Looming over the Seattle skyline Mount Rainier dominates the southern horizon during clearer days. Seattle maintains an almost too comfortable relationship with the 14,411-foot high active volcano that sits at the center of this 235,613-acre park, located less than a two-hour drive from downtown. Created in 1899, Mount Rainier National Park is the nations fifth oldest national park and was recently honored as the second best national park for backcountry activity.
Although the park is open year round, visitation to most regions is limited to late June to early October, depending on snowfall. During the cool summer of 1999 the record amounts of snow that fell on the park never melted, and many park areas and trails remained closed through the year.
Mount Rainier may be the center of the park and the main attraction, but it is one of only a vast number of things you can see and do. Dense, old growth forest, coastal rainforest, dazzling alpine meadows covered in vibrant wildflowers, snowfields, glaciers, and countless ponds and lakes fed by and endless cycle of melting ice and snow. A wide variety of wildlife call Mount Rainier home including black bears and cougars.
Day hikers can visit the Carbon River Rainforest Nature Trail located in the far northwestern corner of the park. This simple 3/10 of a mile trail explores the only rainforest located within the park. The location is unusual because Rainier is quite some distance inland from the rainforest of Hoh found in Olympic National Park.
When visiting the Carbon River region of the park bring your determination. While there you can take a seven-mile hike that will bring you to the terminal moraine of the lowest glacier in elevation in the contiguous 48 states! Starting at Ipsut Campground take the Wonderland Trail south than southeast along the banks of the Carbon River. The trail will cross a suspension bridge before arriving at the base of the glacier. Be careful not to approach the base, as rock and icefall are very common especially in the spring and summer. It is from here the waters of the Carbon River are formed.
Visitors who enter the year round Nisqually Entrance can follow the spectacular park road to the Paradise region of the park. From here a number of hikes can be taken through alpine meadows, to waterfalls and to the base of two different glaciers.
The Nisqually Vista Trail is a 1.2-mile self-guided walk through the high meadows of Mount Rainier. Shrouded in mist the weather forces wildflowers to grow in tight clumps to protect themselves from the harsh elements and help roots hold the ground. Don't succumb to the temptation to leave the trail or pick flowers. From the Upper Parking Lot you can hike out to Sluiskin Falls or McClure Rock.
If you continue to the southeastern corner of the park you can visit the Ohanapecosh region of the park. A very popular hike is out to Silver Falls. The trail starts at the Ohanapecosh Campground and heads north through the Ohanapecosh Hot Springs and follows the Old Boundary Trail out to Silver Falls. Here the Ohanapecosh River falls almost 80 feet producing a silver mist. You can take the bridge at the base of the falls to take the hike as a three-mile loop or simply return where you came from. Although it is very tempting to cross the safety barriers the rocks are very slippery. In 2000 a woman fell to her death after crossing the barriers to get a closer look at the falls.
At Stevens Canyon just north of Ohanapecosh be sure to stop and hike the Grove of the Patriarchs Trail. This 1.2 mile self-guided interpretive trail passes through ancient stands of 1,000-year-old western red cedar and Douglas fir. The trees rise above you to dizzying heights and block out the sun. Some of the Douglas firs are well over 35 feet in diameter!
If your journey takes you to the northeastern region of the park head into the heart of the park's wilderness at the Sunrise Visitor Center. From the Visitor Center you can take the Mount Freemont Lookout Trail. The 5-1/2 mile trail climbs steeply from the Visitor Center for close to a ½ a mile before following Sourdough Ridge west toward Rainier. The trail continues to climb along the rocky ridge and through alpine meadows before ending at a fire lookout. On a clear day Mount Rainier, the Cascade Mountains to the north and the Olympic Mountains to the west can be seen.
Mount Rainier National Park is popular for backpacking. Most of the 240 miles of trails cater to wilderness experience around the base of the mountain. There are a vast number of trailside primitive campgrounds available within the park. Trailside campgrounds may have fire rings, all have pit toilets and all are close to untreated water supplies.
If you want to explore the deep wilderness of the park dispersed camping is permitted. Leave no trace rules must be followed and your camp cannot be in view of other campsites or park features, including Visitor Centers, roads and trails. Open fires are highly discouraged and camping in the fragile vegetation of montane and alpine regions is prohibited. Permits for trailside camping and dispersed camping are free and can be obtained at the Wilderness Information Center located at Longmire, White River, Paradise and Wilkeson Ranger Stations.
An epic trail within Mount Rainier National Park is the Wonderland Trail. Originally created to promote visitation of the park, the Wonderland Trail is now the main route for park rangers on patrol and many of the original ranger stations are still in use today. The 93-mile trail circles the base of Mount Rainier passing through a variety of terrain from lowland forest to alpine meadows, and just about everything in between. Difficult terrain, changes in altitude, and trail conditions make this a 10 to 14 day hike. Because the trail passes by many of the main visitor areas there are numerous chances for re-supply and to pack out your trash. At almost any given point incredible views of Mount Rainier are provided along the journey around the mountain and backpackers can get close to most of the 25 named glaciers.
There are a total of 18 trailside campsites along the trail, ranging from three to seven miles apart. Visitors who normally live in lower elevations should give themselves a day or two to acclimate to Rainier before starting out on the trail. Although the trail is open in June, August and early September are the best times to hike the trail. Early hikers may find fallen trees, washed out bridges, snow and ice along the trail. This isn't a good trail to learn map and compass or wilderness survival skills on. Washington weather is unpredictable so a good weather radio should be part of your essential gear, especially in September when early snowstorms can bury the area.
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