to Van Trump Park or join the Rampart Ridge Trail for a longer excursion.
Whichever trails you explore, the recently refurbished Paradise Inn serves as an excellent refueling station for hungry and thirsty hikers. While traffic jams may form during the summer, mid-spring remains an excellent time to visit the park, with fewer visitors, especially when you head out on the trails.