An active volcano 14,410 feet above sea level. The state’s highest-elevation restaurant. Wildlife, views and flowers. And plenty of places to sleep, whether you’re dreaming of a forest-shaded, A-frame Airbnb or a chic-rustic cabin. This driving trip takes you to Mount Rainier, the region’s top natural destination.
As snows retreat on Mount Rainier, visitors advance — and crowds will likely swell in size this summer. Consider making plans now to get ahead of the rush on reservations, as this spring’s bookings have so far been higher than normal. One of the many benefits of being a Washington state resident is that your location allows you to make a quick visit to Mount Rainier on a weekday, or to arrive early in the morning or later in the day.
Start the day off at Crystal Mountain Resort, located 82 miles southeast of Seattle, for a first view of Mount Rainier and the first hike of the day. Starting on May 28, visitors can take a quick ride on the cherry-red Mount Rainier Gondola 2,400 feet up to Crystal Mountain’s summit (Fridays-Sundays in June, and daily in July and August). While aboard, watch for eagles, lupine and magenta paintbrush wildflower displays, as well as mountain residents such as foxes, blacktail deer and Roosevelt elk.
At the peak, fuel up at Washington’s highest-elevation restaurant — 6,872 feet, to be exact. Summit House Restaurant’s warming foods include truffle fries; wild game chili with bison, elk and beef; and vegetarian wraps with arugula and chickpea-black bean curry. On clear days, meals are served with a side of Cascade mountain views — including Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and Mount St. Helens.
It’s possible to head back down via the hiking trails, while keeping an eye out for a squealing yellow-bellied marmot (also known as the “whistle pig”) or an elk looking for lunch (no, don’t give him any of your leftovers).
The resort also hosts horseback riding and an 18-hole disc golf course. And in July, Crystal Sky Camp will open as a 6,000-foot-elevation glamping experience, complete with canvas tents, king-size beds, hot showers and a wood-burning stove. Public bookings are restricted to only special-event weekends — for example, the upcoming Fourth of July.
Mount Rainier’s four major entrances offer peak passages: Carbon River, the mountain’s northwest; White River/Sunrise to the northeast; Stevens Canyon to the southeast; and Nisqually to the southwest.
Entrance openings depend on mountain pass road conditions, which can vary from day to day. White River/Sunrise along State Route 410/Chinook Pass is the closest Mount Rainier entrance to Crystal Mountain, and provides access to the mountain’s winding roads, along with flatter hikes and open meadows for those who prefer an easier walk. However, accessibility may be limited until roads are snow-free.
Day-hiking trails are among Mount Rainier’s primary draws, and they range from gentle rambles suitable for young families to miles-long sojourns. Hikers can choose from a menu of sights, including 1,000-year-old trees (at Grove of the Patriarchs Loop), hot springs, 150-plus photogenic waterfalls, mountain range vistas, glaciers, rainforests, lakes, fireworks of flowers and even the occasional mountain goat. Washington Trails Association and Visit Rainier are good information sources regarding hike selection, taking into account your party’s ages, abilities and aptitude.
Summer hikers are treated to the vibrant wildflowers flourishing in Mount Rainier’s subalpine meadows, due to the short growing and reproduction season at higher elevations. White, yellow, purple and pink flowers blanket green meadows as snow melts and trees recede along the mountain’s crown. Check the National Park Service’s wildflower status page to find out what’s showing soon, as well as the NPS’s tree checklist for forested hikes.
Winding roads connect Highway 410 to Highway 123 to Stevens Canyon Road (bring a paper map or download one offline). Along the way, you may pass national park campgrounds. They offer one of the most affordable approaches to a mountain stay — but it’s a bit of a competitive sport where reservations are concerned. The largest, Ohanapecosh campground, opens in late May.
Indeed, part of the charm and thrill of visiting Mount Rainier is sawing logs on a dozing volcano. Around 5,400 feet up the mountain in the midst of subalpine meadows, the 121-room Paradise Inn is slated to reopen in late May. Built in 1916 and recently remodeled, the hotel sniffs at modern amenities like phones and the internet. But there’s no need to scroll through Buzzfeed listicles when a crosshatch of hiking trails are literally outside the inn’s door.
Paradise is also home to the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center, the national park’s largest center. When open, the visitor center offers information on the mountain’s geology, flora and fauna, and a short film about Mount Rainier. While visitor centers are currently closed due to COVID-19, park rangers are stationed outside the Jackson Visitor Center on weekends, and can offer advice on hiking options and other information.
En route back down the mountain, the 1880s-era Longmire Museum is located at the park’s 2,700-foot southwest Nisqually entrance (check for opening hours). At the mountain’s base, the 25-room National Park Inn is currently open in Ashford. Like Paradise Inn, it’s very, very rustic — no TV, telephones or internet — in keeping with its turn-of-the-20th-century origins as a two-story hotel made of split cedar.
Note: The accessibility of Mount Rainier’s roads and features can vary with the seasons and COVID-19 restrictions, and you will need a National Park Pass. Refer to the Road Status page to find out what’s open and what’s not, and check out the live mountain webcams for weather and parking. Cellphone coverage can range from spotty to nonexistent, so be prepared by downloading offline maps before heading out. Wear masks when entering hotels, restaurants and businesses and don’t visit while sick.
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