Rising to over 14,000 feet, Mount Rainier dominates the eastern horizon of the Seattle-Tacoma area. Wherever you drive, Rainier is watching. Watching and waiting. An episodically active volcano, Rainier last erupted approximately 1,000 years ago. According to the Mount Rainier National Park website, “It is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States and spawns six major rivers.” No wonder ancient peoples and folks today stand in awe of her.
Mount Rainier National Park is an easy day’s drive from the Sea-Tac area, making it a popular spot for 1-2 million visitors each year. There are several entrances into the park, making it easily accessible from all directions. Since we were camped at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, we drove into the park via Rt 7 and entered the park at the Nisqually entrance. After traveling from the urban congestion of the Sea-Tac area and passing through the Mt. Rainier National Park arch, we entered a wonderland of thick forest. It was like we had magically “stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia.” Down went the windows and we breathed in the life-giving air of the forest and mountains. This was bliss!
Our first stop was the Longmire Area. When the park was established in 1899, this was the park headquarters. The original 1916 building is still standing and houses a museum which gives a history of the park. We talked with a ranger about some day hikes, gathered our maps, and were on our way for a day of exploration!
Our first hike was the Trail of the Shadows. This easy, 0.7 mile, self-guiding loop trail begins across the street from the visitor center and winds around the Longmire Springs Resort, a destination for visitors in the early years of the park. Next stop was Carter Falls/Madcap Falls Trail. This is a 2.2 miles, 500′ elevation gain hike through a beautiful forest. The trail is very well-marked and not strenuous. We were treated to some gorgeous fall colors and the waterfalls were beautiful.
As we drove along the park road to Paradise, we pulled off in a large parking area and hiked a short trail down to view Narada Falls and were blessed by a rainbow!
By this time, we were warmed up and ready for a more challenging hike. We stopped along the Nisqually River and spent some time picking our way over the rocks that the river had brought down from the mountain.
According to our map, the trailhead for our next hike was across the river. But first we had to cross a bridge. A log bridge. I mean, ONE log. With ONE hand rail on the downstream side. True, the river wasn’t extremely deep, but it was very fast moving. And if you needed to look down to place your feet, then the chance for getting a bit dizzy, well, it wasn’t fun. After giving myself a pep talk and lots of positive affirmation during the crossing (“You can do this, Connie! You’re amazing! This is easy!”) I reached the other side only to realize that we were reading the map wrong! Back across we went!
We studied the map some more and came to the conclusion that the trail WAS on the opposite shore. Across we went. Still couldn’t find the trailhead. Back one more time. Talked to a fellow hiker. Watched him cross and head on up the trail. So we followed him. Across the log bridge. For the fifth time! Finally found the trail. However, I must admit I don’t remember much about the hike because I knew I would have to cross that bridge one more time to get back to the truck. We made it back safely, but, it was nerve-wracking.
Time for lunch! We headed up to the Paradise Jackson Visitor Center. This new facility houses exhibits, a park film, ranger programs, a bookstore, and cafeteria. We bought some lunch, snagged an outdoor picnic table and had lunch with one of the most stunning views ever! Rainier, in all her glory, reigned over a meadow of colorful wildflowers and an expansive landscape. It wasn’t hard to figure out why it is called “Paradise.” This area of the park is open in the winter on weekends for skiing, sledding, tubing, and snow shoeing. It’s also home to the historic Paradise Inn, definitely worth taking a stroll through to see the dining room and hotel lobby. We took the Paradise Valley Road, a one-way drive through more high meadows which were awash in fall wildflowers. Unfortunately, our day was drawing to a close and we had only visited 2 areas of the park! We looked at our calendar and decided that we did indeed have another free day to come back and explore!
We mapped out our itinerary for our second day of exploration. Entering the park again through the Nisqually entrance, we made a beeline for Paradise, bypassing the visitor center area, and heading toward Reflection Lakes. This is a popular spot for photographers as on a clear, still day, these lakes reflect the grandeur of Rainier. We followed the road through Stevens Canyon—breathtaking, stunning,…..we were running out of adjectives. One observation, if we had to do it again, we would drive west up Stevens Canyon instead of east. That way Rainier would always be in front of us. The road through Stevens Canyon has many pull-offs, giving you ample opportunities to fill up the SD card of your camera with multiple shots of Rainier’s changing moods and the surrounding canyon walls.
We stopped for a sack lunch and a short hike at Box Canyon and met a young couple who was just finishing up their 11-day hike on the Wonderland Trail. The Wonderland Trail is a 93 mile trail that circumnavigates Mount Rainier. It is a very strenuous hike over rugged terrain, elevation gains and losses daily, and is not for the faint of heart. We tipped our hats to this young couple who were anxious to have a hot shower and a big juicy steak!
Our travels next took us to the Grove of the Patriarchs Trail, a 1.3 mile loop trail that crosses the Ohanapecosh River to an island of 1,ooo year old Douglas fir and western red cedar trees. It was like entering an evergreen sanctuary. Those towering giants enveloped us in a reverent hush. We found ourselves whispering to each other, as if we were in church. In a way we were. Like Anne Shirley says, “The forest was God’s first cathedral.”
Leaving the peace and tranquility of the Grove, we traveled on to the Sunrise Visitor Center up a 10 mile exhilarating, curvy road with hair-pin turns and lots of wiggles. And it was my day to drive! YEE-HAW! We reached the center’s parking lot and planned to do another lengthy hike to end our day, but we hadn’t taken into consideration the 6400 ft elevation. After huffing and puffing on a short little walk, we realized we needed to back off, sit a while, and enjoy the view. Mount Rainier again put on a show with the sun beginning to sink behind it. True, it would have been wiser to start our day at Sunrise and watch Rainier light up with the morning sun, but maybe next time.
We stopped in Enumclaw, a delightful little city with a quaint downtown with several eateries. We enjoyed a delicious meal at the Historic Mint Restaurant & Alehouse before heading back to the camper at JBLM.
Mount Rainier National Park truly is the gem of the Pacific Northwest. With its proximity to such a major metropolitan area, it is a mecca for those pursuing some outdoor activity. Miles upon miles of hiking trails, ranger-led programs, camping, and mountain climbing, as well as, winter time activities such as skiing, sledding, and snowshoeing provide the basis for much memory making.
Rainier boasts 3 established campgrounds within the park. They are all primitive sites (no hookups). They do have water and 2 have dump stations and are best suited for tent campers or for small size RV’s or trailers.
Of course, the big attraction and the ultimate aim of most folks who look at Rainier on a daily basis is to reach the summit. It is a lofty and challenging goal. Over 10,000 people attempt it each year with only about 4,000 actually making it to the top. Three of our sons climbed it the summer before. Talk about stressful for us as parents! But it wasn’t until we were there in the shadow of Rainier that we kept asking ourselves, “What was wrong with those three knuckleheads??? Did they realize how high that was??? They’re lucky they weren’t killed!!!” Another instance where ignorance is bliss!
If you are in the Pacific Northwest, a trip to Rainier is well worth your time. You don’t have to be an avid hiker to enjoy the splendor and majesty of this mountain and the surrounding landscape. It is truly a feast for the eyes.