Mount Rainier National Park has to be one of the most stunning places in the entire world! From meadows of wildflowers, to old-growth forest, to beautiful waterfalls and rivers, and incredible mountain views… Mount Rainier really is a nature lovers dream.
I have visited the park at least 10 times now, including during my 2017 trip to all the US National Parks. Over the years I have got to know the area fairly well and I’m excited to share my tips with you all! In this blog post I’m covering everything you need to know to plan your Mount Rainier getaway, including when to visit, where to stay, the best things to see, what hikes to take, photo spots, packing recommendations, suggested itineraries, and more!
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Mount Rainier National Park Guide: Everything You Need to Know
Getting to Mount Rainier
Mount Rainier National Park is located 2-3 hours southeast of downtown Seattle, depending on which entrance you are accessing. Many visitors also visit the park from neighboring Oregon, with Paradise located about a 3 hour drive from Portland.
Public transport into the park is limited and instead I would suggest driving or renting a car. One of the best parts about visiting Mount Rainier is being able to take the park’s scenic drives by wildflower meadows, towering trees, and mountain vistas. The nearest airport to the park is Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Best Time to Visit
Summer and fall are by far the best time to visit, in my opinion! In particular, the months of July through October usually offer the best weather, snow-free trails, and the chance to see wildflowers (depending on the season). Keep in mind that Mount Rainier can experience fairly dramatic weather conditions and you are always best to research and plan accordingly.
To avoid crowds I would suggest planning your visit for during midweek and outside of busy holidays such as Fourth of July. Parking can get extremely busy on the weekends and lines can build up at the entrance gates. Entering the park before 10 am or after 2:30 pm can also help avoid delays during busy periods. Check out this article by the National Park Service (NPS) for avoiding summer congestion.
If your main objective is to see wildflowers then you will need to be flexible with the conditions, weather, and the season. Each year is different and the “peak” bloom will depend on many factors. In general the wildflowers will starting blooming around mid-July and will peak by the first week of August, but again this can change season-to-season. The NPS has updates each year on their ‘Discover Wildflowers‘ web page.
FYI national park lovers – I put together a checklist of all the parks, so you can mark each off as you visit them! It’s free to download via my travel resource library! Click the image below.
How Long to Visit For
Visitation time is a very personal thing, as some people prefer to see only the highlights and others opt to really take their time exploring the park. My personal recommendation would be to spend 2-3 days seeing the highlights whilst also getting to see some of the less visited sections. You will find some suggested itineraries further down this blog post, including for single day visits, 3 days, and 5 days.
Mount Rainier National Park has four main entrances: Nisqually (southwest), Carbon River (northwest), White River/Sunrise (northeast), and Stevens Canyon (southeast). The Nisqually entrance (via SR 706) is probably the most popular given its year-round access for vehicle traffic, proximity to the state’s main highways, and access to Longmire and Paradise. Note that many of the park roads close in winter.
The park has five main sections: Longmire, Paradise, Ohanapecosh, Sunrise, and Carbon River/Mowich. I would say the most developed and well-known sections of the park are Paradise and Sunrise, but below is a brief breakdown of what each area of the park has to offer:
- Longmire – the park’s historic district, with access to a wilderness information center, museum, and the National Park Inn.
- Paradise – best known for its wildflower meadows, main park visitor center, winter activities, ranger station, guide house, and the Paradise Inn.
- Ohanapecosh – where visitors can experience the park’s old-growth forest and also access the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center and Ohanapecosh Campground.
- Sunrise – a popular spot to explore wildflower meadows and views of the mountain, with access to the Sunrise Visitor Center, Sunrise Day Lodge, and White River Campground.
- Carbon River/Mowich – best known for its beautiful trails and camping, including Mowich Lake Campground and Tolmie Peak Trail.
Like most national parks, Mount Rainier has limited facilities and access to things like phone service or WiFi. You can access free WiFi in the Paradise Jackson Visitor Center, though this can only be used during opening times (varies depending on the season). You can find places to eat in Longmire, Paradise, and Sunrise, though this also depends on the season and opening hours. Plan accordingly!
Entrance fees to the park vary depending on your visit time (see a breakdown of the fees here). If you are a fairly regular visitor to national parks and recreation areas then I would suggest purchasing an annual pass, also known as the “America the Beautiful” pass. These are only $80USD and cover entrance fees to all national parks and national wildlife refuges PLUS day-use fees at national forests, BLM lands, and more.
There are numerous lodging options inside and outside of Mount Rainier National Park. Inside the park you have the choice of staying at the National Park Inn (Longmire) and the Paradise Inn (Paradise), or in one of the three major campgrounds (Cougar Rock, Ohanapecosh, and White River). There are also numerous overnight backcountry camping spots throughout the park, though these require a wilderness permit.
My favorite campground is Cougar Rock, which is located in the southwest corner of the park between Longmire and Paradise. There are 173 sites, with many available on a first come, first served basis, though it’s recommended you try to reserve a site ahead of time through the Recreation.gov web site. Keep in mind that there are no electrical, water, or grey water hookups in any of the park’s campgrounds.
Ashford and Packwood make for nice towns to base yourself outside of the park. During my most recent visit to Mount Rainier we opted to rent a cabin in Ashford with some of our family. It turned out to be a convenient spot to see most of the parks attractions.
“… the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I have ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings.” – John Muir, 1889
Mount Rainier National Park is bursting with things to see and do. Here are some of my favorite sights that you can drive right up to and are perfect for all types of visitors:
- Explore Paradise and witness wildflower meadows, the historic Paradise Inn, and check out the museum upstairs of the Paradise Jackson Visitor Center.
- Stop by Christine Falls on your drive up from the southwest entrance (there is a small parking lot and a very short walk down to the lookout).
- Enjoy the mountain views from Reflection Lakes (the name comes from the beautiful reflection of Mount Rainier you get on a still day).
- Take the scenic drive between Paradise and Sunrise, pull off at the numerous overlooks and enjoy the mountain vistas!
- Detour to Tipsoo Lake and enjoy blooming wildflowers, a scenic picnic area, and views of Mount Rainier.
- Drive to the highest point in the park accessible by vehicle, Sunrise (6,400 feet). Take in the magnificent views of Mount Rainier, Emmons glacier, and Mount Adams.
- Explore the historic district of Longmire, including the Longmire Museum and National Park Inn.
Every time I go hiking in Mount Rainier National Park I am in complete awe that such a beautiful place can even exist. I have listed some of my favorite trails below, but keep in mind that there are more choices and you should always check conditions before you go!
- Comet Falls: 3.8-miles, 900-feet elevation gain, beautiful forest trail, wildflowers, and close-up views of 320-foot high Comet Falls (and Bloucher Falls).
- Grove of the Patriarchs: 1.1-miles, minimal elevation change, walk along the river and marvel at old-growth forest including Western red-cedar, Douglas-fir, and Western hemlock.
- Fremont Lookout: 5.6-miles, 900-feet elevation gain, absolutely stunning views of Mount Rainier, the Cascades, and even over to the Olympic Mountains on a clear day.
- Naches Peak Loop: 3.5-miles, 500-feet elevation gain, wildflower meadows, huckleberries, and beautiful Mount Rainier views (hike in clockwise direction).
- Skyline Loop Trail: 5.5-miles, 1700-feet elevation gain, abundant wildflowers, and a close-up look at Mount Rainier and the Nisqually Glacier.
- Tolmie Peak Lookout: 6.5-miles, 1010-feet elevation gain, gorgeous views of Eunice Lake and Mount Rainier, plus a chance to see Tolmie Peak Lookout.
- Sourdough Ridge Trail: (East to Dege Peak) 4.2-miles, 800-feet elevation gain, beautiful subalpine meadows of the Sunrise area and views of the mountain
Some super short and easy hikes also include Nisqually Vista Trail and Myrtle Falls. For really adventurous I would suggest looking into longer treks such as the Wonderland Trail (on my bucket list!) and climbing to the summit of Mount Rainier.
Not surprisingly, Mount Rainier is a popular photography location and people come from all over the world to capture its beauty. Over the years I have narrowed my favorite photo spots down to the following locations, though there are many more options available for those willing to put in the research:
- Reflection Lakes: best captured during sunrise or sunset on a still day (to get that iconic reflection of Mount Rainier).
- Fremont Lookout: gorgeous at sunset, especially if you are lucky enough to experience a cloud/fog inversion.
- Little Tipsoo Lake: beautiful at both sunrise and sunset, especially if the lake is still enough to capture a mountain reflection.
- Paradise: probably the best location to capture wildflower images (ask the rangers where the best blooms are).
- Comet Falls: for an iconic long exposure waterfall image you can’t really beat Comet Falls (also consider Bloucher Falls and Narada Falls).
I thought it would be useful to provide some suggested itineraries based on how long you have to spend in the park. Use these as a guide when planning your own trip but be sure to do some additional research to ensure roads are open, trails are snow-free etc. For ease of planning, I have included a map with all these locations above.
Start early to fit everything in and beat the crowds. Begin by accessing the park from the Nisqually entrance and drive up Paradise Valley Road. Stop at Christine Falls Bridge and Ricksecker Point on your way up to Paradise. Take a hike at Paradise according to your ability level (e.g. Nisqually Vista), enjoy the wildflower meadows, and afterwards grab a snack or quick meal at the Paradise Inn (or pack a picnic lunch).
Continue on towards Sunrise, stopping to take in the views at Reflection Lakes and any other scenic pullouts along the way. Take a quick hike along the Grove of the Patriarchs Trail before driving the last stretch to Sunrise. Finish the day hiking to Fremont Lookout or taking the Sourdough Ridge Trail (pack a headlamp so you can stay our to experience sunset!)
Base yourself in a nearby town such as Ashford and split your days into exploring different sections of the park. Having 3 full days will allow you to take a little more time at each of the locations mentioned below.
Day 1: Begin by hiking the Comet Falls Trail. Afterwards continue on to Paradise, stopping to experience Christine Falls Bridge and Ricksecker Point along the way. Explore the wildflower meadows up at Paradise, check out the museum at the visitor center, and consider hiking another trail in the afternoon (e.g. Nisqually Vista Trail or Skyline).
Day 2: Start your day at Reflection Lakes before heading onto to hike the Grove of the Patriarchs Trail. Have lunch in one of the many scenic picnic areas in that area (there are also some chairs and tables right by the parking lot). Afterwards continue on to Tipsoo Lake and hike the Naches Peak Loop that afternoon.
Day 3: Spend your day in the Sunrise area exploring the wildflower meadows and enjoying the views of Mount Rainier from the overlook by the junction of Sunrise Rim Trail and Emmons Vista Nature Trail (pinned on the map above). Choose a day-hike such as Fremont Lookout, Sourdough Ridge, or The Burrows, and enjoy your last hours in the park. You can exit the park via the northeast or southeast entries if that is quicker, rather than driving back through Ashford.
Begin by exploring all the areas mentioned in the 3 day itinerary but spreading them out over 4 days so that you can take longer hikes and spend more time enjoying the views. Add on an extra day exploring the northwest section of the park, the Carbon Rover/Mowich area. Take a day hike to the Tolmie Peak Fire Lookout for gorgeous views of Eunice Lake and the north-side of Mount Rainier.
For a 5 day itinerary you may consider splitting up your accommodation by starting on the Sunrise side, camping 2 nights at the White River Campground, then spending 2 nights at the Cougar Rock Campground, and 1 night at the Mowich Lake Campground (primitive, walk-in only sites).
Packing for a trip to Mount Rainier National Park will depend on factors such as time of year, length of visit, weather conditions, planned activities etc. There are some items that I think apply to most visitors so I will share them below, along with suggested items and links:
- Hiking day pack: Osprey Packs Skarab 30L Backpack (or the Peak Design Everyday Backpack for those wanting a camera bag)
- Reusable water bottle: Hydroflask Bottle or Wide Mouth Nalgene Bottle (please avoid single-use plastics)
- Hiking boots: KEEN Terradora Leather Mid Waterproof Boot (women’s), Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX Hiking Boot (men’s)
- Warm jacket: Arc’teryx Cerium LT Down Jacket (women’s), Backcountry Silver Fork 750 Down Jacket (men’s)
- Rain Jacket: Marmot PreCip Eco Rain Jacket (women’s), Patagonia Torrentshell Jacket (men’s)
- Light wind jacket*: Backcountry Canyonlands Lightweight Wind Jacket (women’s), Arc’teryx Squamish Hooded Jacket (men’s)
- Head lamp: Petzl Actik Headlamp (especially if you plan to take any sunrise/sunset hikes)
- Trekking poles: Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Trekking Poles
- Sun hat: United by Blue Bison Hat (my current favorite!)
* Having a lightweight wind jacket saved me from getting bitten by mosquitoes! Would highly recommend investing in something like this.
I also have in-depth blog posts for people just getting into hiking and backcountry adventures, where you will find more information on everything you need to get started! Click here to check out my Beginners Guide to Hiking, Beginners Guide to Backcountry Camping, and my Ultimate Winter Hiking and Camping Guide.
Interesting Park Facts
- Mount Rainier was designated a National Park on March 2, 1899; making it the fifth national park in the United States.
- The earliest evidence of human activity in the park is dated circa 2,000-3,800 BC. American Indian tribes inhabited the Mount Rainier area prior to European “discovery”, with the Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, Muckleshoot, Yakama, and Cowlitz tribes living a subsistence lifestyle off the land.
- Mount Rainier is known as “Tacoma” or Takhoma to Native Americans, which translates as “she who gives us the waters” or “the mountain that was god” in native languages.
- The centerpiece of the park is Mount Rainier, standing at 14,411 feet above sea level and known as the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states.
- Mount Rainier experiences around 20 small earthquakes a year, making it the second most seismically active volcano in the North Cascade Range, after Mount St. Helens.
- The first well documented summit of Mount Rainier occurred in 1870 by General Hazard Stevens and Philemon Van Trump.
- Mammals found within the park include black bear, cougar, coyote, raccoon, bobcat, hare, weasel, mole, beaver, red fox, porcupine, marmot, skunk, deer, marten, shrew, pika, elk and mountain goat.
- In 2016, Mount Rainier National Park had 1,356,913 visitors according to the National Park Service.
Before you go… if you’re going to be out in nature it’s important that you strive to protect it and follow Leave No Trace (LNT) principles. Please be sure to educate yourself on proper etiquette before heading into the national park. Listed below are some guidelines taken directly from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, known as The Seven Principles.
- Plan ahead and prepare – read more
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces – read more
- Dispose of waste properly – read more
- Leave what you find – read more
- Minimize campfire impacts – read more
- Respect wildlife – read more
- Be considerate of other visitors – read more
Important: Mount Rainier’s meadows are very fragile, damage easily, and take many years to regenerate. Try to minimize your impact on this delicate environment by hiking only on the constructed trails and resting or picnicking on rocks near the trail. Also, pleaseeeee don’t pick the wildflowers!
More National Park Inspiration!
- How to Plan the Perfect National Parks Visit
- Route to Travel to Every US National Park
- America’s National Parks – Ranked Best to Worst
- 15 Least Crowded National Parks & Why You Need to Visit Them
- The 15 Most Underrated National Parks in America
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