I visited Mount Rainier National Park in Washington this past August for a few days. This is one of my favorite parks in the country. When I was more of a backpacker I used to go up to Rainier and hike in the evening, getting an early start on the weekend. I don’t mind hiking at night with a headlamp. Sometimes you see some cool animals. Well, maybe it’s not so cool to see a cougar at night alone! I would spend the rest of the weekend off-trail, visiting pristine alpine meadows. Alas, I wasn’t a serious photog. in those days.
This last of the Mount Rainier series (but the Cascades series continues!) will pass on some travel tips. Along with many visits over the years, I worked for one summer at Rainier a long time ago. I actually lived at the park that summer and hiked nearly every day. I was a pretty serious runner then and hit the trails on brutally steep routes. My creaky knees remember every single mile. But it was the best shape I’ve ever been in. We also flew once per week around the mountain, counting elk. It was a great summer.
So here are my favorite places to visit & photograph at Mount Rainier:
- Paradise is by far the most popular place in the park. It can be very crowded right around the visitor center. But it’s a superb place to gain access quickly to subalpine flower-fields. For the mobility-challenged, there are paved trails. You can lose the crowds simply by hiking a couple miles out. This is also the starting point for the hike to Camp Muir and the most popular route for climbing the mountain.
- Staying on the south side of the mountain, Reflection Lakes is a great place to photograph the mountain at sunrise. It is just to the left of the main road not far after the turnoff to Paradise.
- If you want a great short hike, Snow Lake is just the ticket. Drive a bit further east from Reflection Lakes and the trail-head is on the right. It is only about 2 miles to Snow Lake; halfway up take a short spur to Bench Lake. This gorgeous lake when calm has a perfect reflection of Rainier. You can camp at Snow Lake. By hiking in this direction you are entering the Tatoosh Range, a rugged line of peaks running along the south side of the park.
- One of Rainier’s best Native American names is Ohanapecosh. Keep going east past Reflection Lakes and down Steven’s Canyon to the southeast entrance. Just before you get there, a trail on the left offers a great short walk along the lovely Ohanapecosh River. An old-growth forest with huge trees grows along the stream banks.
- Tipsoo Lake on the east side of the park is a popular place from which to photograph Rainier at sunrise. Since I only have time for one or two over-popular photo spots on each of my trips, I have not photographed this one yet. I’ll get around to it. Google Tipsoo for beautiful images!
- The White River Campground sits along an energetic stream at a great trail-head. You can hike from here to Glacier Basin. It’s a beautiful but fairly popular trail. It is also the starting point for the climb up to Camp Schurman and the north ascent of the mountain. In my opinion this is a better climb than Camp Muir, but I’m partial to glacier climbs.
- Sunrise is, like Paradise, a popular place to hike through subalpine meadows. You have your choice of hikes, short to long, on a multitude of trails. It’s not hard to leave the crowds behind here. There is a visitor center plus walk-in campground. This is the trail-head to gorgeous Mystic Lake on the north side of the mountain. By the way, any time you want good back-country information at a national park, visit the back-country ranger’s desk, which is separate from the less useful visitor center’s info. desk. In many cases, Sunrise being one, the back-country office is in a separate, more rustic-looking building.
- On the road up to Sunrise is the Palisades trail-head. The road makes a big 180-degree switchback and there is a parking lot in the center of the curve. The trail heads out to Palisades and Hidden Lake (which make good day-hikes), continuing to wonderful Grand Park (overnight). Although the trail is short on views of the mountain, it passes a number of beautiful lakes and meadows. My favorite thing about it is the likelihood of wildlife sightings. I’ve seen bear, elk, deer, and smaller critters on this trail.
- Grand Park is an overnight backpack trip starting from the Palisades Trail-head. It is shorter if you approach it from outside the park (google for directions). Grand is a huge meadow sitting high atop a mountain, and is a magnet for wildlife. On one trip there, I approached the park at night. The meadow was filled with elk! I could hear them bugling a few miles away, and when I arrived there was a real party going on. The male elk made it very clear to me that I was not invited. I had to camp back in the forest; rutting elk bulls are not to be messed with.
- Mowich Lake on the northwest side of the mountain is a wonderfully peaceful place to camp for a night or two. Though you need to exit the park and drive awhile to reach it from the rest of the park, and the final approach is a gravel road, it’s worth it. Mowich is the largest lake in the park and trail-head for a number of great trails. You can stay over in a small tents-only campground. The trail to Spray Park is awesome, climbing through great meadows with stunning views of the mountain. Eunice Lake, about 2.5 miles from Mowich, is one of my favorite places to photograph the mountain from, especially at sunset.
- Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground on the west side of the mountain is a great hiking destination. You can reach it on a rough trail from the West Side Road, or on the Wonderland Trail. There are flower-filled meadows along with tarns which yield great photos of the mountain. The hike up to Pyramid Peak from here is steep but not too difficult a scramble. On the other side of the peak is a great pristine alpine meadow.
- Lastly, if you’re a backpacker, consider doing the Wonderland Trail. It is 93 miles of outstanding scenery, a trail that winds its leisurely way around Rainier. You will face plenty of hills, so plan to not make record time. You won’t want to hurry, believe me. It’s an experience you will always remember.
Plenty of other destinations tempt you at Rainier. It’s up to you to find them (I won’t give away all my secrets!). I would consider devoting the good part of a week at the park if you have the time. Plan at least a few days for a good introduction. Visit the park’s website for lodging and camping information. This park gets busy on summer weekends, but it covers a huge area so don’t let that stop you. September is a fantastic month to visit, as the crowds have lessened greatly, the weather is generally perfect, and the wildlife is much more active. Flowers peak in August.
Please note all of these images are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission. They are low-resolution versions anyway. To learn about pricing options for the high-res. versions, simply click on the images you’re interested in. If you have any questions at all, please contact me. Thanks for your interest, and thanks for sticking with me on this rather lengthy post!