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When a Washington State local brags about "The Mountain," they're undoubtedly talking about Mt. Rainier. At 14,411 feet above sea level, this snow-capped volcano is not only a conversation piece, it's also the reason people come to Mt. Rainier National Park, a 235,612-acre reserve in Ashford, WA.
There's a lot to do in the park. But your top priority should be doing "The Mountain" itself. The third highest peak in the lower 48 states, Mt. Rainier is also one of the world's most massive volcanoes. But don't expect any action. Unlike nearby Mt. St. Helens, Rainier last erupted more than 2,000 years ago.
Instead of lava, you'll see glaciers -- lots of them (a real thrill for kids who've only read about these ice rivers in science class!). There are 26 different ones, of which Nisqually is the most visible.
When planning your hike on Rainier, keep the following in mind: This is the "practice mountain" for those training to climb Mt. Everest. Don't expect to reach the summit unless you're a skilled mountaineer. Amateurs and families should stay on easy trails, or take a ranger-led walking tour.
Once you've explored the mountain, take a drive down Paradise Road towards Paradise Valley. Once you see it, you'll understand how it got the name. A mile above sea level, Paradise offers an unparalleled view of Rainier's summit. Due to its high altitude, the area receives 680 inches of snow annually. And it holds the world's record for annual snowfall: 1,122 inches (94 feet) in 1971!
On the car tour, you'll pass Tatoosh Range, a sawtooth-shaped ridge that predates its more famous neighbor. It was formed by lava flows, and the floors of the valley are heavily forested, providing great opportunities to explore the park's plantlife. The range is particularly beautiful at night, when the face of the ridge reflects the sunset.
You'll also see 168-foot Narada Falls. The falls were named by the Theosophical Society of Tacoma in 1893, and the word "Narada" literally means "uncontaminated." It's quite a refreshing sight!
Once in the heart of Paradise Valley, hike the Alta Vista Trail, an easy 1.5-mile loop through fields of flowers to a prominent knoll overlooking Paradise. From here, you'll get a great view of Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens. Nisqually Vista Trail is another easy 1.2-mile loop that circles the entire length of Nisqually Glacier.
Spend the afternoon hiking along Lakes Trail, a 5-mile loop winding through subalpine meadows to Reflection Lake. Formed by ancient glaciers (what else!), Reflection Lake is one of the most photographed bodies of water in the park. On a clear day, when the lake's surface is still, you can see a picture-perfect reflection of Rainier.
As you explore Paradise, black-tailed deer, red foxes, coyotes, Douglas squirrels (aka chickarees), and elk may cross your path. And although bear, cougar, and wolf encounters are highly unlikely here, be alert, stay on the trails, and avoid making a lot of noise.
At Ohanapecosh, just southeast of Paradise, you'll find Groves of the Patriarchs, home of the largest trees in the park. Try not to strain your neck looking up. There are hundreds of trees standing more than 250 feet tall!
While here, take the 1.5-mile Groves of the Patriarchs Trail, an easy nature trail that goes upstream through beautiful woods. At the half-mile mark, cross a suspension bridge onto an island in the Ohanapecosh River. The island has been spared from forest fires, so some trees are giants! A patch of 20 western red cedars have circumferences of more than 25 feet.
Since Rainier receives some of the highest snowfall on Earth, it's well suited for winter sports. The broad snow-laden meadows of Paradise Valley are good for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Some of the easier routes include Burn Flats, Paradise Valley Road, and Sevens Canyon Road to Reflection Lake. Check the Information Center for conditions and a schedule of ranger-led tours.
For younger children, Paradise's Snowplay Area has designated areas for sliding and sledding. While the kids are skidding away, parents can get their kicks on Muir Snowfield, home of year-round expert skiing. Novices should not attempt these trails.
Type of trip: Sightseeing, hiking
Best ages: All ages
Ideal trip length: 3 days minimum
Distance: Seattle (87 miles), Vancouver (123 miles), Portland (136 miles)
Best time to go: Spring through fall. Summers are beautiful but crowded.
Weather: 75/43 degrees in summer; 68/37 in fall; 40/25 in winter; 60/31 in spring. Due to its locale and elevation, the park's weather is very unpredictable. Pay attention to weather forecasts, and bring extra rain gear.
Lodging: In-park lodging at the Paradise Inn (seasonal) and National Park Inn (year-round). In the surrounding towns of Greenwater, Ashford, Packwood, and Morton, lodging is also available. Contact Mt. Rainier Guest Services, 360-569-2275.
Squirm factor: None, with the exception of some trails on Mt. Rainier. Young children may find it difficult following guided tours of the mountain, so hike the easier trails in Paradise.
Mt. Rainier National Park Tahoma Woods Star Route, Ashford, WA Phone: 360-569-2211
Hiking Mt. Rainier Prices vary depending on duration and level of difficulty. For reservations, contact tour operators directly or visit Mt. Rainier Visitor's Center. The park's five licensed tour operators are:
Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing Contact the park's Ski Touring Center Phone: 360-569-2411
Lodging Make reservations well in advance, especially for summer visits, by calling Mt. Rainier Guest Services Phone: 360-569-2275 Note: For camping, call 800-365-CAMP.
Need a civilization fix? Take the kids to nearby Tacoma, home of zoos, aquariums, and beaches. Here's what we recommend:
Favorite local spots:
Local foods: Steaks and prime rib
Best souvenir: Build your own lodging with a do-it-yourself Log Cabin building kit.
Annual events: Logger's Jamboree, June 2001, Morton, WA. Old-fashioned axe cutting, pole climbing, and sawing events, as well as games, food, and entertainment.
Traffic alert: Most roads are closed during the winter and reopen mid-May. In summer expect delays and heavy congestion.
Reviewed April 2004.