Mount Rainier National Park is 369-square mile park a few hours southeast of Seattle, Washington. The undisputed highlight of this park is its namesake, the 14,410-ft active volcano, Mount Rainier. Yes, you read that right: Mount Rainier is an active volcano, but it hasn't erupted since the mid-19th century. As a result, the top of Mount Rainier is a snow-capped crater. It's also the highest peak and most glaciated peak (26 glaciers!) in the continental United States.
Best Part of Mount Rainier National Park for a Day Trip
If you only have a day to spend in the park, you've got to do it in Paradise, Washington. The southwestern area of the park is the most popular, and as its name suggests, it's beautiful. There are great hiking opportunities in Paradise, from waterfalls to glaciers, and trail options for beginner to serious hikers. Getting to Paradise involves a nice, scenic drive 19 miles from the southwest Nisqually Entrance.
Take note, though, that traffic can quickly clog up the entrance and road, and the parking lots at Paradise Visitors Center generally fill up by 8 am. When I first got to the park at the worst possible time (4 pm on Saturday), the line to get into the park was miles long. I waited 50 minutes to get to the entrance. It is much better to visit the park during the week or get in early in the morning before the crowds.
The Skyline Trail
Once you get to the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center in Paradise, the trailhead is right there. You can stop at the bathroom, watch a short film about the park, buy some souvenirs, and even fuel up at a restaurant at the Paradise Inn.
There are a bunch of trails that branch off from the Skyline Trail and give you the opportunity to extend your hike or see other glaciers and waterfalls. The Skyline Trail, though, offers more than enough in its own right. This 6-mile hike gains 1,700 feet of elevation, taking you up the side of Mount Rainier and right past the base of the Nisqually Glacier. I loved that there were multiple different terrains traversed on this same hike. These are all photos of the Skyline Trail - look at the changes in landscape!
Going clockwise on the loop, you'll climb the arduous elevation gain through fields studded with wildflowers to reach Panorama Point at almost the peak of the Skyline Trail.
This viewpoint along the Skyline Trail was such an experience! For one, it offers great views of Mount Rainier on one side and the Tatoosh Range and Mount Adams on the other. You've also got glaciers and wildflowers galore to enjoy as you sit and have a mid-hike snack. For another though, there were tons of chipmunks - upwards of a dozen little guys who were not afraid of humans at all. They were looking for food and came right up to my foot and backpack to see if I'd dropped a crumb.
Just before Panorama Point, I had also passed a marmot. This guy was similarly unperturbed by humans and walked right across the Skyline Trail directly in front of me. Marmots are very popular in Mount Rainier National Park, and there were multiple visible from the trail. I saw some lounging on rocks and soaking up the sun and another appearing to gaze in the distance at Mount Adams.
Then, the trail proceeds up more rocky terrain and right next to some snowfields. This patch of trail is actually covered by snow most of the year. Finally, the Skyline Trail follows the Paradise River back to the Visitors Center. On the way, you will wind through some gorgeous stands of conifers and pass Sluiskin Falls and Myrtle Falls.
If you're not up for the whole loop of the Skyline Trail, Myrtle Falls is more accessible. It's only about half a mile from the Visitors Center, though there are a number of steep stairs to get to the lower viewpoint.
Myrtle Falls was beautiful, and Panorama Point was a great place to spot and take in the view. The highlight for me of Skyline Trail and Mount Rainier National Park overall was how close you could get to the mountain's many glaciers. You can see in this Paradise hiking trails map that Nisqually Glacier is so accessible. I was almost close enough to touch it!