We all admire Mount Rainier when “the mountain is out.” However, visiting its surrounding national park often only happens when we have out-of-town visitors. Don’t wait, do your own local getaway to this spectacular preserve, whether a day trip or overnight stay.
The Nisqually Entrance offers the most options for dramatic scenery, wildflowers and waterfalls, hiking trails and historical sites. Located at the southwest corner of the national park, this entrance leads to Longmire and the National Park Inn, Cougar Rock Campground, Paradise Inn and visitors center and postcard-famous Reflection Lakes.
Longmire is the park’s oldest developed area, founded by James Longmire in 1884. He opened Mineral Springs Resort there after discovering the springs while homesteading. Walk the Trail of the Shadows, an easy, 0.7-mile loop, to see the site. It includes a historic cabin and the remnants of Rusty Springs, so named for its high iron content. When Mount Rainier National Park was created in 1899, Longmire became the park headquarters.
Today Longmire includes the 25-room National Park Inn, a tiny but fascinating museum, and the park administrative building. Visit the latter to ask the park ranger questions and get oriented with the three-dimensional, topographic map of the national park.
Then visit the little museum, the former park headquarters built by James Longmire in 1916. Its exhibits tell the story of Longmire’s early days and explain Mount Rainier’s geology and glaciers. It also has displays of local wildlife – from birds to marmots to cougars – that kids love.
Pause to marvel at the giant tree slab near the museum’s entrance. It is from a Douglas Fir tree – cut in 1963 – with rings dating to 1293 when it sprouted! Date tags document the tree’s growth over the centuries in relation to significant events, both local and worldwide.
Further up the road is the Cougar Rock Campground and picnic area. Continuing toward Paradise, you’ll drive by Christine Falls and then Narada Falls. There are pullouts for both; parking is limited but worth the stop and view of the falls if you can get a spot.
At 5,400 feet elevation, Paradise provides a truly breathtaking view of 14,410-foot Mount Rainier. Here you’ll find the historic 1917 Paradise Inn, 1921 Ranger Station and 1920 Guide House, now serving as the Paradise Wilderness Information Center. They were designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1990.
Nearby, the large, modern Henry M. Jackson Visitors Center features exhibits, information, “grab and go” food, gift shop and restrooms for day trippers. There are several picnic areas close by.
Take time to visit Paradise Inn, one of the oldest inns in the National Park System, even if you’re not staying there. The natural log architecture and handmade furniture in its public area are wonders in today’s modern world. Marvel at the rustic piano (played by President Harry Truman in 1945) and 14-foot-tall grandfather clock – both built by German carpenter Han Fraehnke in 1919. The inn includes 121 guest rooms, a guests-only dining room, Tatoosh Cafe and gift shop.
Then take a walk or hike from Paradise, which has a wonderful network of easy paved trails leading to more ambitious hiking routes. On the easy paths, you can stroll by wildflower meadows and subalpine fir trees – while Mount Rainier provides the perfect photo backdrop. The Nisqually Vista Trail encompasses all this in a 1.2-mile loop that also provides overlooks of the Nisqually Glacier.
Connecting, easy trails are the Avalanche Lily Trail and Waterfall Trail. They adjoin the Alta Vista and Skyline Trails, both much steeper. Alta Vista (1.75 miles roundtrip) takes hikers to outstanding views of Mount Rainier and the adjacent Tatoosh Range across the Paradise Valley.
Serious hikers will want to continue along the Skyline Trail. This strenuous, 5.5-mile loop climbs up to nearly 7,000 feet and provides sweeping vistas of the mountain above and Paradise meadows below. Watch for marmots and picas popping up in the rocky terrain as you pass by.
Panorama Point (6,800 feet) is the dramatic rocky outcrop at which to pause for a trail lunch with 360-degree views. Then continue on the second half of the Skyline Trail, descending gradually back to wildflower meadows. Pause for views of Sluiskin Falls and Myrtle Falls.
Impressive Myrtle Falls can also be reached from Paradise going the opposite direction on this loop – then it’s an easy, one-mile walk roundtrip on paved trail from Paradise. The 60-foot falls are bordered by lush meadows filled with wildflowers and butterflies.
Mount Rainier has many other hiking trails and scenic vistas, including Reflection Lakes. This favorite photo-op showcases Mount Rainier and the alpine lakes bordered with wildflowers. In autumn, the lakes mirror stunning fall color. You can do a 2.75-mile roundtrip hike from Paradise to Reflection Lakes or drive east from Paradise to reach them.
Ambitious hikers can take the steep Pinnacle Peak Trail from Reflection Lakes to reach the top of rocky Pinnacle Peak in the neighboring Tatoosh Range. The three-mile, roundtrip hike provides a stupendous view of Mount Rainier across the valley from the summit’s 6,562-foot elevation.
For more information:
— By Julie Gangler
Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.