Size: 236,381 acres
Annual Visitors: 1.4 million
Visitor Centers: Sunrise, Paradise Jackson, Ohanapecosh
Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, or $15 per person
Why go and what to know
One of the world’s oldest national parks, Mount Rainier became part of the federal system in 1899, shortly after its last eruption. Park status was the culmination of a long campaign by John Muir and other conservationists to preserve a unique forest, field, and glacial landscape under threat from the timber and mining extraction that had already ravaged much of the American West. (Here’s why wild salmon remains king in the Pacific Northwest.)
That wasn’t the last battle over the mountain. There was also a bitter feud over the name. British explorer George Vancouver originally christened the peak in 1792, naming it after his friend Rear Admiral Peter Rainier of the Royal Navy. With memories of the redcoats still fresh in their minds, Americans who settled the region in the early 19th century preferred the name Mount Tacoma. The lexical dispute continued into the 1920s and returned again with the official designation of Denali as the name of Alaska’s highest peak in 2015.
Despite its mountainous topography, the national park is accessible via five different roads from the surrounding lowlands. One of the most popular areas is Sunrise in the northeast, easy to reach from the Seattle–Tacoma metropolitan area (around two hours) and also the highest point (6,400 feet) in the park that visitors can venture with their cars. (Discover the best activities in Seattle.)
Renowned for its panoramic views of Mount Rainier and Emmons Glacier, Sunrise Visitor Center is well stocked with maps, books, and information on the park. Ranger-led programs are a staple during the summer season. Snacks, drinks, and souvenirs are available at the nearby Sunrise Day Lodge.
Set amid a large alpine meadow, Sunrise is also the jumping-off point for numerous trails, both short and long, around the fringe of Mount Rainier. One of the easier hikes is the Silver Forest Trail (2 miles) to the Emmons Vista Overlook and an old burn area where the grayish tree trunks glisten silver in a certain light. Far more difficult—and far more rewarding in scenery—is Boroughs Mountain Trail, which climbs steadily upward through wildflower-filled tundra to Frozen Lake and the edge of Winthrop Glacier. Another great route is the 7-mile hike to the Palisades Lakes area, which starts at the parking lot for Sunrise Point (also the best place in the park to catch daybreak over the hazy plains of central Washington).
The park’s most visited area is Paradise on the mountain’s south side, which owes its name to Martha Longmire, a young settler who is said to have exclaimed “What a paradise!” when her family homesteaded the area in the 1880s.
Paradise Jackson Visitor Center offers exhibits, ranger programs, and films. Even if you’re not sleeping at the historic Paradise Inn (opened in 1917), grab a meal or check out the iconic “parkitecture.” Permits for climbing Rainier and hiking the backcountry are available at the Paradise Climbing Information Center. With the entrance road plowed throughout the winter, Paradise is also the park’s favorite spot for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and tubing.
Right down the road from Paradise is the Longmire Historic District, where James Longmire (the father of Mount Rainier tourism) and his family settled in the 1880s. The two old park headquarters buildings are now home to the Longmire Museum of local history and the Longmire Wilderness Information Center (another place that issues climbing and backcountry permits).
Tucked in Rainier’s southeast corner is the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center, nestled in a thick old-growth forest that offers a dramatic contrast to the park’s higher altitudes. The Grove of the Old Patriarchs shelters trees as tall as 300 feet and up to 1,000 years old, while the Silver Falls Loop (2.8 miles) leads to the eponymous cascade.
Separated from the rest of the park by Rainier’s bulk, the Carbon River area in the northwest has few facilities and few visitors but offers excellent hikes through the temperate rainforest. Carbon Glacier—the lowest elevation glacier in the lower 48 states—is a 17-mile (27.36 km) round-trip walk from the ranger station. Mowich Lake, the park’s largest water body, is the best place to canoe or kayak at Rainier.
Plan your trip
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).
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.
Where to stay: Inside the park, stay at Paradise Inn, an iconic national park lodge on the south side of Mount Rainier, or the historic National Park Inn located in Rainier’s Longmire village with a restaurant, general store, and winter ski and snowshoe rental. A half hour from the park entrance on Highway 504, Eco Park Resort offers cabins and yurts. Find campsites at Cougar Rock, White River, Ohanapecosh, and Mowich Lake.
This article was previously published in 2009, and last updated on September 23, 2019. Part of the piece was excerpted from the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.