We all look up to Mount Rainier when “the mountain is out.” However, visiting its surrounding national park often only happens when we have visitors from out of town. Don’t wait, make your own local getaway to this spectacular reserve, whether it’s a day trip or an overnight stay.
The Nisqually entrance offers the most options for spectacular scenery, wildflowers and waterfalls, hiking trails and historic sites. Located at the southwest corner of the National Park, this entrance leads to Longmire and the National Park Inn, Cougar Rock Campground, Paradise Inn and Visitor Center and the famous Reflection Lakes.
Longmire is the oldest developed area in the park, founded by James Longmire in 1884. He opened Mineral Springs Resort there after discovering the springs while on a farm. Hike the Trail of the Shadows, an easy 0.7 mile loop, to see the site. It includes a historic cabin and the remains of Rusty Springs, so named for its high iron content. When Mount Rainier National Park was established in 1899, Longmire became the park’s headquarters.
Today, Longmire includes the 25-room National Park Inn, a tiny but fascinating museum, and the park administration building. Visit the latter to ask the park ranger questions and orient yourself with the three-dimensional topographic map of the national park.
Then visit the small museum, the former park headquarters built by James Longmire in 1916. Its exhibits tell the early history of Longmire and explain Mount Rainier’s geology and glaciers. It also has exhibits of local wildlife—from birds to marmots to cougars—that kids love.
Pause to marvel at the giant tree slab near the museum entrance. It comes from a Douglas fir – cut in 1963 – with tree rings dating back to 1293 when it grew! The date labels document the growth of the tree over the centuries in relation to significant events, both local and global.
Further up the road is the Cougar Rock Campground and Picnic Area. Continuing to Paradise, you will pass by Christine Falls and then Narada Falls. There are withdrawals for both; parking is limited but worth the stop and view of the falls if you can get a spot.
At 5,400 feet above sea level, Paradise offers breathtaking views of 14,410-foot Mount Rainier. Here you will find the historic Paradise Inn from 1917, the Ranger Station from 1921 and the Guide House from 1920, which now serve as the Paradise Wilderness Information Center. They were designated a National Historic District in 1990.
Nearby, the large, modern Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center offers exhibits, information, takeout, a gift shop, and restrooms for day trippers. There are several picnic areas nearby.
Make time to visit Paradise Inn, one of the oldest inns in the national park system, even if you’re not staying there. The natural log architecture and handmade furniture in its public space are marvels in today’s modern world. Marvel at the rustic piano (played by President Harry Truman in 1945) and the 14-foot-tall grandfather clock – both built by German carpenter Han Fraehnke in 1919. The inn has 121 rooms, a guest dining room, Tatoosh Cafe and gift shop.
Then take a walk or hike from Paradise, which has a wonderful network of easy paved trails leading to more challenging hiking routes. On easy trails, you can wander among wildflower meadows and subalpine firs – while Mount Rainier provides the perfect photo backdrop. The Nisqually Vista Trail encompasses it all in a 1.2 mile loop that also offers views of the Nisqually Glacier.
The easy and connected trails are the Avalanche Lily Trail and the Waterfall Trail. They adjoin the Alta Vista and Skyline trails, both much steeper. Alta Vista (1.75 miles round trip) takes hikers to exceptional views of Mount Rainier and the adjacent Tatoosh Range across Paradise Valley.
Serious hikers will want to continue along the Skyline Trail. This strenuous 5.5 mile loop climbs to almost 7,000 feet and offers breathtaking views of the mountain above and the heavenly meadows below. Watch for marmots and pikas that pop out of the rocky terrain as you pass.
Panorama Point (6,800 feet) is the spectacular rock outcrop to stop for lunch on the trail with a 360 degree view. Then continue on the second half of the Skyline Trail, gradually descending back into wildflower meadows. Pause to admire Sluiskin Falls and Myrtle Falls.
The impressive Myrtle Falls can also be accessed from Paradise by going in the opposite direction on this loop – then it’s an easy one mile round trip on a paved trail from Paradise. The 60-foot falls are lined with lush meadows filled with wildflowers and butterflies.
Mount Rainier has many other hiking trails and views, including Reflection Lakes. This favorite photoshoot showcases Mount Rainier and wildflower-fringed alpine lakes. In the fall, the lakes reflect stunning fall colors. You can hike 2.75 miles round trip from Paradise to Reflection Lakes or drive east from Paradise to reach them.
Ambitious hikers can take the steep Pinnacle Peak trail from Reflection Lakes to reach the rocky summit of Pinnacle Peak in the nearby Tatoosh range. The three-mile round-trip hike offers stunning views of Mount Rainier across the valley from the summit elevation of 6,562 feet.
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— By Julie Gangler
Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Office of Tourism. She began her career as an editor at Sunset Magazine and later served as an Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.