James Longmire’s daughter-in-law, Martha, gets credit for naming this area of wildflower meadows and stunning mountain views in the 1880s when she declared, “Oh, what a paradise!”
Longmire was a Yelm-area settler, mountain guide and early tourism promoter who built a wagon trail to the mineral springs at the area that now bears his name.
Paradise has been the biggest draw to visitors since Mount Rainier National Park’s establishment in 1899. Today it’s the site of the historic Paradise Inn and the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, its latest incarnation completed in 2008 with a steeply pitched roof that echoes spires of the nearby Tatoosh Range (replacing a dome-topped predecessor often compared to a flying saucer).
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But the big draw here remains the wildflower meadows, bursting with orange paintbrush, blue lupine, white-starred avalanche lilies and more, through which visitors may stroll on paths come late July and well into August.
With the snowy peak just above, the meadows are like a welcome mat to the mountain, as this is also the departure point for climbers headed for Camp Muir, the 10,100-foot base camp for many bound for Rainier’s peak.
At 5,100 feet, Paradise is also one of the snowier places on Earth, receiving an average of 53 feet per year, so expect to find snow here until mid-July — and keep in mind that this is also the park’s most popular area for winter recreation, attracting snowshoers and snow campers, as well as fun lovers using the park’s only snowplay area with inner tubes and other sliding toys.
Trails in the area: Nisqually Vista Trail, 1.2-mile loop, with Nisqually Glacier views; Alta Vista, 1.6 miles round trip, mountain and wildflowers; Skyline Trail to Myrtle Falls, 1 mile, wheelchair-accessible with assistance.
Sunrise, at 6,400 feet, is the highest place you can drive to in Mount Rainier National Park. It’s so high and snowy that the road doesn’t usually open until around the Fourth of July.
As the name implies, this is the east side of Rainier, which gets somewhat less rain and snow because the mountain catches weather systems as they move eastward from the Pacific.
Asking if you like Sunrise or Paradise better is like forcing a choice between Beatles John or Paul (for the record, Sunrise is the second-most visited place in the park). Sunrise has its firm backers, though, thanks to the stunning views of the mountain and miles of wildflower-meadow trails that reach some of the highest country you can explore without an ice ax. Watch for mountain goats and hike to views of the Emmons Glacier, the largest ice field in the Lower 48 states. A visitor center here is open from early July through mid-September, and a day lodge offers food and gifts.
Trails in the area: Sunrise Nature Trail, 1.5 miles; Emmons Vista Overlooks, 1 mile (glacier views); Frozen Lake Loop Trail, 3 miles, with high lookouts from Sourdough Ridge Trail; and many more.
Ohanapecosh is like the redheaded cousin that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the family but has its own beauty. At 1,900 feet elevation, away from alpine meadows and less visited because it’s farther from Seattle, this southeast corner of Mount Rainier National Park is a refuge of old-growth forest and the gin-clear, and in some places gorge-hemmed, Ohanapecosh River (the name, from a Taidnapam, or Upper Cowlitz, Indian habitation site, is thought to mean “standing at the edge”).
Trails lined with ferns and the dainty white blooms of bunchberry dogwood offer easy-on-the-legs wanders. A hot springs resort was situated here in the early 20th century, and a nature trail leads to where hot water still burbles up through mud, a surefire kid-pleaser. The visitor center here, closed last year due to federal sequestration, opens part-time this season, June 28-Sept. 7.
Trails in the area: Hot Springs Nature Trail, 0.4 mile. Silver Falls Trail is an easy loop that follows both sides of the river to a lovely waterfall, 3 miles round trip.
If you go
When to go, where to stay (or camp)
Gauge your visit by snowmelt if you’re going for high hikes and wildflower-filled meadows. Late July through mid-August is typically the best season for wildflowers at Paradise and Sunrise, both of which still have snow at this writing (Sunrise isn’t expected to open until July). For an idea of what to e•xpect, see nps.gov/mora and click on “Mount Rainier webcams.”
Road repairs: patience needed
The Nisqually-to-Paradise Road, the main traffic artery to the most-visited part of the park, is undergoing four years of major reconstruction that began this spring. The first two-year phase affects the stretch from the Nisqually Entrance to Longmire. On weekdays, expect delays of up to 30 minutes. Construction is not occurring on Saturday and Sunday, but expect rough roads and slow going. Bicycle travel is not recommended on this stretch of road during construction. Updates: nps.gov/mora/parkmgmt/nisqually-paradise-road.htm.
Where to stay
There are two hotels in the park (see mtrainierguestservices.com):
• Paradise Inn, built in 1916, is open May 21 to Oct. 6 this year with 121 rooms. Don’t expect large or fancy rooms, or soundproof walls; the treasure here is in the Great Room’s classic-style lampshades hand-painted with wildflowers, the 14-foot grandfather clock built by a German-born carpenter, and the subalpine meadows just outside your door.
• The 25-room National Park Inn, also dating to the early 1900s, is at the center of one of the park’s early settlements, Longmire, now a historic district with classic buildings and a museum. The inn’s veranda with high-back chairs offers Rainier views, and the Wonderland Trail passes nearby.
Ashford: Cabin rentals abound along Highway 706 just outside the Nisqually Entrance (see mt-rainier.com), along with Copper Creek Inn (coppercreekinn.com) and Alexander’s Country Inn (alexanderscountryinn.com).
Car camping is offered at three campgrounds in the park, all with flush toilets, water and fire grates, $12 to $15 per night:
• Cougar Rock Campground, near Longmire, 173 individual sites, five group sites; can take RVs to 35 feet; dump station. Open late May to late September.
• Ohanapecosh Campground, southeast corner of park, 188 individual sites (though F loop is closed for renovation this summer), two group sites; can take RVs to 32 feet; dump station. Open late May to late September.
• White River Campground, off Sunrise Road, 112 tent sites. Open June 27 to Sept. 29 this year.
Most campsites are first-come, first-serve, though some sites can be reserved at Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh campgrounds; see recreation.gov.
Campgrounds offer ranger-led evening campfire programs and Junior Ranger programs in summer months. See park bulletin boards for details. Buy firewood in the park, don’t bring it from elsewhere (to avoid spreading insects and disease).
Permits are required for camping on the Wonderland Trail and other backcountry sites in the park, or for climbing to the summit. See nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/wilderness-permit.htm
• “Day Hike! Mount Rainier,” by Ron C. Judd (Sasquatch Books, revised 2014)
• “Hiking the Wonderland Trail,” by Tami Asars (The Mountaineers Books, 2012)
Mount Rainier National Park: 360-569-6575 or nps.gov/mora