A Look at Washington State’s Three National Parks
As a Seattle local who has lived here my whole life, I often find myself reflecting on what it is that has made me stay all these years. I think the answer becomes most obvious when I’ve been traveling for a while and start to think about what it will be like coming home. If I had to sum it up in two words, I would say: “The Mountains.” Seattle is bordered by two mountain ranges – the Cascades to the east, and the Olympics to the west – and off in the distance to the south, we are anchored by the sublime Mount Rainier, a mountain that evokes wonder and adventure in locals and visitors alike. All these mountains, in addition to their surrounding wilderness, make up the three unique national Parks in Washington State: Mount Rainier National Park, North Cascades National Park, and Olympic National Park.
Part I: Mount Rainier National Park
Standing at 14,410 feet, it’s hard not to stare in awe and admiration at Mount Rainier whether you are looking at it from Pike Place Market on a clear day, or at the mountain’s base. And even though I have had the opportunity to visit and explore the park many times, I get increasingly more excited every time I go back. It’s hard to say exactly what it is, but there’s a certain energy that seems to pull people in regardless of if your goal is to summit the peak, or simply go for a day hike.
I decided to make my most recent trip to Mount Rainier a family outing and invited my mom and dad who are fellow mountain enthusiasts. We were looking for a hike that wouldn’t be too tough, but still made us feel accomplished at the end. When researching hikes in this park, it’s easiest to first decide which part of the mountain you are most interested in exploring. Some of the most common areas include Longmire, Paradise, Ohanapecosh, Sunrise, and Carbon River – each offering their own unique experiences. Although Paradise is one of the most popular destinations on the mountain, we decided to explore an area a little less traveled, but equally as beautiful, and chose to go to Longmire.
Pro Tip: Use the Nisqually Entrance of the park for the quickest route to Longmire and try to visit on a weekday when there are less crowds and traffic. This entrance is around 94 miles from downtown Seattle and will take just over 2 hours to get there depending on traffic. At the entrance, you will be required to pay for a park pass. We chose the Mount Rainier Single Vehicle Fee which grants unlimited entry for one vehicle and passengers for seven consecutive days. This pass and other options can be found here.
History of Longmire:
In 1899 when Mount Rainier National Park was established, James Longmire’s mineral springs resort, lodging, and homestead was converted into Park headquarters. Though Longmire is no longer the location of headquarters, the original 1916 building can still be visited and houses a small museum where visitors can learn about the early days of the park, wildlife that call the surrounding landscape their home, and about the Native Americans who have considered Mount Rainier a place of importance for thousands of years.
If you are visiting this area and need help figuring out the best hike, where a trailhead is, or have general questions about the park, make sure to stop by the Longmire Wilderness Information Center, housed in the old Longmire Administrative Building completed in 1930. All of Longmire is now designated as a national historic district.
Longmire Wilderness Information Center. Brittany Carchano
Large-scale model of Mountain Rainier inside the Longmire Wilderness Information Center. Brittany Carchano
Rampart Ridge Trail:
We decided the best hike that fit what we were looking for was Rampart Ridge Trail – a 4.6-mile loop with 1,339 ft. of elevation gain and considered “moderate” by the National Park Service. While we are mountain enthusiasts, we are by no means experts, and this trail proved to be the perfect level of difficulty for us.
The first bridge we came across spans through large fields of vegetation including giant skunk cabbage. Brittany Carchano
To access Rampart Ridge Trail, start at the trailhead for The Trail of the Shadows located just across the street from the National Park Inn, a lodging option located in the park. Although the hike is a loop, going clockwise keeps Mount Rainier in front of you most of the time allowing for better chances of seeing the mountain along the way. At the very beginning of the trail, you’ll pass through a section of marshland with plants such as skunk cabbage thriving in this damp environment. The trail quickly turns into a steep climb with a handful of switchbacks for the first two miles. Although the steepness tested our endurance, the beautiful and diverse landscape proved to be just the distraction we needed. From beautiful wildflowers to baby ferns and towering trees, we decided to take our time trekking up the trail to enjoy our surroundings.
Beautiful white bear grass flowers we saw throughout the hike. Brittany Carchano
Pro tip: Make sure to keep an eye out for the sign indicating where the view point is about 1.8 miles in – you’ll be glad you took a break to enjoy the stunning look back at Longmire and the Nisqually River Valley!
Sign indicating where to turn for the view point looking back at Longmire. Brittany Carchano
Photo captured at the view point. Brittany Carchano
A small bird we made friends with during our lunch. Brittany Carchano
Just as we came to the top of the loop before descending back down, we decided to stop for lunch in a rocky area just off the trail. Although there were some large clouds in the sky (Mount Rainier is large enough to generate its own weather system), we were still able to catch glimpses of Mount Rainier as it peeked through. Not to mention, we made plenty of friends with the wildlife who came to check us out including four birds and three chipmunks. We slowly ate our lunch and soaked up the views before heading back down.
Mount Rainier peeking through the clouds. Brittany Carchano
Soaking in the sun in a clearing along the trail. Brittany Carchano
On the descent, Rampart Ridge Trail meets up with Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile-long trail that encircles Mount Rainier. The hike down was equally as beautiful as the way up and we again took our time to drink in the fresh air and green scenery. Once back at Longmire, we were feeling satisfied with our day’s adventure, but were also curious about what else we could explore nearby. After stopping back in at the Longmire Wilderness Information Center we learned that Paradise was only a 30-minute drive away and decided to head on up to see what other vistas we’d come across. We weren’t disappointed with our decision! From waterfalls to nearby peaks to Paradise Inn, we were happy to be able to see just a little bit more before heading home and would recommend this area as a stop on the itinerary if there is time to spare. Overall, we spent around 5.5 hours in the park exploring the various areas and hiking Rampart Ridge.
Outdoor seating located just outside the Tatoosh Cafe at Paradise Inn. Brittany Carchano
The Wilderness Information Center at Paradise.Brittany Carchano
On our drive back home, we decided to stop for ice cream at a shop we noticed on the way to the park. Nothing is more rewarding than a scoop of huckleberry ice cream after a long day of hiking! We stopped at Whittaker’s Café and Espresso, a small café located at Whittaker’s Bunkhouse just off National Park Hwy and then carried on back to the city with tired feet and happy hearts.
Additional Photos from our hike on the Rampart Ridge Trail and Paradise
Other Things to Do in the Area:
If you are interested in visiting Mount Rainier National Park, but hiking isn’t really your cup of tea, there are plenty of other activities to partake in! Visit the National Park Service or Visit Rainier to learn more about camping, bicycling, climbing, fishing, boating, attractions and more in the area. These websites are also great resources if you’re looking to spend more than a day in the park and need overnight lodging.
Directions & Guided Tours:
Headed down to the park by car? Check out the driving directions below:
- From downtown Seattle, head south on I-5
- Take exit 142A for WA-18 E
- Take the WA-167 S exit toward Puyallup to get on WA-167 S
- Take the WA-512 W exit toward WA-161 S/Puyallup/Olympia
- Take the exit toward WA-161 S/S Hill/Eatonville
- Turn left onto WA-161 S/31st Ave SW (signs for Eatonville/Mount Rainier)
- Turn left onto Centre St E
- Turn left onto WA-7 S/Mountain Hwy E
- Continue straight onto WA-706
- Turn right at Paradise Valley RD
- Longmire will be on your right
Looking for a more guided experience, or shuttle to the park? Visit the resources below: