The Ultimate Guide to Mount Rainier National Park
“In the deep forests of Mount Rainier, the sun doesn’t rise, it leaks in thin bands through the trees.”
- Bruce Barcott, Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier
If you're planning a trip to Mount Rainier National Park, then you're truly in for a treat. The majestic mountains, meadows of flowers, and incredible waterfalls are pure magic. It is difficult to find the words that describe the natural beauty. You will need to see it for yourself!
Mount Rainier towers 14,410 feet above sea level and is the highest volcanic peak in the contiguous United States. It also has the most glaciated peak outside of Alaska. Another interesting fact is that it wasn't always called Mount Rainier, but rather Tacoma by several Native American Tribes. Tacoma means "the source of nourishment from the many streams coming from the slopes". It was named Mount Rainier in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver after his friend, Peter Rainier.
This National Park has five developed areas: Longmire, Paradise, Ohanapecosh, Sunrise, and Carbon River & Mowich. Paradise and Sunrise are the most popular. There are limited roads when navigating around Mount Rainier so it does take some time to drive to each point.
There are four main entrances to get into this park: Nisqually (southwest and the most popular entrance), Carbon River (northwest), White River/Sunrise (northeast), and Stevens Canyon (southeast).
There is a $30 entrance fee that is good for up to seven days. Alternatively, you could choose to purchase an annual pass for $80 that covers entrance fees to more than 2,000 federally managed recreation areas across the U.S.
The best time to visit
August is truly the best time to go. This will guarantee that you will see meadows of wildflowers blooming and a lot of the snow will be melted on the trails. It does get crowded on the weekends, so if you can plan a visit during the week that will be best. Plan to enter the park before 10 AM or after 2 PM PT to avoid traffic.
Where to stay
There are campgrounds located throughout the park. You can also find two Inns located inside the park: National Park Inn at Longmire (open all year round) and Paradise Inn (only open in the summer). We stayed in the town of Ashford which was right outside the Nisqually entrance.
How many days should you spend here?
I recommend a minimum of 3 days to get the most out of this park (one day for sunrise, one day for Paradise, and a 3rd day to do more hiking or explore a different region). If you do only have one day here, I made a day-long itinerary for Paradise and Longmire that you can find below in this blog post.
What will the weather be like?
When we went at the end of July we found ourselves hiking in the snow on some trails, but comfortable enough for short sleeves. If you don't want snowy trails, the safest time to go will be August. The average high in the summer is about 60°F in the winter is about 30°F. An average of 670 inches of snow falls in the winter!
What to pack:
Even in the summer, the weather can vary and it's always smart to pack several layers. Something breathable and fast drying is recommended. The mornings are chilly and the afternoons are typically warm (especially if you're hiking). You should also include a waterproof jacket.
Comfortable hiking boots and wool socks. You should also include ice cleats that attach to your boots for better traction on snowy trails (we ended up using these in the snow even at the end of July).
sunscreen, sunglasses, and a watch
first aid kit
information on hiking in bear country & bear spray
an offline map due to limited cell service in some areas
A guide to Paradise + Longmire
Paradise is one of the most popular areas in this National Park. It’s located on the south side of the park and has an elevation of 5,400 feet. Longmire is in the southwest corner of the park at a lower elevation and is along the way to Paradise. This area is truly majestic. You’ll find meadows of colorful wildflowers in the late summer surrounded by the most epic mountain views. There is also access in the winter to activities that include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and sledding in Longmire. Always remember to check the current road status before visiting. Even if you only have a day to spend in Mount Rainier, Paradise should be number one on your list.
Where exactly is Paradise?
I highly recommend downloading an offline map of the area before visiting since cell service can be limited in some areas. You can also get a map at the entrance of the park. Paradise is located on the park's south side and is about 30-40 minutes from the Nisqually entrance or 40-50 minutes from the Stevens Canyon entrance. If you’re coming straight from Seattle, it only takes about 2.5hrs.
Wherever you enter from, you'll be in for a treat because the drive is breathtaking. Prepare to spend some time stopping at overlooks for pictures!
Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center
This is a perfect first place to stop. The visitor center has parking and access to many popular trailheads. It's the busiest visitor center in this park, so the best time to get here is early in the morning or you'll be stuck looking for a parking spot. The center has restrooms, food, souvenirs, and maps.
Paradise Inn - the Paradise Inn sits next to the visitor center and is an excellent spot to stay when visiting this area. It's open from mid-May to late September. There are 121 guest rooms available. Be sure to reserve a room as soon as possible since they fill up fast. Prices start at $191/night. Although we didn't stay here, we will definitely consider it next time due to the convenience. We stayed in an Airbnb in Ashford, which was next to the Nisqually entrance.
Trails you can access from the Paradise Visitor Center
Before planning your day of hiking and sightseeing, I recommend downloading the All Trails app on your phone to check the trail status. Some of these trails can easily become dangerous or may be more strenuous than you're used to. It's good to do research before visiting and pick the right trails for you. Even at the end of July, Paradise had a lot of snow and we were limited on our hiking here based on our comfort level.
Skyline Loop Trail- Length 5.5mi roundtrip, 1450 feet elevation gain, rated hard. You'll find this trailhead behind the visitor center. This is one of the most popular trails in Mount Rainier because it has some of the most jaw-dropping views of meadows, glaciers, and waterfalls. In the late summer, you'll find meadows filled with wildflowers at their peak. It climbs to a high overlook of Paradise Valley and you can even spot more volcanoes to the south (St. Helens, Adams, and Hood). This is the one hike that can't be missed when visiting Paradise. It takes an average of 4.5 hours to complete, so keep that in mind.
Myrtle Falls viewpoint via Skyline Trail- Length 0.8mi out-and-back trail, 150 feet elevation gain, rated easy. If you're short on time or unable to do a strenuous hike, don't pass up Myrtle Falls. It's located near the start of the Skyline Trail. This 72-foot-high waterfall has the majestic Mount Rainier in the background. I can confidently say this is the most picturesque waterfall I've encountered. Expect there to be a lot of people here- especially photographers with tripods.
Nisqually Vista Trail- Length 1.1mil loop trail, 180ft elevation gain, rated easy. This trail is great if you're looking for an easier trail. It's also paved! It offers breathtaking views of Mount Rainer and the Nisqually Glacier.
Alta Vista Trail- Length 1.8mi loop trail, 616 elevation gain, rated moderate. If you want more of a challenge then this is a great trail to do! There are also more trails connected near the base, so make sure to check the map for even more hiking options.
Stops along the road in Longmire
Reflection Lake- on your drive to or from the visitor center, make sure to stop at Reflection Lake. It really holds up to its name since you can the reflection of Mount Rainier in the water surrounded by towering trees. This is truly a postcard picture. You'll also find the Pinnacle Peak trail here, which is another popular trail with enchanting scenery.
Comet and Christine Falls- Located on Paradise Valley Rd. is at the Comet and Christine Falls trailhead. Christine Falls is one of the most accessible waterfalls in the park and is beautifully framed by a stone bridge. If you're wanting more of a challenge, the Comet Falls trail is a moderate trail that will take you to a 462-foot waterfall!
Narada Falls- This waterfall is incredible and can't be missed when visiting! It's a 0.3mi hike from the parking lot- the hike back up is pretty steep, but very doable. The soft mist coming off this 168-foot waterfall felt so refreshing!
One-day Itinerary for Paradise + Longmire (driving from the Nisqually Entrance)
Drive to the Henry M. Jackson visitor center and hike to Myrtle Falls via the Skyline Loop Trail, the Nisqually Vista Trail, and Alta Vista Trail. Grab supplies or a bite to eat at the visitor center.
Head to Reflection Lake, relax and take in the beautiful views.
Take a scenic drive down Paradise Road- there are plenty of pull-offs with incredible mountain scenery.
Stop at Christine Falls
Short hike to Narada Falls
Visit the cute mountain town of Ashford (right next to the park entrance) and have dinner at the Wildberry Restaurant. This is a Sherpa family-owned restaurant that serves both American Mountain food and authentic Sherpa-Himalayan food from Tibet & Nepal. I can't say enough good things about this place! Everything was delicious!
A guide to Sunrise
The sunrise area is the highest point of the park you can drive to and sits at an elevation of 6,400 feet on the northeastern side. This is also one of the first areas in the park to capture the sunrise in the morning, hence the name. Since the elevation is so high, it does get a lot of snow which can limit the opening. Sunrise road normally opens in late June or early July and closes in early October. There isn't lodging at the Sunrise location, but some locations to look at are Paradise Inn, the town of Ashford, or Packwood. White River Campground is located just 12 miles from the Sunrise visitor center. It can take about 40 minutes to an hour to drive from Paradise to Sunrise in the park.
Sunrise is where you'll find some of Rainier's first wildflowers blooming in the meadows and where you can get close-up views of Emmons glacier. The mountain views at sunrise are truly spectacular! Here are some things you can do at this location. The drive to Sunrise is considered to be one of the most beautiful drives in the States!
Stops along the road
Tipsoo Lake- a beautiful subalpine lake surrounded by wildflower meadows.
Sunrise Point- This is an overlook that you'll get to before making it to the visitor center. Here you'll see the most beautiful alpine views that include five volcanoes; Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, Mount Adams, and Mount Hood.
Sunrise Visitors Center and day lodge- here you'll find a snack bar and gift shop. They also sell outdoor equipment such as sunscreen, bug repellent, hiking sticks, and clothing.
Yakima Park - The meadows surrounding Sunrise are known collectively as Yakima Park.
Silver Forest Trail- length 1.9mi, 200 feet elevation gain, rated easy. Located on the south side of the visitor center parking lot, this was one of my favorite hikes we did in Mount Rainier. We started early in the morning and had the trail to ourselves. We spotted some of the first wildflowers blooming and the most spectacular mountain views!
Sunrise Nature Trail- length 1.5mi, 370 feet elevation gain, rated easy. This hike is located next to the upper end of the Sunrise picnic area. It's a beautiful loop trail through subalpine meadows.
Mount Fremont Lookout Trail- length 6mi, 1,263 feet elevation gain, rated moderate. This trail is one of my other favorites we hiked at Sunrise. It was so neat to see Mount Rainier so up close! We also saw a lot of marmots here (large ground squirrels) basking in the sun and sprinting around. We didn't encounter mountain goats, but that's another animal to be on the lookout for! This is a great hike for someone who doesn't want something too strenuous or long but wants breathtaking mountain views. Some tips: Go on a clear day for the best views around sunrise or sunset. Be sure to bring sunscreen since there isn't much shade on this hike. There were a ton of bugs flying around at the lookout and we wish we brought some bug spray. The end was pretty rocky and I was happy I brought my hiking poles to help keep my balance and reduce strain on my knees.
The Ohanapecosh region is located on the southeast side of the park. This is where you'll find enchanting old-growth forests and the clear blue waters of the Ohanapecosh River. I found this to be a quieter side of the park, but it definitely shouldn't be passed up. There is also a campground located here.
Silver Falls Tail- there are two different ways that vary in length to see this fairytale-like waterfall. If you do one thing in this area, Silver Falls must be on your list!
State Route 123- length 0.6mi and rated easy. We did this version because we were limited on time, but I wish we could have completed the full trail.
Ohanapecosh Campground- length 2.9mi and rated easy
Grove of the Patriarchs Trail- This trail was closed due to damage to the suspension bridge when we visited. It should be reopening in 2024. This is an easy 1.1mi trail where you walk across a bridge to an island of ancient red cedar, douglas fir, and western hemlock trees. These trees are 1000+ years old! Reviews on Alltrails say that there's a shallow spot in the river to cross since the bridge is still out if you still want to check it out.
Carbon River & Mowich
This region is located on the northwest side of the park and is open all year round. It's one of the least visited areas of the park and perfect for avoiding crowds. Not many people know there's a temperate rainforest here, which makes this spot worth visiting! We stopped in this area for a short time when leaving the park and walked through the rainforest. There is limited parking because the road is damaged and closed off, but you can still get access to the trailheads and even walk along the road.
Carbon River Rainforest Nature Trail- length 0.3mi, rated easy, boardwalk trail. this short trail was so peaceful and serene. There's a bridge at the beginning overlooking a stream of crystal clear water. You'll then find yourself walking through mossy green trees and ferns. There's a waterfall trail that's a couple of miles long connected to it if you want to spend more time here exploring. This trail is overgrown and not in the best condition, but I honestly think it makes it so picturesque.
I really hope you enjoyed this guide! I tried to make it as simple as possible and easy to follow along. If you have any questions please feel free to reach out to me.
Please remember to leave no trace when visiting these beautiful National Parks.
Thanks so much for reading!