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Best and Worst of Mount Rainier National Park

Updated: Jun 20, 2022

Planning a trip to Mount Rainier and looking to avoid the crowds?

There’s just one thing you need to know: Don’t go to the Paradise area!

Photo by Joe Mabel,_August_2014_-_start_of_the_Skyline_Trail_01.jpg

… Okay, you can go there, but be prepared to share the views because it is the most-visited area of the park. If I were to do my trip over again, I would have just skipped this area entirely.

It may be enjoyable if you can wake up super early to get on the trails before the parking lots fill up, and if you don’t get bothered by disrespectful tourists (looking at the two young people I kinda yelled at for walking way off trail in a fragile meadow that was clearly marked…).

Or, you can avoid it altogether and still get incredible views, wildflower meadows, and peeks at wildlife, all while enjoying a bit of solitude. If this is the way you want to go, I recommend visiting the White River/Sunrise area.

There is one more important aspect about Paradise that I don't want to skip: it is very accessible. The trails in this area are almost entirely paved, making those unforgettable views attainable for people who may not otherwise be able to go out onto dirt trails due to mobility issues.

A quick side note: I have heard that the west side of the park is the most remote and least populated, but I haven’t been able to visit there yet. I’ll update this page if I do! There does appear to be less drive-up attractions, and it may be better if you’re looking for longer hikes and wilderness backpacking.

My number one tip to avoiding crowds at any national park is to go on weekdays. If this isn’t an option, then I recommend starting early, taking a long break during the peak hours of the day, and exploring more in the evening. There may be more bugs, but the parking lots seem to empty by 5pm—leaving you to enjoy those magnificent sunsets all by yourself.

Here's a breakdown of my itinerary and favorite spots:

Day 1 (Monday): arrived at Paradise area around 11:30am

I was hoping it wouldn’t be too busy on a Monday, but I arrived later than I would have liked to. There was a bit of a wait to get through the gate, and the parking lot was pretty packed. That’s what I get for not following my own advice of starting early! Once I made it to the main lot and found a spot, I hiked part of the Moraine trail. I enjoyed the views and wildflowers, but turned around before finishing because it just wasn’t the experience I was looking for.

I got back on the road, feeling frustrated and stressed, and decided to stop at Reflection Lakes since the parking lot was almost empty (it was around 4pm at this point). I grabbed my camera and wandered down the trail, pausing when I noticed fish

jumping out of the lake to catch insects that teased them from above the surface. I spent some time dialing in my camera settings to get some good shots, and this really helped relax me.

In a better mood, I headed out to make camp for the night at an excellent spot just outside of the Stevens Canyon entrance.

Day 2 (Tuesday): brief visit to the Stevens Canyon area, then on to White River

In the morning, I woke up early and took a short drive over to the Grove of the Patriarchs trail. When my mom and I were in this area in late June, we tried to stop here but couldn’t find a parking space (it was PACKED!) so we ended up skipping it. Starting the trail around 8:30am, there were only a few others around. This is a gentle and beautiful trail, featuring huge trees that are over 1000 years old! One thing to keep in mind is that you do have to walk across a suspension bridge one person at a time, so there can be a bit of a wait in line for this (it was a longer wait on the way back as the trail became more crowded).

Next, I headed to the White River area. This is where things started to get really good for me. I hiked the Emmons Moraine Trail in the afternoon, encountering only a handful of other hikers. This trail is so cool! I loved the little log footbridge across the rushing White River, the numerous small waterfalls along the way, the milky-green lake below, and of course the views of Mount Rainier and the Emmons Glacier! You can clearly see how the valley was carved out and imagine how far the glacier once reached. Incredible overall, and its not that difficult of a hike.

After enjoying a snack at the trailhead, I headed back out to check out the sunset from Naches Peak Loop Trail. Reaching the Tipsoo Lake parking lot around 6pm, there was plenty of parking available. I made dinner and waited for that spectacular golden light to hit the wildflowers. I headed up the Naches Trail, and found a spot to settle in for sunset with a perfect view of Mount Rainier. It was quiet and only two other people passed by the whole time I was there, but I won’t lie to y’all… the mosquitos were RIDICULOUS. Even with bug spray, long sleeves and pants, I still ended up with some bites. But this was a small price to pay for such beauty and solitude. There are several trailheads and trails that cross here, so even if the parking lot seems busy, you may find that the trails themselves aren’t very congested. I find that in National Parks, many people stop in the parking lots and pull-offs to snap a few pictures or have a snack, but then they get back on the road. This can often mean that further down the trails, it’s not so crowded.

After enjoying the sunset and hiking back down in the dimming twilight, I drove about 30 seconds up the road to a parking lot on the other side of Chinook Pass to sleep for the night. (It can’t be beautiful, quiet campsites every night, right?) If you’re boondocking, this is a great spot to park for a night or two to stay close to the park.

Day 3 (Wednesday): Sunrise Area

After waking up early to the sound of hikers hitting the trail, I got on the road to Sunrise. Arriving around 9am, there was ample parking. I made a quick breakfast and then headed up the Burroughs Mountain Trail. The views and wildflowers were spectacular! Plus, there were several marmots around, running through the meadows or lounging and sunning themselves on rocks. This trail is a pretty steady climb, though it is not technical. I only went to the first Burrough because of an ankle injury, but there are three mountains that get progressively closer to Rainier for (I imagine) even better views. I took a nice long break at the top to take in the scenery and watch the marmots, and I talked with a few nice hikers. Heading back down around noon, the trail was busier and parking lot fuller, but it certainly was not at capacity. There are several trails of varying lengths and difficulties that start from this lot, so be sure to stop by the ranger station if you need advice on which one to choose for your skill level and what you’re hoping to see when you visit.

Remembering a pull-off that I saw the day before on the way to the Emmons Moraine trailhead, I headed back there to have lunch and relax by the White River for a while (and charge up my Jackery in the sunshine!). Since I had to drive back by Tipsoo Lake/Chinook Pass, I decided to stop here again in the evening to make dinner and enjoy the view. I spoke with some other photographers and hikers in the parking lot, then made a short loop around Tipsoo to get some wildflower shots. Again, the mosquitos were pretty brutal, so be prepared! Finally, I headed down Highway 410 to make camp near the American River.

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