Photograph by Michael Hanson, Nat Geo Image Collection
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An active volcano, Mount Rainier has erupted thousands of times during its relatively young life.

Photograph by Michael Hanson, Nat Geo Image Collection

This Popular Park Is a Landscape of Fire and Ice

Volcanic Mount Rainier—visible from the streets of Seattle—gives its name to the national park that also includes glacial valleys and wildflower meadows.

Location: Washington
March 2, 1899
235,625 acres

One of the world's most massive volcanoes, Mount Rainier can dominate the skyline for 100 miles before you reach the park named after it. At nearly three miles in height, Mount Rainier is the tallest peak in the Cascade Range; it dwarfs 6,000-foot surrounding summits, appearing to float alone among the clouds.

Mount Rainier may be the centerpiece of the national park, but it is hardly the only attraction. Here, less than three hours' drive from Seattle, you can stroll through seemingly endless fields of wildflowers, listen for cracking glacier debris, wander among trees more than a thousand years old. The park's convenient location, however, also leads to weekend traffic jams, both summer and winter, and guarantees you company on popular trails.

Mount Rainier is the offspring of fire and ice. Still active, it was probably born more than a half million years ago, on a base of lava spewed out by previous volcanoes. Lava and ash surged out of the young volcano's vent thousands of times, filling the neighboring canyons and building up a summit cone, layer by layer, to a height of some 16,000 feet.

Even while Mount Rainier was growing, glaciers carved valleys on and around the mountain. The 25 major glaciers here form the largest collection of permanent ice on a single U.S. peak south of Alaska.

Mount Rainier's summit deteriorated over time, but eruptions in the last 2,000 years rebuilt it to its current height of 14,410 feet. The mountain last erupted about a century ago.

How to Get There

From Seattle (95 miles) or Tacoma (70 miles) to the Nisqually Entrance (open year-round), take I-5 to Wash. 7, then follow Wash. 706. From Yakima, take Wash. 12 west to Wash. 123 or Wash. 410, and enter from the park's east side (Stevens Canyon or White River Entrances closed in winter). For the northwest entrances (Carbon River and Mowich Lake), take Wash. 410 to Wash. 169 to Wash. 165, then follow the signs. Carbon River Road washed out in a November 2006 flood (check with the park for closure information). Airports: Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon.

When to Go

Year-round. Wildflowers are at their best in July and August. High trails may remain snow covered until mid-July. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are popular in winter. Summer and winter, to miss the crowds, time your visit to midweek.

How to Visit (Summer)

If you have only a day, drive from the Nisqually Entrance in the southwest to the flowered fields of Paradise, then on to Sunrise, the highest point accessible by car, open early July to early October. If you have two days, take the same route but do it more leisurely: Plan to explore as far as Paradise the first day, then tour Stevens Canyon Road and the route to Sunrise the next; arrive before 10 a.m. to catch the early light and wend your way back.

For a longer stay, drive out and re-enter the less known northwest corner (check for road closures) at Carbon River for a look at a rain forest and a hike to a dark, shiny glacier. Because Mount Rainier creates its own clouds and can hide for days or weeks at a time, come prepared to focus on delights close at hand: waterfalls, woods, and wildflowers.

Fun Fact

Mount Rainier is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.