If You Have Only 1 Day
Most folks who make Mount Rainier a day trip are coming from the Seattle area, and they work their way around from the southwest corner of the park, driving first through Longmire to Paradise, then Ohanapecosh, and on to Sunrise. But, Sunrise being named what it is, you might want to go the other way around to get the best daylight, in which case you'll want to enter on Wash. 410 at the park's northeast corner. If you're coming from the south or from Yakima, adjust your entry point and itinerary accordingly. The day-tripper will probably not be able to visit the Carbon River area in the northwest and fit in Paradise and Sunrise. But Carbon River also makes a great 1-day visit, but the flood-caused road closure makes it a hike or a bike instead of a drive.
It might be a bit pedestrian, but if you want to get the whole flavor of what Mount Rainier is about, you will probably want to do the normal route and head into the park through the Longmire Entrance in late summer. You get old-growth forests, subalpine meadows blooming with flowers, and a look at the rocky scree underneath the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers. If you'd rather avoid lines of cars later in the day, start early in the morning. By noon, Rainier is packed, especially on weekends.
For an 80-mile trip, start out at the Nisqually Entrance on Wash. 706, and check out the Longmire Museum and its exhibits on American Indian culture, European exploration, and the area's natural history, as well as the local flora and fauna. If you've already been driving a bit, take a walk on the excellent .7-mile Trail of the Shadows across from the National Park Inn. The trail passes by the mineral springs that once were home to the early hotel, as well as a cabin (reconstructed) built by one of the Longmires in 1888. Don't drink the mineral water; it will make you very sick.
Next is an up-close-and-personal look at the fantastic burst of colors in Paradise's fields of brilliant paintbrush, anemones, and gentians. But first visit the Jackson Visitor Center and figure out what you're looking at. It might be the Nisqually or Wilson glacier hanging over your head. For a more up-close view of the Nisqually Glacier, take the 1.2-mile (1-hr. round-trip) Nisqually Vista Trail from the visitor center. Otherwise, numerous trails leading from the parking lot will allow you to create your own wildflower stroll. Please stay on the trails to protect the wildflowers.
From Paradise, head east toward the Stevens Canyon Entrance. Your next goal is a short hike along the Grove of the Patriarchs at Ohanapecosh. This 1.3-mile walk, one of the most popular in the park, is famous for its absolutely huge Douglas fir and western red cedar, located on a small island accessible by a bridge across the beautiful Ohanapecosh River. If you have time, take the Hot Springs Nature Trail, which begins at the visitor center, a quick .4-mile jaunt where you will see a shallow hot spring alongside the trail as you gaze down at a meadow of lush grass. Other worthy stops are at Reflection Lakes and Box Canyon along Stevens Canyon Road.
Finally, wind your way through forests of fir, cedar, and hemlock on the way to Sunrise. The big snowcapped mountain in your rearview mirror to the south is Mount Adams, equal in beauty to Mount Rainier but more remote. This side of the mountain is glacier-packed. Check out Emmons Vista for views of Little Tahoma and the Emmons Glacier, or take the 1.5-mile Sunrise Rim Trail, which also leads away from the day lodge. For a close-up view, use the telescopes at the visitor center.
If You Have More Time
The best way to explore the park is on foot, and if you have more than 1 day, you'll be able to get out on the trails. The mother of all park trails is the Wonderland Trail, which, as it winds its labyrinthine route around the entire mountain, takes you through any section of the park you might be interested in. Although most folks plan 10 days to 2 weeks to do this one, there's no law that says you can't do a small portion of the Wonderland Trail. Since it's accessible from all the major park centers, you can do a piece as a day hike.
The least visited sections of the park, including the beautiful Carbon River area northwest of the mountain, are really some of the best. If you have the time, go there. The Carbon River basin contains a temperate rainforest. The only other temperate rainforest in the United States is on the Olympic Peninsula, making the Carbon River area a unique jewel of an ecosystem. You'll need to allow time to hike around, though, as the road was closed to cars by flooding; bikes and pedestrians are welcome.
Exploring Mount Rainier National Park
Just past the main southwest entrance (Nisqually), is Longmire, site of the National Park Inn, the Longmire Museum (with exhibits on the park’s natural and human history), a hiker information center, and a ski-touring center that rents cross-country skis and snowshoes in winter.
From here, the road climbs to Paradise (elevation 5,400 ft.), a mountainside aerie that affords a breathtaking view. Paradise is the park’s most popular destination, so expect crowds. During July and August, the meadows are ablaze with wildflowers, which is why this is such a great place for day hikes. The Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center at Paradise provides panoramic views, and a short walk away is a spot from which you can view Nisqually Glacier. Many miles of other trails lead out from Paradise, looping through meadows and up onto snowfields above the timberline. It’s not unusual to find plenty of snow at Paradise as late as July.
In summer, you can continue beyond Paradise to the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center (tel. 360/569-6046), open daily from late May through early October. Not far from this visitor center, you can walk through the Grove of the Patriarchs. Continue around the mountain to reach the turnoff for Sunrise.
Driving counterclockwise around the mountain, you’ll come to Cayuse Pass. A short detour from this pass brings you to the picturesque Chinook Pass area, where there is a good 4.5-mile day-hike loop trail that begins at Tipsoo Lake and circles Naches Peak.
Continuing around the mountain, you’ll come to the turnoff for the park’s White River entrance. This road leads to Sunrise, the highest spot in the park (6,400 feet), and site of some of the park’s best day hikes. A beautiful old log lodge serves as the Sunrise Visitor Center (tel. 360/663-2425), open daily from late June through early September. From here you can see not only Mount Rainier, but also Mount Baker and Mount Adams. In July and August, the alpine meadows are full of wildflowers. Some of the park’s most scenic trails begin at Sunrise. This area is usually less crowded than Paradise.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.