Paradise Found in the Cascades

Mount Rainier National Park: Explore a patch of Pacific Northwest nirvana where towering firs, flowering meadows and transcendental vistas reign from above
By Denise Seith
Good Sam Club Highways
July 2010

Known as Tahoma to the local Klickitat Indians, Washington’s iconic Mount Rainier, some 50 miles southeast of Seattle, has one of the most recognizable profiles of any national park. Getting a glimpse of the 14,410-foot summit can prove tough, though, because Mount Rainier makes its own unpredictable weather. Locals say “the mountain is out” when the highest peak in the Cascade Range isn’t obscured by the clouds that frequently cling to its slopes. Fortunately, more than 140 miles of roadway loops through Mount Rainier National Park for drives studded with views of alpine lakes, jagged peaks and waterfalls.

So even if you can’t see the mountain, you’re bound to enjoy some spectacular vistas of surrounding landscape.

Like Mount St. Helens to the south, Mount Rainier is an active volcanic peak, formed about 500,000 years ago. Thankfully, there’s no indication the mountain will erupt anytime soon.

But even though spewing ash isn’t a concern, nature can still inflict damage. In late 2006, fierce winter storms triggered disastrous flooding, landslides and road closures in the 235,625-acre park.

Because of the short working season, it took a couple of years to repair most of the devastation. Some of the campgrounds are now short a few sites, and Sunshine Point was completely lost because of the washouts.

Still, nothing short of an eruption can tarnish the stunning views of the peak. Just be sure to make reservations at Cougar Rock or Ohanapecosh campground if you plan to stay in the park, because RV sites fill quickly.

Three main entrances and four visitor centers welcome travelers to Mount Rainier National Park. Each visitor center sits in a distinct area of the park with different flora and fauna. As you drive, you’ll be enticed to stop at the many roadside pull-offs to take in the changing mountain views and watch the abundant wildlife. Keep your camera handy because the scenery never ends.

The best way to experience the park is on foot, and the trails are as diverse as the terrain. Whether you prefer waterfalls hidden in cool cedar, hemlock and fir forests, wildflower-strewn meadows crisscrossed by streams or rocky alpine slopes traversed by mountain goats, you’ll find plenty of suitable paths.

Hearty, experienced backpackers who wish to sample every facet of Rainier’s landscape can tackle the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that circles the entire mountain. It’s the ultimate hiking experience, dishing out one commanding view of Mount Rainier after another. If you’d prefer to log fewer miles but still seek dramatic scenery, stretch your legs on the Pinnacle Peak, Van Trump Park or Panorama Point trails.

Longmire: From Homestead to Headquarters
At 2,000 feet above sea level, the Nisqually Entrance in the southwest corner of the park is open year-round and is the most popular access point. From here, a 6-mile drive along the Nisqually–Paradise Road takes visitors to the Longmire National Historic District. Even if you have no plans to stay the night, stop at the National Park Inn for the view. Choose a chair on the wide covered front porch and admire the alpenglow on the south face of Mount Rainier.

In the 1880s, the site was the homestead of wagon-train leader James Longmire. For many years, the Longmire family ran a thriving tourist business, attracting visitors to the property’s mineral springs. A short interpretive trail across the road from the inn tells the story and passes by a small but still-bubbling hot springs. With the establishment of Mount Rainier National Park in 1899, Longmire became park headquarters. The original building has been turned into a museum, and headquarters now is located outside the park. A well-stocked gift shop next to the inn carries grocery items.

If you like waterfalls, you’re in luck. Several pretty cascades are accessible along the Nisqually–Paradise Road. Take a short hike to see 320-foot-high Comet Falls. A parking area lies about 10 miles east of Longmire. Ambitious hikers can continue on the same trail toward Van Trump Park. It’s a steep climb up to a lovely meadow, but the reach-out-and-touch-it view of Mount Rainier is worth the effort.

Not ready to lace up the hiking boots? You can see Christine Falls right from the road. Narada Falls is about 5 miles farther. Parking is ample, so leave your rig and take the short trail to a nice viewpoint of the 241-foot cascade. If you continue hiking along the Wonderland Trail from Narada Falls, you’ll come to Madcap and Carter Falls. After snapping pictures, continue driving on the Nisqually–Paradise Road (bear left at a junction), and in no time you’ll be in Paradise.

Paradise: Nirvana on Earth
Paradise isn’t just a state of mind at Mount Rainier National Park. It’s a real place. When James Longmire’s daughter-in-law first set eyes on the area, she exclaimed, “Oh, what a paradise!” You’ll agree. Perched at 5,400 feet, Paradise is dazzling on a clear day. The snowy summit seems close enough to touch. Keep in mind that even on a seemingly nice day, the weather here can change dramatically and quickly. One minute you’re taking in the jaw-dropping views and the next you’re wondering how something as big as a mountain can be completely obscured by clouds.

Built in 1917, the Paradise Inn has a rustic feel and a simple and beautiful interior. Huge stone fireplaces at either end of the spacious lobby make warming up on a chilly day a real pleasure. Comfy chairs and even a piano welcome visitors seeking a little downtime. The inn’s fine-dining restaurant is a welcome treat after a long day of hiking, and the gift shop is filled with unique Northwest art and other souvenirs. The inn closes in October, but, weather permitting, the huge parking area remains open through the winter. Paradise averages 680 inches of snow per year, so it’s the prime winter-use area in the park.

The new Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise opened in October 2008 and is the best place to learn about the geology, glaciers, flora, fauna and history of Mount Rainier and the surrounding Tatoosh Range of the Cascades. The new visitor center is more sustainable and less expensive to operate than the former one and includes a store selling books and gifts, plus a snack bar.

Mount Rainier is the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48 states, and the massive Nisqually Glacier is visible from one of the many hiking trails near Paradise. Pick up a map at the visitor center or ask a park ranger to point the way. Lots of routes lead up from the visitor center and many intersect, so be sure to bring a map to stay on course. Panorama Point is a popular destination for photographers with gorgeous vistas in every direction.

Lots of “Don’t be a Meadow Stomper” signs remind visitors to enjoy the lovely wildflower meadows from the established trails only. Colorful carpets of magenta paintbrush, yellow glacier lilies, purple lupine, monkey flower and asters abound in July and August, but so do crowds.

Paradise is a staging area for serious mountain climbers attempting the 8-plus-mile trek up the remaining 9,000 feet to Mount Rainier’s summit. You’ll likely see teams of these gear-laden mountaineers on the trails, and you can spot their first stop, Camp Muir at 10,188 feet, through your binoculars.

Many climbing expeditions leave Paradise in the afternoon, climb 4.5 miles over 4,700 vertical feet to Camp Muir, and sleep there for a few hours in a primitive stone-and-plywood shack or pitch their own tent. The push for the summit begins in the wee hours after midnight. Weather and stamina permitting, climbers summit about eight hours later, and then immediately hike back down to Paradise. Most of the steepest climbing must be done in the early-morning hours before the sun can melt the snow and cause avalanches and rock falls.

While it’s tempting to linger in Paradise, remember that more scenic views remain ahead. Take the one-way road down from Paradise, then head east on Stevens Canyon Road. After a couple of miles, stop at Reflection Lake. You probably don’t have to guess what mountain shimmers on the water’s surface.

Just across the road from the lake is the Pinnacle Peak trailhead. The 2.5-mile round-trip hike includes some steep terrain. After an hour or so of climbing, the rocky trail reaches an elevation of 6,000 feet on a saddle between Pinnacle and Plummer peaks. From this spot, you’ll see almost too many mountaintops to count. To the north, Mount Rainier and Paradise loom, seemingly close enough to touch. To the south is Mount Adams, with Mount St. Helens in the foreground. Oregon’s Mount Hood stands behind them on the horizon. Chances are you’ll see pikas and marmots on the trail, or at least hear the small mammals’ high-pitched warning whistles.

Ohanapecosh: Old-Growth Giants
The Stevens Canyon Entrance is in the southeast corner of the park, which is somewhat drier and sunnier than the west side. The area is rich with old-growth forest, and hikers will find towering Douglas firs, western red cedars and western hemlocks, some estimated to be a thousand years old, in the Grove of the Patriarchs.

An easy trail to the grove begins 3 miles north of the Ohanapecosh visitor center and campground and follows the Ohanapecosh River. Named for an Upper Cowlitz Indian habitation site along the river, Ohanapecosh is thought to mean “standing at the edge.”

Sparkling Silver Falls, another popular hiking destination in the area, is a half mile south of the Grove of the Patriarchs. You can also reach this small waterfall from Ohanapecosh campground by taking the Silver Falls Trail.

Sunrise: Driven to New Heights
Situated near the White River Entrance on the park’s northeast side, Sunrise sits at 6,400 feet, making it the highest point in the park that can be reached by vehicle. Because of the high elevation, snow lingers here until late June or early July, so the Sunrise Visitor Center and Sunrise Day Lodge stay open for only a few short months.
The sprawling Emmons Glacier is best viewed from Sunrise. Its 4.3 square miles of ice makes it the largest glacier on the mountain.

If awe-inspiring scenery and outdoor recreation rank high on your must-see-and-do list, then visiting the nation’s fifth oldest national park is a smart choice. Visibility permitting, Mount Rainier’s mammoth outline can be seen from 150 miles away. As you drive toward it from ­many different points in Washington, you’ll be treated to grand views long before you enter the park.

For More Information

Washington State Tourism

Mount Rainier National Park
  • Seven-day entrance fee: $15 per vehicle
  • Annual park pass: $30
  • America the Beautiful—National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass: $80
  • America the Beautiful–National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Senior Pass (age 62 or over): $10
  • Campground reservations: 877-444-6777
  • RV sites and dump stations located at Cougar Rock (southwest corner of the park) and Ohanapecosh (southeast corner of park).

Good Sam Parks
The 2010 Trailer Life RV Parks and Campgrounds Directory lists 360 places to camp in your RV in Washington state including 56 Good Sam Parks. See them all on the website below when you click on Find a Campground.