Growing up in the Seattle area Mount Rainier was a familiar sight, its majestic snow covered slopes in the distance, providing a stunning background to life in and around the Emerald City. When the Mountain is out Seattle is right up there with some of the most beautiful places on earth.
More than just a pretty picture locals know that you can forecast the weather based on the mountain’s cloud formations and its close proximity to Seattle makes it a great day trip destination. Summer, specifically August, is a fabulous time to visit as the wildflowers will be in bloom blanketing the alpine slopes with a riot of bright color.
At 14,411 feet Rainier is the highest mountain in the Cascade Range. It hasn’t erupted in 500 years, but it is an active volcano and though hard to believe from the photos it is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.
The drive from Seattle is around 2.5 hours and there are a number of small towns along the way. Elbe, population of 29, is one such town. Located at the junction of Hwy 7 and Hwy 706, Elbe is home to the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad and the Historic Elbe Church. The church, only 24 feet by 18 feet, is thought to be one of the smallest functional churches in the world.
There are four main entrances to Mount Rainier National Park. The Nisqually entrance is the closest entrance to Paradise and is open to automobile traffic year round. Mount Rainier is a popular summer destination with both locals and tourists alike and an early arrival will be your best bet for avoiding the long lines at the Park entrances, especially on weekends.
The Road to Paradise
Once we’d paid our park entrance fees we set off on the road to Paradise. With show stopping views in every direction we couldn’t help but stop along the way.
Kautz Creek Nature Trail
Our first unplanned stop was Kautz Creek Nature Trail. This viewpoint is the start of an 11 mile strenuous hike.
Longmire was Mount Rainier National Park’s first visitor center and entrance station. These days it might not seem all that far from the nearby towns you drove through on the way to the Park, but in the 1880s this was a very remote destination.
There are multiple buildings to explore including, a vintage gas station, the Wilderness Information Center, and a tiny museum.
Carter Falls Trailhead
It was hard not to stop every time we saw a great view, but we had to press on. Paradise awaits…
Christine Falls is a two tiered waterfall with a total height of 69 feet. The lower portion of the falls is easily accessible from the road while the upper portion requires a bit of a climb.
Two or so hours after entering the Park we finally arrived at Paradise, which sits at an elevation of 5400 feet. As you’ll see in photos to come the name Paradise is both literal and figurative. The area was given its name by the daughter-in-law of James Longmire who upon seeing the flower filled valley exclaimed, “Oh, what a paradise!”
“…The most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings.” – John Muir 1889
The Paradise visitor center and shop are the Park’s busiest and that was no joke. There were people swarming every inch of it. Inside you’ll find an informal restaurant, a gift shop, the ranger information desk, and restrooms. We skipped the crowds and enjoyed our homemade picnic lunch at one the center’s outdoor picnic tables.
After lunch it was time to explore. Whether you are ready to climb the mountain, or just up for a short stroll you’ll find walking and hiking options for all ability levels at Paradise. Our choice of walks was partially determined by the amount of time we had, and as we’d dilly dallied our way up the mountain our time was limited. After consulting with the ranger we decided on Myrtle Falls.
Myrtle Falls and Edith Creek
Myrtle Falls, an easy half a mile walk from the Paradise Visitor Center, is one of the most photographed areas of the park. We were delighted when we saw marmot, multiple deer, and other subalpine creatures along the way.
Reflection Lake is a popular spot for photographers and I was delighted that we found time for a quick stop. Swimming and fishing are prohibited and in my humble opinion rock throwing should be as well.
Our final stop of the day was Tipsoo Lake, where we hoped to see another stunning reflection of the mountain. Unfortunately fires to the east of us created a layer of smog, which completely blanketed the mountain.
According to the National Park website Tipsoo Lake is one of the most photographed landscapes in the country, and even without the mountain’s reflection the area was gorgeous.
There is a short nature walk around the perimeter of the lake which is very worthwhile and accessible to all fitness levels. There were wildflowers blooming here in a variety of colors, but my favorite were these Seuss like fluffs.
Tips & Advice
- Paradise is open year round, but tire chains are required during the winter months when the snow is quite deep.
- During the summer season parking is a challenge throughout the park. The early bird gets the parking spot!
- Dress appropriately, layers are a good idea, use insect repellent and do wear sturdy walking shoes.
- Keep your eyes out for wildlife, but keep your distance. We saw everything from buzzy bees and fawns to marmot, rabbits and even a heard of elk.
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