Mount Rainier, just outside Seattle, Washington, is the most prominent mountain in the lower 48. It’s 14,411 feet high, but it has 13, 211 feet of prominence, (more than K2!) and it towers over the surrounding area. This stratovolcano is part of the Cascade Range and was protected as the country’s 5th national park in 1899. When we visited, we were still slightly shell-shocked from our Olympic adventure, so we car-camped and planned to ride our bikes around to a few day hikes and then take it easy in the afternoons, drink a few beers, and celebrate ‘Merica. Here’s some details on Park Basics and Fun Facts, camping and fees, and our day hikes.
There are two main areas of the park, Paradise on the West side and Sunrise on the north east side. A third area, Ohanapecosh, is in the south eastern corner and is less visited and harder to get to.
There are two major adventures at Rainier that we did not experience. One is the Wonderland Trail, which is a 93 mile loop around the mountain with 22,000 feet of elevation change up and down. It takes at least a week, so you need to plan a resupply somewhere across the park. Given the logistical challenges with this one and our recent backpacking experience, we didn’t even try. The second really exciting challenge we didn’t tackle was to summit Rainier. Reaching the top of the mountain requires crossing glacial and snow fields, so hikers need special gear and also probably someone to show you how to use it and guide you up to the summit.
For safety, this park has bears but they seem to be less prevalent than other parks so we did not need to use bear boxes at camp. There were a lot of notices and signs warning about car break-ins, which we have not seen at other parks. Also, the park notes in their guide that although marijuana is legal in the state it’s illegal in federal lands.
Camping and Fees: We car camped at Cougar Rock, near Paradise. The campsites were a little tight but generally nice and wooded. That campground is first come first served, and there were a few spots when we arrived mid-day on a Thursday.
Fees are $30 to enter the park and $20 to camp. I heard national parks are required to take two forms of payment. Most take cash and check, and I also heard over 50% of those checks bounce. No wonder the parks are in the red. It did seem like Cougar Rock only took credit cards, which I prefer anyway.
Our Day Hike Adventures: During our stay in the park, we did two day hikes. The first day we drove up to Paradise, and hiked a few miles up and down the mountain. We checked out the path to Camp Muir, the base camp typically used to summit the peak. At this time of the year, there were lots of snowfields, but we could’ve made the hike without any special gear. This part of the park is covered with alpine meadows, which were full of wildflowers and adorable marmots running around everywhere, all in the shadow of the mountain. The trail crosses a number of small streams of glacial runoff.
We hit this area first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds and the heat, too, and were heading back to camp by about noon. By then, the parking lot was full of cars waiting for a space to park. We were happy to get out of the craziness. Overall, we were on the mountain for a little over 3 hours and probably only covered 5 miles.
The second day, we tackled a hike from Christine Falls, which is about 2.4 miles north of Cougar Rock Camp. We rode our bikes there. The road is a windy mountain road. I stayed in or near my lowest gear the whole way up. The trail head parking lot was quite small, and the trail was not crowded. Christine falls are just off the road, and from there you hike X miles up to a small rapid area and then the huge (318 feet) Comet Falls.
From there, the trail continues past Van Trump Park to Mildred Point. The last mile of the hike up to Mildred was steep and sandy, and therefore quite un-enjoyable. I would even say that the view from the top wasn’t worth it, compared to the other scenery we’d experienced, but that’s just me and it IS only a mile. It was also pretty warm out, so we hiked back down to the creek we had crossed to hang out there for a while, soaking our feet and chilling our beers. You can tell the last hike really scarred us because we planned a long snack break on this one with our kindles.
After the hike, we had a fabulous bike ride back down to camp and spent the afternoon catching up on our reading, drinking beers, and grilling hot dogs in honor of our country. One exciting challenge for a trip planner in the national parks is that we almost never have service or wi-fi there. It’s relatively easy to arrive at the park and make a plan for sightseeing and camping based on availability, park handouts, and ranger recommendations, but usually a bit more challenging to start planning the next portion of the trip. (Yes, it’s a real first world problem.) If we did the whole trip over again, we would probably try to get a Verizon wi-fi hotspot or similar, so that we’d have more flexibility in finding internet and making these plans. I have almost gotten over the shame of going to a national park, setting up camp, and then driving back out of the park so I can play with my computer. It’s just one more example of something I will no longer take for granted.
Since we needed internet, we did spend one afternoon at a small convenience store with outside picnic tables and wi-fi planning a two day camping break in Seattle. Don’t worry, there won’t be any city posts with food pics, since no one wants to hear about that. Suffice to say we spent our first afternoon at the park driving out, figuring out a hotel situation and maybe sending a few emails, before we drove back up to Cougar Rock Camp.
Overall, it was a beautiful park and we enjoyed our stay here, but I thought we were getting just slightly tired of alpine meadows. I can say that now because when we went to Glacier, I was very happy to find that we still have a lot awe left in us for other places.
And here’s one last dramatic mountain shot for the road.