Dreaming of Travel: Mt. Rainier National Park
"Live Like The Mountain is Out!"
This is a popular phrase amongst Washingtonians. When a clear day exposes Mount Rainier (known as Tahoma in the Lushootseed language of the Coast Salish peoples) in all her glory, everyone heads for outdoor adventures. You don’t have to be a peak bagger to enjoy the tallest mountain in Washington, though. Located about two hours from Seattle, Mt. Rainier National Park offers families plenty of opportunities to see the iconic stratovolcano up close.
When to visit
Visiting Mt. Rainier means you’ll contend with higher elevation — snow can last until mid-July here and tire chains are typically required through May, while wildfires can bring smoke in late summer.
For the best opportunities to see wildflowers, plan a visit in July or August and arrive as early as you can to avoid crowds. Families can typically sled and enjoy snow play in the Paradise area from December through March.
Park regions and where to stay
Most visitors from Seattle enter through the Nisqually Entrance at the southwest corner of the park, which is open year-round. This offers the easiest access to Longmire and Paradise where you’ll find many of the shorter family-friendly hikes. Inside the park, you can stay at the Paradise Inn or Cougar Rock Campground. The town of Ashford is the closest for vacation rentals if you want a little more space and kitchen facilities.
The White River/Sunrise park entrance at the northeast corner of the park has the shortest season, typically from July through September. Unless you luck out with a first-come, first-serve spot at the White River Campground, you’ll likely drive close to an hour from accommodations. The Crystal Mountain Resort has multiple lodges for creature comforts and families can find vacation rentals in the Crystal Mountain area as well.
In the southeast corner of the park, you’ll find the Stevens Canyon entrance (typically open May through October). This is closest to the Ohanapecosh Campground and vacation rentals and hotels in Packwood.
Things to do
Over the years, we’ve experienced a few of the highlights in Mt. Rainier National Park, but there are so many hikes that it feels like we’ll never get to them all. I recommend spending a few days in the park if you can, or concentrating on one region if time is limited. Parking can be a hassle in peak season and it’s more fun to arrive somewhere early and enjoy your time rather than trying to hit multiple spots.
The Nisqually Vista trail is an easy 1.2-mile loop that is relatively friendly to active strollers or wheelchairs. In the summer, you’ll see wildflowers like lupines and avalanche lilies. Bring binoculars to spy climbers descending near Camp Muir after early morning mountain summits.
For waterfall views, consider Myrtle Falls or Narada Falls, both of which have hikes of less than a mile.
Ohanapecosh/Stevens Canyon Area
Mt. Rainier isn’t the only impressively tall thing in the park! Cross over a fun suspension bridge to check out the giant old-growth trees around the 1.1-mile Grove of the Patriarchs trail.
If you drive about thirty minutes north of the Ohanapecosh campground, you’ll find the Naches Peak Loop trail. This 4-mile hike features wildflowers, small lakes and maybe even some late summer mountain blueberries to snack on. We had foggy weather on our recent trip, but sunny days offer mountain views as well. Families with young children can skip the larger loop in favor of a short jaunt around Tipsoo Lake.
We included a stretch goal hike for our recent trip to Sunrise — the trail to Second Burroughs is just under 7 miles. It’s challenging but offers beautiful wildflowers and stunning mountain views. It was quite chilly and foggy when we started hiking at 9 a.m., but the fog lifted periodically and we could see the blue-tinged glaciers on the side of Rainier as we hiked up rocky paths. This hike is not for the faint of heart! If you’re unsure about your crew’s stamina, consider heading to Frozen Lake along the Sourdough Ridge trail (3 miles roundtrip) and continuing on to the Burroughs if everyone’s feeling up to it.
Several other hikes depart from the Sunrise parking lot (which fills up quickly on summer weekends - be prepared!). The Silver Forest trail is just 2 miles round trip, while more adventurous hikers can head for Dege Peak or Mt. Fremont Lookout (4 and 5.6 miles, respectively).
Other nearby activities
Check for day programs on the Mount Rainier Institute website. This University of Washington organization provides fun experiences where families can learn about maple syrup harvesting, wildflowers, bats and more. While most programs are geared towards elementary school ages, inquire about the younger set — my toddler and preschooler have enjoyed modified trips immensely.
Check out the Crystal Mountain Gondola if you’re traveling with little ones or family members with disabilities, but still want those mountain views. Private cabins take you to the Summit House where you can grab lunch (splurgy, but good!) and spot many of the tallest mountains in the Cascades. Book in advance on their website for significant discounts ($30 per adult instead of the $39 walk-up price).
Tips for a successful Mount Rainier trip
To help make your trip a success, here are a few final tips:
- Bring the essentials. Mosquitoes love summer in Rainier just as much as humans and the high elevation means more UV exposure. Be sure to pack good bug spray and sunscreen and reapply often. Bring layers no matter when you visit — on our recent August camping trip, we experienced 40-degree temperatures for an early morning hike! Check your pack for the 10 essentials, especially if you’re planning for longer hikes.
- Download offline maps. There is little to no cell service in the national park. You can download offline trail maps on the AllTrails app, use offline Google maps for driving directions, and pick up a high-level trail map at most visitor centers (or better yet, take a picture to save paper!).
- Have a plan for food. There aren’t many dining options in the park (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic), and even fewer for folks with dietary restrictions. Picking up picnic ingredients and snacks in advance will help prevent hangry kids on the trail.
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Explore more of our Dreaming of Travel series in a music lover’s paradise like Memphis, or find your happy place on Bear Lake: An Adventurer’s Oasis. If you’d prefer, Make Nature Your Focus in Harper’s Ferry, Dream about a Tubing Adventure in Salida, Colorado, or further fuel your wanderlust in the Dry Tortugas or at Mojave National Preserve.
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