Visiting Mount Rainier National Park
One of Washington State’s two fourteeners, Mount Rainier's considered one of the most dangerous active volcanoes in the Cascade Range and the 17th tallest peak in the United States. On its massive flanks standing at 14,410 feet, it holds 25 major glaciers and more than five times as much snow and ice as all other Cascade volcanoes combined. If an eruption were to occur, the snow and ice melt alone would create massive lahars traveling 45 to 50 miles per hour that would destroy the Puyallup River Valley, putting about 80,000 people at risk. While these may be scary statistics, the mountain itself is a beloved jewel of Washington state and holds a special place in many locals’ hearts.
The park consists of five main sections circling around the volcano and taking up 369 square miles. These sections are Carbon River, Sunrise, Paradise, Longmire, and Ohanapecosh. There are 120 miles of roads that connect each of these sections and make the park enjoyable for people of all fitness and accessibility levels. While there is no gas or fuel available in the park, there are gas stations in small towns just outside.
Mount Rainier has four entrances, with the Nisqually and White River being the two busiest, and Carbon River and Stevens Canyon being the two slowest. It’s not unheard of to wait over an hour just to enter the park and Paradise and Sunrise parking lots are typically full by late morning. If you want to beat summer crowds, a great option is to visit on weekdays either in the early morning or late afternoon. Keeping a flexible schedule and alternate plans can also help mitigate overcrowding and ensure you have a great time experiencing all that the mountain has to offer.
Much like most National Parks, Mount Rainier visitation has blown up post-COVID. From 2008 to 2021, annual visitation increased from1.1 million visits per year to over 1.7 million. According to the national park website, in 2022 they had nearly 2.4 million visitors, 70% of whom arrived between July and September. Much of this visitation is concentrated in only a few small areas of the park, including Paradise and Sunrise.
What the Future Holds
In April 2023, Mount Rainier National Park released a drafted plan to limit vehicle entry into the park. While they list multiple options in the plan, the park’s preferred method is to implement a vehicle registration system, much like Glacier National Park’s. This new system would require vehicles to reserve timed-entry slots to enter the park through the Nisqually and Stevens Canyon entrance stations along the Nisqually to Paradise corridor. It would also increase overflow parking along the corridor, allowing up to 800vehicles in at one time.
While nothing is yet certain, the park service is anticipated to come to a final decision later this year with a potential start date in the summer of 2024.
Mount Rainier’s nearly 13,000 feet of habitable elevation creates a plethora of diverse habitats for varying species to thrive. While different species tend to live at different elevation zones, the park is home to mammals such as black bears, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, red foxes, minks, and weasels. Currently, the park is participating in a restoration program to reintroduce native Pacific fishers to the area.
The two animals that pose the biggest threat to hikers are mountain lions and black bears. Fortunately, both animals are seldom spotted and do not like confrontation.
If you run across a mountain lion, give it plenty of space, and make sure to immediately leave the area if you spot kittens. The most important rule when dealing with big cats is to not panic, run, or turn your back on them. If a cat approaches you, make yourself look as big as possible, wave your arms, and yell loudly. If you are worried about stumbling across a mountain lion while out hiking, then a great option is to always keep a rock in your pocket. Most cats are easily scared off and simply throwing a rock in its general direction is enough to usher it along.
While there are no records of any black bear attacks occurring at Mount Rainier National Park, it’s still a good idea to carry bear spray and be aware of bear safety. Black bears are most often drawn in by food and a great way to avoid any unwanted encounters is to keep your food securely stored away. If you have any concerns, you can always speak to park rangers about any recent bear or cougar sightings and certain trails or areas to avoid.
Get to Your Trailhead
Luckily, Mount Rainier has over 275 miles of maintained trails to escape to. These trails spread across a huge variety of landscapes, including old-growth forests, river valleys, high subalpine meadows, and even glaciers. Many of these habitats are fragile, especially soil crusts in alpine meadow eco systems, and all hikers are required to always stay on the trail.
Unlike many parks, Mount Rainier doesn’t allow overflow parking for trailheads. They do this to prevent areas from becoming overcrowded, roads from being blocked, and the overall quality hiking experience from being diminished. However, if you are driving your own vehicle, you must get to your trailhead early to secure a parking spot. This is a popular hiking destination, and the trails can get crowded early, so you should be at your trailhead preferably before 9:00 am.
As always, bring plenty of water, snacks, and a light jacket. Generally, Mount Rainier is a cool and rainy climate with weather influences from the Pacific Ocean. The summers average between 60- and 80-degrees Fahrenheit, however, rain is possible any day and any time of year. Different areas of the park average anywhere between 75 and 126 inches of rainfall each year.
Naches Peak Loop
Distance: 3.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 500 feet
For an alpine experience without a strenuous elevation gain, Naches Peak Loop is a popular hike. It’s especially wonderful in the late spring when the wild flowers bloom. The trail is optimal for any fitness level and provides a wide range of sights, including a lake overlook, meadow, and views of Mount Rainier.
Distance: 3.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
Considered a moderate hike, this trail follows a white water creek upstream to a narrow gorge. As the trail continues, it winds past numerous small waterfalls and ultimately builds to Comet Falls, a 301-footwaterfall nestled between glacier-carved rocks. It’s considered one of the best waterfalls in the Mount Rainier area and definitely worth the walk.
Mount Fremont Lookout
Distance: 5.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
One of the most popular trails in the park for good reason, the Mount Fremont Lookout is a hike to a two-story cabin built in 1934 as a fire lookout. While no longer manned, visitors can take in the views from the cabin and even spot nearby wildlife. It provides views of Grand Park, Redstone Peak, Sky scraper Mountain, and Berkeley Park.
Spray Park Trail
Distance: 6 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,300 feet
A great option to escape crowds, Spray Park Trail is the perfect hike for any one looking to catch amazing alpine wildflowers setback against Mount Rainier’s iconic profile. The trail features a waterfall before a series of steep switchbacks that lead up into alpine meadows. It is one of the best hidden gems in the park and a wonderful day hike for those looking for a challenge.
Skyline Trail Loop
Distance: 5.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,700 feet
While the Skyline Loop may be one of the park’s more famous hikes, it has earned its notoriety. Located in the park’s famous Paradise section, this hike is a strenuous opportunity to take in some of the best views of Mount Rainier. It features waterfalls, glaciers, subalpine meadows, and colorful splashes of wildflowers at every turn.
The Wonderland Trail
Distance: 93 miles
Elevation Gain: 22,000 feet
Not for the faint of heart, this trail circumnavigates the base of Mount Rainier and takes 10-14 days to complete on average. It is an incredibly strenuous hike with plenty of elevation gain and loss as it traverses through lowland forests and high alpine meadows. It’s considered a bucket list trail for many people and is worth a look for any backpacking enthusiasts visiting the park for an extended period.
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