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Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier is a large volcanic peak located 85 miles (140 km) southeast of Seattle Washington. It rises to 14,410 feet (4,392 meters) and towers at least 8,000 feet (2,500 meters) above any of the surrounding mountains. On clear days, it dominates the southern horizon from Seattle and every surrounding community. The summit and its upper flanks are perpetually covered with 35 square miles of ice and snow including 23 active glaciers.

Mount Rainier National Park encompasses 235,625 acres (95,354 hectares) of forests, meadows and mountains. 97% of the park is designated as wilderness. All of Mount Rainier and many of the neighboring peaks and foothills are included within the park.

Space Needle and Mt. Rainier on Seattle Washington skyline © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
A visual icon seen throughout the city, Mount Rainier is a three-hour's drive southeast of Seattle.

Only 3-hours drive from Seattle

You can drive from Seattle to Mount Rainier in three hours or less. The shortest route is via route 169 from Renton to Enumclaw. From there, it is a 40-mile drive through beautiful mountain scenery to the Sunrise Visitor Center high on the eastern slopes of the mountain. As an alternative, you can follow route 7 south from Tacoma then head east on route 706 to the village of Ashford which is 6 miles from the Nisqually entrance to the park, about 8 miles from the Longmire Visitor Center and approximately 25 miles from Paradise and the Jackson Visitor Center high on the southern slopes of the mountain. You can also continue further south on route 7 and turn east on route 131 to the village of Packwood, which is 15 miles from the Stevens Canyon entrance to the park and 35 miles from the Paradise Visitor Center.

A scenic drive to Mount Rainier National Park is an excellent one-day excursion from Seattle. It is also a great destination for several-days of sightseeing, camping, backpacking, hiking or climbing. The best time to visit is June through October. Many higher elevation roads and trails are closed during the winter months due to heavy snow accumulation, but the road from the Nisqually entrance to Longmire and Paradise is normally kept open for activities such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and winter camping. These cold-weather sports begin as soon as the snow accumulation is sufficient to protect the environment.

One-day excursion

If I had only one day to see Mount Rainier, I would start early in the morning and would drive to the Sunrise Visitor Area at 6,000 feet (2,000 m) elevation on the eastern slope. The early morning light offers the most photogenic views on this side of the mountain. I would drive south to the Stevens Canyon Entrance stopping at the Grove of the Patriarchs to see the giant thousand-year-old trees. Then, I would head west to Paradise and lunch at the Lodge before hiking through the alpine meadows to some spectacular views of the southern face of Rainier, the Nisqually Glacier, the upper snowfields and the nearby Tatoosh Mountain Range. In the evening, I would head west to the Nisqually Entry stopping at Longmire or in the village of Ashford for dinner before returning to the Seattle area.

If you can spend more than one day, you might stay in the town of Enumclaw north of the mountain. It is about 45 minutes drive to the Sunrise Visitor Center and 1.5 hours from Paradise, but it has a good selection of hotels, restaurants, food markets, convenience stores etc. The town of Ashford is ideally located just a few miles from the Nisqually Entrance and 30 minutes from Paradise. It has about 10 hotels or lodges, two service stations, a small general store, a convenience store and a half-dozen restaurants. It also has a nice selection of vacation rental cabins and lodges. The village of Packwood is closer to the Stevens Canyon Entrance and at least 45 minutes from Paradise; but it has a few more stores, accommodations and restaurants than Ashford. Packwood is close to the Mount Saint Helens National Monument.

The main visitor centers

The three main Visitor Centers are Longmire near the Nisqually Entrance at the southwestern foot of the mountain, the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise, 5,400 feet up the southern slope, and Sunrise, at the 6,000-foot level on the eastern slope. All three facilities offer parking, information, restrooms, restaurants, picnic areas and walking trails. Only the Jackson Visitor Center and Longmire have lodging. Only Longmire has a convenience store. There are hiking trails, walking trails and scenic viewpoints at numerous locations along the mountain roads. Paradise and Sunrise offer the greatest variety of trails and the easiest approaches to the upper slopes of the mountain.

There are six campgrounds throughout the park. Each offers water and toilet facilities but few other amenities and each charge modest fees. You can make reservations at some of them online or via telephone. Check the NPS website for details. Wilderness campsites are located at various locations throughout the park especially along the lengthier hiking trails such as the 94-mile Wonderland Trail circling the mountain. A wilderness permit is required for all overnight backpacking and wilderness camping.

Climbing Mount Rainier

Because of its accessibility and its year round ice and snow environment, Mount Rainier is the most popular mountain climbing destination in the USA. It attracts both seasoned mountaineers and amateur climbers. Each year, over 9,000 people attempt to climb to the summit. Only half of them make it to the top. Each year one or two climbers die on the mountain and several more are seriously injured. Unless you are an experienced climber, you should not attempt a summit climb without an experienced professional guide.

Mt. Saint Helens near Mount Rainier south of Seattle Courtesy of US Geological Survey
Mount Saint Helens is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a collection of 160 active volcanoes.

Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument

Mount Saint Helens is located 50 miles south of Mount Rainier. It is about a two- hour drive. This massive volcanic peak that once rose to 9766 feet (2,550 m) violently erupted in 1980. It sent a plume of ash 60,000 feet (18,300 m) into the air, leveled entire forests for miles around, triggered massive mudslides and caused an immense collapse of the entire upper part of the mountain. You can visit this National Volcanic Monument to view the remains of the devastation caused by this cataclysmic event. Millions of fallen logs all splayed symmetrically away from the center of the blast are still visible on the surrounding mountain slopes. Great mud lakes and cinder deposits line the neighboring valleys. It is worth seeing.

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Photo Description: Mount Rainier