Mount Rainier is absolutely magical and the combination of meadows and mountains here are incomparable. Mt Rainier, one of the greatest US National Parks, is an amazing destination but can be challenging to squeeze everything due to the sheer size of the park. No matter how long you’re visiting, these 11 things to do are an essential part of any trip to Rainier National Park.
Standing tall at 14,410 feet, Mount Rainier is an iconic part of Washington’s stellar landscape. Being the highest mountain in Washington, and fifth tallest in the lower 48 states, Mount Rainier creates its own weather patterns, which means you can find an exciting diversity of ecosystems surrounding each side of Mount Rainier.
In fact, Mount Rainier’s base is so massive that when you go from its south face, Paradise, and drive over to its north face, Sunrise, it’s at least an hour and a half drive.
The mountain is covered by 26 major glaciers and 36 square miles of permanent snowfields and glaciers, so when summer hits, you’ll see a bounty of rivers and waterfalls flowing down through Mount Rainier National Park’s 369 square miles that contain subalpine meadows covered in wildflowers and old growth forest covered in moss and lichen that date back 7,000 years.
Orienting Yourself With Mount Rainier National Park
There are 5 main areas at Mount Rainier NP:
1 | Longmire (Southwest)
Nearest Park Entrance: Nisqually
This is where you’ll want to start if you are a history buff. Start at the Longmire Museum to pick up a self-guided walking tour of the Longmire Historic District and learn about the first settlement and the rustic architecture that became the style for future national parks.
Here, you can also get your kids their junior ranger book at the Longmire Museum or National Park Inn at Longmire, which has year round lodging and a seasonal restaurant, is located here as well as the Longmire General Store, which is your best bet in the park if you need to buy food and supplies. Paradise and Sunrise have stores but they are much smaller.
2 | Paradise (South)
Nearest Park Entrance: Located equal distance from the Stevens Canyon entrance and the Nisqually entrance
This is named Paradise for a reason. The views and hikes are incredible from here and as I mention below in the Tips for Visiting Mount Rainier section, this is where the best hikes are but it’s also really popular and crowded so getting here early or in the shoulder season can make your experience much better.
The Henry M. Jackson visitor center is a good place to stop in if you need any beta on trail conditions, want to get a junior ranger book for the kids, join a ranger talk or guided hike, or just need (slow wifi).
There’s also a gift shop and a cafeteria style restaurant with overpriced, low quality food. Honestly, I was so glad I had my Kuju Single Serve Pour Overs with me so I could just pay 25 cents for hot water and still have an amazing cup of Joe. I never road trip without a case of Kuju’s!
If you are looking for lodging, I can’t think of a better way to experience the beauty and raw nature surrounding Mount Rainier than by staying at Paradise Inn. Staying here will allow you to not deal with the parking issues and you’ll get to take in the views of Mount Rainier without the crowds. Plus, last time we were there, Mount Rainier only showed itself at dusk and dawn.
3 | Ohanapecosh (Southeast)
Nearest Park Entrance: Stevens Canyon
On the south east side of Mount Rainier National Park you’ll find the Grove of Patriarchs and Ohanapecosh Campground. This area is home to thousand-year-old Douglas fir and western red cedar trees as well as the perfectly camoflouged Northern Spotted Owl.
Don’t forget to stop and check out the dramatic viewpoints from Box Canyon. The trailhead/picnic area is located along the highway between Ohanapecosh and Paradise.
4 | Sunrise (Northeast)
Nearest Park Entrance: White River
If you love wildflowers, sub-alpine terrain, panoramic views, and sharp jagged peaks, then you have to make trip out to Sunrise. At 6400 feet, it’s the highest paved highway in Washington.
There are many trails for all levels of adventurers, a visitor center, ranger programs, a day lodge (no overnight accommodations here), and White River campground is close by.
5 | Carbon River/Mowich Lake (Northwest)
Nearest Park Entrance: No entrance here
This side of Rainier gets on average 90 inches of rain each year and has more biomass than most tropical rain forests.
I really wish we had made time to explore here. It’s a little out of the way but it’s way less crowed than Sunrise and Paradise and the lush rainforest and solitude of this “quiet side” of Rainier sounds amazing!
There are great hikes and even a MTB trail over here, however there aren’t many accommodations and only walk-in campgrounds or backcountry camping that require permits to stay at.
11 Things To Do In Mount Rainier National Park
With 97% of Mount Rainier National Park set aside to preserving this valuable ecosystem, you are sure to find adventure, solitude, and inspiration perfectly suited to meet your needs. However, with only 3% of the park set aside for buildings and infrastructure, Mount Rainier can feel very crowded so I hope these 11 things to do can help you make the most of your visit to Mount Rainier National Park.
1 | Capture a Picture of Mount Rainier
There are so many great photo ops while driving through Mount Rainier National Park as well as when you are hiking.
Right when you first enter the Nisqually entrance you have your first chance at the Kautz Creek Picnic Area, but if the mountain is being shy don’t worry, there will be more opportunities when you get close to Paradise and even more if you choose to drive past Paradise towards Ohanapecosh.
2 | Stroll through an Old Growth Forest
Mount Rainier NP is home to trees that have been there for over 1,000 years. Think about how crazy that it?! On the Longmire side check out Trail of the Cedars, or on the Ohanapecosh side check out Grove of the Patriarchs.
3 | Have a Picnic
What this national park lacks in parking near it’s visitor centers, it makes up for in epic picnic areas. Plus, the food at the lodges and visitor centers is pretty crappy if you ask me (but then again, I’m a health nut) and it is waayyy overpriced so do yourself a favor and stock up on some great artisan food in Seattle and bring it with you into the park.
All the visitor centers have picnic areas or you can find picnic tables at Mowich Lake, near Cougar Rock or White River campgrounds, near Box Canyon, and at Kautz Creek.
Need ideas for healthy snacks to load up on before heading into the park? Check out our blog What To Buy At Costco For A Healthy Lifestyle.
4 | Stay Overnight in the Park
The only thing better than visiting a national park is staying in one overnight. The crowds during the day can be intense, but from dusk to dawn, the park becomes a magical place.
See our Camping Guide to Mount Rainier for more details.
5 | Find a Waterfall
Rainier NP is home to numerous gorgeous waterfalls and many of them require little or no hiking to get to.
- Christine Falls: A beautiful roadside waterfall beneath the stone arch of the road bridge. Parking may be difficult here for RVs
- Narada Falls (Left photo): This requires a short steep walk from to take in the view, but it’s from a huge parking lot with a picnic area, making it a little easier if you are traveling with an RV.
- Carter + Madcap Falls: This is a pretty easy 1 mile hike (one-way) that starts just across the street from Cougar Rock campground.
- Myrtle Falls (Right photo): A very short half mile stroll from the Paradise Visitor Center on a paved trail.
- Comet Falls: This 4 mile roundtrip hike starts along the road between Longmire and Paradise. Parking space is limited and often full.
- Spray Falls: A two mile hike from Mowich Lake on the Spray Park Trail takes you to the spur trail to Spray Falls. After taking in the falls, head back to the main trail and climb up to the gorgeous subalpine meadows of Spray Park.
- There are many more waterfalls if you choose to do some backcountry camping.
6 | Learn Something From a Ranger
The ranger programs and guided ranger talks are a great way to learn more intimate details about the park. Our family always looks forward to the evening ranger programs and the younger kids get excited to earn their Junior Ranger badge every time we visit a national park. Click here to see a schedule of ranger programs at Mt Rainier.
7 | Do a Citizen Quest
Who says you have to be under 12 to act like a kid? Like the Junior Ranger booklets for kids 6-11, the Citizen Quest program allows adults and older kids to learn about the national park’s history and science and promote stewardship. Stop by the visitor center to get more info or you can go online here and get started on a quest before you arrive.
8 | Escape the Crowds
There’s no denying that Mount Raineir National Park is CROWDED but if you just hike a little further, the crowds disappear.
Check out our Guide to Hiking Mount Rainier for more details.
You really do need to hike Skyline to Panorama Point and it’s almost always crowded, but if you make time to do Lakes Trail or one of my favorites, Pinnacle Peak, you’ll get rad views and some solitude along the way.
9 | Chill Out
It’s not a race. Find some time to just chill out while you are at Mount Rainier and soak in why the national park system chose to leave 97% of the park undeveloped. There’s a lot of raw wilderness here and disconnecting from your normal pace of life may be your best experience at Rainier. There are plenty of trees so grab a hammock and a book and reconnect with the most awesome person in your life…YOU.
10 | View Wildflowers
The subalpine meadows surrounding Paradise and Sunrise have the most gorgeous display of wildflowers but only for a short period of time in the mid to late summer. You can check here to see the current wildflower report.
11 | Explore the Wonderland Trail or Backcountry Camping
The wonderland trial is a 93 mile trail that encircles Mount Rainier. It’s a very popular and strenuous backpacking route that requires obtaining a wilderness permit for way in advance. However, there are many places throughout the park where you can access the trail and spend the day hiking parts of this famous route.
Click here to see a map on the Wonderland trail and more info on exploring the backcountry.
11 Tips for Visiting Mount Rainier National Park
Because of its size and how beautifully unique the fauna is closest to the peak, it really is a MUST to spend some time at both Paradise and Sunrise. But if I only had time to pick one of the two, it would be Sunrise because alpine tundra has a warm spot in my heart.
Getting out to Sunrise is a trek depending on where you are coming from and if you only have time to get to Paradise, that’s okay, but make sure you keep these tips in mind.
1| Avoid Weekends
Parking at Paradise, Sunrise, Grove of the Patriarchs, and many of the popular trailheads between Longmire and Paradise in the summer can be crazy and unlike many of the other popular national parks like Zion and Glacier, there isn’t a shuttle bus to get around on.
If at all possible, try to plan your visit for a weekday. The crowds will be much thinner and you won’t feel like ripping your hair out trying to find parking in order to go hike and calm your soul.
2 | Get to Paradise (or Sunrise) Early
It’s about 20 miles, which could take an hour with traffic, to go from either of the Mount Rainier National Park Entrances to Paradise. Your mission is to get to Paradise (or Sunrise) as early as possible to get one of the few parking spots. On weekends, the parking lot is easily full by 9 am and there aren’t many other parking options nearby.
3 | Don’t Stop on the Way In
From both the west and the east entrance towards Paradise there are a few quaint areas you can explore like Trail of the Patriarchs, Box Canyon, and Longmire, but I recommend you skip them unless you have multiple days to explore Mount Rainier area. The hikes at Paradise and Sunrise are amazing and you don’t want to risk not getting a parking spot here. Prioritize Paradise/Sunrise first, then backtrack to those others spots if you have time.
4 | RV Parking in Mount Rainier Sucks
Most national parks are set up great for RVs but not Mount Rainier. We drive a 30 foot class C and it’s tight getting around the park in general and finding parking, especially at Paradise, was hard. It’s doable, but you really have to plan well in order to make the RV experience enjoyable.
Sunrise parking lot allows you to park overnight but if you do, plan your escape route when you park. I arrived here late at night and parked in the dirt parking area that had tons of space around it. We set off hiking early and when I came back, I had been blocked in by cars parking behind me. Next time I’d have parked at the far east side of the dirt parking area.
5 | Make It A Road Trip
Some national parks like Glacier and Zion are easy to navigate by reserving a campsite or lodge as a home base and exploring from it. Mount Rainier isn’t set up as well for that. There isn’t a shuttle system here like those other national parks have and so making it a road trip like I put in the itinerary at the end of this blog is a much better way to visit Mount Rainier National Park.
6 | Watch The Free Film At The Visitor Center
I’m amazed at how many people go to the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise and don’t watch the 15 minute movie about Mount Rainier National Park. I really enjoyed how much I learned about the park and its ecosystems and its a good way to relax after hiking the Skyline Trail to Panorama Point.
7 | Check The Weather
One of the main reasons you’ll want to visit Mount Rainier is to actually see its namesake. This active volcano is over 14,000 feet tall and covered in glaciers year round. Views of its entirety really do take your breath away so I encourage you to try to time your trip with some clear skies.
8 | Stay Late
Early morning and close to sunset seem to be the best times to catch epic views of Mount Rainier. Most of the day when we were there, Mount Rainier seems to be covered by a layer of clouds, but every time I’ve been there, the clouds have completely cleared by dusk. When we slept overnight at Sunrise, the mountain was fully visible at dawn but by 8 am it was again covered in clouds.
Related: Camping in Mount Rainier NP
9 | Do The Harder Hikes
Don’t you dare come to visit mount rainier and try to skip out on hiking. There are many great hikes from Paradise but if you only have time for one hike at mount rainier, my vote goes to Pinnacle Peak which starts just 5 minutes away from Paradise.
You park at reflection lake (RVs will want to park in the dirt shoulder on the west side of the parking area). It’s a stout 1.3 miles to the viewpoint and you can choose to extend this trail further.
If you have time for more hikes, click here to read my Guide to Hiking Mount Rainier.
10 | Stay At The Paradise Lodge
I can’t imagine a more awesome way to experience Mount Rainier, except maybe from a backcountry tent, then by spending a few days at the Paradise Inn Lodge.
Staying here gives you front and center views of Mount Rainier and lets you take in those views during the magical hours of sunrise and sunset, without the need of a sleeping bag, sleep pad, and tent.
Search for Other Accommodation
11 | Don’t Skip Sunrise
Like I mentioned at the beginning, Sunrise is the north side of Mount Rainier and is a gorgeous sub alpine ecosystem comparable to some of the epic scenery in the Swiss Alps. I skipped it my first visit and when I finally saw it on my second visit I was bummed that I didn’t know to go here the first go around.
There are many great hiking trails over here like Glacier Basin, Burrough Mountains, Berkeley Park, and Mt Fremont Lookout. If you aren’t up for a hard hike, you have to at least hike up the first 0.3 mile of the trailhead to Sourdough Ridge. It will take you to a gorgeous overlook that absolutely can’t be skipped. There are SO many trails here it’s too bad there isn’t a lodge to stay at.
Hope this helped you plan an incredible trip Mount Rainier National Park! It really is one of our country’s greatest destinations! If you’re headed to Rainier be sure to check out our related Mount Rainier content:
- Best Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park
- Camping in Mount Rainier National Park
- Road Trip Pack List
- Washington State National Park Itinerary
- Best Campgrounds in Washington
- Best Hikes in the Pacific Northwest
- How to Road Trip on a Budget
Have questions? Let us know in the comments below!