This post is one in a series about a fall trip to Washington State. Stay tuned for more posts!
“This park isn’t known for its fall color,” said a park ranger the day we called to enquire about conditions at Mount Rainier. Perhaps he was joking or trying to keep the crowds away, but the reds, oranges, and yellows of the Vine Maple, huckleberry, and Larch were some of the most spectacular fall colors we’ve seen in a long time on the west coast. Mount Rainier was our first stop on a trip to the Washington State’s 3 National Parks at the end of September: it is just the right distance for a day trip from Seattle and offers views of many mountain peaks, waterfalls, galciers, and wildlife.
- 10 AM: After arriving at SeaTac, get a rental car and drive to Mt. Rainier (~2.5 hours).
- 12:30 PM: After a quick stop at Reflection Lakes and Inspiration Point, park at the Henry Jackson Visitor Center and hike the Skyline+Glacier Vista loop. (5.4 miles, ~4 hours, clockwise)
- 4:30 PM: Visit Narada Falls (30 minute walk)
- 5:15 PM: Head back to Seattle (~2h 20min)
Helpful Tips and Links
Mount Rainier is visible from Seattle and many locals consider it a bellweather: when “the mountain is out,” it is generally a sign of good weather for the entire region. We’d definitely recommend visiting when it is sunny to get the best views and hiking experience. The fall colors are brightest from the end of September until sometime in October, but there is also a good chance of snow at high elevations during this season.
We didn’t hit any traffic heading towards Mount Rainier in the morning from SeaTac Airport, but if you are looking for a good home base for exploring all of Washington’s National Park’s we’d recommend staying in Bellevue or Redmond: you’ll be avoiding almost all potential traffic at rush hour during the week this way.
Here are some helpful links we used to plan our trip and select which day we were going to hike.
- Visit Rainier – Official Tourism Site
- Paradise Valley Trail Map
- Weather (Summit)
- Snow forecast
We could tell as we were flying to Seattle (SEA airport) from the Bay Area that it was going to be a great day for hiking. We had crystal clear views of Mount Shasta, Crater Lake, and all of the Cascades on our flight.
On the day we arrived mid-week, it was far cheaper to get a rental car from the Enterprise in Renton than from the airport itself, so we took a short Uber/Lyft ride, got our car, and headed out to Mount Rainier. To see the mountain from as many perspectives as possible, we decided to drive the whole perimiter, starting in the White River Area near Sunrise and exiting via the Nisqually Entrance in the South West. Although this route added about 10 minutes to the journey, we were glad we did it because we got periodic views of the snow-capped mountain and of fall foliage running down the sides of canyons on our drive. The drive out the Nisqually entrance was shorter but quite forested.
Before starting our hike, we stopped at Inspiration Point and Reflection Lake. The view at the lake was very memorable: a few steps down from the parking lot, especially on a less windy day, you can get clear views of Mount Rainier reflected in the water. The shoreline can be a bit muddy, so we’d recommend going in your hiking boots even for this short trip.
We continued on to the Henry Jackson Visitor Center, located in the aptly named Paradise section of the park. There was only short-term parking right next to the visitor center, but there was a bigger long-term hikers lot down the road. The parking lot was already pretty full during our mid-week visit, so we’d recommend getting here very early on weekends to avoid having to wait for a spot. The first view behind the picnic tables at the Visitor Center was so colorful!
We got on our sunscreen and filled up our water before heading out on the Skyline Trail, which starts directly behind the visitor center. The trail was wonderful, offering views of the mountain, glacial waterfalls, and streams on the whole ascent. There were some areas of the trail that get a little crowded, but it is super important to stay on the trail because the alpine environment is very fragile. We even saw a ranger run after someone who had wandered off the trail. Even if the trail gets crowded at times, there are plenty of nice views to soak in!
There are several trails that branch off from the Skyline Trail, but we’d definitely recommend sticking to the main trail and heading in to the higher country, and possibly taking a side trip to the Glacier Vista connector that offers some up close views of the Nisqually Glacier.
While the view at Panoramic Point was nice, the views near the top of the trail seemed even more grand: you had great vistas over the Tatoosh Mountain Range and even Mount Adams in the distance. In addition, the sides of the trail were blanketed with fall foliage.
The area right around Panoramic Point gets a little rocky and uneven, so do watch your footing here! The trail became more even as we descended, and along the route to Myrtle Falls we had some lovely views of the water’s path down the mountain as well as spotting a marmot and a mountain goat in the distance!
We got back to the car after about 4 hours. We started heading back towards Seattle but made a quick stop along the way to see the very impressive Narada Falls, which is accessible via a steep but relatively smooth trail.
That concludes our one-day visit to Mount Rainier! Stay tuned for the recap of our next day trip to North Cascades National Park!