Before I could catch a second glimpse of it, the bushy tail of a squirrel disappeared over the cliff and into the rocks as quickly as it had appeared. My bushy tailed friend continued to scamper up and down the cliffside in hopes that I would drop crumbs. I sat eating my lunch in a grassy meadow on a sun-soaked summer afternoon, looking down into emerald valleys and up into the face of a glacier, still thick with ice, even in the heat of summer.

squirrel perched on rock inside mount rainier national park

Capturing a park that has become so deeply associated with my connection to the Pacific Northwest and my affinity for hiking is no easy feat. For nearly two decades, I’ve been frequenting Mount Rainier National Park as often as time allows. My love for the outdoors is rooted in seasons spent beneath the shadows of Mount Rainier, where many of my most treasured memories were made. 

Each time I come home after a year of travel, Mount Rainier National Park is one of my first stops. I am forever enraptured by the massive glaciers rising high above evergreen forests into the clear blue skies. I’ve passed countless summer days conquering most of the day hikes in the park with my dad, while I spent summer nights camping with friends watching the pink sun sink behind the jagged ridges and searching for shooting stars falling from the ink black sky. 

History of Mount Rainier National Park

The highest peak in the Cascade Range and part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, Mount Rainier is an active volcano in Washington state that soars 14,411 feet into the sky. This beloved mountain is as iconic in the Seattle skyline as the Space Needle. The snow-covered peak can be seen from towns, harbors, and roads across western Washington. Mount Rainier is a defining feature of the identity of the Pacific Northwest, inspiring the life and culture that circles around it in the upper left corner of the United States. 

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Mount Rainier has held deep significance among tribes native to the Pacific Northwest long before the park gained notoriety among European explorers and settlers. For millennia, indigenous people of the Cowlitz, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, and Yakama tribes have inhabited, coexisted, and gathered resources from the lands that are now part of Mount Rainier National Park. Archaeological evidence traces native use of the park back 9,000 years. Today, these tribes maintain a profound connection to Mount Rainier. 

During the late 18th century, the mountain captured the attention of early European explorers and mountaineers, who were eager to summit the peak. Although Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy decided to name the mountain after his friend, Rear Admiral Peter Rainier, while surveying the Pacific Coast in 1792, the local Salishan speakers had called the mountain Tahoma, or Tacoma, for centuries before. Tahoma means “mother of water” in the Lushootseed language spoken by the Puyallup people, referring to the importance of the mountain’s glaciated peak. For years, there have been petitions to restore the mountain to its original name. 

During the late 19th century, a mineral spring, among other resources, was discovered near Mount Rainier. The discovery of such resources coupled with a determination to preserve the unique ecosystem inspired mountaineers to initiate the groundwork for a national park. In 1899, scientists, mountaineers, businesses, and conservation groups came together to establish the park, making it the fifth national park in the United States. The early decades in Mount Rainier National Park were chaotic at best and marred by obstacles such as the Great Depression and World War II, during which funding for development of trails and visitation plummeted. Following the end of WWII, the park shifted towards a focus on visitational use. Since the mid-1960’s, the majority of the park’s infrastructure has been in place and the park welcomes well over a million visitors each year. 

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Park Layout and Activities

Mount Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states. As a result, the park is home to over 150 waterfalls. The park also preserves diverse alpine and subalpine ecosystems, including old-growth forest, subalpine meadows, and ancient heather communities. In these ecological zones, one can find elk, black bears, mountain goats, squirrels, and marmots living among an extensive number of plant, flower, and tree species.

The park is expansive and has a number of different entrances. Paradise, in the southwest, and Sunrise, in the northeast, are among two of the most frequented sections of the park. Both have visitor centers that provide information on hikes and camping, as well as a detailed cultural and topographical history of Mount Rainier National Park. Paradise is open all year, while Sunrise is only open from late June/early July through sometime in October, typically closing when the first heavy snow falls. For equally worthy trails and fewer crowds, try trails before you reach the visitor centers from either of these entrances or explore one of the many other sections of the park, including Chinook Pass and White River. 

Experienced climbers may be interested in summiting Mount Rainier during the summer months. For the everyday hiker, there are more than 260 miles of trails, traversing alpine forests and valleys abloom with flowers and sweeping views of glacial lakes and snowy vistas, perfect for day hikes, backpacking trips, and overnight camping. The seasons cycle through the park, bringing times of transition, slumber, and awakening of nature. Each season reveals a new face to Mount Rainier and a new dose of magic enticing adventure seekers to explore its depths year-round.   

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