Don’t miss the glacial vistas, mountain lakes, waterfalls, wildflower meadows and ancient forests of Mount Rainier National Park. Follow this guide to see Washington’s spectacular, ice-crowned volcano located within easy reach of the State’s major metro areas. If you thought it was impressive from afar, wait until you get up close and personal on this Mount Rainier day trip.
Best time to visit Mount Rainier National Park
Summer and early autumn are the best times to visit Mount Rainier National Park as all sections of the Park are most likely to be open.
In summer, wildflower blooms peak sometime between mid-July and mid-August. However, due to the very short season, expect the Park to be very busy with traffic delays and full parking lots. Get a head start by arriving early.
Come early-autumn, several roads/sections of the Park start to close for the winter. Autumn foliage is most colourful from mid-October to early November.
Through winter, some parts of the Park remain open for snowshoeing, sledding, skiing and other winter activities. This includes the popular Paradise section.
Annual road closures vary depending on how the seasons are tracking. Use the below as a general guide and check with the National Park Service for specific conditions.
– Chinook Pass and Cayuse Pass are open from very late May through to mid-November.
– Stevens Canyon Road and Sunrise Road open in late June or early July and close in late September or early October.
Getting to Mount Rainier National Park
The two closest airports to Mount Rainier National Park are Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA) and Portland International (PDX).
From there, the best way to get to Mt Rainier National Park is by car. Here are some rough distances and drive times from the major metro areas to the Park’s southwest Nisqually Entrance which we will use to access the Park on this day trip:
- From Seattle, WA – Approximately 144km (89mi)/ 2 hours drive
- From Tacoma, WA – Approximately 97km (60mi)/ 1.5 hours drive
- From Olympia, WA – Approximately 116km (72mi)/ 1.5 hours drive
- From Portland, OR – Approximately 222km (138mi)/ 2.5 hours drive
Getting around Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier National Park centres on the Mountain and roads run around the outside. In other words, there is no shortcut through the middle. It is a long way around, therefore don’t expect to cover the entire Park in one day. However, you can certainly see enough to make a Mt Rainier day trip worthwhile.
The Park has five main regions. In clockwise order from the northwest, they are: Carbon River, Sunrise, Ohanapecosh, Paradise and Longmire.
There are five main entrances to access Mount Rainier National Park: Carbon River in the northwest, White River in the northeast, Chinook Pass in the east, Stevens Canyon in the southeast and the one we will be using, Nisqually in the southwest.
General Mount Rainier day trip tips
- Start early, especially if you are driving 1-2 hours to get to the Park. You’ll avoid traffic congestion, queues at Park entrances and it will be easier to find a parking spot at the most popular spots.
- If you don’t have an annual National Parks Pass such as America the Beautiful, buy a Mount Rainier National Park pass online and print it before you leave to save time at entrance stations. The 7-day single vehicle pass will suit most day visitors and costs $30. You can purchase passes through recreation.gov.
- Visit on a weekday if possible, especially in summer when the Park sees peak visitation.
Check Park conditions the night before and adjust your plan accordingly.
Mount Rainier day trip itinerary
As I mentioned already, you are not going to be able to see the entire Park in one day. I have devised an itinerary that hits some of the most notable highlights without the need to rush around and allowing time for some short hikes. This covers Ohanapecosh, Paradise and Longmire areas of the Park, which IMHO are the most impressive.
1. Start out early. If you’re travelling from Seattle and need to stop for breakfast or a coffee en route, try the historic Black Diamond Bakery which opens from 7am.
2. Enter the Park via the southwest Nisqually Entrance and make your way to Paradise. Along the way make stops at Christine Falls Bridge, Ricksecker Point and Narada Falls.
3. Arriving in Paradise, you’ll immediately understand the name – especially in summer when the subalpine meadows are blossoming with wildflowers. My number one suggestion would be to take a hike on the Skyline Trail (in a clockwise direction) as far as Glacier Vista or Panorama Point, then double back the way you came. The full Skyline Trail loop is about 8km (5.5mi) taking hikers an average of 4-hours, which is beyond the scope of our day trip. If you want a shorter/easier hike, the 3.5km (2.2mi) Nisqually Vista Trail has incredible views of Mount Rainier’s Nisqually Glacier.
4. After some lunch at Paradise, continue on Stevens Canyon Road towards Grove of Patriarchs. Along the way, make photo stops at Reflection Lakes, Edith Gorge Falls and Upper Sunbeam Falls.
5. Next up, hike Grove of the Patriarchs Trail. This 2.5km (1.5mi) round trip will take you through old-growth forest composed of enormous Douglas firs, hemlocks and cedars. Note: Grove of the Patriarchs is closed as of 11.17.21 due to storm damage to the suspension bridge – again, ALWAYS check the NPS website for current conditions. As an alternative hike, make the trek of about 3.2km (2mi) return, to Bench and Snow Lake for stunning mountain lake views.
6. Return to your origin using US-12E via Packwood. If you are heading back to Seattle or Tacoma and it is still daylight, I recommend taking the WA-7 N and stopping at the Tanwax Country Chapel which has a scenic viewpoint with a magnificent, uninterrupted perspective of Mt Rainier.
Mount Rainier day trip map
What to take on your Mount Rainier day trip
Here are the essentials to pack for your National Park excursion:
• Wear layers no matter what time of year you are visiting. Even in summer, conditions on the Mountain can be highly variable and temperatures can drop fast. Layers allow you to adapt your clothing to the temperature throughout the day. Don’t forget a hat, gloves and sunglasses.
• Raincoat or other preferred wet weather gear.
• First aid kit.
• Sunscreen and insect repellant.
• Torch (that’s Australian for “flashlight”) or a headlamp.
• Camera and accessories.
• Map, a physical one. You will likely lose mobile connection in the Park so keep in hand, the map they give you at the entrance station.
• National Parks pass if you already own one.
• Food and water. Take a packed lunch and snacks so you don’t have to rely on Park food outlets when they’re busy and there are many amazing spots to stop and picnic along the way. Take more water than you think you’ll need.
Enjoy your Mount Rainier day trip and remember to take only photos and leave only footprints.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,