Out of all the mountains in the continental United States, few have a mystique that approaches the stature of Mount Rainier. And, out of all the mountains in the continental United States, few have the visual impressiveness of Mount Rainier, which among other reasons is why the mountain and its surrounding regions became the United States fifth National Park. At 14,411 feet Mount Rainier is not the tallest mountain in the continental United States, but it is the tallest peak in the Cascade Range, and is one of the most challenging peaks to climb in the United States. While most of the visitors to Mount Rainier National Park do not climb the mountain in its entirety, many of the trails in the park traverse sections of the mountain, and provide excellent views of the mountain's many glaciers and snowfields.
In addition to the spectacle that is the mountain, the areas and meadows surrounding Mount Rainier during the summer months provide some of the most spectacular displays of wildflowers on the west coast. This lush growth inspired numerous items in the park, including the name of the main area - Paradise - by Virinda Longmire in 1885, and even lead the famous naturalist John Muir to state the following about the meadows near Paradise: “"... the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings.” (Visitors to the park will notice this quote prominently displayed on steps near the Visitor Center at Paradise). While the wildflowers have continued to bloom since that time, and the mountain remains eternally impressive, the amount of people visiting Rainier has increased exponentially. But, for first time visitors, the Skyline Trail to Panorama Point is a great hike that allows one to experience amazing views of the mountain, and if timed right, the fantastic meadow flowers.
Directions: Although Mount Rainier is visible from many location in Washington, the closest largest city is Seattle. From Seattle, Mount Rainier National Park is a hundred and seven miles to the southeast. Paradise is located at 5,400 feet, and is where the park’s main visitor centers is located. Even though the road to Paradise is plowed during the winter months, visitors planning on heading to Paradise at that time should check conditions to ensure that the road is open, and that there are no restrictions to travel. During the summer months, visitors may experience traffic on occasion heading up to Paradise, as park statistics demonstrate that it is an area that over sixty percent (60%!) of park visitors frequent. Due to this high use, in summer, visitors will likely experience some sort of traffic or parking controls immediately around Paradise even during weekdays. Visitors in many cases should be prepared for a long walk from their parking spot to both the Visitor Center and the trailheads behind it. If summer crowds at Paradise do not sound appealing, this is not the area you will want to visit at Mount Rainier. However, like many key spots in the National Park system, it is an area worth experiencing despite the crowds.
From the Visitor Center, a number of trails ascend up toward the peak; some of these are paved for the first tenth of a mile; and all of these trails intersect in a number of spots. Additionally, all of these trails pass by meadows, which again, at the proper time of year, have wildflowers. A great tip for first time, and casual hikers is to first visit the visitor center, and obtain a National Park Service map of the area, which allows one to determine which trail that they want to take, and where potentially to miss some of the crowds. Out of all these trails, the Skyline Trail is the most well-used, and departs from the main Paradise village. The Skyline trail is a giant loop that intersects with many of the trails in the Paradise region, and is also a trail that has a great view at Panorama Point (6,800 feet elevation). As the most popular trail in the region (and perhaps the park), the Skyline Trail is generally full of visitors within the first quarter mile experiencing the steep vertical gain of pacific northwest hiking and admiring what flowers are blooming.
While the trail is not overly steep, it can be challenging for hikers due to first the elevation, and the vertical gain, which comes in spurts. For those hikers heading all the way to Panorama Point, there is 1,400 feet of elevation gain from Paradise. Whether one elects to head east on the trail from Paradise and avoid some of the crowds, or ascend directly to Panorama Point, north of Paradise, the trail as a whole provides great meadow views, and increasingly impressive views of the peak, the nearest glacier (the Nisqually), and the surrounding high peaks in the nearby area. Obviously, the best views to be found are at Panorama Point, where on a clear day, one can view the impressive immenseness of Rainier. Having said that, for those hikers who become tired - or just tired of the crowds - great views exist prior to this point as well. For those hikers who hike the Skyline Loop alone, it is a great five mile roundtrip experience; but in general most parties can either add - or subtract some distance by taking some of the other trails in the area.
Tips: First and foremost, especially during the high season summer months, visitors should stay on the trail (Skyline or other) and avoid entering into any of the fragile meadows. And, while it should be obvious, visitors should also not pick wildflowers from the meadows, and should exercise leave no trace principles. While the Skyline loop to Panorama Point is not the most challenging hike in the Pacific Northwest, it does involve a fair amount of exposed vertical gain, and as such, hikers should be prepared with proper shoes, water, and sunscreen. Finally, one more comment about the crowds: this is an area that is crowded, like the rim of the Grand Canyon, or Yosemite Valley in July. Having said that, it is a unique area, and an area that I think first time visitors should experience. But, having said that, if crowds are not your thing, this is not an area for you to visit in the summer season.