Mount Rainier towers over the Cascade Range serving as a focal point for both the lush, green lands of Western Washington and the dry upland steppes of Eastern Washington. The native people of the Puget Sound (a.k.a. The Salish Sea) call her Tahoma and see her as a mighty source of origin legends and home to the most powerful gods.
Today, everyone from Native Americans to recent emigrants recognize Mount Rainier, or Tahoma, as an icon of northwest culture and a wonderful wilderness retreat. Mount Rainier National Park – America’s 5th National Park – was formally created on March 2, 1899. The Park encompasses nearly 370 square miles and includes deep riparian valleys, lush old-growth forests, alpine meadows, and glaciated slopes. Mount Rainier herself stands 14,411 feet elevation and is clad in 27 individual glaciers and 50 permanent snowfields. Mt Rainier is a must-visit on a Washington road trip and we’ve rounded up 6 of the best Mt Rainier hikes for you below.
Looking for the best Mt Rainier hikes? We’ve got you covered with everything you need to know about 6 epic hikes in Mt Rainier National Park.
Best Time to Visit Mt Rainier
A plethora of annual snowfall feeds the glaciers on Mt Rainier, and that snow can lead to access issues for hikers. The Road to Paradise is kept open year-round, providing phenomenal winter recreation on the slopes of the volcano, but the park’s other roads are typically snowbound from November through late May.
The Road to Sunrise may not be opened until the Fourth of July or later some years, making summer and early fall the best time to visit Mt Rainier for hiking. Check the park website for road opening dates and current trail conditions.
Mt Rainier Fee & Permit Information
As of August 2021, to enter Mount Rainier National Park at one of the main gateways (Nisqually Entrance, Stevens Canyon Entrance, White River Entrance, or Carbon River Entrance) you’ll pay a vehicle entry fee of $30 for private non-commercial vehicles or $15 per visitor on foot, bicycle, or motorcycle. The fee provides access for 7 days.
Frequent visitors can opt instead for an Annual Pass for $55 – this pass covers the entry fee for the pass holder, the pass holder’s vehicle, and any passengers. Another option is to purchase an annual America the Beautiful Pass for $80, which can be used nation-wide at federal recreational lands, including National Parks.
Day hikers require no other permit, though backpackers will have to pick up wilderness camping permits available online or from any of the park’s ranger stations.
Note: Dogs are not allowed on any trails within Mount Rainier National Park. For nearby dog-friendly trails, check out routes in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to the south or Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to the north.
How to Get to Mt Rainier
From the northwest (Puget Sound region) travel Interstate 5 to Washington’s State Route 7 near Tacoma, then head east on SR 7 to the small town of Elbe, and then veer left to continue east on State Route 706 (Road to Paradise). This leads directly to the Nisqually Entrance on the southwest corner of the park.
To reach the Southeastern entrance, from the west, leave I-5 by turning west on US Highway 12 and traveling east, through the town of Packwood before turning north onto State Route 123 (Cayuse Pass Highway). SR 123 runs north, with access to the Stevens Canyon Entrance to the park before intercepting SR 410 near the White River/Sunrise Entrance. From Yakima and central Washington areas, head west on US 12 to cross White Pass before reaching the SR 123 junction or take SR 410 west over Chinook Pass to the White River/ Sunrise Entrance.
The Northwestern portion of the park is reached by exiting SR 410 at the town of Buckley. Turn south onto Washington State Route 165. Continue on SR 165 to its end at Mowich Lake or veer off onto the Carbon River Road to reach the Carbon River Entrance at the park’s northwestern corner. Note that the Carbon River Road is permanently closed to automobiles at the park boundary, but the gravel road is open to mountain bikes and hikers to its end at Ipsut Creek.
Best Day Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park
Nisqually and Paradise Area
- Round-trip Distance: 4 miles
- Elevation Gain: 1,200 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
These stair-step falls earn accolades as one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the park, if not one of the overall best Mt Rainier hikes, though the competition is fierce. The top section of Comet drops 300 feet in a brilliant silver ribbon which fans out as it crashes over black basalt cliffs. The waters gather at the bottom, roll across a heather step, then drops another 20 feet into a broad basin.
The trail starts with a steep climb away from the parking area, quickly slicing into a dense old-growth forest. A short half-mile in, the trail pitch eases, and the forest opens up as the route angles north to climb along the eastern slope of the VanTrump Valley. Note until mid-July, snowfields may linger over sections of the trail where it crosses avalanche chutes – and when the remains of winter avalanches do melt out, there could be downed trees and other debris to navigate before local trail crews get a chance to clear the route.
Once you reach the waterfall basin at 1.8 miles that overly average trail suddenly seems exceptional. At about 2 miles, leave the main trail and angle off onto a sidetrack on the left to access the plunge pool at the base falls. Enjoy the view before returning the way you came.
- Round-trip Distance: 5 miles
- Elevation Gain: 1,400 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
This 5-mile loop route departs from the Paradise parking lot and leads past the doors of Paradise Lodge – a classic CCC timber-framed lodge. The path crosses the broad Edith Creek Basin and leads up through some of the country’s most glorious alpine wildflower meadows. The meadows cover more than 9,000 acres of parkland, providing countless opportunities for enjoying the flowers.
Within minutes after leaving the lodge, the trail crosses a sturdy bridge over the head of Myrtle Falls, a crashing cascade that drops away from the trail bridge into a deep gorge through the meadows. From the bridge, stay right as the route slices through a broad meadow before climbing steeply to the high crest of Mazama Ridge. Turn left and enjoy stunning views of the glory of Mount Rainier’s glaciated summit as you trek upward along the ridgeline to Sluiskin Falls – it was here that the Native American, Chief Sluiskin, stopped and waited while Hazard Stevens and P.B. VanTrump made the first successful climb to the summit in 1870. Sluiskin refused to go higher into the realm of the gods.
From Sluiskin Falls, the trail climbs a bit more before looping west and descending back into the Paradise Valley.
The Mount Fremont Trail
- Round-trip Distance: 5.5 miles
- Elevation Gain: 1,200 feet
- Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
The Fremont Lookout tower no longer functions as a manned fire lookout – that era is long gone. Today, satellites keep an eye on our wildlands during fire season. But these historic watchtowers still are wonderful recreational destinations with their stunning views.
The stilted cabin of the Fremont Lookout stands not on the true summit of Mount Fremont, but on a secondary knob on the north flank of that peak. This location provides a much better vantage point for watching over the forests to the north. On clear days, Glacier Peak, Mount Stuart, and even Mount Baker can be seen in the distance. The lookout’s location, unfortunately, offers somewhat limited views of Mount Rainier herself. But the trek to and from the tower feature unmatched panoramic views of The Mountain and the vast alpine meadows and glacier fields that grace her northern flanks.
The trail leaves the Sunrise Lodge parking lot on the Sourdough Ridge trail and, after a brief climb through the Sunrise Meadows, angles west past Frozen Lake and a series of trail junctions. Despite the multiple trail options, staying on the route is easy as the open alpine meadows provide clear views of the Fremont Trail as it climbs north away from Frozen Lake along the flank of Fremont Mountain. The trail crests out of the ridge top at about 2.5 miles and leads to a gentle stroll along the rocky crest to the lookout tower. Pay attention to the meadows before the tower and you might see the resident mountain goat herd.
NOTE: While the trailhead area is known as Sunrise – it is one of the first places in the park to receive the morning sun – Mount Fremont and the other area peaks offer outstanding viewing of sunsets over Mount Rainier. If you plan to enjoy the sunset, make sure to pack a headlamp for your hike out in the twilight hours.
- Round-trip Distance: 6.5 miles
- Elevation Gain: 1,600 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
Your time is running out. Without radical changes in global practices, glaciers could disappear entirely in the lower 48 states, and the ice rivers on Mount Rainier are already in full retreat. Fortunately, we can still see the mighty ice sheets, and even get up-close and personal with them. Seeing a glacier up close should be on everyone’s bucket list, and for that reason, Glacier Basin is one of the best Mt Rainier hikes. This trail leads up the upper reaches of the White River Valley, crawling through scraggly forest and craggy moraines – ridges of rock pushed aside by the moving glaciers. If you have the skill and the time, you can scramble up the bottom section of a climbers’ trail to reach the ice of Inter Glacier.
From the White River Campground, start up the trail as it follows the frigid churning waters of the White River upstream. The trail is an old road, once used by miners and then by tourists, until the late 1940s, making the lower section of the route fairly easy to traverse. The trail dips near the river periodically, and even on the hottest summer days, you can periodically feel a refreshingly cool breeze off the icy waters.
When the trail forks at the 1-mile mark, stay right to continue up the Inter Fork of the White River. This branch of the river is spawned by the melting waters of the Inter Glacier, the river of ice nestled in the rocky basin below the pointed crest of Steamboat Prow.
From the fork, the trail continues west, climbing along the river at the foot of Burroughs Mountain. At just over 3 miles, the official trail ends at Glacier Basin Camp (5,900 feet). From here, you can look upward at the rocky notch of St. Elmo Pass, through which flows the headwaters of the Inter Fork of White River.
Added Adventure: For more rugged adventures, follow the climbers track as it ascends from the camp through the rocky rubble of the Wedge. In just under a mile, you’ll gain 1,200 feet, crossing through St. Elmo Pass, to reach the foot of Inter Glacier. NOTE: This is a rough scramble route and deserves a great deal of respect and caution.
Mowich and Carbon River Area
- Round-trip Distance: 7 miles
- Elevation Gain: 2,200 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult
Several local guides, photographers, and naturalists have deemed Spray Park as Mount Rainier National Park’s best meadow hike. The lower section of the trail provides access to a beautiful waterfall before climbing steeply through a gradual transition of ecosystems. The route runs through a high forest, a riparian valley, into subalpine meadow, and finally to alpine meadows. The truly adventurous can push on and explore true high alpine zones, complete with glaciated slopes.
But it’s the meadows, especially the transition zone from subalpine (starts just below timberline) to alpine (open fields above timberline) that really make Spray Park special. The trees fade away as the trail climbs, leaving a path through a world of sparkling blue ponds and emerald-green heathers and grasses interrupted by splashes of color from a variety of wildflowers. The three-mile walk to Spray Park leads from the shores of Mowich Lake to seemingly endless open meadows of heather and alpine blossoms.
The path starts at the Mowich Lake Trailhead and climbs gradually through the forest for more than 1.7 miles to Spray Falls. Views of the falls require a brief quarter-mile side trip but this is NOT to be missed. Spray Falls is a glorious fantail cascade that provides a cooling spray on hot summer hikes.
After visiting the falls, continue up the Spray Park trail as it climbs south up the flank of Mount Rainier. A long series of switchbacks leads over Grant Creek and into the subalpine meadows below Hessong Rock (6380 feet). The trail continues to climb, more gradually now, through broad fields of flowers. Stop anywhere along here – there are endless options for picnic spots with grand views. To find the best views, though, push on to the spine of the rocky ridge separating Spray Park from Seattle Park to the east. Here, at around 3.5 miles out you’ll find a cool rock garden at 7,400 feet.
Eunice Lake – Tolmie Peak Lookout
- Round-trip Distance: 6.5 miles
- Elevation Gain: 1,100 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
This route doubles your pleasure with visits to both a clear alpine lake and a scenic vista from an old fire lookout station. Eunice Lake is a blue gem nestled among the meadows and a perfect place to cool off during a hot summer hike. And Tolmie Peak provides astoundingly clear 360-degree views of Mount Rainier and the Central Cascades, making it one of the best Mt Rainier hikes.
The trail meanders about 1.75 miles from the Mowich Lake trailhead to Ipsut Pass (5,100 feet) before traversing through stands of forest and broad meadows to the shores of Eunice Lake. From the lake, you can clearly see your destination overhead. The trail climbs steadily from the lake to the summit of Tolmie Peak and the old disused but still sturdy fire lookout cabin at the crest.
The lookout cabin was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, but the peak was named for an explorer who visited the area nearly 100 years earlier. According to the National Park Service records, Dr. William Tolmie left London to take up residence as the local physician for the Hudson Bay Company at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River just north of Portland, Oregon. Tolmie saw the mountain as he sailed up the river and subsequently journeyed out on an expedition to the Mowich Lake area to collect medicinal herbs. He made the first recorded ascent of Hessong Rock.
Are you planning a trip to Mt. Rainier National Park or have you been before? Are we missing any of the best Mt Rainier hikes? Let us know in the comments below!