Two days at mt. rainier national park
By Jennifer Coleman
As the days grow longer and the sun lingers in the sky, the warm rays are slowly melting snow that buried the roads and landscape of Mt. Rainier National Park during winter. For some, this thawing marks the beginning of adventure season in the alpine wilderness of the Cascade Mountains, specifically around Washington’s highest volcanic peak – Mt. Rainier.
There are many ways to access Mt. Rainier National Park, and countless places to explore once there. From old-growth forests in river valleys to panoramic views of the majestic mountain, this park has something for everyone who visits.
During summer visitors can explore the many well-maintained trails weaving through wildflower meadows, over streams and past waterfalls. This ‘paradise’ is something to behold, especially when you see it for yourself. Majestic Mt. Rainier fills the skyline here, with wildlife such as bears, grouse, butterflies, marmots, and picas adding to the magic of this place.
Paradise is famous for its stunning mountain views and wildflower meadows. When early settler James Longmire’s daughter-in-law, Martha, first saw this site, she exclaimed, “Oh, what a paradise!”
On our first road trip of the season, we made our home-base in Packwood, a small hamlet located along the Cowlitz River that is surrounded by a National Forest and is just minutes to the Stevens Canyon entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park. If you want fast-food and chain restaurants, don’t come to Packwood. Rather, here you’ll find authentic places filled with locals who live and work here, quick with a smile and willing to share some of the secrets and best places to visit while you’re in town.
We stayed at the Cowlitz River Lodge, a clean and roomy lodge located right along Hwy-12 aka White Pass Scenic Byway. Each night at twilight we watched the resident elk herd make their way to graze in the expansive lawns out front. There’s lots of parking and the lodge is perfect for resting up after a day of exploring.
Day 1, first things first, we stopped at The Mountain Goat Coffee Company in Packwood to fuel up for the day. The savory ham, cheese & scallion breakfast scones are ah-mazing, as is the coffee and the baristas serving it. Homemade cookies and scones line the shelves, along with local goodies and gifts.
With steaming hot coffee and a bag full of treats, we headed to Mt. Rainier National Park to start our adventure. We accessed the park from the Stevens Canyon Entrance, which is in the southeast corner of the park. It was mid-June, so all the snow was long gone from the lower elevation trails and already the flowers and ferns had unfurled from winters hold. We decided on the Silver Falls Loop Trail and added on a little jaunt over to Grove of the Patriarchs.
From the Ohanapecosh Visitor’s Center, we logged just over 5 miles round trip. This is a moderate trek on a well-maintained trail that takes you over simmering hot springs and along cascading waterfalls. Silver Falls is the main attraction here, and on the day we visited it was thundering down through the narrow gorge of the Ohanapecosh River.
Just past the viewpoint for Silver Falls is a small spur trail, about 1 mile down to the Grove of the Patriarchs. Do not opt-out of this! You will be rewarded with a jumpy suspension bridge crossing over aquamarine waters, straight into the magical world of old growth forest.
Some of the trees here are 40-feet in circumference and tower nearly 300-feet into the air! These ancient sentinels of the forest are beloved by all who visit them. The sturdy boardwalk loops through the trees with benches available for you to sit and ponder your existence.
Day 2 started much the same as the first – with a visit to Goat Mountain Coffee Company. I’m not kidding about those breakfast scones. SAVORY! Since we were planning on heading home on this day, we planned our route to take us through Mt. Rainier National Park. From Stevens Canyon entrance it is a mere 35-miles through to the Nisqually entrance at the southwest corner of the park, then on to the road heading home.
Don’t plan on ‘making time’ through the park. This drive is to be savored. It seems that around every turn there is some breathtaking scene to behold. In fact, the park employee that I chatted with said that the route of the road was predetermined by the roadbuilders back in the 1930s who went up on horses ahead of time to ensure the most scenic and awe-inspiring views could be seen from the future road. They did a fantastic job.
We stopped at pretty much every pull-out along Stevens Canyon Road heading west. We snapped pics of the view from Reflection Lakes (still covered in snow on June 18th = no reflection) then looped up and around to the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center at Paradise (also covered in a thick blanket of snow). The historic Paradise Inn sits neatly tucked beneath the mountain and has been called “one of the Great Lodges of the West”. Its rustic vibe and proximity to miles of hiking trails from the front door confirm its Great Lodge status.
We hiked down to be covered in mist from thundering Narada Falls – a slightly steep but easy .2-mile hike to the viewpoint. Get out and stretch your legs here, you won’t be disappointed! As we descended Paradise Valley Road, we found the beautiful arching bridge at Christine Falls (photo-op!) and made our way alongside the Nisqually River to the historic Longmire homestead-turned-museum. This homestead site previously provided lodging and a mineral springs resort back in James Longmire’s days, now it is a museum that tells the story of the early days of the park and retains its original rustic charm with massive logs and river stones adorning its façade.
As we made our way through the exit gates, I was already planning our next trip. Later in the season the wildflowers will be putting on their dazzling display at Paradise, the Sunrise Visitor Center will be open, and the trails currently buried by snow will be revealed and boot ready.
It doesn’t always take me four hours to drive 35-miles, but when it does, you better believe it’s because I’m road-trippin!