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 as Sunrise's name suggests, you might want to go the other way around to get the best daylight. In that case, 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. Day-trippers following that route probably won't have time to visit the Carbon River area in the northwest and fit in Paradise and Sunrise.
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.
To 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 Native American culture, European exploration, and the area's natural history. To stretch your legs, take a walk on the excellent 0.7-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 replica of a cabin built by one of the Longmires in 1888. (Don't drink the water in the springs.)
Next is an up-close-and-personal look at the fantastic 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 closer 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. To protect the wildflowers, stay on the trails.
From Paradise, head east toward the Stevens Canyon Entrance. Your next goal is a short hike along the Grove of the Patriarchs Trail 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 trees, 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. On this quick 0.4-mile jaunt, you'll 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 Nature 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 a day, you'll be able to get out on the trails. The mother of all park trails is the Wonderland Trail, which winds its labyrinthine route around the entire mountain. The route takes you through any section of the park you might be interested in. Although most folks plan 10 days to 2 weeks to tackle the full trail, there's no law that says you can't hike a small portion. The trail is accessible from all the major park centers.
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.
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.