Cascade Mountain High: Mount Rainier National Park

The Cascade Mountains run from south British Columbia to Northern California. Located on the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire, all the contiguous United States volcanic eruptions over the past 200 years have taken place in this range. The highest peak in the Cascades is Mount Rainier. At 14,410 feet, it is the fifth tallest mountain in the lower 48 states and the 17th highest in the entire U.S. We spent time driving through the park and hiking in two popular locations: Sunrise and Paradise.

We visited Mount Rainier as a day trip from the Seattle area, where we stayed with our daughters, Lauren and Kristen. While there we spent time in Seattle and hiked on Vashon Island.

Seattle skyline
Kristen, Darren, and Lauren on Vashon Island
Lauren, Sandy, and Kristen on Vashon Island

We timed our visit to Mount Rainier on a Tuesday, in an attempt to beat the crowds. In 2016 the park was the 18th most popular, with 1,356,913 visitors. Our visit began in the northern Sunrise section of the park. It is the highest point in Mount Rainier reachable by car, at 6,400 feet. From this area of the park, the northeastern face of the mountain is visible and was bathed in morning sunshine.

We had absolutely clear and cloudless conditions as we arrived, as evidenced from the Sunrise Point Overlook near the visitor center. From that vantage point we could clearly see Mount Adams (12,280 feet) and even make out Mount St. Helens (8,366 feet) to the south of us.

Mount Adams in the distance from Sunrise Point Overlook

After parking we checked the visitor center for the latest trail conditions and then set off on a loop hike to Shadow Lake. We joined the Wonderland Trail after walking a short distance. The 93 mile trail circles Mount Rainier and is a very popular backpacking trip. We were happy that the trails were not crowded and enjoyed our time as we marveled at the mountain views and beautiful wildflowers blooming around us.

Mount Rainier from the Wonderland Trail
Meadow with wildflowers
Mount Rainier and alpine lake below
Hiking the Wonderland Trail
Shadow Lake

After our hike we got a bite to eat and learned more about Mount Rainier. Native Americans called the mountain Tahoma, and its current name has nothing to do with rain. Instead, it was named by British Captain George Vancouver in honor of his friend Admiral Peter Rainier in 1792. While not as explosive as Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier is considered an active volcano, as steam escapes from within its core.

Back in the car, we continued driving south and west, catching occasional glimpses of the great mountain. We stopped at Reflection Lakes to see Mount Rainier clearly above a dark green forest. Soon after we arrived at Paradise, one of the most popular areas in the park at 5,420 feet. Not only were there beautiful meadows on the south slope of the mountainside above us, but we could also see people hiking even higher up, on the snow, towards Muir Camp at 10,188 feet. It is the jumping off point for summits of the mountain.

Mount Rainier view from Reflection Lakes

By the time we began hiking at Paradise, it was quite crowded. There were also several snow drifts on the trail. We noted that the visitor center warned that they may be slippery in the afternoon sun. The major loop, the Skyline Trail, would take us too long to hike its entire five mile distance, so we decided to walk up the mountainside and turn around when we needed to leave.

We started up towards a viewpoint at Alta Vista. It was a steep trail and we gained about 600 feet in 8/10 of a mile. Right away we noticed that there were even more blooming flowers in the meadows adjacent to the trail than at Sunrise. The views of Rainier also got better with every step upward. We joined the Skyline Trail itself and continued climbing. Several snow banks slowed our progress. There were many people on the trail to queue with in order to take turns walking across, and the snow was slippery, so I took my time.

Snow on the mountainside at Paradise
Looking up at Rainier as we hiked
Mount Rainier and glacier
Vivid wildflowers in bloom at Paradise

The frequency of snow increased as we ascended, so we decided to turn around at Glacier Vista (6,336 feet). Hiking the entire Skyline Trail would have to wait for another day. For variety, we joined the Deadhorse Creek Trail on our way down. There were also fewer people hiking it than on the Skyline Trail, so we made better progress back to the visitor center.

Heading down on the Deadhorse Creek Trail
Looking down the mountain as we hiked

We continued driving west and descended to the Longmire section of the park. At 2,700 feet, it is the one place that is consistently open year-around. As we exited Mount Rainier National Park through the Nisqually Entrance, we both agreed that a day trip did not do the park justice. With an area of 236,381 areas and over 260 miles of hiking trails, it would be easy to spend a week (or two) exploring this place, designated in 1899 as our nation’s fifth national park.

Next, we head back to where we started, California, and America’s newest national park – Pinnacles.

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