You’re not into snow shoeing. Hip-dip snow makes you break out in hives. But you’re still rarin’ to hit the trails at Mount Rainier National Park.
Given the amount of snow that’s been dumped on the Mountain this winter, you may have to wait awhile if you’re waiting for Panorama Point or Dege Peak to melt out.
Not to fret. If your favorite trails at Paradise or Sunrise are still frozen solid, there are other possibilities.* Provided you check on current trail and weather conditions and are properly prepared, you have two early season options: Longmire or Ohanapecosh.
Here are five great lower elevation trails that melt out a little sooner than the rest. Again, be sure to check road, trail and weather conditions before you head out.
- Trail of the Shadows
This interpretive trail of about .7 miles starts right across the street from National Park Inn. Mostly level, with a net elevation gain of about 55 feet. The trail head elevation is at 2,760 feet. You can hike the entire loop in about 30 minutes. This interpretive trail is a great introduction to Mount Rainier’s rich history as well as a nice option for families with young children.
Best season is June to November, but this trail is accessible much of the year except when snow levels drop below 2,750 feet. The Rampart Ridge Trail connects on the west side of this loop.
Take Highway 706 to the park’s Nisqually entrance. Continue about six miles to Longmire. Park in the lot at Longmire’s National Park Inn. You can’t miss it. The trail begins directly across the street from the Inn.
2. Rampart Ridge
The Rampart Ridge trail is relatively short but steep, particularly if you hike clockwise. It begins at the Trail of the Shadows, across the street from National Park Inn.
At 4.6 miles RT, this “moderate” trail isn’t for the faint-hearted. But the scenery includes waterfalls, a thick forest and wildflowers in season. You can take a short spur trail just below the ridge to the Longmire Viewpoint for a jaw-dropping look at Longmire and park headquarters. Keep going to the top of the ridge. The views here are also tremendous.
If hiking counter-clockwise, the Mountain is at your back. The trail is steeper in this direction, but the climb is shorter than the clockwise option. When you near the ridge, there’s an option for heading down to Pyramid Creek Camp. Part of the Wonderland Trail, this section takes you dowwwwwn to Pyramid Creek and a rocky canyon with show-stopping views of Mount Rainier. If you have the time, it’s worth the extra effort. (Pyramid Peak is one of the highest free-standing points on the south side of the park.) Just be advised that the hike out is all uphill – about 500 feet up.
The Rampart Ridge hike has an elevation gain of 1,339 feet. It’s high point is 5,870 feet. The trail usually melts out in June. RT hiking time is about 2.5 – 3.0 hours. We take our time and take longer.
You may want to pass on this one if you have creaky knees or are allergic to switchbacks. But it’s a great option if Panorama Point or Dege Peak are still snowed under or otherwise inaccessible.
If you find your way to National Park Inn at Longmire, you’re halfway home. The trail begins on the Trail of the Shadows (see above), directly across from the Inn. You can walk that loop clockwise one-fourth of a mile to the Rampart Ridge trailhead. Or you can continue past the Inn to a paved turnout/lot on the Longmire-Paradise Road. It’s on the right. Cross the street and you’ll find a signed trail head. This is the best option if you want to hike counter-clockwise (recommended).
3. Carter Falls
Mazama Ridge and the Alta Vista Trails at Paradise are still buried under snow. Stevens Canyon Road is still closed. Where can you hike on the park’s southwest side? If a few weeks of warm weather have put in an appearance, check out Carter and Madcap Falls.
Cross the chocolate-milk Nisqually River. Follow an old service road until it ends at about .4 miles. The path dips slightly and then starts climbing as Eagle Peak parades into view. The jagged peaks of the Tatoosh Mountains loom over your shoulder like the giant teeth of a primordial dinosaur.
You can hear Carter Falls before you see it, at about 3.3 miles. This sudsing 55-foot falls is the last of the multitude of waterfalls cascading along the river. It’s named for Henry Carter, a guide who reportedly built the first trail to Paradise Valley.
Madcap Falls is a short walk – about .3 miles – up the trail. Paradise River Camp is just beyond.
From the park’s Nisqually entrance on Highway SR 706, continue six miles to Longmire and another 2.25 miles up the Longmire-Paradise road to the wide shoulder on the right-hand side. It’s just below Cougar Rock Campground. Park on the right side of the road near the river. The trail begins after you cross a foot log across the Nisqually River.
Also see: Longmire Winter Trails and Activities
4. Silver Falls Loop Trail
One of the park’s easier trails, the Silver Falls Loop is a pleasant three mile walk to one of the park’s most impressive gushers. It’s one of the first trails to melt out in the spring and is probably “the” quintessential “Mount Rainier hike.” It’s certainly one of the most well-known. In fact, this trail is one of the first Northwest hiking memories still accessible in the cluttered hard drive of this author’s brain. I vaguely recall chugging over Ohana’s red earth as a preschooler, marching to the Falls with Mom and my brothers. Tired feet notwithstanding, I remember returning with a proud sense of accomplishment tinged with awe. More than five decades later, not much has changed.
Located on the southeast side of the park, Silver Falls is also a favorite for families, seniors, youngsters, and pretty much anyone who’s vertical and breathing. It’s an easy hike to and from Ohanapecosh and a great introduction to the treasures and timelessness of an old-growth forest. You can start either behind the Ohana Visitor Center or near the Amphitheatre across the Ohana Campground bridge.
You can’t see the Mountain from here. But if you continue north to the Eastside Trail junction, you’ll cross sudsing Laughingwater Creek and trek toward the Grove of the Patriarchs and some Really Big Trees.
Getting there: Drive US 12 about 8 miles east of Packwood to the junction with SR 123. Turn north onto SR 123 and continue to the park gate. You’ll have to park outside the gate during the winter season, November 1 – May 1. Hoof it up SR 123 until you get to Ohanapecosh. You can either chug through the Ohana Campground and pick up the trail behind the visitor center, or continue up SR 123 until you reach a trail head sign. It’ll be on the left. Keep a sharp eye out.
5. Grove of the Patriarchs
They say there’s no such thing as a boring trail at Mount Rainier National Park. Take the Grove of the Patriarchs Trail, a 1.3 mile loop with a 100-foot elevation gain. With a high point at about 2,200 feet, this easy walk winds along the aquamarine waters of the Ohanapecosh River, ending in a splendid loop of soaring conifers that unhinge any jaw. Think Emerald City. Times ten.
You cross the Ohanapecosh over a suspension bridge just prior to entering the grove, which is on an island. Go one at a time. If you have an aversion to crossing a rickety, swaying suspension bridge, then dash across lickety-split. On second thought, belay that. Running will just make the bridge bounce more. So take deep breaths, hold tight and take your time. I’ve crossed that sucker like a zillion times. So far, so good.
The Grove of the Patriarchs is one of the easiest and most crowded trails in the entire park. You can complete the loop in under an hour, but a hike through this “green cathedral” is worth much more. You can combine this hike with the Silver Falls hike mentioned earlier.
While bathrooms, a drinking fountain and a picnic table or two are located at the parking lot, water isn’t turned on during the off-season. That’s sometimes good to know. You’re welcome.
The trail is located just past the Stevens Canyon Entrance on SR 123. But SR 123 is closed to vehicular traffic this time of year. You have to walk up the road from the gate, as noted previously. If you opt for this trail as a solo jaunt rather than an extension of the Silver Falls Trail, you can walk up the road to the entrance and continue east to a parking area on the right side of the road. The trail head is on your right. It’s well signed.
Plan Your Visit to Mount Rainier:
All vehicles are required to carry tire chains when traveling in the park. All vehicles, including 4WD and AWD vehicles, must carry tire chains in the park during the winter season (November 1 – May 1) and be prepared to use them when tire chain requirements are posted. Note that weather conditions can change quickly.
The gate at Longmire on the road to Paradise closes nightly. The road may close at any time, or may not open during the day, depending on conditions. Check Twitter for gate status and other updates (account not required to view).
*The Mount Rainier National Park web site says, “Check back for summer 2017 trail reports. See above for Winter Trail Reports.” Check the Northwest Avalanche Center Report and the Mount Rainier Recreational Weather Report before heading out. Avalanche assessment and route-finding skills are needed for many winter activities in the park. Call and speak to a ranger for more information between 9:00 am and 4:30 pm at 360-569-6575.
If the snow’s still too deep, return to these trails during the summer if you’re able. They’re all worth the effort.