by Lee Foster
The white presence of Mt. Rainier is so familiar to Seattleites that they call it The Mountain. There is always a new perspective of the mountain to meditate over, as the seasons progress, as the light changes, and as the cloud cover alters.
For the vista collector, hiker, camper, and climber in summer, and for the skier in winter, Rainier has much to offer. Its snowy top, crumpled glaciers, and lacy waterfalls are clearly visible to the car tourer who chooses to skirt the mountain. Rainier’s weather is variable, changing by the minute, so come prepared for wet and cold. Snow may fall at the higher elevations in any month.
Rainier receives high and deserved praise as an arctic island in a temperate zone. The mountain is not only high; it also rises abruptly from the surrounding landscape, assuming a majestic appearance.
Getting to Mt. Rainier
Mt. Rainier is easily accessible all year from Seattle, only 70 miles away, going south briefly on Interstate 5, east on Highway 512, south on 7, and east on 706. The drive takes about three hours because the scenic roads are narrow and invite lingering. A weekend auto tour can get you there and back, leaving plenty of time to hike and look around. One dependable lodging is at the National Park Inn, in Longmire.
Check the park website, in all months but July and August, to inquire if the high roads are open, making it possible for you to circle the mountain.
Mt. Rainier History
The interesting history of Rainier is geologic rather than the tale of its human observers. Both volcanic fire and glacial ice have contributed to Rainier’s formation. The last volcanic eruption was 500-600 years ago. If Rainier erupts again, the effects would be cataclysmic, partly because there is so much snow that would melt to cause mudflows.
The ranger interpretive center at Longmire and the short Shadows Trail there acquaint you with the Longmire family, which pioneered in the area in the 1880s, extolling the presumed healthful properties of the mineral waters for drinking and bathing. Outside the interpretive center you’ll find a slice from a magnificent Douglas fir, the prime lumber tree in Washington. It is worth noting, if you don’t feel youthful enough for a mountain hike, that James Longmire arrived here in 1883, at the age of 63, and promptly walked to the top of the mountain.
Today Rainier boasts the largest individual glacier and cluster of glaciers in the contiguous U.S. (that excludes Alaska). The height of Rainier (at 14,410 feet) makes it the tallest volcanic mountain in the lower 48 states.
Mt. Rainier Main Attractions
Everywhere you turn, the main attraction is the white, symmetrical beauty of Rainier. If you are fortunate, the weather will be clear and you will see many views of the mountain. However, there can also be long periods of cloud cover.
As you enter the park, near Ashford, you’ll see the massive natural mudflows from 1947 at Kautz Creek, suggesting the danger inherent when warm rains or volcanic activity, as at Mt. St. Helens, causes rapid glacier melt.
Here and throughout the park, inviting trails take you laterally around the mountain.
Inland in the park, Paradise Visitor Center is the highly-visited, all-year access area, with excellent audio visual introductions to the region. One display shows the climbing gear that Jim Whitaker wore for his historic Everest ascent on May 1, 1963, after the party practiced at Rainier. From the Paradise vista point you’ll see stunning views of the nearby Cascade relatives of Rainier. Travelers enjoy the lupin wildflowers in summer, aspen color in autumn, and the heavy snowpack of winter. At Paradise you can hike or snowshoe to an overlook of the Nisqually Glacier. A full-service rental facility at Longmire can outfit you with winter cross-country or snowshoe gear.
Climbing parties depart from Paradise for the summit or for Camp Muir at 10,000 feet. The ascents in summer take two days.
Three other visitor centers help orient you to the park at entrance points, but they are only functioning during the brief summer season.
At the southeast corner the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center can acquaint you with the trout-filled river of the same name, open only to fly fishermen.
On the east side of the park the Sunrise Visitor Center, accessible along a high road at the upper line of vegetation, emphasizes geologic history. Here you can see another glacier, the Emmons Glacier. You also get a good view of technical climbers ascending the mountain.
Mt. Rainier is the most visited of Washington’s mountain parks, and for good reason. It towers over the other mountains along the spine of the Cascades. Together with the lesser mountains and the persistent hills of moderate height, Rainier causes the incoming ocean air to drop its water on the west face of the mountain. Because of the Cascades, western Washington is wet and eastern Washington is relatively dry.
Rainier is a good place to hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, which could be pursued from Canada to Mexico by the intrepid explorer.
Because of its manageable size (378 square miles), the network of roads circling the park, and an elaborate trail system (305 miles), you can reach almost any part of Rainier in a one-day hike.
The least-visited part of the park is at the northwest corner, the Carbon River entrance. There is camping, hiking, and fishing at Mowich Lake.
In winter Mt. Rainier offers skiing. The greatest snowfall ever recorded anywhere fell here at the Paradise ranger station in 1972 (the snowpack reached 93.5 feet). The months with the least precipitation are July and August, but Rainier can be wet even then and travelers who take little pleasure in precipitation have sometimes renamed the mountain Rainiest. However, the connoisseur of mountain scenery in raging storms will find that Rainier has appealing vistas even in inclement weather.
Nearby Trips from Mt. Rainier
The summer tour circling the mountain, with as much time spent at each entrance as your trip allows, would be the best plan for a Rainier encounter. You could do it in two days or two weeks. The park invites walking, and the many trails here are varied in their demands. Some are gentle, while others are arduous technical climbs.
The major nearby attraction is Mt. St. Helens, just 30 miles southwest. See my Mt. St. Helens write-up. Rainier in its pristine wilderness demeanor and Mt. St. Helens in its post-eruption recovery provide a sharp contrast.
On Highway 161 north of Eatonville, west of the park, make a stop at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, a zoo of wilderness animals maintained by Pierce County Parks and Recreation. This is a good place to see wolves, bear, deer, and mountain goats. Part of the encounter is from a tram; the rest is on foot, with the animals roaming free in rustic enclosures.
Mt. Rainier: If You Go
See the National Park Service website on Mt. Rainier at http://www.nps.gov/mora.