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Area: Paradise
Hike Type: Wildflower views Pass: Natl. Park Pass
Distance: 2.75 mi Loop Duration: 2-3 hrs Difficulty Level: Moderate
Elevation Start: 4,900 Elevation End: 5,312 Elevation Gain: 850
Snow-Free: July – Oct  

One of the most iconic views of Mt. Rainier in the park can be found at Reflection Lakes. Summer and fall, sunrise and sunset, it is perhaps the single-most photographed view for both budding and experienced photographers, who return again and again. In summer, the lakes are bordered with wildflowers and come autumn, they are a mirror of fall color. Many consider this area to be the park at its best — colorful blooms, enchanting animal life, and scenic, awe-inspiring beauty of mountain peaks and alpine lakes.

Like most trails at Mount Rainier when heading to Reflection Lakes, you’ll need an early start to find a parking place on the Stevens Canyon Road – this trailhead also that provides access to Pinnacle and Plummer peaks, another popular hike. After you park, drop down to the lake to find the trail (you can hike the loop in either direction). We hiked counterclockwise. In late August the lake was bordered with rosy spirea, fireweed and lupine. By mid-September there should also be some fall color framing these picture-perfect lakes.

Don’t be surprised to see a trout jump at Reflection Lake – the lakes were stocked with trout years ago. Fishing is prohibited but a few trout have survived and according to park rangers we met, they live on a diet of caddis flies, stone flies, midges and May flies. Wading and swimming are also prohibited at Reflection Lakes and some of the shoreline access is closed for meadow restoration. Lakes such as these are easily loved to death. If you want to fish, don’t despair – nearby Louise Lake is open for fishing and wading too.

You may find it hard to believe today that these quiet lakes were once jumping with activity; during the Depression there was a small store on the lakeshore and rental boats. Keep in mind that while this loop is short there are many trail junctions (signed) that provide longer options. On the map, this complex trail system is crammed together and can be confusing – if you do get confused, follow the signs. No two guidebooks agree on exact mileages.

Hiking counterclockwise the trail passes between Reflection and Louise Lakes. Past the lakes the trail climbs to Faraway Rock on a steep, short trail. A small stream is crossed (in summer it is just a trickle). Faraway Rock is to your right and provides an inspirational view of the Tatoosh Peaks, Louise Lake, the Stevens Canyon Road and its surrounding ridges and valleys. We also stopped at “Fairy Pond” – the pond is not designated on the map but is hard to miss – that is also on the right side of the trail.

Past Fairy Pond, the trail climbs through forest and meadows before coming to a junction – here we turned (left) onto the High Lakes trail. The next stretch is a walk through beauty as the trail winds through groves of subalpine trees and sparkling meadows. We came across an amazingly large pile of fresh bear scat – indeed hikers we met had just seen a huge bear in a nearby meadow.

The flowers were many and amazing – plenty of magenta paintbrush mixed in with yellow arnica and lupine in addition to Western pasqueflower in different stages of its life cycle. We even spotted a few glacier lilies in the shadows and avalanche lilies were still in bloom where snow had just melted.  Reflection Lakes is a top pick for wildflowers.

In this late snow season, we crossed a few snow-patches at the higher elevations but the trail was easy to follow as it contours above the lakes. We’d hiked in relative solitude but soon began to encounter hikers hiking from Paradise.

The trail rejoins the signed Lakes Trail in about a mile. Once again there are options – turn left, and drop down to your starting point at Reflection Lakes, or, turn right and head uphill the mile or so through Barn Flats to Paradise. This enables you to experience the entire array of experiences that Paradise offers including the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center and the magnificent Paradise Inn.

– Karen Sykes, Visit Rainier Hiking Expert

Starting Point: 46.769167, -121.723889
Notable Waypoints:

Trailhead: N 46° 46′ 06, W 121° 43′ 45
Faraway Rock: N 46° 46′ 27, W 121° 43′ 08

About The Author

Karen Sykes

Karen (1943-2014) was a Washington native, born in Shelton and lived in Washington most of her life. She started to hike in 1979 and joined The Mountaineers the following year. By the 1980s she was leading hikes for the Seattle branch of The Mountaineers. Around the same time, she began writing articles for Signpost Magazine (Pack and Paddle) and contributed to so many hiking reports that her name became familiar to other hikers. She was contacted by The Seattle Post Intelligencer to write the "Hike of the Week" which turned into years of writing this weekly column, until The Seattle Post Intelligencer stopped their printing presses in 2009. Two of Karen's books have been published by Mountaineer Books - Hidden Hikes (out of print) and Best Wildflower Hikes with Al Kruckeberg and Craig Romano. Karen was as passionate about photography as she was about hiking and both The Seattle Times and The Seattle Post Intelligencer have published her photographs.