Despite her snow-capped peak and glacier-encrusted shoulders, Mount Rainier is no ice maiden to be worshipped only from afar.
She should be treated as local royalty, with awe and admiration, but with a certain familiarity. The mountain begs for her loyal subjects to reach out and touch, to explore, to get to know her on a personal level.
The best way to become intimately acquainted with Mount Rainier is, of course, by getting off the sofa, pulling on a pair of hiking boots and putting the treads to a few miles of trail. But it’s a mighty big mountain and few are up to a Wonderland Trail type of experience, spending days in back-country camps while getting to know the best Rainier has to offer, sometimes on a cold-and-wet, hands-and-knees level.
So, option No. 2 might involving piling into the family auto and setting off on a personal Journey of Discovery. It might not be on par with the original Journey of Discovery (Lewis and Clark, remember?) but it still satisfies.
From Enumclaw, the favored loop will take about 150 miles. Those who experience the mountain from a car window, without stopping – as if that’s possible – will spend about five hours completing the circuit. Those who know how to enjoy the best Mother Nature has to offer will spend at least a full day – perhaps a couple of days if overnight camping is part of the itinerary.
The following route, it should be noted, is largely impacted by the weather. This year’s winter weather – meaning precious little winter – has pushed some traditional opening a bit earlier on the calendar. For example, it appears both Chinook and Cayuse passes could be open this weekend, giving round-the-mountain access.
So here’s the rundown, when perfect conditions apply.
From our corner of the world, the road around Rainier begins in Enumclaw, the largest of the gateway communities, where dining opportunities are varied, gas is plentiful and grocery stores stock more than enough provisions for a mountain outing.
Here are some stops integral to a true Mount Rainier outing.
• Federation Forest State Park
This 619-acre state park is a testament to the forward thinking of a group of women who, in the 1940s, decided it was important to preserve old-growth timber during the rush towards logging. Located along the picturesque White River, explore mature forests of Douglas fir, Western Hemlock, Sitka Spruce and Western Red Cedar. Hike on the 12 miles of trails or take the family on one of three interpretive paths; ideal for small children. This is a bird lover’s delight. Tour the interpretive center offering a gift shop and enjoy lunch at one of the four day-use picnic areas.
It’s the last place to get gas on this side of Mount Rainier National Park and it boasts such businesses as the Naches Tavern and Wapiti Woolies, whose hats have been to the top of Everest, and other places to shop, rent equipment or grab something to eat.
• Mount Rainier Viewpoint
Stop here for the first of many glorious views of Mount Rainier after beginning this tour.
• Skookum Falls
Dropping a dramatic 250 feet in two tiers, watch the water shimmer as it makes its way down the mountainside leading into the White River. The view is best early in the season when the water flow is at its height, although observing the falls frozen by the cold winter air is a unique experience.
• Side Trip: Sunrise
Access is at the discretion of state agencies, but – when available – Sunrise offers postcard views of Mount Rainier. Sitting at 6,400 feet, it is the highest point to which you can drive in the park. There are incredible views of Emmons Glacier, the mountain’s largest sheet of ice, plus views of five of the Cascade volcanoes.
• Side Trip: Tipsoo Lake and Chinook Pass Summit
Just a few hundred meters from the summit, stop at quaint Tipsoo Lake. Departing from Tipsoo Lake is the popular Naches Loop Trail. Explore colorful fields of subalpine flowers, pass beside two fragile, glassy ponds, and discover breathtaking views of Mount Rainier along this family-friendly, three-hour hike. For a shorter walk, take the nature trail leading around the lake. A picnic area is also located here.To reach Tipsoo Lake and Chinook Pass Summit, continue on SR 410, rather than following the driving tour as it turns right onto SR 123.
• Grove of the Patriarchs: Enjoy an easy 1.5 mile loop through this old-growth forest.
• Box Canyon
The Muddy Fork of the Cowlitz River has cut a channel 100 feet deep but only 15 to 30 feet across. Walk a bridge across the canyon for a dizzying view of this deep forest canyon. A nice picnic area is also located here.
• Reflection Lakes
Now descending down the mountain, stop and see Mount Rainier’s stunning reflection in the crystal waters of Reflection Lake.
• Side Trip: Paradise
Discover Paradise. At 5,400 feet, this area with its glorious views of Mount Rainier is the primary destination for many visitors to the park. The Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center offers interpretive displays about the geology, flora, fauna and mountain climbing in the area.It’s just a short walk to the historic Paradise Inn with rustic rooms, the Paradise Inn Dining Room, Glacier Lounge, and a gift shop. Built in 1917, this beautiful inn displays hand-crafted furniture, a magnificent 14 foot grandfather clock and a rustic piano built by a German carpenter. Leaving from both the inn and visitor center is one of the most popular activities at Paradise — the short, family-friendly, paved nature trails. Suitable for just about everyone, these pathways lead through colorful meadows and offer spectacular mountain vistas. On the Nisqually Vista Trail, walk where the clouds go and see how weather shapes the landscape, plants and animals of these high-country meadows. See splendid fields of wildflowers while taking in the stunning views of Mount Rainier and Nisqually Glacier. And keep your eyes peeled for area residents — the amusing whistling marmots sunning themselves on the rock outcroppings. During the winter season, the road is not plowed beyond this point.To reach this destination, follow the signs to Paradise. Turn right off Stevens Canyon Road onto Paradise Valley Road and travel two miles to the visitor center.
• Glacier Vista Viewpoint & Exhibit
Look up to the summit and see Nisqually Glacier and its origin on the permanent Nisqually snowfield. Beginning at 14,000 feet, this is the fastest moving glacier on the mountain, moving at more than one foot a day.
• Narada Falls
This massive 168-foot waterfall is truly breathtaking, as the waters fan a thick mist out over this popular viewpoint.
Visit Longmire Museum, one of the oldest museums in the National Park System with several exhibits on the cultural and natural history of the park. Located here is the Longmire Wilderness Information Center with information on hiking and climbing in the area. It is also a starting point for hikers of the Wonderland Trail.
• Kautz Creek
This is the site of a massive mudflow which occurred in 1947. The original road through this area now lies 20 feet below the surface.• Nisqually Entrance
Standing at the Nisqually Entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, notice the wooden entrance arch built in 1922 and reconstructed in 1973. Just inside this entrance see the oldest building in the park, a cabin built in 1908 that was occupied by a park ranger.
• Ashford Visitor Center and Base Camp
Discover the wide variety of recreational opportunities and services offered in this southwest corner of Mount Rainier National Park.
• Elbe Depot and the Elbe Evangelical Lutheran Church
Since 1906, the Elbe Evangelical Lutheran Church has watched over the mountain community of Elbe. Built by German immigrants, this tiny church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the same area, view the Elbe Depot serving as a visitor center, gift shop and ticket station for the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad.
• Pack Forest
Winding your way back to Enumclaw, stop at Pack Forest for outstanding hiking trails. The forest is open to hikers, cyclists and equestrians.
It is home to Northwest Trek, and The Pioneer Farm Museum and Ohop Indian Village. Dining options and support services are available.
• Lake Kapowsin
Take a look at pretty Lake Kapowsin. It is a favorite among anglers. Covering 512 acres, the lake was formed by the Electron Mudflow which occurred 500 years ago.
• Side Trip: Carbon River Entrance to Mount Rainier National Park
Visit the historic communities of Wilkeson and Carbonado and enjoy the Fairfax Bridge. It was built in 1921 and when the 494-foot long bridge was constructed, it was the highest bridge in the state. Spanning the Carbon River, today the bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (For the uninitiated, it’s a one-lane, one-at-a-time passage.)
The Carbon River Road remains closed to motor vehicles due to flood damage. Sightseers and outdoor enthusiasts are welcome to walk along the road to the entrance of the park enjoying the beauty of this remote corner of the park.
Others might choose to drive the Mowich Lake Road to the pristine waters of Mowich Lake. The road is unpaved after the first three miles and may be rough. In the winter this road is closed 10 miles from the lake and opens each summer in early July.
To reach these areas, turn right on SR 165, rather than following the driving route as it turns left.
It’s the last stop before returning to Enumclaw. Dining and services are available.