Standing at 14,411 feet high, there is no question that active volcano Mt. Rainier is the biggest feature of Mt. Rainier National Park, hence the name. But there is so much to see and do below the peak. Nowhere else in the Pacific Northwest can you hike past meadows of wildflowers, towering waterfalls, and ancient glaciers, while being just outside your RV base camp, if you are lucky enough to claim an available site in the park.
Perhaps you are one of the nearly 10,000 who will attempt to reach the peak, though it is something to consider carefully, as less than half who attempt it accomplish the feat. Even if you do not consider yourself an experienced mountaineer, there is a multitude of ways to enjoy the park. Trails range from beginner to experienced, and if you are not feeling up to a hike, take a drive to one of the scenic overlook points located off park roads.
The park is open year-round, but some roads and areas of the park are inaccessible during the winter months. There are regular nightly closures of certain park roads throughout the rest of the year as well. During the winter months, enjoy ranger-led snowshoeing, tubing, and breathtaking views of subalpine meadows blanketed in fresh snow. Summer activities include hiking, biking, and even a ranger led astronomy program in the evenings, plus so much more. While it does warm up in the summertime, park temperatures tend to fluctuate and average on the cooler end. This definitely has its upside, as campgrounds in the park are rustic and you may not have the luxury of air conditioning even with your RV. It is recommended that visitors pack several layers, especially if you intend to hike at different elevations; the higher you go, the cooler the temperatures will be.
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RV Rentals in Mount Rainier National Park
Transportation in Mount Rainier National Park
Located in west-central Washington state, Mount Rainier National Park has several points of entry that are easily accessible from major routes. Within 200 miles of the park are multiple major cities including Seattle, Tacoma, Yakima, and even Portland, Oregon. Many park roads have narrow shoulders but can accommodate most RVs and travel trailers. Most park roads have a speed limit of 35 mph or slower, and some roads close nightly and during the winter for safety reasons. Due to the unique weather patterns and general nature of the region, road closures may occur unexpectedly so be sure to check road conditions and closures regularly.
While each of the visitor’s centers offer large parking areas that can accommodate even the biggest of RVs and travel trailers, however parking fills up quickly at Paradise, Sunrise, and Grove of the Patriarchs. Trailhead parking lots as well as scenic overlooks can also become full throughout different times of the day. To avoid delays in parking, it is recommended to visit on a weekday, or arrive early in the day if you will be staying in the park at one of the sites. If traveling with a group, please consider carpooling when possible to minimize your group’s parking needs. Parking is not allowed on the roadside.
There are private transportation options available from some of the surrounding major cities and airports to help get you to the park, however currently the park does not provide any type of public transportation services. You can drive around much of the park in your car as well as in your RV, while a few of the roadways are designated for cyclists. Be sure to check with the visitor’s center for any potential height risks depending on the season, as well as road closures.
Campgrounds and parking in Mount Rainier National Park
Campsites in Mount Rainier National Park
Cougar Rock Campground
Staying at Cougar Rock Campground will place you in the heart of the southwest section of the park between Longmire and Paradise at an amazing elevation of 3,180 feet. The campground is typically open from late May through late September, and you can reserve your choice of 173 individual sites available here. Sites that have not been reserved will go quickly, as they are first come first serve. There are no electrical, water or greywater hookups available at the campground however this is the only park campground that features an RV dump station. Sites also feature fire grates and nearby access to flush toilets and potable water. Pull-through sites are spacious and accommodate up to 35-foot rigs while back-in only sites can host travel trailers up to 27 feet long.
The east side of the park tends to be drier and sunnier than the west side of the park, so reserving a campsite online for Ohanapecosh Campground may sound enticing to you, especially during the rainier seasons. A bit lower in elevation than Cougar Rock, Ohanapecosh sits at approximately 1,914 feet and features 188 sites near water and flush toilets. RV sites here are similar in size to those at Cougar Rock and feature fire grates as well. Unfortunately, there are no RV hookups for electrical, water, or gray water, and the nearest dump station is 28 miles away on Highway 12 at the Maple Grove Resort.
White River Campground
At an elevation of 4,400 feet, White River Campground is situated high in the northeast section of the park. A bit smaller than the previously mentioned campgrounds, White River has only 112 sites available, and no reservations are available. Plan on arriving very early in the day if you want to position your base camp here, as the campground has a short window for use, from Late June until September. Potable water, flush toilets and fire grates are the only amenities, and sites accommodate travel trailers or RVs up to 35 feet. What makes this location so desirable is the easy access to Wonderland Trail along the White River.
Mowich Lake Campground
At an amazing 4,929 feet sits the Mowich Lake Campground. This location is for those seeking a more primitive experience. Once you have your RV base camp set up at another location in the park, head to Mowich Lake for a night of tent camping, or the ultimate experience of sleeping under the stars. There are no amenities like water or electric, but there is a vault toilet available for those occupying the 10 sites. Fires are also prohibited in this area of the park. Depending on the weather, Mowich Lake sites are available from early July to early October.
National Park Inn
If for some reason you are not able to acquire an accommodating RV site, the National Park Inn offers lodging inside the park year-round. It is situated in the Historic Longmire District at an elevation of 2,700 feet. The inn features a full-service dining room as well as a general store and 25 guest rooms which can be reserved online or by phone.
If you are visiting the park between mid-May and early October you also have the option of staying at the historic Paradise Inn, built in 1916. Enjoy the rustic style at an elevation of 5,420 feet in one of 121 guest rooms. Services and amenities abound as the Paradise Inn features a post office, café, gift shop, and full-service dining room as well. Reservations are available online or by phone but be sure to make your reservation well in advance.
Seasonal activities in Mount Rainier National Park
Canoe Mowich Lake
While motorized boats are prohibited in the park, a few lakes allow non-motorized boating. Mowich Lake makes for a great place to drop in the canoe or kayak and enjoy majestic glimpses of Mt. Rainier from the water, which in the spring is nowhere near warm enough for swimming.
Admire the Waterfalls
Spring is perhaps the best time to admire the beauty and awe of the multiple waterfalls found throughout the park. Because of the heavy snowfall each winter, the falls are swelling from snowmelt in Spring, intensifying the experience even more. Christine Falls and Narada falls are available by a short walk from easy access parking lots, while a day hike can lead you to Comet Falls.
Bike Carbon River Road
Since flooding in 2006, Carbon River Road only allows vehicle access up to the entrance of the park. However, it is one of the few locations in the national park that allow mountain bikes. Experience the climate of an inland temperate rainforest, a unique characteristic found in this area of the park. Carbon River Road is about 5 miles long and fairly level, making it great for visitors of all ages and those looking for a casual bike ride.
Celebrate National Park Weel
Every April visitors to the park have the opportunity to avoid entrance fees and celebrate the history of our national park system in the best way possible. Paradise and Longmire are popular locations within the park during the Spring. The Carbon River area is also a great place to check out as much of the snow has melted, providing a great place for early season hikers and cyclists.
Although many of the higher elevations will still be draped in a blanket of snow, lowland trails are the prime for Spring hikers. Great locations in the park for a spring hike include Chinook Pass in the north, which provides access trails to Greenwater Lakes, Snoquera Falls, and Skookum Flats. Head over to the Ohanapecosh area to check out Silver Falls; a family-friendly hike makes this destination quite popular. If you find yourself in the Carbon River area, you can also enjoy the solitude of scenic Green Lake and Ranger Creek.
Hike the Sourdough Ridge Trail
As summer heats up, the higher elevations will be cleared of snow, and you can enjoy hiking steep trails that offer breathtaking vistas of both Mt. Rainier and the valleys below. Hike the family friendly Sourdough Ridge Trail to experience the ideal Sunrise area hike. Starting out at the Sunrise Visitor Center, you will quickly reach higher elevations, providing cooler temperatures and unimaginable views. Stop and smell, or photograph, various wildflowers including asters, phlox, and penstemon, softening the rigid characteristics of the volcanic ridge.
Walk Through Paradise
Another great place in the park to admire dancing wildflowers is in the meadows of Paradise. World renown for their vibrant colors, yellow cinquefoils, white avalanche lilies, purple lupine, pink penstemon and more, bring life into the meadows, that just months before were blanketed in snow. You can make your way out of the valley and up the Skyline Trail for a more solitary experience but be aware it is a more strenuous hike as you climb higher.
While there are no designated biking trails, cyclists can take advantage of the paved roads throughout the park. Be conscious of sharing the road with vehicles and pay attention to park rules as they vary in different areas. Other wheeled “vehicles” or devices such as skateboards and rollerblades are not allowed at any time.
Boating and FIshing
Motorized boats are not permitted in the park lakes; however, canoers and kayakers can enjoy paddling their way across several of the lakes within the park. No boating is allowed on Frozen Lake, Reflection Lakes, Ghost Lake, Shadow Lake, or Tipsoo Lake. Fishing is also a great way to enjoy the serenity that lake life offers. There are some endangered fish species in the streams and rivers flowing through the park, so be sure to know your fish species and the regulations surrounding them. You may not reel in that prize-winning catch, but it is an enjoyable and leisurely way to connect with nature.
Perhaps one of the most unique features of the park is Box Canyon. A large fissure is the main attraction in this canyon, and the smooth flat rocks sculpted by glaciers thousands of years ago. Box Canyon makes a great place to start your hike and perhaps enjoy a picnic afterwards. If you are hiking overnight along the Wonderland Trail, Box Canyon also makes a great place to stop, rest, and refuel before continuing your journey.
Color Changing Season
Of course, in addition to cooler temperatures in the Fall, beautiful colors come to life in the forests as leaves retire from their duty. Leaf peeping draws in a lot of visitors each year because of the variety of foliage and vantage points available to view them. A leisurely drive to Sunrise will get you to the highest viewpoint available by vehicle, at just over 6,400 feet. Other areas of the park to enjoy color changing season include Bench Lake, Snow Lake, Paradise and Reflection Lakes.
Just outside of the Steven’s Canyon Entrance to the park you can find the Laughingwater Creek Trail which is open for horseback riding. Along the way enjoy dense forests and perhaps spot elk among the trees. Part of the much longer Pacific Crest Trail, the Laughingwater Creek Trail is approximately 12 miles long and features three mountain lakes at the end. If you enjoy horseback riding, you cannot pass up this opportunity.
In late summer a multitude of mushroom varieties begin to appear. Many of these are edible but many well-known mushrooms are poisonous. Some species will not appear until after the first fall rain, and some even later after the first frost. Depending on your timing and location, you may find chanterelles, matsutake, boletus, morels, shaggy mane, pig’s ear, hen-of-the-woods, or brain mushrooms. There is a limit per person for picking mushrooms in the park, but you will not need a permit and only non-commercial picking is allowed. Just be sure to confirm the parks limit for the timeframe you are visiting. Insiders Tip: The hike between Longmire and Narada Falls is a “gold mine” for edible mushrooms.
Hunt for Huckleberries
From late August through early October, non-commercial berry picking is allowed. Huckleberries are easily found near Indian Henry’s Hunting Grounds, as well as Noble Knob Trail. You can also collect up to two quarts per person per day of blackberries, salmonberries, and thimbleberries. To best protect the natural habitat and ecosystems, it has been determined that this limit will prevent any adverse effects on the park’s natural resources.
The Moraine Trail
Often overlooked by first-time visitors to the park, the Moraine Trail is ideal for an easy hike full of great views of Mount Rainier and without the crowds found on many other popular trails. You will also find more wildlife on this trail, as it takes you away from the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center, through lush meadows and into the forest. Then the trail descends to the moraine where you can listen for falling rocks as glaciers rumble nearby. Just stay away from the edge, as it may easily give way under your weight if rocks below have become unsettled.
Whether you are a first-timer or a veteran, snowshoeing is a fun experience all around. The park offers ranger guided snowshoe walks from December through March, weather permitting. Snowshoes are provided for guided walks, and a donation of $5 per participant is suggested to help the park maintain and replace snowshoes. If you want to enjoy the art of snowshoeing with fewer people around, you can also rent snowshoes and take a walk with just your crew. Suitable boots, sunglasses, sunscreen, gloves and a hat are highly recommended to avoid overexposure to the elements.
Snowmobiles are permitted in some designated areas of the park. In the southwest section of the park, from the junction of Westside Road and the main park road a 6.5 mile stretch down to Round Pass along Westside road is one such area. Cougar Rock Campground road loops are another designated area; however, the campground is closed for overnight use in the winter months and vehicle access is unlikely as the roads are not plowed. There is also a 12-mile section of Highway 410 that is left unplowed during the winter months. Snowmobiles are permitted along this section of Hwy 410 but must remain south of White River Road and cannot proceed towards Sunrise beyond the White River Campground or towards Glacier Basin.
Snowplay Sledding and Sliding
The Park sets up a snowplay area at Paradise. This area is typically open from late December through mid-March, weather permitting. Sledding and sliding are not permitted in other areas of the park due to the dangers caused by trees, cliffs and other unseen obstacles below the surface of the snow. To prevent injuries, only “soft” flexible sleds and tubes are allowed in the snowplay area, so no hardwood toboggans or runner sleds.
Snowboarding & Cross-Country Skiing
Paradise is also a great place to go snowboarding or cross-country skiing. There is a requirement of at least 5 feet of snow to avoid damaging exposed vegetation. The park does not supply boards or skis so bring your own if you want to enjoy the abundant fresh powder throughout the winter months.
Snow Camping is allowed almost anywhere in the park but be sure to take the appropriate precautions if you decide to give this a shot. Stay away from plowed roads and waterways, and keep in mind a recommended 8 feet of snow is best for building a snow cave. Visitors can also obtain permits to camp in the back country during the winter months, and these are available upon arrival. You will need to have the proper supplies and safety gear, so contact the park or check out their suggested essentials for winter camping, prior to your arrival.