I’ve lived in Washington state my whole life, so I’m used to looking out the window and seeing that oh-so-familiar snowcapped mountain in the distance. As we say on sunny days around here, “The mountain is out!”
As a Pacific Northwest native, it’s a prerequisite to love hiking, or at least have some appreciation for it. My favorite part of summers growing up, and still today: packing up my water bottle and granola bars, hopping in the car with my aunt at 5 a.m. and driving over to Mount Rainier, the crown jewel of Western Washington and my heart. On the way home, my aunt treats me to Rainier cherries from the local market and a Starbucks run — something that’s become our tradition. (We can’t get enough coffee.)
No matter how many miles we hike or hours of sleep we skip, it’s always worth it.
I’ve done dozens of hikes over the years; here are some of my favorites around Mount Rainier. No matter which hike you choose, I hope you fall even more in love with the Pacific Northwest along the way. Don’t forget your water and snacks, stay on the trails and leave everything better than you found it.
Kelly Butte Fire Lookout
Round-trip distance: 3.4 miles; Northwest Forest Pass required
If you’re looking for a short hike that packs a punch in views, look no further than Kelly Butte. The last half-mile of the drive is a bit precarious and leads to a small parking lot, so I recommend planning this out in advance. After getting through the switchbacks and identifying wildflowers on your way, your efforts will be rewarded with sweeping views from a restored fire lookout. Plus, if you’re early, you might even have this fire lookout and viewpoint all to yourself.
Sheep Lake to Sourdough Gap
Round-trip distance: 6 miles; Northwest Forest Pass required
The Sheep Lake to Sourdough Gap hike offers sweeping views of the South Cascades, and you can get to Sheep Lake after a mere 1.8 miles. I recommend pressing on and trekking the 1.4 miles up to Sourdough Gap for the most picturesque shots of Rainier. There is 1,100 feet in elevation gain on this pleasant, subalpine hike that offers sweeping mountain views in an area lush with wildflowers in July and August.
Skyline Trail Loop
Round-trip distance: 5.5 miles; National Park Pass required
A quintessential stop on your hiking itinerary, the Skyline Trail Loop is the main route to hike the Paradise side of Mount Rainier, and it’s home to Glacier Vista — one of the most iconic views of Mount Rainier and a nearby waterfall. For those who don’t want to go through the 5.5-mile hike, which climbs 1,450 feet, this becomes a turning-back point. But I encourage you to venture onward. During July and August, you’ll likely see meadows with wildflowers like pink mountain heath, bistort and scarlet paintbrush. The large Paradise parking lot sits next to Paradise Inn, so I recommend coming early to secure your spot to enjoy the trails with minimal foot traffic.
Tolmie Peak Lookout at Eunice Lake
Round-trip distance: 7.5 miles; National Park Pass required
The Tolmie Peak Lookout is a great option if you’re looking for sweeping views and the opportunity to take a dip in a lake once you’re back. The first time I did this trail — which has an elevation gain of 1,100 feet and caps off at 5,900 feet — I hit a snowfield halfway through and wasn’t prepared with poles. Be sure to check the weather so you can bring the best gear.
Round-trip distance: 9.4 miles; Discover Pass required
A Pacific Northwest staple, Mailbox Peak is known for its two routes: There’s a steep trail that is pretty eroded from all the visitors that enables you to quickly ascend to the top, and a newer, safer trail offering a steadier climb. Clean up after yourself if you stop for lunch, and take a picture next to the famed mailbox at the top — it’ll last longer than the letter you’ll be tempted to leave behind. Washington Trails Association reports that the trailhead can have more than 50 cars in any given hour, so look for the upper parking lot and plan to arrive early.
Lake Serene and Bridal Veil Falls
Round-trip distance: 8.2 miles; Northwest Forest Pass required
Can’t choose between a lake and waterfall? Find yourself a hike that does both. This 8.2-mile round-trip trek from Lake Serene to Bridal Veil Falls demands 2,000 feet of elevation gain — both natural attractions are especially beautiful on sunny days, so be sure to check the weather first! You can enjoy a dip to cool off in the lake, especially if you take the recommended detour to view Bridal Veil Falls.
Summerland — Panhandle Gap
Round-trip distance: 12 miles; National Park Pass required
I’m often asked what my No. 1 hike is, and I can say confidently this 12-mile adventure takes the cake every time for its meadows, creek and views. Summerland leaves me feeling sore the next morning, but it makes me fall in love with the Pacific Northwest all over again for one reason especially: wildflowers. I’ll never forget when I entered the final mile of this hike and encountered a field of pink mountain heath. Never walk in the flower fields — stay on the hiking path, from which you can get a beautiful shot if you get close to the ground. I recommend resting next to Fryingpan Creek for a snack before continuing to the Panhandle Gap and its stunning views 1.5 miles on.