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AARP’s Guide to Mount Rainier National Park

Ice, wildflowers and ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest

Purple Lupin growing on a hillside at Mt. Rainier National Park

Christopher Kimmel/Getty Images

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An active 14,410-foot stratovolcano dominates the horizon of Washington State’s South Cascade range. From Seattle and nearby towns, this snow-gilded giant — looming some 7,000 feet over a hundred-odd surrounding mountains — seems impossibly huge. But you can actually visit the majestic Mount Rainier, the stunning star attraction at Mount Rainier National Park (MRNP), which was established in 1899.

MRNP, at 369 square miles, is relatively compact compared to its Pacific Northwest counterparts. Prized for its wonderful hiking trails, the park “is surprisingly accessible to those who are just looking for scenic drives or nice picnics and strolls in less-visited locations,” says Terry Wildy, the park’s chief of interpretation, education and volunteers.

It’s also home to remarkably diverse terrain, notes Mary Skjelset, coauthor of Hiking Mount Rainier National Park (Falcon Guides), who describes “lush rainforest, rocky alpine ecosystems, massive old growth that towers over silty rivers, subalpine meadows that explode in summer with color, and the lenticular clouds that cap the summit.”

On a map, the mountain resembles an avalanche lily with glacial petals jutting out in all directions. That’s fitting, since the park ranks among America’s best places to view wildflowers. (The Visit Rainier tourism board recommends these 10 hikes to soak up the splendor in the grass.)

You might also see marmots, black bears, elk, mountain goats and tawny cougars — and wolverines, which have just returned after a century. Bald eagles and spotted owls soar here, too, and listen for the buzz of tiny calliope hummingbirds.

map of Mount Rainier National Park

AARP

Location: 82 miles southeast of Seattle, on the western slope of the Cascade range

Acreage: 236,381

Highest peak: Mount Rainier (14,410 feet)

Miles of trails: 275

Main attractions: Wildflowers, old-growth forests, wonderful hiking, dramatic alpine views, stunning scenic drives

Entry fee: $15 for hikers and bikers, $30 per car, $55 for an annual pass. Rainier also accepts the America the Beautiful Senior Pass, which costs people 62 and up $20 for a year or $80 for a lifetime. Younger folks can pay $80 per year for the same unlimited access.

When to go

This is really a summer playground. The park’s Nisqually entrance is the only one accessible by car year-round. The rest of the park opens to vehicles as warmer weather clears snow off the higher elevations (usually in late June). Visitors should pack layers of clothing — and a raincoat.

“Just always know where you are at all times and be prepared for sudden changes in weather,” says Wildy. “Travel with a companion and leave an itinerary with a trusted friend. Cell coverage is very limited.”

In winter, a serious amount of snow blankets MRNP. In fact, nearly 56 feet piles up at the park’s Paradise area each year. So plan accordingly, with an excess of warm clothing even for drives and safety equipment for all outdoor adventures.

Begin checking for road closures in late September, as the cold weather intensifies and areas of the park start shutting down, including the entrances at White River, Chinook Pass, Ohanapecosh and Stevens Canyon Road. The park keeps Paradise open except during storms, but requires all vehicles to carry snow chains from Nov. 1 to May 1.

Note: Backcountry stays require a wilderness permit year-round, and climbers must get an additional pass to travel above 10,000 feet and on glaciers. Reserve ahead for visits from June to September on recreation.gov ($26 per trip).

Getting There/Overview

Visitors arriving by air typically fly into Seattle, Yakima, Washington, or Portland, Oregon. Self-drive options provide the most flexibility, especially since the park can’t be reached by shuttles or public transport. But there are day tours out of Seattle and her southern sister city of Tacoma.

The park can’t be driven across, due to that central, heavily glaciated 14,410-foot volcano. So visitors tend to orbit Rainier and take “spoke” roads into five primary areas. (See “Where to Stay and Eat,” below, when choosing which area to use as your home base.)

Paradise and Sunrise are the two most popular areas, since they open up alpine scenery without requiring a taxing hike to get there! But with that easy-access beauty comes large crowds during peak season. Parking lots in both areas can overflow by late morning on weekends and holidays. Travelers with flexible schedules often prefer to explore alternate destinations in nearby U.S. Forest Service lands and Crystal Mountain Resort (the National Park Service app can guide you). But if time’s tight and you need to visit during busy periods, try to arrive before 10 a.m. or after 2:30 p.m.

1. Longmire/Paradise (southwest): This region is convenient to the Nisqually entrance, and a popular base for park visitors.

2. Carbon River/Mowich Lake (northwest): This area shelters temperate rainforests, an inland rarity. The Carbon River entrance remains open throughout the year, but only to hikers and bicyclists. The car-friendly Mowich Lake entrance operates in summer and closes after the first snowfall, usually in early October.

3. Sunrise/White River/SR 123 (northeast): At 6,400 feet, Sunrise remains the park’s other drive-in showstopper. It has glorious alpine views and abundant summer wildflowers (which tend to peak in early August). Expect nighttime road closures above the White River Campground junction from late September and closures from the first heavy snowfalls, usually in mid-October.

4. Chinook and Cayuse passes (east): Sweet summer weather opens up this scenic route to travelers coming from east of the Cascades.

Ohanapecosh River standing on the precipice of Silver Falls in Mount Rainier National Park.

Thomas Franta/Getty Images

Ohanapecosh River

5. Ohanapecosh and Stevens Canyon (southeast): This region boasts lighter crowds, waterfalls, box canyons and towering old-growth trees. Its entrance also closes as the weather intensifies, but it’s typically open from late May to early November.

Where to Stay and Eat

Paradise. From May to early October, check into the Paradise Inn, which sits in the park, high on the mountain’s southwestern flank, about 19 miles from the Nisqually entrance. Its 121 rustic rooms are tucked under a steep, shingled roof designed to shed snow (which can linger until June or July). In the evenings, rangers often give talks in the grand lobby, an inviting space with twin fireplaces, cedar-slab tables and a rustic carved piano.

Longmire. The historic Longmire District is home to the park’s other lodging option, the cozy 1926 National Park Inn (despite its Ashford address, it’s 12 miles east of the town, six miles into the park past the Nisqually entrance). Its 25 tiny and basic rooms don’t have Wi-Fi or TVs, but the property stays open year-round. Insider tip: Don’t miss the spectacular views from its veranda rocking chairs and afternoon tea beside the lounge’s oversized stone fireplace.

Both properties have ADA-accessible rooms.

Ashford. You can get more bang for your buck just outside the park. The mountain town of Ashford sits 6 miles west of the Nisqually entrance, the only one open year-round to cars. This area has the largest and most sophisticated selection of accommodations and restaurants close to Rainier. You can book a tree house or cabin in Ashford at the Wellspring Spa & Woodland Retreat, a bohemian sanctuary in a fern-cloaked forest (think “Hobbiton meets Rivendell,” with a labyrinth, driftwood arches and outdoor cedar hot tubs). Nearby, the 1912 Alexander’s Lodge at Mt. Rainier has 23 quaint rooms (the upper floors are accessible by stairs only). For extra charm, stay in one of the turret rooms, overlooking the waterwheel.

Also in Ashford, the Paradise Village Ukrainian restaurant serves such dishes as white-cabbage borsch, galushki (gnocchi) and sour-cherry pierogies, alongside crepes and baked goods. This spot’s also home to the Instagram-famous “Cannibal Hot Tub” — a giant kettle over a wood fire — which is open by reservation, even to visitors staying elsewhere. Load up on rib-sticking, climber-carb-loading fare nearby at the Copper Creek Inn, the mountain’s top-ranked eatery. Find out for yourself why its blackberry pie wins raves. Or wait till just before the park boundary and indulge in pork momos (dumplings) at the Wildberry Restaurant.

Mineral. Fifteen miles west of Ashford, in Mineral, Elkamp puts a modern stylish twist on tent and RV sites. It offers amenities more typical of a boutique property, such as escorting all new guests to their sites, and delivering ice and firewood. It will expand in 2022 to include cabins, yurts, a tree house and a luxuriously appointed Airstream. Savvy visitors gravitate to the old barn, where the effusive owners sell art, vintage camping items, gourmet treats such as cinnamon-bourbon-pecan popcorn, and local Hellbent and Half Lion craft beers.

Eatonville. To Rainier’s west, sip a draft at Eatonville’s Mill Haus Cider Company, a new venue with an outdoor music stage and covered patios with firepits. You can also take in a flick at the 1942 Roxy Theater.

Wilkeson. If you’re driving to the park from Tacoma, stop by the former coal town of Wilkeson, en route to the park’s car-free Carbon River entrance 14 miles to the southeast. It offers handsome 19th-century architecture, and some of the state’s best wood-fired pizza at the Carlson Block. Savvy travelers line up an hour before opening (once the restaurant uses up its 120 balls of dough, it’s done for the day).

Note: Many Mount Rainier-area restaurants close for the winter and stay open only until 8 p.m. in the peak summer season.


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Things to Do

Summit ascents and the 93-mile, peak-circling Wonderland Trail hog the spotlight. But Mount Rainier has plenty to please outdoor buffs of all abilities.

“The roads were designed many years ago to take advantage of the amazing views,” notes Wildy. “So folks with mobility needs will find that the drives to Paradise and Sunrise, along with the Stevens Canyon Road, allow visitors to enjoy many breathtaking views from the comfort of their cars.” Each of the visitor centers has a loaner wheelchair — first come, first served — for anyone who gets out of breath easier at the higher altitude.

Throughout the park, fly-fishers cast a line for species such as Chinook salmon, mountain whitefish and steelhead trout, all of which must be released. (Non-native brook and kokanee trout can be kept.) You don’t need a fishing license, but the park does require a state catch record card.

Each of Rainier’s entrances leads to great scenery and adventures, but here are some favorites from each area to help with trip planning.

Longmire/Paradise. The park’s original 1916 headquarters is aging gracefully at Longmire, surrounded by its easiest low-elevation hikes with forest shade. The 0.75-mile Trail of the Shadows remains a favorite for families and folks who might classify themselves as “walkers,” not “hikers.” This level path passes rock-fringed hot springs, a log cabin and a marsh viewpoint (half of the route is suitable for wheelchair users, with help). Another favorite: the short, 0.8-mile jaunt to the 72-foot plume of Myrtle Falls.

Just past Longmire on the way to Paradise, a turnout reveals Christine Falls, framed by a 1928 stone bridge. Three miles south, stay alert for viewpoint signs, which lead to Ricksecker Point Road, a one-way scenic loop. Stop at the main pullouts for some of the park’s best views Rainier, its river valleys and the Tatoosh Range.

A half-hour’s drive uphill from Longmire stands Paradise, which, at 5,400 feet, offers splendid mountain views and meadows (ramps lead wheelchair users into the lower grasslands, but the upper ones get prohibitively steep). The 1.1-mile Nisqually Vista Loop attracts hikers and snowshoers, depending on the season. Steve McClure, one of the authors of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, loves this short, sweet paved route. “You get to the end and whoa, there’s the Nisqually Glacier!” he says.

In the same area, tackle the Skyline Trail. It’s the main route out of Paradise, but you can do a 5.5-mile loop, taking in waterfalls, riots of lupines and glorious views of “the mountain.”

Landscape photographers always head to the Reflection Lakes, two basins that mirror Rainier on calm days. Arrive at dawn to secure a good spot before the light warms up. The larger, more westerly lake sits near the parking area, and careless visitors often trample the delicate foliage there. To frame the view with heather or wildflowers — and not jostle for shoreline space — take the moderate, 2.75-mile loop. Always stick to the trail, so you don’t damage the fragile subalpine ecosystem.

For an easy bike ride, try the Westside Road near the Nisqually entrance. The 19-mile trail climbs gently to a crest, which provides prairie views.

Wonderland Trail at Mowich Lake

Paigefalk/Getty Images

Mowich Lake

Carbon River/Mowich Lake. Gin-clear, glacially carved Mowich — the park’s largest and deepest lake — remains a popular spot for fishers. Drive in via a 17-mile gravel access road (SR 165), usually open from mid-July to mid-October. This lovely wildflower-fringed spot also sits at the confluence of many hiking routes, including the Wonderland Trail, and has a walk-in campground.

For cycling fun, head to the Carbon River Road entrance, where you can cruise a little more than 10 miles through inland temperate rain forest.

Sunrise/White River/SR 123. The meadows of Sunrise are the highest point reachable by vehicle in the park. Expect summer wildflowers and panoramic views of Rainier and other Cascades volcanoes.

Hardier hikers appreciate the 9-mile round-trip Burroughs Mountain Trail, which gains 2,500 feet of elevation. The mountain’s broad, tundra-swathed peak allows for unobstructed views of Rainier’s northeastern face and Winthrop Glacier.

En route to Sunrise, check out the lava columns between White River Campground and Sunrise Point. The point itself offers one of the best morning views of Rainer, plus vistas to the south of 12,281-foot Mount Adams and the extinct, deeply eroded volcano known as the Goat Rocks.

When you reach the Sunrise visitor center, take a 0.2-mile trail to Emmons Vista, overlooking the largest glacier in the contiguous United States.

Chinook and Cayuse Passes. Don’t miss the Chinook Scenic Byway, which connects the park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. This mesmerizing route wends along the park’s flank, poised between talus and basaltic rock and dense ancient forests. Stay alert for bald eagles and northern goshawks riding the air currents overhead. Note: This spectacular drive closes for winter due to avalanche dangers.

Ohanapecosh and Stevens Canyon. Lush old-growth cedars, Douglas firs and western hemlocks shade this somewhat drier and sunnier region of the park. The Grove of the Patriarchs Trail remains its biggest draw. This flat, 1.5-mile loop crosses a suspension bridge to an island grove of ancient trees. Some of these solemn giants were sprouting when the Normans conquered England in 1066.

Ten miles west, stop at the Box Canyon Trail, accessible from a small parking area off Stevens Canyon Road. Anna Roth, hiking content manager for the Washington Trails Association, adores this 0.3-mile route, especially for visitors with limited mobility (the first half is paved and wheelchair-accessible). “It’s a bridge over one of the only slot canyons I’ve ever seen in Washington,” she says.

Seattle-based writer and photographer Amanda Castleman covers culture and adventure for BBC Travel, National Geographic and Sierra.

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