By Jessi Loerch
Mount Rainier National Park is gorgeous, even if you’re standing in the middle of a cloud.
Last week, I had a blissful week to explore the park with a friend. We had plenty of sun and grand views. But we also had a misty overnight trip to Summerland, possibly the most beautiful place I have ever been. The mist kept my focus close, and there was plenty to see: Wildflowers, deer, marmots, ptarmigan.
Here are three hikes that are great to do right now. They feature various views of Mount Rainier National Park. One offers a glorious subalpine meadow, another is all about rich forest and lakes, and the third is filthy with in-your-face views on the mountain.
If I could only do one hike at Mount Rainier, this would be it. The trail is a bit under 9 miles round trip, with about 1,500 feet of gain. The trail starts out nearly flat, then climbs gently. The last section is steep switchbacks. At the end, you will be rewarded with an intense jumble of flowers in an alpine meadow. Late last week, the predominant flowers were purple lupine and magenta Indian paint brush.
Behind the meadow you can see Mount Rainier. From this angle, the mountain is mostly snow and glacier. It’s an interesting contrast to the view of Rainier from Paradise, which is more rocky and dirty at this time of year.
A stream runs through the meadow. I dare you to walk by it without taking a photo. I also dare you to stick your feet in. Brr.
Leave time to stop in the meadow and eat lunch. Please, please, please, respect the meadow. Do not walk in it or eat lunch on it. Eat on the boulders. Summerland gets many visitors and it’s a very delicate habitat. Help keep it beautiful for the next visitors. If you need more room to eat, wander up to the campsites where there is plenty of room to spread out.
Before you leave, be sure to follow the trail past the meadow for just a few minutes. You’ll cross a small ridge and enter an entirely different habitat. In a few steps you go from lush meadow to moonscape. Watch and listen for pikas in the rocks. We saw several on our trip.
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can continue a bit more than a mile to Panhandle Gap. You’ll cross some snow in this section of trail and you might see mountain goats. If you make it all the way to the gap, you’ll see gorgeous Ohanapecosh Park stretching out below you.
Summerland also makes a great backpack, although it can be hard to get a permit. We got lucky and got one for a weekday, though, so it doesn’t hurt to try. If you reserve a trip in advance, it’s $20. If you take your chances and pick up a permit the day before or the day of your trip, it’s free.
One final note, Summerland is worth the trip even on a cloudy day. The meadows may — if this is possible — be even more beautiful in the mist.
Get details and driving directions here.
On this hike, you will not see grand mountain views. In fact, after you leave the parking lot, you won’t see the mountain again. Instead, you’ll see cool, rich forests, wide meadows and many lakes. You’ll also see relatively few other hikers. You will see bugs, though, so be prepared.
The trail starts out by dropping down a series of switchbacks. At the bottom, you’ll pass a turn off to Sunrise Lake. If you’re looking for a very short hike, this would be a nice place to turn around.
If you continue on, the trail rolls up and down for the rest of its length. You’ll reach Clover Lake in about 1.5 miles. This would also be a nice spot to turn around if you want a shorter hike. If you carry on, you’ll pass a group of three lakes amusingly known as Tom, Dick and Harry. There is a camp near Dick Lake.
The trail reaches upper Palisades Lake at a bit under 4 miles. This is a great spot to stop for lunch. The view of Palisade cliffs to the west is lovely. There is also a camp here, head left around the lake to find it. If you’d like, you can carry on past the lake to lower Palisades Lake. The trail is not maintained, though.
On the way back, consider stopping for a quick dip into Sunrise Lake — it’s surprisingly warm for a mountain lake. Be careful, though, to not trample the vegetation. You’ll emerge from the lake refreshed and ready for the final climb back to the trailhead.
If you’d like, you can continue up to Sunrise for great mountain views and more trails.
Get details and driving directions here.
If you want grand mountain views, this is the hike for you. The trail starts from Paradise. Each view of the mountain is grander than the last. Near the top, you can stop for a snack while Mount Rainier fills most of the sky. If you have a pair of binoculars you might get lucky enough to watch hardy climbers making their way toward the summit.
The trail climbs steeply at first; it mellows out a bit later on. You’ll climb past wildflowers and mountain streams. Don’t expect solitude here. You’ll have plenty of company, even on a weekday. It’s worth it though.
Be sure to bring a map. There are many trails here and they can be confusing. You can pick one up at the visitors center or get the Green Trails Paradise map. It’s very good.
As of late last week, the lower section of Skyline Trail was covered with a decent amount of snow. We took the High Skyline Trail, which was nearly clear of snow. Be sure to stop at Panorama Point to admire the toilet. Yes, I just told you to admire a toilet. It’s built into a rock cliff and the construction is both beautiful and fascinating. If you pop inside, you’ll see that the cliff actually makes up a good section of the walls.
Once you start heading down the other side of the loop, you have options. You can take the shorter Gold Gate Trail. This option had less snow last week. We continued on the Skyline Trail, where we crossed snow for maybe half to three-quarters of a mile. The snow was melting fast, though. This section of trail was worth the little extra effort. It had far fewer people and a profusion of marmots.
Get details and directions, along with other ideas for Paradise hikes, here.
Note: On the weekends, Paradise and Sunrise can both get very busy. Arrive early for the best chance to get parking. On very busy days, access into Sunrise can be metered. You may have to wait for other cars to leave before you can go in. For Paradise, there is a sign that will indicate if the parking lot is full. In that case, you may be able to park in the picnic area and walk up.