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Seattle to Mt. Rainier: How to Take the Perfect Day Trip

Seattle to Mt. Rainier: How to Take the Perfect Day Trip

One of the best day trips you can take from Seattle is a day trip to Mt. Rainier National Park. Don’t get us wrong — we love everything about Seattle. But when you are looking to get out of the city and escape into the PNW wilderness, there is nothing quite like getting out to Mt. Rainier. Plus, since it’s only a couple hours south of the city, it makes for the perfect day trip — meaning you can leave in the morning, have an action-packed day at a national park, and be back in the city by night! Whew!

In this article, we break down how to organize the perfect day trip, including how to get from Seattle to Mt. Rainier and how to maximize your short time at the park.

What exactly is Mt. Rainier, and why should you visit?

Mt. Rainier - Hiking Burroughs Trail

Mt. Rainier National Park is one of three US national parks located in Washington state. Located just 2.5 hours south of Seattle, it makes for the perfect day trip to explore alpine lakes and wildflower meadows in the summer and snowshoeing and skiing in the winter. And of course, there’s the pièce de résistance: Mt. Rainier itself, in all its glory.

Is Mt. Rainier really a volcano?

Yes! It’s also an ACTIVE stratovolcano and widely considered to be one of the most dangerous volcanos in the U.S. due to its height, frequent earthquakes, and number of glaciers, according to US Geological Survey. In fact, Mt. Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S. — meaning major mudflows if it were to ever erupt. Only slightly terrifying.

How to get from Seattle to Mt. Rainier

You have a few options to get from Seattle to Mt. Rainier:

  • By car (recommended): This option is the most convenient since it affords you the greatest flexibility. There are 4 total park entrances: Nisqually, Carbon River, Sunrise, and Ohanapecosh. The most popular is the Nisqually Entrance in the southwest corner of the park since it is open year-round, offers access to “drive up” sightseeing, and leads you to the popular Longmire and Paradise areas of the park. For car rentals, we recommend using rentalcars.com since it allows you to look up multiple rental companies at once and get the best price. We’ve found renting to/from SeaTac airport to have the best prices (vs. renting from downtown Seattle).

Tip: If using GPS, using “Mt. Rainier National Park” in Google may lead you to an administrative building instead of the actual park entrance. Instead, use 39000 State Route 706 E, Ashford, WA 98304 to guide your GPS.

Note: There aren’t really solid public transportation options that will get you from Seattle to Mt. Rainier. The closest you can get by public transit is to Enumclaw outside of Mt. Rainier. We think this option is way more hassle than it’s worth.

How long does it take to get from Seattle to Mt. Rainier?

Here are the approximate drive times and distances from nearby locations in Washington to the visitor center in Paradise, Mt. Rainier:

  • Seattle: 100 miles, 2.5 hours
  • Tacoma: 80 miles, 2 hours
  • Spokane: 230 miles, 5 hours

What to do and see on a day trip to Mt. Rainier

With just one day at the park, time is off the essence! The most popular area is Paradise since it is open year-round and has just absolutely stunning views, although Sunrise certainly vies for our love and attention. We’ve tried to capture activities in both areas so you can choose accordingly. With that said, here are some quintessential highlights for a day trip to Mt. Rainier!

Hiking

Skyline Trail Hike in Mt. Rainier
Skyline Loop Trail in Mt. Rainier National Park

With over 260 miles of maintained trails within Mt. Rainier, there is no shortage of hiking opportunities. On a quick day trip, chances are you’ll likely only have time for a couple of short hikes or one longer day hike. We’ve covered best Mt. Rainier hikes before, but if we had just one day, we’d recommend either the Skyline Loop Trail (Paradise area) or Fremont Lookout Trail (Sunrise area). Both trails are fairly moderate and can be done in a few hours, so you can keep exploring if you aren’t too tired.

Waterfall chasing

Myrtle Falls in Mt. Rainier
Myrtle Falls in Mt. Rainier. Source: NPS

There are so, so many waterfalls (many of which are unnamed!) around Mt. Rainier, fed by snowmelt from the park’s glaciers and snow. Find waterfall vista after vista in the park, especially if you are going in early summer or autumn when the waterfalls are at their peak. Some of the popular ones that you can easily see without much hiking are Myrtle Falls (0.4-mile walk from Paradise Inn), Narada Falls (0.2 miles, note: steep trail), and Edith Gorge Falls (viewable below Paradise from the bridge along the Paradise Valley Road). For a full list of waterfalls in the park, check out the official NPS website.

Visit the Longmire Museum

Learn all about Mt. Rainier and the history of the park at the Longmire Museum, one of the oldest museums in the national park system. The museum is located in the original 1916 park’s headquarters and is open year-round. In addition to exhibits, you’ll also find hotel, restaurant, and gift shop next door at the National Park Inn.

Take a scenic drive

Kautz Creek in Mt. Rainier
Kautz Creek

One of the best ways to see the park is to take a scenic drive through Mt. Rainier’s West Side. Starting from the Nisqually entrance on Highway 706, drive along Paradise Road and make your way towards Paradise and Ohanapecosh. Key highlights include Kautz Creek, the site of a 1947 mudflow; Ricksecker Point Road, a one-way road leading to a magnificent viewpoint of Mt. Rainier and its many glaciers; Paradise, world-renowned for its wildflower meadows; and Grove of the Patriarchs, an easy 1.5-mile loop trail through an old-growth forest.

Enjoy Paradise

Mt. Rainier - Paradise

Aptly named, Paradise is THE destination to visit, if you have just one day to spend at Mt. Rainier! This area is absolutely stunning and one of our hands-down favorite parts of the park. In the summer months, the entire area lights up with fields and fields of wildflowers. It’s also home to world-class hiking trails like the Skyline Loop Trail and Alta Vista Trail.

See sunrise at Sunrise

Sunrise is the second most popular area of the park and only accessible during a short time of the year. In some ways, it is everything Paradise is not — desolate, barren, volcanic — yet equally stunning. I know, it’s hard to believe that is even possible. It’s also one of the best places to witness sunrise in the park. (Sunrise Point has 360-degree views of surrounding valleys and Mt. Rainier.) Keep in mind, it is a 2.5-hour drive from Seattle to Mt. Rainier. If you’re willing to do that to make sunrise, hats off to you. Seriously.

Best time to visit Mt. Rainier

Summer, summer, summer — although that means you won’t be alone. July and August are peak months for the park when the wildflowers are out in full force and the weather is warm. After all, PNW locals wait year-round for the warm summer months. Some areas of the park also close down during the winter due to snow.

What to bring to Mt. Rainier

  1. Hiking boots: If you plan to do any hiking while at Mt. Rainier, you’ll want closed-toed, water-resistant hiking boots with good traction. Keep in mind that you’ll be hiking through old-growth forests, alpine terrain, and even potentially through snowfields (yes, they still exist in summer too!). We recommend brands such as ColumbiaSalomon, and Teva for hiking shoes.
  2. Water bottle: It’s always important to hydrate on the trail. You’ll want something that can keep your drink cold, like a Yeti or Hydroflask. Better yet, use a Camelbak with a water pouch to keep your hands free.
  3. Sun protection: Even though it may be cold or overcast (PNW, what can we say?), you’ll be in higher elevation, meaning a lot more exposure to UV rays. Takeaway? Don’t skip the sunscreen! Our favorite is the toxin-free, reef-friendly Sun Bum.
  4. Moisture-wicking clothes: As with any hiking, you’ll want to look for moisture-wicking clothes as you work up a sweat. Try this 3/4-sleeve hiking shirt that’s light and quick-drying, for example.
  5. Light jacket: Weather changes rapidly in Mt. Rainier. It could be hot one minute and cold the next. Bring a light jacket, like this Marmot soft-shell, to keep you warm, no matter the time of year.

Are you planning a trip to Seattle anytime soon and want to add Mt. Rainier to your list? Let us know how it goes in the comments below!

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