What to Do at Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier is “the heart of the people of the pacific northwest,” claims Kathy Steichen, chief of interpretation and education for Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state. The 35-year National Park Service veteran started her career here in the late 1970s, and returned in 2015. Of the highest volcanic peak in the contiguous United States, she says, “a lot of people really connect with this mountain.”
Why? For starters, you can spy its 14,410-foot peak from just about everywhere nearby, including parts of western and eastern Washington and even Oregon.
“When you’re in Seattle, if you say to someone, ‘The mountain is out,’ no one would think that’s a weird thing to say," explained Steichen. (It means the sky is clear enough that Rainier is visible.) Here are a few of Steichen’s expert tips for getting the most out of your trip to Rainier.
Hit the Trails
Crossing more than 93 miles—up and down valleys and through subalpine meadows—the famous Wonderland is “quite a trail,” Steichen said.
You can do the entire length, or bits and pieces. Just remember to get a backcountry permit if you want to stay overnight. Prefer something super-simple? Check out the the Grove of the Patriarchs Trail, which was recommended by Steichen. It’s a 45-minute loop even little kids can handle.
Early Birds Get the Best Hikes
Keep in mind that, as is true of many national parks, planning in advance—especially in summertime—is crucial. Parking lots fill up all over Rainier, so arrive relatively early in the day for a day hike.
Stay the Night
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this sprawling lodge is a cool example of what’s called “National Park Service Rustic” or the “parkitecture” style of architecture. Relying on natural features such as slabs of rock, these buildings are meant to be a minimal aesthetic intrusion on their surroundings. The Paradise Inn, which opened in 1916, has insanely high ceilings with beams and a 14-foot-tall grandfather clock. It's worth checking out even if you don’t stay for the night.
Campgrounds are also abundant in Mount Rainier National Park, but one of our favorites is the White River Campground. Flush toilets and running water are a few of the modern conveniences available, but the real draw is the scenic view. It's the best campground for watching the sun rise over the snow-capped peaks at the 6,400-foot Sunrise Point.
Watch Out for Glaciers
Remember Mount Rainier is home to 27 major glaciers spread across 35 square miles. And they’re melting at “a substantial rate,” Steichen warned. What this means for you is that ice masses, rocks, and other glacial debris can start moving—fast. If you hear rumbling (particularly if you’re near a river), get to higher ground as quickly as possible.
And the Volcano
In addition to an impressive viewpoint, Mount Rainier is also an active volcano: and among the most monitored in the Cascades. Scientists learned a lot from the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980, Steichen noted, which was preceded by small ash plumes and other warning signs. “There would be plenty of time to warn people both within the park [as well as] immediately outside the park” if Rainier was becoming more active, she told Travel + Leisure.
Climb if You Dare
About 10,000 people annually attempt to climb Rainier, according to Steichen, with a success rate of 50 percent. Local businesses lead expeditions, but know that above 10,000 feet you’ll need a permit and proper climbing equipment (think: crampons, an ice axe, ropes) to reach the summit.
"[And] you’ll have to know how to use all your equipment if you were to slip and fall,” added Steichen. Climbers must be comfortable with such life-saving tactics as self-arresting with an ice axe and escaping a crevasse, so the top of the mountain is only for very seasoned mountaineers.
Enjoy the Snow
Skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling are all permitted in various parts of the park, with snowshoeing—“It’s so much easier than skiing!"—being particularly popular, Steichen said. Just imagine sledding down the side of a mountain: It’s the sort of thing kids (and adults who are young at heart) remember forever.