Insider advice on the top five trails at Mount Rainier National Park
1. Trail of the Shadows
The Trail of the Shadows is the Rodney Dangerfield of Mount Rainier trails. It gets no respect.
It’s just inside the main Nisqually entrance to the park, so it makes sense that it doesn’t get all the credit it might otherwise deserve. Once you’re inside the Nisqually Entrance, Paradise beckons, with its wildflowers in the summer, pristine snowfields in the winter, and the daily mad dash to the top to snag one of the limited parking spots during peak season.
Still, Trail of the Shadows is a short (0.8 miles), flat, family-friendly hike with cool side-attractions (an abandoned hot spring, a historical cabin, deer and elk everywhere, a mountain viewpoint, historical markers, etc.) and plentiful parking at Longmire. That’s the same Longmire with real restrooms, a general store, a full-service restaurant, and take-away coffee.
2. Skyline Trail
As you could expect from the main trail at a place called Paradise, this one is no secret. It’s a 5.5-mile, mostly well-marked, well-trodden boulevard of a loop trail that meanders through fields of wildflowers, where you Snow-White your way through meetings with fearless birds and marmots. (Don’t feed or touch the birds or marmots, which should go without saying, and yet here we are.)
If you do the full loop (most don’t) it’s also a quad-burner at almost 1,500 feet of elevation gain, which is rewarded with waterfall views, glaciers, and of course the wildflowers that naturalist John Muir called “the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings.”
So yes, it’s busy in the peak season. But yes, it’s also worth it.
3. Mt. Fremont Lookout Trail
Over on the Sunrise side of Mount Rainier, the Mount Fremont Fire Lookout offers some of the most spectacular views of the mountain, and the trail to get there from the Sunrise Visitor Center is just a 5.6-mile, 1,200-foot elevation gain hike that never becomes a slog.
While you might be convinced during the first mile or so that the wildflowers are the most interesting thing you’re going to see (and they won’t disappoint you in that regard), you’ll also often come across herds of wild mountain goats, either up close (again, don’t feed or touch them) or from a distance, so bring binoculars.
And lest you be convinced that the name Sunrise conveys a lack of imagination, try doing this hike at 1 a.m. to claim your spot for the 3 a.m. nautical sunrise (in mid-summer) and the 6 a.m. true sunrise (also in mid-summer). You won’t be alone, and you’ll watch Mother Nature paint the mountain from nighttime gray-blues (they call the pre-dawn light Blue Hour for a reason) to its full periwinkle, mauve, peach and orange glory, from the top down.
4. Sheep Lake/Sourdough Gap
This one feels a little like cheating, since it’s just outside Mount Rainier National Park, and therefore doesn’t require a national park entry fee or pass; only a Northwest Forest Pass for parking. It also feels like cheating because the difficulty-to-scenery ratio is off the charts: You get a lot for a little.
First, it’s only 3.6 miles round trip from the trailhead to the lake. The first leg is along and above the road you drove in on, and that lack of scenic diversity alone helps keep the trail crowds manageable. But the payoff comes when you turn a corner and start heading up some rocky terrain that suddenly opens out on a pristine alpine lake. You’ll see people taking a dip in the lake, and you can join them. You’ll see others exploring the small trails through the rolling meadows and streams of the valley that’s hemmed in by steep rockfaces and outcroppings. It’s a store-brand, fun-sized version of the Swiss Alps, as overblown as that sounds.
The hidden benefit of Sheep Lake’s location so near to the Sunrise Entrance to the national park is that Sunrise draws the big crowds, leaving these side trails relatively empty. Although relatively empty in Pacific Northwest national parks terms can still feel like a stadium crowd at times.
Insider tip: Imagine how much bug spray and sunscreen you could possibly need during the summer, double it, and bring that much.
5. Grove of the Patriarchs Trail
California has its redwoods, and Washington has its patriarchs. These trees are stunning on a scale that confuses the eye, and makes the brain work overtime to comprehend. It’s a place that serves up heaping helpings of humility, reminding you of how young and small humans and humanity are. It’s a place that, through a fluke of geography, has survived centuries of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
The trail itself is one of the most trodden in the park, and it’s easy to see why. It’s accessible, it’s easy (only 1.5 miles round trip, with about the same elevation gain as the deck of an aircraft carrier), and a much of it is wooden planked enough to forget it’s actually a hike. So all that is to say it’s about as family friendly as the Happiest Place on Earth™®, minus the wandering characters.
Your neck gets as much of a workout as your legs, and you’ll find yourself constantly staring up at the tops of the trees that reach for the sky and end in the clouds (when there are clouds).
Guest Blogger: Matt Wakefield, Director of Marketing & Communications for Travel Tacoma