Mount Rainier’s Summit
This Quest will guide you to the best places to catch breath-taking views of Mount Rainier. You can also explore the world of climbers on their Quest for the Summit and find out what is at the very top (the easy way!).
A 14,411-foot tall volcano, Mount Rainier is the fifth highest peak in the lower 48 United States. But the summit may have been as much as 2000 ft. higher before the mountain blew its top around 6000 years ago. When not obscured by clouds, Rainier’s majestic height dominates the landscape of the region. But so frequently is it hidden that early explorers sailed right by its cloud-covered mass until Captain Vancouver recorded the first European sighting in1792.
Mount Rainier has three summit crests: Columbia Crest, Point Success, and Liberty Cap. At the top are two volcanic craters with vents emitting steam and sulfurous gases. Early climbers survived the harsh conditions on the summit by finding shelter in the ice caves formed by these vents. Today climbers from around the world come year-round to Rainier to conquer its summit and it is a training ground for climbing the world’s tallest mountains.
The stories and traditions of the area’s Native Americans reveal their detailed knowledge of the mountain and its volcanic action. Indian tales of a lake of water on the summit were proven true in 1971when a team of scientists explored the crater’s ice caves. It is the highest lake in the world.
Where can you go to get the best views of the summit? The Discovery Sites 1 to 6 listed below offer awe-inspiring views (weather permitting), but excellent views are also possible many other locations. Visit these viewpoints as you travel between Discovery Sites: a) Kautz Creek picnic area; b) National Park Inn veranda, Longmire; c) Glacier Bridge and other roadside viewpoints between Longmire and Paradise; d) Tipsoo Lakes at Chinook Pass; e) Hwy 410 and the White River Rd. to Sunrise; f) Sunrise Point.
Discovery #1 Jackson Visitor Center
At Paradise, Mount Rainier’s summit seems to fill the sky. Telescopes on the mezzanine of the visitor center give you detailed views of the mountain and its glaciers. Stop by the giant relief map in the lobby to locate where you are standing on the mountain. At over a mile high, you are only a third of the way to the summit! Why is Rainier’s summit so often hidden by clouds? Find out by watching the beautiful 24-minute movie in the free theater or ask a ranger.
Quest Activity: Use the “passport” stamp at the visitor center’s information desk to stamp the date and locaton here:
Discovery #2 Nisqually Vista Loop Trail
This moderate trail gives big views of the summit as well as the Nisqually Glacier (1.2 miles round-trip, 200 ft. elevation gain, average time 45-60 min.). It is also a premier wildflower trail in July and August. In winter, join a ranger-led snowshoe tour or rent snowshoes on your own. Stop by the visitor center’s information desk for a trail map and directions.
Quest-ion: From the glacier overlooks, can you spot any climbers on the lower right shoulder of the mountain?
Discovery #3 Guide House
Across from the Paradise Inn is the Guide House, home to the Climbing Information Center. Over 10,000 climbers a year from around the world attempt to reach Mount Rainer’s summit. In summer you can enter from the side facing the Inn to see displays and watch a short video. Though an optical illusion can make the summit seem close, it is actually 9 miles and 9000 ft. away—a grueling 2-day climb!
Quest-ion: Ask a staff member what percent of climbers succeed in reaching the summit, and why.
Discovery #4 Stevens Canyon Road
At the western end of Stevens Canyon Rd. are Reflection Lakes, where you just might catch the mountain’s summit mirrored in the water. At the eastern end is Box Canyon, which also provides views of the summit. Between these points are numerous turnouts from which the summit might be seen.
Quest-ion: What is the other snowy summit seen from Box Canyon? For help, ask the park’s staff.
Discovery #5 Sunrise Point and Sunrise Visitor Center
Sunrise is the highest area you can drive to in the park (elevation 6400 ft.) and provides the closest views of the summit and its spectacular glaciers. At the visitor center you will find exhibits about Mount Rainier’s glacial and volcanic geology, and more. Telescopes inside and outside the center give you detailed views of the summit. Have a staff member point out the climbing route up the Emmons Glacier. The groove worn into the ice by the climbers’ boots is often visible in the afternoon light.
Quest Activity: Use the “passport” stamp at the visitor center’s information desk to stamp the date and location here:
Discovery #6 Sunrise Trails
Sunrise offers numerous trails featuring views of the mountain summit and wildflowers. One of the best is the short Emmons Vista Trail (less than 1/4 mile roundtrip, gentle grade, 30 minutes) leading to two breath-taking overlook points. Stop by the information counter at the visitor center for a map and directions. You might also want to ask about the afternoon ranger-led walks.
Quest-ion: Which trails will you pick?