Exploring Mount Rainier National Park's Trails

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Mount Rainier and the Nisqually Glacier from Glacier Vista/NPS

The three kids—my 12-year-old son, Nate, and 10-year-old daughter, Alex, plus my 15-year-old nephew, Marco—are slightly less than enthusiastic about our plan to hike the Skyline Trail Loop above Paradise, on the south side of Mount Rainier National Park. My 76-year-old mom, Joanne, normally an eager hiker, shuffles along this morning, still recovering from a long, hard hike up Mount St. Helens two days ago.

Our group isn’t exactly the picture of bubbly cheerfulness at the outset of our six-mile day-hike, despite the cobalt sky overhead and made-for-hiking mild temps and slight breeze—the kind of weather for which Pacific Northwest hikers patiently wait out nine months of rain every year, a sign of devoted, true believers. But I know “The Mountain” will charge up my little group’s energy level very soon. Hiking in Mount Rainier National Park, where another five-star panorama usually awaits around the next bend, does not require much patience.

Sure enough, before long, we emerge from a copse of resilient confer trees—still outflanked by snow in August—to the kind of view that can make you wonder whether the alpine sun and elevation have conspired to tamper with your delicate brain. But it’s real. Looming very large over a huge chunk of our visual horizon, 14,409-foot Mount Rainier’s visage of snow, gray rock, and cracked, blue-and-white ice towers several thousand feet above our sprawling, wildflower-filled meadow.

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Hikers high above Paradise/Michal Lanza.

Minutes later, we come upon a fat, furry marmot posing for photos on a trailside boulder. Then the kids bound over to a nearby snow slope to run laps up it and “ski” back down on their boot soles, delighting in the anomaly of playing in snow on a balmy summer day. When we are able to pull our eyes away from Rainier and turn around, we look out at the decapitated ruins of Mount St. Helens and another snowy and icy hulk, 12,280-foot Mount Adams, second-highest peak in Washington, both volcanoes rising high above the forested mountain ridges and valleys.

For families or anyone who likes a scenery payoff to match more than their effort, Mount Rainier National Park is a day-hiking paradise—and not just at Paradise, probably the most popular trailhead in the park. Besides views of The Mountain and some of the best wildflower shows in America, park trails offer vistas of some of the biggest glaciers in the Lower 48, waterfalls, roaring whitewater rivers gray with glacial flour, dense rainforest, and occasional sightings of mega-fauna like elk, mountain goats, and black bears.

After several visits to the park, I have some favorite day hikes. Go in the first half of August, when the substantial snowpack of winter and spring has melted away enough to reveal a riot of lupine, beargrass, pink monkeyflower, and other wildflowers.

Some other great day hikes at Mount Rainier National Park


* The six-mile Skyline Trail loop above Paradise climbs 1,400 feet to a high point of 6,800 feet and delivers almost constant views of Rainier’s south side, as well as St. Helens and Adams in the distance.

* The six-mile, out-and-back hike from Van Trump Park Trailhead (4.5 miles above Longmire on the Longmire-Paradise Road) to Christine Falls (minutes from the trailhead), 320-foot Comet Falls, and Van Trump Park, climbs 2,200 feet through ancient rainforest into sub-alpine meadows with views south to St. Helens and Adams. Add two miles round-trip to Mildred Point, at 5,800 feet, an overlook of the Kautz Glacier where mountain goats are known to hang out.

* The steep and little-traveled Eagle Peak Trail from Longmire climbs almost 3,000 feet to a saddle just below the summit of Eagle Peak, at the west end of the Tatoosh Range, with cliff-top views gazing across a deep valley at Rainier, which looks close enough to touch. The meadow just below the saddle explodes with wildflowers in mid-summer.

* The easy, 1.1-mile walk through the quiet, awe-inspiring Grove of the Patriarchs, on the Ohanapecosh River in the southeast corner of the park, takes you through a forest of giant Douglas firs, western red cedars, and western hemlocks—showing off the breadth of biodiversity in a national park with an elevation range of 13,000 feet.

* From Sunrise, on the northeast side of Mt. Rainier—with parking-lot views of three of Rainier’s biggest glaciers—dayhiking options abound. Follow the Wonderland Trail five miles out-and-back to the wildflower meadows above Berkeley Park. With more time and energy, combine that with the loop over Burroughs Mountain, with views across Glacier Basin to the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers on Rainier.

* From Mowich Lake on the mountain’s northwest side, Spray Park is a six-mile, out-and-back hike with 2,200 feet of elevation gain to reach the beginning of vast meadows bursting with wildflowers. Give yourself extra time to venture farther out this trail, which boasts some of the best views of Rainier in the park.

Comments

Add one more to my bucket list. And congratulations to your mother!

I usually never say anything and, the road to Sunrise will be open June 20-22, and then again for the summer starting June 27... sshhh don't tell no one ;-]

Thanks for the dates, Random Walker. I pilgrimage to Sunrise at least once every summer. My favorite trail goes back around "behind" Sunrise past Shadow Lake and the old campground. Wildflowers galore, the Mountain practically looms over you, and there's almost always marmots and sometimes something bigger (last summer there was a bear!).