No trip to Washington or Oregon is complete without a Mount Rainier National Park visit. The sights and experiences at this iconic national park are truly unforgettable. I’ve been here twice already, and I’m itching for my next trip back. There’s so much to see and do here all year round, from hiking among the wildflowers, to chasing hundreds of spectacular waterfalls, to even strolling through a temperate rainforest. In the fall, the terrain transforms to feature beautiful shades of orange and red. In the winter, come for epic skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing. With its proximity to so many major cities in the Pacific Northwest, carving out some time to visit Mount Rainier is a no-brainer.
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GETTING TO MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK
Most people who visit Mount Rainer from out of state will usually fly into Seattle Washington (SEA) or Portland, Oregon (PDX). Mount Rainier National Park is approximately 107 miles from downtown Seattle (2 hours) and about 140 miles from downtown Portland (2.5 hours).
Estimated drive times from other nearby cities:
- Seattle, Washington – 2 hours
- Portland, Oregon – 2.5 hours
- Eugene, Oregon – 4.5 hours
- Spokane, Washington – 4.5 hours (to the East Entrance, not available during winter)
- Spokane, Washington – 6 hours (winter route)
- Boise, Idaho – 8 hours
MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK – FUN FACTS
- Mount Rainier is America’s fifth national park. It was established in 1899, 17 years before the National Park Service was created in 1916. You’ll learn a lot about Mount Rainier’s history while in the park.
- Mount Rainier is a 14,411-foot volcano with the potential to erupt again. The most recent eruption was a small one sometime between 1820 and 1850.
- Mount Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S. There are 25 named glaciers on Mount Rainer.
- People actually climb to the top of Mount Rainier! Trained and experienced climbers will encounter a challenging vertical elevation gain of 9,000 feet over a distance of more than 8 miles.
- Mount Rainier is encircled by the 90-mile trail known as the Wonderland Trail. The full hike typically takes 10+ days.
- The Native American name for Mount Rainier is Tahoma (or Tacoma), which translates to “mother of waters”.
- Expect to see lots of chipmunks, marmots, goats, and even black bears!
ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR YOUR VISIT TO MOUNT RAINIER
- Mount Rainier is a massive park. You will need at least 3 full days to even begin to scratch the surface. The hikes here are so much fun and jam-packed with sights. If you can only manage to do one hike per day, then consider staying for 3+ days.
- Mount Rainier is open year-round, but trails are often covered in snow until mid-July. Even after July, you may still see snow on some trails.
- Summer is peak season in the park when you can experience peak wildflower blooms in late July to August.
- Mount Rainier National Park costs $30 for a 7-day pass. Hang on to your receipt because it will get you back into the park for 7 days. Trust us, you’ll be in and out a lot. The park is massive!
- If you plan on visiting a few other national parks within a year’s time, get the America The Beautiful National Parks Pass which costs $80. As long as you visit 2 additional national parks, the pass will more than pay for itself and save you so much money on park admission fees.
- As with all national parks, getting there early is key if you want to avoid the headache and multi-hour long waits at the park entrances. I’ve heard horror stories of people getting to Mount Rainier after 12pm, only to have to spend additional hours waiting to get past the entrance. Whenever I visit a national park, I always make sure to get in before 9:30am. It’s worked out perfectly for me so far, as I’ve never had to wait more than 5 minutes.
- If you do plan to arrive on a weekend afternoon, strategically head to one of the less popular park entrances (like the Stevens Canyon Entrance). Even though you’ll be driving more miles, the time you save by not sitting in a line of parked cars means that you get more precious time to explore the park!
- When heading to the park, tune in to the radio station posted on the road signs for live Mount Rainier visitor updates. If there’s a huge traffic jam at one of the park entrances, they’ll be the first to tell you!
- Consider packing a picnic lunch to enjoy during your hike or at a picnic table near one of the visitor centers. The restaurant and snack bar options are limited here and tend to be crowded during lunchtime.
- Make sure you have a good daypack for your hikes. You’re going to want to carry snacks and water with you, especially if you’re doing hikes over 2 miles.
- Do not forget to bring a warm, packable jacket. You are going to be high up in the mountains, so expect unpredictable weather, even in the summertime. It’s not uncommon for there to be cloud coverage early in the morning (freezing) and warm, shining sun in the afternoons. It’s best to pack a puffy jacket and a beanie with you at all times, especially if you’re visiting higher elevation areas like Sunrise or Paradise.
- Wear sunscreen and sunglasses when hiking. Sunlight reflecting off of snow can cause sunburns as well as damage your eyes.
- Fill your gas tank before entering the park. There are no gas stations within the park.
UNDERSTANDING THE FIVE AREAS OF MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK
Before we get into what you should do at Mount Rainier National Park, it’s important to understand the layout of Mount Rainier’s developed areas. Since there’s a mountain peak smack dab in the center of the park, you’ll need to understand that driving times will take longer due to the need to circumvent the mountain. Mount Rainer can easily be broken down into 5 main regions.
- Paradise area – This is the park’s most popular destination, located 5,400 feet up the mountain’s south side; features super up-close views of Rainier’s peak, wildflowers, and high alpine meadows overlooking the iconic Nisqually Glacier
- Longmire area – Second busiest visitor’s center of the park, located in the southwest corner of the park; features old-growth forest along the Nisqually River. This is Mount Rainier’s historic district as it was the first visitor center and park entrance station, operational since the 1880s.
- Sunrise area – The highest point you can drive to in the park, with the visitor center open from early July to early September; features amazing sunrises and lots of great day hikes.
- Ohanapecosh – Located in the southeastern corner of the park, featuring lush, emerald surroundings including old-growth forests and crystal clear waters.
- Carbon River and Mowich – Least visited parts of the park. Carbon River is located in the park’s northwest corner, receives consistently high amounts of rainfall, features a temperate rainforest. Mowich Lake is the largest and deepest lake in Mount Rainier National Park.
Paradise, sitting at 5,400 feet of elevation, features the best of the best. It’s no wonder most Mount Rainier visitors flock to this end of the park. You can expect spectacular views all around, glacier-fed lakes, hiking trails lined with wildflowers, and various rushing waterfalls. This area is best known for its epic views of Mount Rainier and the 5.5-mile Skyline Trail hike (a must-do for any first-time visitor). If you are looking for an overnight lodging option, you’re in luck because if you stay at the historic Paradise Inn, you’ll be waking up in one of the most scenic parts of the park.
On the northeast side of Rainier, the Sunrise area offers a different perspective of the iconic peak. With close-up views of the Emmons Glacier and hundreds of acres of scenic wildflower meadows, it gives Paradise some real competition. The road leading to Sunrise ranks among the most beautiful drives in the country. It’s also the highest point accessible by car and is wildly famous for its spectacular sunrises. Many hardcore travelers will get up in the wee hours of the night to drive here and catch a glimpse of the day’s early light beam onto the mountain.
Take note that the Sunrise Visitor Center is open during the summer months only (late June until early October). During other months, it’s usually buried in snow due to its high elevation. There is no lodging or restaurant here, but there is a snack bar serving hot meals at the Sunrise Day Lodge.
Longmire, located 16 miles east of Ashford, is the park’s first visitor center and park entrance. In 1899, Mount Rainier National Park was established and visitors began arriving from Ashford via Longmire’s Trail. Consequently, the entire Longmire area is now a national historic district. Here you can find restored structures and a historic museum, as well as lodging at the National Park Inn. At an elevation of 2,700 feet, the Longmire area offers great hiking options outside of the peak summer season.
A few notable hikes here include the Wonderland Trail, Sourdough Ridge, and Burroughs Mountain.
Ohanapecosh is known for its popular trails, serene lakes, and more remote setting. The terrain here is quite different from Sunrise or Paradise, as it’s nestled in the old-growth forest by the Ohanapecosh River. This area is so beautiful and lush with greenery–first-time visitors should definitely not skip out on a visit to this region of the park. There is no lodging or food service here like there is at Longmire, Sunrise, and Paradise. However, there is an amazing campground at Ohanapecosh visitors can make use of. Ohanapecosh is 10 miles from civilization (Packwood), where lodging and food services are available.
One of the best hikes in Ohanapecosh is the 2.7-mile loop to Silver Falls. Though not the tallest waterfall, this 40-foot fall is majestic as heck and hands-down my favorite. Another popular family-friendly hike is through the Grove of the Patriarchs. More on these hikes below.
The Carbon River Valley is Mount Rainier’s smallest and least visited area known best for its hiking opportunities. Located in the northwestern corner of the park, the Carbon River Ranger Station invites visitors to explore and hike through an ecosystem not found anywhere else in the park–an inland temperate rainforest. Since rainforest weather is so rare in the Cascades, visitors can enjoy being in the presence of the Sitka spruce growing here, a tree common along the Olympic Coast. With its low elevation of 1,900-feet and mild winter temperatures, snow is rare in the Carbon River area while that’s certainly not the case for the rest of the park! If you’re looking for hiking options in the wintertime, the Carbon River area makes for a prime option.
Some notable hikes here include the 3.4-mile roundtrip hike to Ranger Falls and Green Lake and the 0.4-mile roundtrip hike to Chenuis Falls.
Now that you’ve learned the ropes of how the park is split up, we can dive into the best things to do at Mount Rainier National Park.
THINGS TO DO AT MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK
SKYLINE TRAIL AT PARADISE
If you could do only one hike in Mount Rainier National Park, make it this one. During this 5.5-mile hike (moderately strenuous), you’ll get to experience a little bit of everything that Mount Rainier is famous for. This hike boasts insanely gorgeous views of Mount Rainier and the Nisqually Glacier, as well as waterfalls, streams, stunning wildflowers, panoramic views, and lots of marmots. Wildflowers that you’ll encounter in peak season include lupines, mountain heather, scarlet paintbrush, cascade asters and bistort.
Pro Tip: We recommend hiking the loop in a clockwise fashion, even if it is a little more of a steep climb in the beginning. You’ll get amazing views early on and avoid a potentially steep icy slope when coming down. Hiking counterclockwise offers a more tranquil beginning and a lower initial elevation grade.
BRUNCH AT PARADISE INN
If enjoying historic lodges is your thing at national parks, then you’re in luck. Make your way over to Paradise Inn on Sunday mornings, because they serve a mean gourmet brunch here (similar to the one served at The Ahwahnee Dining Room at Yosemite National Park). Sunday Brunch has a long history! While you eat, take in that 1920’s rustic cabin vibe and let it transport you back in time!
EXPLORE THE HISTORIC LONGMIRE DISTRICT
Plan for a brief stop at the Longmire District where you can learn about the park’s longstanding history. Learning a little more about the park’s roots will allow you to appreciate the park’s beauty a lot more. It’s crazy to think people in the 1800’s were enjoying the same views as you! A bit of a history lesson sneak peek: The Longmire family was the first to arrive here in 1883. They established the Longmire Medicinal Springs as well as the Longmire Springs Hotel, built for travelers looking to visit the hot springs in the area. You’ll be able to stroll by a few architectural buildings to get a sense of the olden days.
This area is also home to the National Park Inn, a 25-room lodge that is open all year round. In the winter, Longmire is a great place to snowshoe or go cross country skiing.
VISIT THE LONGMIRE MUSEUM
Make sure you don’t miss the Longmire Museum in Longmire, which is a historic attraction in itself. Not only can you learn more about the history of Longmire, but you’ll also find park rangers who can provide tips and advice on the best trails suited for your needs. Ask them for a ranger talk as well (covering various topics related to the park)! The museum also features a gift shop and picnic tables for day use.
DO SOME HIKES AT SUNRISE
This area has so many hiking trails–there is something for all fitness levels and all ages. One of our favorite hikes was the Mount Fremont Lookout Trail, starting from the Sunrise Visitor Center. This 6-mile hike takes you through alpine meadows and past a frozen lake to reach your destination, a lookout tower where you can take in sweeping views of Grand Park, Redstone Peak, Skyscraper Mountain, and Berkeley Park.
The Silver Forest Trail is an easy 2-mile roundtrip hike on fairly even terrain.
Before or after your hike, make sure to stop by The Sunrise Day Lodge for the gift shop and a small snack shop.
Remember: At 6400 feet, Sunrise’s roads and services are only open once the roads are cleared of snow. Sunrise is only accessible from the months of June through September. If you’re visiting in the summer, make sure to visit before they close for the year!
SEE SOME WATERFALLS
Because Mount Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states, the park alone is home to over 150 waterfalls. A few of our favorites:
- Myrtle Falls – A waterfall situated right in front of one of the most iconic views of Mount Rainier; easily accessible, located only 0.25-mile from the parking lot at Paradise. After enjoying the falls, continue hiking on the Skyline Trail for even more scenic views of Mount Rainier National Park.
- Silver Falls – One of my favorite waterfalls at Mount Rainier National Park! The falls are reached by a 3-mile loop trail starting from the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center. Read more about this hike below.
- Narada Falls – Narada Falls is one of the most accessible waterfalls in Mount Rainier, no hiking required at all! The falls are located just north of Cougar Rock Campground and can be seen from the parking lot. If you want to hike to the viewpoint near the bottom of the falls, it’s a 0.2-mile roundtrip walk. The bridge over the top of Narada Falls also provides access to the Wonderland Trail.
- Christine Falls – Another epic view, with the lower falls framed by lush greenery and a historic arching bridge.
GO ON A FEW OTHER HIKES
There are too many amazing hikes within Mount Rainier to list in one post. If you’re going to be spending a few days at the park, consider getting a Mount Rainier hiking guidebook to explore the park’s popular trails as well as the undiscovered. Below are a few notable hikes to get you started.
Silver Falls – 3 miles (Ohanapecosh)
For waterfall chasers, you really can’t miss this one. Silver Falls is one of the best looking waterfalls in the park and one of my absolute favorites. Take a break from those glaciers, wildflowers, and alpine lake views and come hike among the lush, emerald forest. Once you arrive at the base of the falls, continue hiking up to a viewpoint near the top of the falls to experience it from a different perspective.
During the winter, you’ll find that Silver Falls is at its strongest flow, but it’s still so very impressive during the summer months as well. To get to Silver Falls, take the 3-mile Silver Falls loop trail from the Ohanapecosh Campground.
Bench and Snow Lake – 2.5 miles (Ohanapecosh)
This hike is an awesome option if you’re looking for views of alpine lakes surrounded by jagged mountain peaks. Snow Lake is a 2.5-mile roundtrip hike with an elevation gain of approximately 700 feet. It’s a hike that’s good for all ages and abilities.
Grove of the Patriarchs – 1.3 miles / 5 miles (Ohanapecosh)
Hike along the Ohanapecosh River to an ancient forest of towering western red cedars and Douglas-firs. It’s hard to believe that some of these giant trees are over 1,000 years old. So beautiful and majestic! The hike is a 1.3-mile roundtrip from the Stevens Canyon Road. Alternatively, you can opt for a longer 5.0-mile hike by starting in Ohanapecosh.
Sourdough Ridge Trail – 2.5 miles (Sunrise)
The Sourdough Ridge Trail is a super popular hike at Mount Rainier National Park, and it’s family-friendly too. It’s the perfect trail for visitors looking for a quick hike in the Sunrise area. The trail features amazing mountain views of Mount Rainier, alpine meadows, wildflowers, and marmot sightings. Make sure to get here early because it does get busy on this trail.
From Frozen Lake, you have a few options to extend your hike: take the Wonderland Trail back to Sunrise, follow Mount Fremont Trail to the fire tower, or wander up to the Burroughs Mountain Trail via the North Burroughs Mountain Trail.
Mount Fremont Lookout Trail – 6 miles (Sunrise)
Starting from the Sunrise Visitor Center, this 6-mile hike takes you through alpine meadows, past a frozen lake, and finally to your destination, a lookout tower where you can take in sweeping views of Grand Park, Redstone Peak, Skyscraper Mountain, and Berkeley Park. Since Sunrise sits at a higher elevation than other parts of the park, make sure you have a puffy jacket or fleece with you. When we did this hike in late September, it ended up being 42 degrees in the morning when we started!
As you hang out and enjoy your snacks at the Fremont Lookout, beware of curious chipmunks. They are not afraid of you and will climb into your backpack looking for things to eat. Please don’t feed them!
Skyline Trail – 5.5 miles (Paradise)
As described above, this is the #1 hike you need to do while at Mount Rainier National Park. Gorgeous views all around! Your hike along the Skyline Trail will be filled with views of cascading waterfalls, unbelievable glacier views, and subalpine meadows brimming with colorful wildflowers. On top of that, be prepared to see dozens of those adorable lounging marmots!
We recommend hiking the loop clockwise. This way, you’ll be facing all the breathtaking views the whole time. You can also check out a number of short ancillary trails from this direction (you won’t get lost, they’ll bring you back to the Skyline Trail). As you start your hike, be ready for the initial grade from the parking lot; it’s steep for about 0.4 miles, but it will eventually level out and be so much easier to climb. Don’t miss those panoramic views at the top! Panorama Point provides stunning views of the Paradise Valley, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, and even Mount Hood on a clear day.
There are bathrooms located in the Paradise parking lot at the visitor center. If the visitor center is closed, there’s a second set of bathrooms at the Guest Service building across the way. Grab a map of Paradise Valley before you begin.
One of the most iconic views of Mount Rainier can be seen at Reflection Lake. An easy 2.75-mile loop hike will lead you to the lake, where you can enjoy a picnic lunch and soak in the views for as long as you’d like. In the fall, Reflection Lake becomes even more spectacular as the surrounding trees take on autumn colors. Keep in mind that after September, snow is common at this elevation.
STARGAZE AND NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY
Because there is very little light pollution at the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier National Park, it’s one of the best places for stargazers and photographers looking for those perfect shots of the night sky.
Head to Crystal Mountain, located 6 miles away, for a ride on the Mt. Rainier Gondola. This gondola ride will take you over 2,400 vertical feet to the summit, where you find panoramic views of Mt. Rainier and the Cascade Range.
After you get off, head to the Summit House, Washington’s highest perched restaurant at 6,872 feet. The restaurant is open all year long, serving up hearty soups, chilis, gourmet pizzas and pastas, and even fondue. If you’re in the area on a Sunday, don’t miss the highly-rated Sunday brunch! A meal with the most epic view of the Cascades—who could ask for more?
WINTER ACTIVITIES AT MOUNT RAINIER
In the summer, Mount Rainier hosts many ranger-guided snowshoe walks where visitors can learn about Mount Rainier’s winter ecology while having some outdoor fun. Looking for more family-friendly fun? Mount Rainier offers sledding in the Paradise area, as well as backcountry winter camping, skiing, and snowboarding.
WHERE TO STAY AT MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK
If you’re looking to stay within the park, you can either stay in a lodge or go camping.
- LODGING: There are lodges with restaurants at Paradise and Longmire. At Paradise, you can stay at the historic Paradise Inn. This lodge is only open from late May to early October. At Longmire, you can stay at the National Park Inn, the only hotel open year-round in the park.
- CAMPING: There are 4 NPS campgrounds within the park: Cougar Rock, Ohahapecosh, White River, and Mowich Lake. They are situated on varying elevations and are located in different parts of the park. Most of them can be reserved ahead of time. Get more camping information here.
Outside of the park, Ashford, Packwood, and Enumclaw are where you’ll find most lodging accommodations. We stayed at Ashford and though it was a small community, there was still access to a few restaurants, small grocery shops, and gas stations.
WHERE TO EAT NEAR MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK
- PIZZA EXPRESS – serving up pretty decent pizza by the slice, considering it’s located in the middle of nowhere!
- WILDBERRY – the Summit Burger is one of the top five burgers we’ve had in our lives (it’s three patties tall); the wild blueberry pie with ice cream is also the best thing ever—so comforting after a long day’s worth of hiking.
WHAT TO PACK FOR YOUR MOUNT RAINIER TRIP
- America the Beautiful National Parks Pass | Mount Rainier National Park costs $30 for a 7-day pass. However, the national parks annual pass is a great way to save on entrance fees. If you intend to visit three or more NPS parks or sites in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass will more than pay for itself. This pass can be purchased at the park entrances or online here. [Example: 3 National Parks x $30 parking each = $90. Savings with the annual pass = $10. Any more parks you go to thereafter = FREE!]
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on spending some time on the river or in the falls, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — they’re comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
- Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any alpine destination. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
- Puffy Jacket | You’re going to need layers in this alpine weather. The climate here brings chilly mornings and evenings, even on warm summer days. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for a day hike.
- Laundry Bag | Outdoor activities = lots of sweaty, smelly, dirty, and worn clothes. Don’t soil your entire travel bag by mixing worn clothes with your unworn clothes! Definitely bring a laundry bag to separate your clean clothes from your dirty clothes to maintain the utmost freshness.
- Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any outdoor destination. Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun.
- Sunscreen | Remember to put on sunscreen even if there is cloud coverage. UV rays in overcast conditions are particularly strong, so don’t overlook it.
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing… the last thing you want is to be stranded with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
What are some of your favorite things to do at Mount Rainier National Park?