Hiking Mount Rainier Through the Seasons

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From evergreens draped in winter’s snowfall, to meadows blooming with the fuchsia and lavender hues of summer, Mount Rainier National Park is stirring with life year-round. My favorite time of the year is mid-to-late summer when the valleys cradled in the mountainside are bursting with wildflowers and berries; when the sun shines bright and it is warm enough to take a dip in the icy waters of glacial lakes. 

Access to the majority of the park is seasonal. Many trails and roads are closed from late autumn, after the first snowfall, until early summer when the trails are finally snow-free. Although summer and early fall are the peak hiking and camping seasons, each season in Mount Rainier National Park is exquisite in its own way.  

Winter

Wintertime in Mount Rainier comes early and lasts for months. During this season of slumber, the park is draped in winter wonderland magic. The arrival of the first snowfall varies by year and typically comes between late October and early November. Many of the roads through the park close down at this time. The small section of the park that remains open allows you to experience the splendor of Mount Rainier in an entirely different light. The campgrounds and trails once crowded with tourists transform into cross-country skiing and snowshoe trails. Snow elegantly blankets the thick forests, clinging to the branches of fir trees, and is piled in deep drifts on the sides of packed-down trails. 

Related: A Brief History of Mighty Mount Rainier National Park

Nisqually is the only entrance open, from which you can reach Paradise. At Paradise, you can walk along hiking trails, sled in designated areas, go snow shoeing, and explore the backcountry on cross-country skis. Paradise Valley Road offers spectacular cross-country skiing through open alpine country and across a frozen, snow-covered meadow. 

 

Spring

Nature is awakening in Mount Rainier National Park during this transitional season. Flowers slowly appear and the waterfalls are spectacular, roaring with fresh snowmelt. Unfortunately, spring weather is unpredictable in the Pacific Northwest. Although the region experiences the occasional sunny late spring day, this season is largely characterized by long stretches of steady drizzle. 

Most of the trails in Mount Rainier National Park are typically covered in snow through late June. Snow hiking on a sunny spring day can be stunning but takes preparation. Read reports on trail conditions prior to leaving for your hike pack seasonally appropriate gear. Although Mount Rainier’s high country holds some of the most spectacular adventures in the park, there are a number of lower elevation hikes that are more accessible during the spring season. Many of these trails can also be explored via mountain bike. Come prepared with boots and a rain jacket as the trails are often wet and muddy.

Another way to experience the grandeur of spring is by taking a road trip through the park on the White Pass Scenic Byway. Hop on The West Side Loop, which usually opens in late May. Start in logging towns, go past Mineral Lake and foothills abundant with grazing elk, and then cut through the Nisqually area of Mount Rainier. Experience the grandeur of Mount Rainier on the Mount Rainier Loop, which opens early June once the road is clear of snow. Start by driving through old-growth temperate forests, cascading waterfalls on the roadside, and unobscured vistas, which eventually lead up to Paradise before snaking back down through canyons and valleys.

Spring hikes:

  • Packwood Lake An 8.5-mile out-and-back flat trail through evergreens, moss, and early season wildflowers with lake views. 
  • Greenwater Lakes: Located in the Chinook Pass area, this 4.5-mile hike is accessible year-round and snow-free from May-November. The crosses over bridges, two lakes and a river, past old-growth trees and waterfalls. 
  • Summit Lake: Climb up through forests of fir and hemlock that eventually open up to grassy meadows that are covered with a thick blanket of snow through early summer. Once you reach the top, you’ll find the deep blue water of Summit Lake contrasting against the snowy top of Mount Rainier. 

Summer

Summer is the most popular season in Mount Rainier National Park and for good reason. The Pacific Northwest experiences only a few months reprieve from its enduring grey and rain. Within this narrow window of time, Pacific Northwesterners soak up as much of the region’s outdoors as possible. From late June/early July, the trails are snow-free, the skies are bright blue more days than not, and Mount Rainier is teeming with life. 

During these glorious months, all trails and campsites are open and accessible. Green meadows are bursting with tiny wild strawberries, pink salmonberries, and deep purple blackberries. Avalanche lilies, paintbrush, asters, daisies, and purple shooting stars, among many other wildflowers, blanket the mountain. 

At this time of the year, every hike in the park is spectacular. Hikes by the dozen can be found in varying level of length and difficulty. Whether you’re looking to hike through fields of wildflowers, chase unobstructed views of glaciers, or swim in an alpine lake, summer at Mount Rainier offers them all. 

No season in Washington is without challenges, though. Many summers, around mid-late August, experience severe wildfires in central and eastern Washington. Smoke blows from the eastern side of the state and up from Oregon, often enveloping western Washington, including Mount Rainier, in thick smoke. If the fires encroach close enough, trails and roads within state and national parks are shut down. 

Summer Hikes:

  • Mount. Fremont: 

This 6-mile roundtrip hike starts from Sunrise Visitor Center and continues through meadowland and rocky ridges. At the pinnacle of the hike, you’ll reach a cabin built in 1934, that is one of four historic fire lookouts in Mount Rainier National Park. Watchmen used to stand at these lookouts and watch over the forest, keeping an eye out for wildfires. Today, you can enjoy views over Mount Rainier, the Cascades, and the Olympic Mountains. 

  • Burroughs Mountain: 

This 9-mile roundtrip trail offers some of the most dramatic views of Mount Rainier atop a barren, sweeping landscape. From the Sunrise visitor center, set out along the dusty trail, climbing up and across a snowfield to the First Burroughs mountain before climbing to Second Burroughs. The arid, high elevation terrain opens up to Fremont Lookout, Berkeley, and Glacier Basin, where mountain goats, chipmunks, and marmots wander the hillsides. 

  • Glacier Basin: 

From the trailhead at White River Campground, follow this 6.5-mile former mining road. Take a detour at the junction up to Emmons Moraine, which offers stunning views of Emmons Glacier, the largest glacier in the continental US. The trail continues past the junction with Burroughs Mountain, which opens up to wide, sun-soaked meadows and views of Mount Ruth.   

  • Sheep Lake to Sourdough Gap:

Located just off of Chinook Pass, this 6.5-mile hike begins on the Pacific Crest Trail. During August, the valleys are abloom with summer wildflowers. Stop for a swim in icy cold Sheep Lake in a shaded green meadow. The trail gains traction as you continue on to Sourdough Gap, eventually reaching views above the trees overlooking the sapphire waters of Crystal Lake basin set against the dramatic backdrop of Mount Rainier. 

Looking for more inspo on Washington’s incredible countryside? Beyond Seattle: An Outdoor Guide to Washington State

Autumn

From late September through October, sections of Mount Rainier are ablaze with color. Cottonwoods, willows, elderberry, aspen, and western larches are in transition. Having spent a few unexpected autumns in Washington in recent years, I came to appreciate this season when leaves and valleys turn warm shades of turmeric and cayenne and a crisp chill lingers in the air. 

Even without the foliage, autumn is a phenomenal time of the year to visit Mount Rainier. The trails are quieter and less congested. The air is fresh and cool with occasional rain showers and intermittently warm, sunny days even though the long days of summer light are dwindling. As the weather dampens, you can go huckleberry picking and foraging for mushrooms. By November, the trails are typically snow-covered. If you’re looking to extend your visit, consider booking a cozy cabin within the vicinity of the park. 

Fall Hikes:

  • Tolmie Peak:

Starting off in lowland forest around Mowich Lake, this 7.5-mile hike gradually ascends to Isput Pass. Continue past the blue waters of Eunice Lake, where you can stop for a swim. Make the final uphill climb to the Tolmie Peak Lookout, which sits precariously atop rocky escarpment and opens up to sweeping views of Mount Rainier. Keep your eyes peeled for brilliant fall colors and huckleberries. 

  • Spray Park

Located near Mowich Lake, Spray Park is a 6-mile roundtrip hike with moderate elevation gain. Spectacularly colorful with alpine blooms like avalanche lilies by mid-summer, this hike turns another kind of brilliant come September. Walk through meadows painted in magnificent shades of gold, rust, and amber foliage with unhindered views of Mount Rainier. 

  • Skyline Trail:

On this 8.5-mile roundtrip hike out of Paradise, walk through sloped valleys brushed in the warm shades of autumn contrasting against the velvet-textured evergreen trees. The majestic Rainier looms startlingly close, drawing even closer with each step. Hike along the Nisqually Glacier until you reach Panorama Point, which opens up to views of Paradise valley, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Adams. 

Regardless of the time of year you visit Mount Rainier, there are a handful of guidelines that should always be respected. No animals are allowed in the national park, although there are some trails in the area surrounding Rainier outside the park perimeters where dogs can go. Always pack out what you bring In and leave no trace. Respect the trail markers by not going off trail to help preserve the fragile ecosystems, remembering that we are all guests on this delicate and revered land. 

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