At 369.5 square acres Mt. Rainier National Park is not a quick drive through. So what do you do when all you have is three days? I spent three months working and living at Mt. Rainier. I’ve roamed the park at peak times and had miles completely to myself (and the critters). I know first hand what can make or break a vacation and your wallet. This guide is for the Southwest region of Mt. Rainier National Park and is designed to help you maximize your trip during the Spring, Summer, or beginning of Fall.
When to go?
If you’re not making the trek to play in the snow in the winter season, your first question may be when is the best time to visit? Mt. Rainier’s wildflower meadows draw in photographers from all over the world. Though you might be tempted to go in the Spring when it is not so hot, the best time for meadow observation is in mid July through August.
Not a fan of crowds? Then consider heading to the mountain in October. Though the flowers will be dwindling by then the autumn leaves are breathtaking. As someone who grew up in the Northeast I didn’t think I’d be all that impressed. I was wrong.
Where to stay?
There are three options for staying inside of the park on the Southwest Side. There are two hotels, one for each section: Longmire and Paradise. Paradise is at an elevation of 5420 feet . It is the highest point you can drive to and therefore much more crowded than Longmire. Attractions are the Jackson Visitor Center, Ranger Station, the Paradise Inn Restaurant, and the Tatoosh Cafe.
Longmire is at 2700 feet . There you can find the Longmire Museum, a small museum that showcases the Native American roots, mountaineer history, and wildlife present in the park. Longmire Inn has a restaurant, a gift shop, and is the only hotel open during the winter.
Both hotels frequently sell out. The Paradise Inn is larger but currently going through an expansion and Longmire only has 25 rooms! Though at times you may find drive up accommodations at Cougar Rock the campground too will sell out on busy weekends like Memorial Day. Your best bet is always to book ahead.
There are plenty of other hotel options and even free to camp BLM land nearby but be aware that there is often an hour wait to get through the gate during peak weekend hours.
You also might also want to consider staying in the neighboring town of Elby which has the Hobo Inn and a historic caboose ride. During hot weather you can take a dip in nearby Alder Lake.
What to bring?
Bring your own water bottle. The National Park Service and Mt. Rainier have teamed up to lower carbon emissions. They have several refill stations around the park but you will not find any Poland Spring or Aquafina. You will however find overpriced canteens in the gift shop.
The General Store inside the park is not really a “general store”. It’s a gift shop. Do not rely on it for food staples. The ice runs out frequently when summer is in full gear. There is a convenience store and a gas station on the way if you forget something. Do not go to the convenience store at the hotel that is right outside the gate unless you want to pay 99 cents per egg.
If you are camping proper food storage is a must! You must have a container that shuts tight and does not carry the smell of your food to the bears. Firewood and kindling is sold at the Cougar Rock Campground.
Footwear- Hiking boots are a must. I love the Salomans I just got from REI. Remember that there is always a chance for snow, even in the summer.
It is best to wear layers if you are on a long hike. Bring clothing for both cold and warm weather. Don’t forget your raincoat. You’re in Washington after all.
What to do?
Narada Falls and Reflection Lake are two of the largest attractions of the southwest area of the park. Though there are a number of ways to hike to each of them they are at lower elevations and they both have parking lots. To maximize your time I’d recommend driving to them.
*SWIMMING IS NOT ALLOWED IN REFLECTION LAKE!!! This can cost you a $50 fine and everyone will hate you.
For those craving a moderate physical challenge:
Skyline Trail – Have fun taking pictures of all the adorable marmots. That screaming that you hear in the background is not in your head. That is also a marmot. Take a couple of waterfall detours and ascend to Panorama Point. On a clear day you will be able to see Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Saint Helens in addition to the views of the Tatoosh Range. On a cloudier day you will still get a stunning view of the Tatoosh range. For additional wildflower gazing work in the Alta Vista Trail.
Comet Falls – If you’re a fan of waterfalls then comet falls is a great intermediate hike that will lead you closer to the largest waterfall that are barely visible from the main road.
For those with young children, seniors, or that have physical challenges I would recommend stopping at the aforementioned museum in Longmire. Immediately following take the short Trail of the Shadows where you can see the soda springs (geothermic activity) and learn a bit of history about the park.
At Paradise the Myrtle Falls Walk is a short one that will allow you to explore the wonders of nature while being under a mile from the parking lot.
Expert hikers or those seeking a more strenuous hike may want to visit Camp Muir. At 10,188 feet this is the highest point you can legally hike to without a permit and is a popular base camp for those attempting to summit. It is possible to do in one day but it is also entirely possible to get caught in white out conditions at this elevation. Do not go on this hike without proper preparation, and a couple days worth of supplies.
Yes, there are black bears and mountain lions in the park. The odds that you will see a mountain lion are extremely rare. Black bears do sometimes frequent the dumpsters and the trails. Properly contain your food at all times. The best advice I can give is to be loud. If you’re hiking alone call out “Hey Bear” or another phrase every couple of hundred feet. You might feel silly doing it but it could also save your life.
Mt. Rainier is an active volcano. Volcanoes typically show an increase in seismic activity before they erupt. Mudslides are the less conversed about danger. Avalanches, hypothermia, and frostbite may be the deadliest conditions most encounter each year.
With all that said, most people are more likely to be injured twisting their ankle or overextending themselves on a day hike. Here is a great safety guide that goes into the ten essentials items every hiker should bring.