4 ‘Go To’ Hikes at Mount Rainier

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I’ve been hiking Mount Rainier National Park since shortly after the discovery of fire. (Well, actually, since the 1960s. But who’s counting?) People sometimes ask me, “What’s the best trail at Mount Rainier?” Or, “What’s your favorite hike inside the park?”

Man. That’s like asking a mom which kid she likes best. But the short answer is: that depends.

For one thing, “best” is highly subjective. Does that mean trails crocheted with gurgling streams and thundering waterfalls? Smooth-as-glass mountain lakes or tarns? Spectacular old growth forests? Alpine meadows marinaded in wildflowers? Stunning views of the Mountain?

Also, when people pose this question, they often mean, “What spectacular Mount Rainier trail can I do in ten minutes, without burning more than nine calories in the process?”

Good luck with that one.

Although Mount Rainier National Park offers a wide variety of hiking trails ranging from rookie to seasoned veteran, most of the jaw-dropping vistas and eye-popping landscapes require effort. You usually have to climb, often steeply. Switchbacks are standard. So is thin mountain air, especially if you’re coming from sea level.

For those willing to put in the effort, however, Mount Rainier has a stunning network of breathtakingly beautiful trails like Iowa’s got flat.

Here, in no particular order, are my four “go to” trails at Mount Rainier. I never tire of these favorites:

  • Mazama Ridge
  • Naches Peak Loop Trail
  • Panorama Point/Skyline Trail
  • The Palisades  
  1. Mazama Ridge

A perennial favorite. This loop trail of about 5.5 miles can be accessed at Reflection Lakes or at Paradise. We’ve started at both sites and hiked this trail both clockwise and counter clockwise many times. Our favorite route is counter clockwise from the small Reflection Lake (east) along Stevens Canyon Road.

This amazing hike includes a good climb up to Faraway Rock and breathtaking views of the valley. Continue climbing past a pristine alpine tarn. The trail opens up into a glorious riot of wildflower color along the ridge before you descend into Paradise Valley. Watch those knees!

Stop at the Jackson Visitor at Paradise to refill your water bottles or stiff your lunch go back into your chest. Regain the trail across the road at the sign. The initial trail is rutted and may be muddy here as you descend. Meander past a crashing waterfall, criss Stevens Canyon Road, and start climbing again. Youll switchback into big Reflection Lake, wondering why you didn’t take this beautiful trail sooner.

Getting there

From Tacoma, drive east on State Route 7, turning left onto SR 706 at Elbe. Continue east through Ashford and the Nisqually Entrance of Mount Rainier National Park. Pass Longmire. Take the cut-off to Steven’s Canyon Road to begin this hike at Reflection Lakes. If you want to start at Paradise, keep going up the Longmire to Paradise Road. Park in the lot at Paradise. The trail sign is on the right, overlooking the Nisqually Valley. If you want specifics, pop in to the Jackson Visitor Center and ask a ranger. A topographical model is also on display inside the center.

 

2. NACHES PEAK
This 3.5 mile loop trail has it all: a beautiful lake, steady but not too difficult climbs, a clear as glass mountain tarn (great lunch stop), and an outrageous view of the American River Valley from Chinook Pass at Highway 410. There’s also that amazing Mountain looming in the distance.

Park in the lot at Tipsoo Lake. There’s a vault toilet and picnic tables here. The trail starts above the west shore of the lake. You’ll cross Chinook Pass. Start climbing. You’ll meander into the William O. Douglas Wilderness and dip into the Pacific Crest Trail briefly before re-entering park boundaries above Dewey Lake.

Round a bend and the Mountain bursts into view. One of the best panoramas of Rainier from this side of the Mountain. Ravines and meadows are awash in wildflowers in season both on the trail and clustered around Tipsoo Lake.

Tip: Hike this trail clockwise for best views of the Mountain. You can hike counter-clockwise but the Mountain will be at your back from this direction.

Getting there:

Park at Tipsoo Lake, .5 mile west of Chinook Pass on SR 410. For a clockwise hike of the Naches Peak Loop Trail, follow the trail from the picnic area to Chinook Pass and the Pacific Crest Trail.

 

3. PANORAMA POINT/SKYLINE TRAIL

This hike offers in-your-face views of Mount Rainier. It’s also about as close as you can get to the Mountain without an ice axe. The 5.5 mile RT trail begins at Paradise behind Jackson Visitor Center. It includes an elevation gain of about 1,625 feet. The trail is paved for the first half mile or so.

From the trailhead, head straight through two junctions for about a quarter mile. Warm up the ‘ole hamstrings cuz it’s a good uphill jaunt from here, with an elevation gain of about 200 feet over the next quarter mile or so to a junction with Dearhead Creek Trail. Keep chugging. Stay to the right through the junction. Make a left at the next junction with Alta Vista Trail. The pavement peters out here, along with the less hardy. The next 1.25 miles stair-step up about 850 feet to Panorama Point.  In season, you’ll pass through perfumed flower fields, streams and snowfields and canyons ribbed with waterfalls. Watch for marmots and rock pikas.

Postcard-perfect, Panorama Point offers some of the most breath-taking views this side of Eden. (Not that I’m biased or anything.) It’s a good lunch stop, provided you can tear your eyes away from the snowy colossus behind you or the jaw-dropping views of the Tatoosh Mountains as well as Mounts Adams and St. Helens. The site includes a solar toilet (I’m not making this up). It’s always been clean and well-maintained whenever we’ve hit the Point.

Continuing on, there’s a “short cut” from Panorama Point along the Lower Skyline Trail. It includes a hazardous trek through a steep snow shelf, lopping off about a half mile from your hike. Park rangers don’t recommend it.  We opted for the upper trail, adding a climb of about 300 feet – with much better footing. The upper trail joins the lower route eventually and winds through a rocky “moonscape,” with the added bonus of maintaining all your limbs in the process.

Continue another half mile or so until you hit the Golden Gate Trail. You get to choose here. Skyline Trail descends another two miles to Myrtle Falls, brushing Sluiskin Falls along the way. The Golden Gate Trail is more direct, reuniting with Skyline Trail at Myrtle Falls after a descent of about a mile.  We’ve done both. (Hint: This isn’t a road race. Take the longer route and enjoy.)

The pavement resumes at Myrtle Falls. From the falls, you’re just a hop, skip and a jump from Paradise and the conclusion of one of the best trails in the park.

Tip: Hike this trail in the clockwise direction. You’ll get most of the uphill out of the way at the beginning, while your legs are still fresh.

Getting there

Drive east from Tacoma on State Route 7 and bear left onto SR 706 at the town of Elbe. Continue east through the Nisqually Entrance of Mount Rainier National Park. Proceed up the road to the Paradise parking area. The trail starts behind the visitor center.

 

4. THE PALISADES

A popular trail that skirts seven lakes, this trail is named for a rocky escarpment called “The Palisades” which towers over the lake near the end of this hike. A good alternative to Sunrise’s more crowded trails.

This trail begins with a steep descent. The first lake is Sunrise Lake, at about .5 miles. Clover Lake is at about 1.5 miles. Continue through a small grove of lightning-gashed ‘ghost trees’ past one pristine mountain lake after another, including Tom, Dick and Harry Lakes. (I’m not making this up.)

Upper Palisades Lake is less than a mile past the spur trail to Hidden Lakes (You won’t want to miss these on the way back!). In season, you’ll cross a lovely meadow dripping with purple lupine, scarlet paintbrush, and sunny bursts of yellow cinquefoil.

U.P. Lake is just over the next rise. The descent to the lake is switch-backy and somewhat steep. A popular trail, it’s named for a rocky escarpment called “The Palisades” which towers over the lake near the trail’s end. A good alternative to Sunrise’s more crowded trails.

 

Getting there

Drive 10.5 miles (some sources say “13 miles”) beyond the park’s White River Entrance to the parking area at Sunrise Point. The lot skirts a hairpin turn, about 3 miles before you get to the Sunrise Visitor’s Center. Cross the street. Head east and down.