Mount Rainier National Park
Those seeking to escape the hustle and bustle of Seattle need to look just two hours south to discover a national park teeming with incredible natural beauty and wildlife. Mount Rainier seemingly appears out of nowhere and dominates the landscape of southwestern Washington. An active volcano, the mountain stands 14,410 feet above sea level and is one of the most topographically prominent peaks in the world.
Mount Rainier has the largest collection of glaciers on one peak in the contiguous U.S.
Despite not being a household name like a Yellowstone or Yosemite would be, Mount Rainier was actually founded way back on March 2, 1899 by President McKinley, forever stamping itself in history as our nation’s fifth national park. Prior to its founding, Mount Rainier existed as a national forest and was frequented by many famous naturalists such as John Muir. After completing the fifth successful summit of the mountain, Muir pushed Congress to change the title of the mountain from Mount Rainier National Forest to Mount Rainier National Park. Believing in its incredible geology and volcanism that would be available for study, Muir and several other organizations such as the Sierra Club and the National Geographic Society lobbied for its US National Park designation from Congress.
Since its inception over a century ago, Mount Rainier has been welcoming people from around the world to enjoy all it has to offer. Averaging about 1.5 million visitors per year, the park was not always so accessible to visitors. In the early years, park management often struggled to keep up with the pace of demand to visit the park. Mount Rainier is actually the first national park to allow cars and this addition came just in time when, in 1910, a road was built to access Paradise Park. Paradise now stands as one of the most popular destinations in the park and it will prove difficult to find parking in the peak summer months, so plan to get there early!
Once the National Park Service was founded in 1916, Mount Rainier was able to become fully staffed with professional park rangers and the tide seemed to turn regarding accessibility, infrastructure, and facilities. The Paradise Inn opened in 1917 and now provided visitors who are not so fond of camping a place to spend the night on the mountain. The Inn still stands today and is a beacon of impeccably-designed national park lodges, ranking in the likes of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn and the Grand Canyon’s El Tovar Lodge.
Flash forward to the Great Depression Era and one will observe new features being added to the park such as new visitor centers and the expansion of trails courtesy of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Due to the Great Depression, visitation to the park plummeted and the aforementioned amenities were developed in an attempt to drum up visitation.
The east and west sides of the park were connected in 1957 once Stevens Canyon Road saw its completion. This enabled visitors to get the full Mount Rainier experience and be able to access the entire 236,000 acres of the park with relative ease. Moving to current day, the park now has all of its infrastructure in place and is readily accessible from essentially any direction – whether you are making your way south from Seattle or north from Portland, there are multiple park entrances and visitor centers to visit. Despite all these changes over the past century, the park has maintained its mission to preserve the mountain as a place for admiration and awe, something we can be sure it will continue to do in the many years to come.
Mount Rainier has the largest collection of glaciers on one peak in the contiguous U.S.
As mentioned above, a unique identifying factor of Mount Rainer is its designation as a stratovolcano. About half of the mountain is covered with snow and ice most of the year, causing significant glaciation to occur. As a result, the symmetrical cone most think of when they hear the word volcano is not so noticeable with Mount Rainier. Pyroclastics, a collection of rock composed of volcanic material, are abundant on the higher slopes of the mountain. Inclusive in this are dust, ash, breccia, and conglomerates. From here, mud flows are visible down the mountain. These pyroclastics are a nuisance for climbers trying to summit the high peaks of the mountain as they can prove unsteady and cumbersome to navigate.
The highest peak in the Cascade Range, Mount Rainier is capped by 26 glaciers and last erupted in 1894. This eruption could be seen from as far away as Seattle and Tacoma as residents noted seeing small summit explosions. Many say the next eruption could be of a similar magnitude and bring about lava flows, volcanic ash, and large avalanches of hot rock and gas more commonly referred to as a pyroclastic flow.
Another side effect of an eruption is the melting of snow and ice on the mountain which would in turn rush down the mountainside, effectively picking up rocks and debris on the way down. The latter is referred to as a lahar. Something to note regarding lahars is that they are far reaching and could potentially travel from the point of eruption all the way to the Puget Sound fifty miles away. The prospect of a lahar proves worrisome for the Puget Sound region as they are fast traveling (up to 40-50 miles per hour), very deep (up to 100 feet), and can destroy infrastructure such as highways and bridges.
What Mount Rainier National Park has to Offer
Mount Rainier does a wonderful job of permitting exploration via vehicle all the while achieving a preservation rate of 96% for the park. There are approximately 80 miles of paved (150 miles if one includes unpaved) roads that wind through the park and offer visitors access to many of the park’s most jaw-dropping sights.
The majority of visitors to the park enter through the Nisqually Entrance and make their way up the 18 miles of scenic road before reaching Paradise and the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center where many popular hikes originate from. The park boasts three visitor centers – Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, Ohanapecosh Visitor Center, and the Sunrise Visitor Center. Additionally, there is a museum, the Longmire Museum, and the Carbon River Ranger Station.
There are four campgrounds in total. In the southwest portion of the park one will find Cougar Rock Campground, Ohanapecosh Campground in the southeast, White River Campground in the northeast, and Mowich Lake Campground in the northwest. Combined, the four campgrounds offer nearly 500 campsites of varying size. Make sure to check the park website for up-to-date conditions at the campsites and to book your stay well in advance because they tend to be quite busy in the summer months!
Mount Rainier National Park is world-renowned for its elaborate wildflower displays
The vegetation at Mount Rainier is very diverse. Perhaps best known for the beautiful wildflower blooms of the summer, there is more to the vegetation story here than the wildflowers alone. Furthermore, the park is divided into three zones – the Forest Zone, Subalpine Zone, and Alpine Zone.
With 58% of the park being covered by forest, it is only appropriate one of the zones is designated as such. The forests can mostly be found at the lower elevations around the park’s boundaries up to about 2,700 feet above sea level. Hemlock, Douglas-Fir, and Western Red Cedar are the most notable trees in the Forest Zone. Moving upwards, to approximately 4,000-6,000 feet above sea level, several species such as the Pacific Silver Fir, Alaska Yellow Cedar, and Noble Fir thrive at higher levels.
From about 5,000-7,000 feet above sea level one will find subalpine meadows. These meadows are where the summer wildflowers will be in full bloom. This area of the park is blanketed under snow well into mid-June. A visit to the wildly popular Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center in Paradise in the summer months will reward you with VIP exposure to the wildflower display in the Subalpine Zone.
This zone extends from treeline to the summit of Mount Rainier. This zone is 50% coated by permanent snow and ice, making traversing the Alpine Zone particularly difficult. In the remaining half not covered in snow and ice you will find alpine vegetation consisting of small plants and shrubs such sedges, asters, and penstemons.
There is an abundance of wildlife in Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier is teeming with wildlife. With 63 species of mammal, 16 species of amphibians, and 5 species of reptiles, the animal lover is sure to find a great time here. Among the more popular animals here include coyotes, elk, deer, marmots, and chipmunks. The lesser-seen wildlife include cougars and black bears. Other uncommon sights would include a mountain goat for those visitors who visit higher elevations. Additionally, pikas – small mammals resembling rabbits – can also be observed in the park’s rockier regions. Beavers populate the wetter portions of the park and porcupines can be seen in the lush, forested areas.
A rodent infestation will never be an issue at Mount Rainier due to the large number of predators. Rodents are kept in check by the many weasels and red foxes. Down by the water, raccoons are more likely to be preying on frogs and fish. Not all animals at Mount Rainier thrive on the land, however. The park is home to a wide array of bird species including chickadees, jays, harlequin duck, common loon, and marbled murrelets. The famous, high-flying, fast-striking peregine falcon can also be seen hunting its prey at the park’s higher elevations. Several rare species of bird also occupy the park and are religiously protected by park staff. These protected birds include the bald eagle, northern goshawk, and northern spotted owl.
The best hikes in Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier is sliced into many different districts containing dozens of hikes that will leave visitors coming back for more. The over 260 miles of maintained trails span across five districts: Longmire, Paradise, Ohanapecosh, Sunrise, and Carbon River/Mowich. Among the more popular hikes in the park include the Skyline Trail, Naches Peak Trail, Glacier Basin Trail, Tolmie Peak Trail, Narada Falls Trail, and the Burroughs Mountain Trail.
My personal favorite, the Skyline Trail, takes off from the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center in Paradise and is a 5-mile loop around some of the most beautiful meadows, valleys, and terrain the park has to offer. On a clear day, visitors are treated to an up close and personal view of Mount Rainier. Even in July and August, snow will be on parts of the trail so be ready to experience winter in July!
Outside of the above districts exists one of the park’s most famous hikes, The Wonderland Trail. Spanning 93 miles, the trail circumnavigates the mountain and offers stunning views at every turn. There are many campsites to stop at throughout your journey along the trail and hikers need to gauge their hiking ability in order to determine how many nights of camping it will take for them to complete the trek. Although the 93 miles sounds like a lot (which it is!), the terrain is relatively flat. For those not interested in scaling thousands of vertical feet to summit the mountain, the Wonderland Trail is an exemplary option for those thrill seekers still wanting to accomplish a monster feat.
Here are some quick notes about Mount Rainier National Park
- Mount Rainier got its name from explorer George Vancouver who named the mountain in honor of his friend, Admiral Peter Rainier
- It is the fifth tallest mountain in the lower 48 states
- Mount Rainier can be seen from 300 miles away on clear days
- The highest point you can reach via a vehicle in the park is the Sunrise Visitor Center which stands at 6,400 feet above sea level
- The Native American name for the mountain is Tahoma, which means “mother of waters”
About the Author
Nick is an avid National Parks traveler and has visited 33 of them in total. His goal is to visit them all in his lifetime and volunteer as a park ranger once he retires. Listed among his favorites are Mount Rainier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Saguaro. He enjoys volleyball, tennis, traveling, Netflix binging, and spending time with friends and family in his free time. Nick currently resides in Dallas, TX and works as a Business Analyst for Southwest Airlines.