Written by Marguerite Cleveland
At more than 14,000 feet, the iconic Mount Rainier, a large active stratovolcano in the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest, looms over southwestern Washington state. Its dramatic vistas are often hidden behind fog and clouds, but in the summer months this snowcapped mountain beckons. When planning a trip to this region, make sure to plan for extreme changes in weather. Double check the Mount Rainier National Park website for up-to-date road closures and opening dates for the park (which vary by region). Make sure to gas up before entering the park and know that service stations may be hard to find or spaced far apart. Pack extra snacks, water, and a set of binoculars to look for wildlife from a safe distance.
The national park has four main entrances and a number of small towns surrounding it. These insider tips will help you make the most out of your visit to Mount Rainier and beyond.
On very clear days, the highest mountain in Washington state can be seen from as far away as British Columbia, Canada. But the national park is more than just its namesake stratovolcano—here you’ll find lush greenery, steep cliffs, epic lakes and waterfalls, and twisty roads worth the potential motion sickness.
"Downtown historic Enumclaw has the feel of a mountain town where people can gear up for their alpine adventure, but it’s also a destination in its own right,” says Meilee Anderson, marketing consultant for Visit Rainier. This oasis of eateries, wineries, and breweries also features opportunities for hot-air balloon flights, trail rides, and hikes. “It’s a place you’d want to spend the afternoon or weekend even if there weren’t a national park-scale mountain in its backyard,” Anderson says.
The best views of Mount Rainier are actually not from within the national park, since you are so close to the mountain. One of the best places to see Mount Rainier is from the Crystal Mountain Resort. For a splurge, stay at the Crystal Sky Camp, a luxury all-inclusive glamping experience at 6,000 feet. After a scenic ride on the Mount Rainier Gondola, you’ll step off at the top to a bird’s-eye view of the northeast side of the mountain and four other nearby volcanoes. You’ll also be a few steps away from the Summit House, Washington’s highest-elevation restaurant, with indoor and outdoor seating and views in every direction.
If you stay at Crystal Mountain or at one of the other resorts or campgrounds in the area, a must-see event is sunrise at Sunrise Point. Sitting at 6,400 feet, Sunrise Point is the highest point in the park reachable by car; enjoy the excellent views as the sun rises and begins to tint the surrounding area a pink color that changes as the sun makes its way further in the sky (well worth an early morning wakeup call). After sunrise, head to the visitor center and the Sunrise Day Lodge, which has food service and a gift shop.
This area on the eastern side of Mount Rainier National Park is home to an old-growth forest, waterfalls, and a scenic drive to Paradise. Make a stop at the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center, just past the Stevens Canyon entrance to the park for information on the area. The “Grove of the Patriarchs” is an easy 1.1-mile hike which meanders past giant western red cedar, Douglas firs, and western hemlock trees.
The drive on Stevens Canyon Road to Paradise is one of the most scenic in the park. As you head out from the lush forests and begin to increase in elevation, Mount Rainier gradually reveals itself as you near Paradise. Make sure to stop at Reflection Lakes for a beautiful reflection of Mount Rainier (if the water is calm and the sky is clear). A mile past the lakes is Inspiration Point, which offers spectacular views of Mount Rainier and makes for a perfect quick photo stop.
Although Paradise often has snow well into July, there are plenty of hiking opportunities, from short easy trails to strenuous all-day hikes. As you make your way through the park from Paradise, keep an eye out for two waterfalls, both of which are located just a short distance from the parking lots.
The Paradise Village Hotel and Restaurant was renovated to resemble a Ukrainian village, reflecting the owner’s heritage. The restaurant and bakery offer a variety of Eastern European food—make sure to try the Ukrainian galushki (similar to Italian gnocchi or Russian piroshki). The food is good and the portions are generous, but what really brings people here is the infamous Cannibal Hot Tub, a large metal cauldron slowly heated over a wood fire.
This tiny hamlet is the gateway town to the Nisqually entrance to Mount Rainier National Park. When you leave the park, look for prayer flags surrounding a building on your left—this is the Wildberry Restaurant owned by Lhakpa Gelu and his wife Fulamu. Gelu, a Nepalese Sherpa climber, holds the world speed record on Mount Everest, climbing base camp to summit in just under 11 hours (he has also summited Mount Rainier 97 times). The Nepalese and American restaurant also features a mini museum; Gelu is very friendly and loves to share stories of his adventures. Afterwards, head to the Copper Creek Restaurant for a slice of its famous blackberry pie, a local favorite.
Recycled Spirits of Iron Sculpture Park is also known as the Ex-Nihilo Sculpture Park. “Ex-NiHilo” is Latin for “something created from nothing,” and artist Dan Klennert spent years transforming random pieces of metal into creative works of art before moving to a warmer climate and passing the torch to artist Jay Bechtold. Today, Bechtold produces new pieces for the sculpture park, which is open year round with a suggested donation.
Wilkeson is a gateway town to the Carbon River entrance to Mount Rainier National Park. This historic mining town’s tiny, two-block downtown is home to several farm-to-table restaurants including The Carlson Block. Farm fresh mozzarella and seasonal ingredients help the restaurant live up to its reputation as serving “the best pizza in Washington.”
Banner Photo Credit: roadtripper933342