Where Alpenglow, Wildflower and Marmot meet
Mount Rainier National Park
Flowers beneath a mighty mountain
Our trip to Mount Rainier National Park was rather a spontaneous one. While the Northwest had been on our bucket list for a while, our jobs and some business obligations actually made it a reality in early August. The fact that the wildflowers reach peak season made the decision against the other park on our list, Olympic National Park.
These couple of weeks in late July and early August are peak season to experience the wildflowers in full bloom. Mount Rainier is a key destination for mountaineers and ten thousands try their luck to make it up on the continental US highest mountain every year. But not only for hikers, even more photographers come in crowds to spend some days in the beautiful wilderness and get some first class wildflower shots, which are spreading in thousands among the sub alpine slopes of the snow-capped mountain.
The National Park can be entered from three sides, the most popular destination is the Paradise area with its numerous waterfalls, lakes, gorgeous hikes and best access to Camp Muir, the base camp to climb Mount Rainier. The second biggest area is the Sunrise area, which can be reached from either the eastern side of the park or via a two hour drive from the south-western entrance.
A lot of Mount Rainier National Park's beauty can be experienced in a weekend trip but to get deep into the wilderness and try out the numerous hikes, a longer stay can offer trips to the very remote areas of the park.
One of the highlights for serious hikers is with no doubt the 93mile long Wonderland Trail, a full loop around Mount Rainier, that can be hiked in 10-14 days.
Where to stay
There are lodges in close proximity to the south-western entrance of the park in addition to the broader variety of motels in the surrounding towns like Eatonville and Ashford. The park itself offers a few places to stay right in the park, including the Paradise Inn which celebrates its 100th birthday in 2016. Reservations have to be made a year in advance to save a spot, so we decided to stay outside the park.
We got lucky and found a room for less than $100 in the Gateway Inn, which looks right at the entrance gate of the park. It features a few cute log cabins with fireplaces as well as motel rooms. We were pleasantly surprised, as we didn't expect such a decent place to stay for the comparable low price. The friendly owner even upgraded us to a log cabin for our last night which we really enjoyed.
The location was fabulous and allowed us to get to our sunrise spots early and with less driving around outside the park.
Where to eat
There are a couple places to eat along the road leading to the south western entrance, we've tried two and weren't too excited about it. However, the Wild Berry restaurant in Ashford was a pleasant surprise. Besides the classic more or less satisfying fried dishes, they offered nepalese dishes like Momo's (tibetian dumplings with Nepal spices) which were very tasty.
All restaurants comically offered "The best homemade blackberry pie" - unfortunately none of them were good.
When we came back from a long sunrise hike and wanted to grab breakfast at the Paradise Inn, we've learnt that they offer brunch on Sundays. It was about $30 per person and absolutely fantastic! Chocolate fountain, smoked salmon canapees, fresh fruit, fresh cut beef loin - you name it! What a pleasant surprise!
Best photography spots
It's all about getting up early when in Mount Rainier National Park. We set the alarm for 5am to get up the Skyline trail, leaving it shortly after to make the loop on Dead Horse Creek trail and continued on Skyline trail until right beneath Panorama point. See trailmap
The hike was quite strenuous with our heavy equipment but we were rewarded with stunning mountain views, fields of wildflowers in all colors and a gorgeous sunrise that threw a golden side light on Rainier's alpine slopes. Our little companions along the way were a couple of marmots, quite friendly and not at all shy furry creatures that enjoyed the views and sunny morning like we did.
Getting up early left us pretty much alone and offered serenity, on our way back at 9:30am, the trail started to get packed and the light already became harsher.
We've called it a day shortly after and returned to our motel to enjoy some time on the patio before returning in early afternoon for Narada Falls and Christine Falls. Finally, we finished up the day with some sunset shots of the Tatoosh range, taken from the upper parking lodge next to the ranger residency.
On our way back, we couldn't believe it that we'd be so lucky, but we spotted a bear mom with her cubs, strolling on the meadows next to Paradise road. The cubs were playfully running around while momma bear enjoyed her grassy dinner. It's been a year since Denali and since we last spotted bears. Being able to enjoy these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat was a wonderful finish of the day.
In oder to get to the Sunrise area for sunrise, we had to get up at 3am to start the two hour drive to Sunrise point. We've took some decent shots but would recommend to rather drive up the road a bit further, you get unobstructed views of the mountain in a much nicer setting.
We've started our second big early morning hike from the Visitor center and hiked up to the Sourdough ridge trail which rewarded us with endless views among the mountain ridge, Mount Rainier and some beautiful wildflower beds. From here, the hike further on towards Frozen Lake offers great opportunities for photos of the mountain and some interesting hikes up icy snowfields. An extension to Berkeley Park is possible from the Frozen Lake trail crossing, however, we decided to go back down and returned to the Visitor center on Wonderland Trail. See trail map
In the late afternoon on our way back, we've stopped at Box Canyon, a slot canyon filled with water, and took some shots of the roaring rapids underneath the bridge we were standing on. It also offered us a great shot of the snow-capped mountain behind a wooden gate which was kind of a reminiscence of the Alps.
We finished this second day with some sunset shots at Reflection Lake. The mountain's reflection in the lake, among the wildflowers in all colors, nestled around the shore, made a beautiful setting for the last light of the day and rewarded us with some beautiful impressions to take home.