On a clear day the 14,411-foot, glacier-covered volcano, Mount Rainier, can be seen from 100 miles away. The mountain is in the centerpiece of Mount Rainier NP. Here the photographer can focus on old growth rainforests, waterfalls, glacier-fed lakes, snowfields, wildlife and probably one of the most staggering wildflower displays on the country. There are also terrific scenic vistas of mountain ranges, glaciers, and most of all, spectacular Mount rainier itself towering 8,000 feet above the landscape.
Planning a Trip to Mount Rainier NP:
The national park is open all year but only the south road from Nisqually Entrance to Paradise is kept open during the winter. Most of the estimated two million yearly visitors go to the park during July and August, the peak time for the spectacular wildflower season. Because the Mount Rainier NP is close to Seattle and other major cities of Washington, there are droves of day visitors and the situation is worse on weekends. In fact, weekends can be crowded any time of year. The crush of visitors brings road traffic to a crawl and the popular trails are packed with people. If you must visit during summer, avoid the weekends, pick a destination, get there early, stay in just that area and try to venture far away from the popular shorter trails.
Another alternative during the peal season is to visit the less popular northwest region of the park. Although the wildflower bloom is not as spectacular here, there are some excellent views of Mount Rainier from the Mowich Lake area and you can explore the rainforests in the Carbon River area.
If you are a cross-country skier and like scenic photos you might consider a winter and spring visit. If you are a backpacking photographer, you can pull away from some of the crowds if you choose less popular trails. However, snow may keep some higher elevation trails closed until mid-July.
A midweek visit from September through the beginning of October can be most pleasant and colorful-huckleberries are ripening and the vine maples turn brilliant red. September to early October is the elk mating season, though they are often heard than seen.
Getting to Mount Rainier NP:
Most people visit the south area of Mount Rainier NP and enter by the Nisqually Entrance reached via Route 706. It is about a two-and-a-half to three hours drive from Seattle and about two hours from Tacoma, depending on the traffic. From Seattle take Interstate 5 south to Tacoma. From Tacoma take Route 7 south to Route 706 which takes you to the Nisqually Entrance.
The wildflowers display at Mount Rainier NP is legendary. You can find wildflowers and mushrooms in the moist old-growth forest areas. But everyone comes to Mount Rainier to see the incredible display of wildflowers in the high alpine meadows. Generally the wildflowers follow the melting snow starting in late June, with a peak bloom time in July and August, then continuing into early September. Along the snow melt early in the season you will see glacier and avalanche lilies, marsh marigolds and western anemones. During July beargrass, lupine, paintbrush, and monkey-flower paint the meadows in predominantly blues and reds. Into August the dominant wildflowers are asters and daisies. In late summer the pasque-flowers close out the season.
If you only have a day:
You really need several days and preferably a week o savor the park. However, if you only have a short time, try to plan a visit for a weekday. Otherwise, much of your time will be spent in traffic. If you want to sample several sections of the park start your day at dawn with your first stop at Longmire. You can sample the area by taking the half-mile Trail of Shadows around Longmire Meadow. There is a good chance you might see deer here at this time of day. Continue onto Paradise stopping at Christine Falls, Ricksecker Point, and Narada Falls. However, you might want to concentrate more in the most spectacular areas. A better strategy might be to drive directly to Paradise to catch the sunrise or early morning light on reflection Lake mirroring Mt. Rainier.
Whether you start your day at Longmire or Reflection Lake, plan to spend sometime at Paradise. Take some of the short hikes around the meadows to photograph the wildflowers and views.
From Paradise take the Stevens Canyon Road east stopping at Reflection Lake and the Grove of the Patriarchs. Take the Route 123 north along the east side of the park and the take the road to Sunrise. You can hike some short trails here and then photograph the setting sun over Mount Rainier.
Nisqually to Paradise:
It is an 18 miles drive from the Nisqually Entrance to Paradise. As you enter the park via the Nisqually Entrance have your first view of Mount Rainier with the Nisqually Glacier in prominent view. The road then winds through a forest of giant Douglas firs, western hemlock, western red cedar and Sitka spruce. It is a beautiful drive but there are not many grand vistas. However, if you stop and walk through some of the forest you will find sword ferns, lady ferns, bracken and shade wildflowers such as trillium. In fall the forest is littered with some 200 species of mushrooms and other colorful fungi. Along this stretch of road you are most likely to see black-tailed deer early in the morning or in the evening.
Just beyond the entrance is the Westside Road, an unpaved road heading north. This 12 mile road used to take you to some good views of the west side of Mount Rainier and some good wildlife viewing areas, but it is washed out about three miles north at Fish Creek.
About three miles from the entrance is the Kautz Mudflow that took place in the 1920s. If you walk around this area you can find some nice views of Kautz Creek and wildflowers with Mount Rainier in the background.
It is about six miles from the entrance to Longmire. Here you will find a museum and other services. The half-mile Trail of the Shadows is a good place to become familiar with some of the plant and animal life of the park. Allow at least a half hour. The trail is across the road from the National Park Inn. The trail takes you past a marsh meadow, a log pioneer cabin and through a forest that is a good place for colorful mushrooms in the fall.
If you are a more ambitious hiker and have the time, the Eagle Peak Trail can be very rewarding for wildflowers in July and August, but the beargrass can be spectacular in late June. There are also some excellent views north to Mount Rainier, east to the Tatoosh range, and south to Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams. The hike to the saddle and back is about seven miles and you will want to allow about five to six hours. Most of the hike is through forest with no really good views or spectacular wildflower displays until near the end.
Christine Falls and Van Trump Park:
From Longmire the road starts to climb along the Nisqually River. You will want to make a brief stop to photograph Christine Falls, about 1.5 miles past Cougar Rock Campground. The best view, downstream with the bridge as a frame, is but a short walk from the parking area. You can also photograph it from the bridge.
If you have an extra for to five hours, you might want to consider a hike to Van Trump Park. The best time to do this hike is early morning to midday. The trail starts at Christine Falls. It is a fairly steep hike of about six miles round trip. The trail takes you to Comet Falls, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the park, and a flower-filled meadows. Van Trump Park is mountain goat country and you may see some along the way. Snow remains in the area late, so you will want to consider this hike from midsummer through September. It is about 1.6 miles to Comet Falls. The best view of this 320-foot waterfall is along the first couple of switchbacks. Beyond the waterfall the trail is quite steep and about a mile farther takes you to the wildflower-filled meadows of Van Trump Park, providing glorious views of Mount Rainier.
About six miles from Longmire is a one-way road to Ricksecker Point. Take this short detour for a beautiful viewpoint. To south are the peaks of Tatoosh Range with the Nisqually River and Valley below. To the north are good views of Mount Rainier’s south face with Nisqually Glacier.
About a mile and a half after Ricksecker turnoff is the Narada Falls pullout. It is a steep but short walk down to the bottom of the ravine and the viewing are below bridge. Here you can photograph this picturesque 168-foot waterfall. From Narada Falls it is just another three-mile drive to Paradise and the alpine meadows.
During the wildflower season this truly is paradise. The alpine meadows here are probably one of the most spectacular wildflower displays in all of Washington state. Add to that some terrific views of beautifully-shaped Mount Rainier with its glistening glaciers and you have the makings for some fine photography.
You can begin at Mount Rainier NP visitor center with its 360 degree panoramic views. The take some short hikes along the paved paths of Paradise Meadow. There are easy strolls to choose from ranging from one to three miles. You can concentrate of the individual flowers, the flower-filled meadows and the views of Mount Rainier with foreground flowers.
Reflection Lake is a tarn surrounded by forest and wildflowers. Early in the morning it provides a perfect mirror reflection of Mount rainier and makes a good sunrise or early morning photo stop.
Last update: October 27, 2011
Disclosure: The text above is an exert out of “Photo Traveler’s Guide to … Mount Rainier & Mount St. Helens National Park”. The full hard copy version can be purchased here.