Drive the route encircling Mt. Rainier and discover all corners of this majestic national park. Explore rural and friendly mountain communities and discover the dramatic and rugged beauty of this wilderness area. Spend time at each of the four entrances to the park getting to know each one’s unique qualities.
LENGTH: 147 miles
DRIVING TIME: 5 hours (allow extra time for stops)
OPEN: The route is usually snow-free by the end of May and remains open through October. Each year, from November to May, the road closes between the turnoff to Crystal Mountain Resort and Paradise due to winter snowfall. All other parts of the route remain open year-round.
START/END: Enumclaw, WA
DOWNLOAD: The Circle Mt. Rainier Tour
POINTS OF INTEREST
|This journey begins in the community of Enumclaw located on Highway 410. Enumclaw is the largest city near Mt. Rainier and offers lodging and a wide array of dining options, as well as support services and full service grocery stores.
The lakes and streams in and around Enumclaw provide lucrative fishing opportunities and nearby hiking trails delight hikers and campers. Visit the city’s newest park, Logging Memorial Park, located in front of the town’s library highlighting a spectacular sculpture made of bronze, steel and sandstone.
|1 Federation Forest State Park
This 619-acre state park is a testament to a group of forward-thinking women in the 1940s, who decided it was important to preserve old-growth timber during the rush towards logging. Located along the picturesque White River, explore mature forests of Douglas fir, Western Hemlock, Sitka Spruce and Western Red Cedar. Hike on the 12 miles of trails or take the family on one of three interpretive paths; ideal for small children. This is a bird lover’s delight. Tour the interpretive center offering a gift shop and enjoy lunch at one of the four day-use picnic areas.
The small community of Greenwater simply bustles in the summer. It’s the last place to get gas on this side of Mt. Rainier National Park plus it boasts the historic Naches Tavern, and Wapiti Woolies, whose hats have been to the top of Everest, and other fine places to shop, rent equipment or grab something to eat. Take a moment to watch the White River as it makes its way down the mountains.
|3 Mount Rainier Viewpoint
Stop here for the first of many glorious views of Mt. Rainier after beginning this tour in Enumclaw. See the mountain in all its splendor.
|Side Trip: Suntop Lookout
On a clear day, the views are simply stunning. Perched on a 5,271 foot peak, Suntop Lookout is one of the last structures of its kind remaining in the old Snoqualmie National Forest. It’s an easy drive or hike to the summit, which offers commanding 360 degree views. Dominating the scene, Mt. Rainier is just ten miles away to the south. See majestic vistas of Winthrop Glacier, the Cascade Range, the Olympic Mountains and even Mt. Baker, over 150 miles away. The ungroomed Suntop Sno-Park is the entry point for those on skis, snowshoes, horseback, motorbike or mountain bike.
To reach Suntop, turn right off SR 410 on Forest Road (FR) 73. Travel FR 73 for 1.2 miles and turn left on FR 7315. Travel FR 7315 for 6.1 miles to the lookout. The road is gravel surfaced and is best suited for four-wheel drive vehicles.
|4 Skookum Falls
Next along the route, about ten miles east of Greenwater, pull over and have a look at pretty Skookum Falls. Dropping a dramatic 250 feet in two tiers, watch the water shimmer as it makes its way down the mountainside leading into the White River. The view is best early in the season when the water flow is at its height, although observing the falls frozen by the cold winter air is a unique experience.
|Side Trip: Crystal Mountain Resort
A vertical drop of 3,100 feet, a brand new lodge in Campbell Basin and the most varied terrain on 2,300 skiable acres make Crystal Mountain popular with skiers and snowboarders alike. It’s a world-class ski resort, consistently rated as one of the top 20 ski resorts in all of North America by SKIING magazine.
Brimming with activity year-round, in the warmer months, take the Mt. Rainier Gondola to Crystal Mountain’s summit and enjoy a sunset dinner or Sunday brunch, zoom down the mountain on your mountain bike, or experience a horseback ride with the entire family. The views of Mt. Rainier and the surrounding Cascade Range are awe-inspiring – it’s like dining on top of the world. Popular horseback riding, hiking and mountain bike trails are found throughout the beautiful Crystal Mountain area.
To reach this destination, turn left off SR 410 on Crystal Mountain Blvd / FR 7166 and travel 7.5 miles to the parking area.
|Side Trip: Sunrise
Like you’re driving to heaven, Sunrise offers postcard views of glorious Mt. Rainier. Sitting at 6,400 feet, it is the highest point to which you can drive in the Park. Stare in wonder at the sky-scraping immensity of the mountain as it towers before your eyes. Understand the tremendous power of the mountain’s glaciated flanks with incredible views of Emmons Glacier, the mountain’s largest glacier. Fairy tale meadows offer colorful fields of wildflowers each spring and by fall, nature’s reds, golds and greens paint a picture of autumn perfection. Hikers and non-hikers alike will appreciate that on a clear day, you can see five of the Cascade volcanoes from Sunrise Point. Clockwise from Mt. Rainier are Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood.
Spend time at the Sunrise Visitor Center with exhibits on the natural resources of the park emphasizing the geologic story of Mt. Rainier. In the summer, special programs are offered including guided walks and talks on a variety of topics. At Sunrise you will also find restrooms, a grill and gift shop and several hiking trails, many of them leading to scenic overlooks on easy paths suitable for non-hikers.
To reach Sunrise follow the signs on SR 410. Head east on Sunrise Park Road 15 miles to the parking area at Sunrise where the road ends. Sunrise is not accessible to visitors in the winter due to the heavy snowfall blanketing the mountain.
|Side Trip: Tipsoo Lake and Chinook Pass Summit
Traveling along the Chinook Scenic Byway, drive under the dramatic log and stone archway marking the summit of Chinook Pass. This archway also serves as a pedestrian bridge for hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail. The roadway is named the Mather Memorial Parkway, honoring Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service.
Just a few hundred meters from the summit, stop at stunning Tipsoo Lake. A breathtaking sight to behold, this little alpine gem is one of the most photographed landscapes in the country. Witness Mount Rainier’s fabulous reflection shining in all its glory in this pristine alpine lake. Departing from Tipsoo Lake is the popular Naches Loop Trail. Explore colorful fields of subalpine flowers, pass beside two fragile, glassy ponds, and discover breathtaking views of Mount Rainier along this family friendly three hour hike. For a shorter walk, take the nature trail leading around the lake. A picnic area is also located here.
To reach Tipsoo Lake and Chinook Pass Summit, continue on SR 410, rather than following the driving tour as it turns right onto SR 123, Cayuse Pass. Travel three miles on SR 410 to the destination.
|5 Grove of the Patriarchs
Everyone in the family will enjoy an easy 1.5 mile loop through Grove of the Patriarchs, an excellent example of old-growth forest. Just inside the Stevens Canyon Entrance to the Park, witness ancient stands of gigantic Douglas-firs, western hemlock and western red cedar, some estimated to be over 1,000 years old. People come from all over the world to experience walking through ancient forests of trees with 30-foot circumferences. To reach the trailhead, turn into a parking area (left) just before a bridge over the Ohanapecosh River.
|6 Backbone Ridge
In a little over four miles, pull off to the right into a parking area for one more look at splendid Mt. Rainier. Looking up the valley, see the mountain and its summit. For those with a sharp eye, look to see a portion of Margaret Falls. Cascading over 1,100 feet, this is the park’s tallest waterfall.
|7 Box Canyon
A fascinating feature of Mt. Rainier National Park is intriguing Box Canyon. The Muddy Fork of the Cowlitz River at only a few feet wide has over time cut a channel into the mossy rock, a canyon 100 feet deep but only 15 to 30 feet across. Walk a bridge across the canyon for a dizzying view of this deep forest canyon. A nice picnic area is also located here.
|8 Martha Falls Viewpoint
The road switchbacks into Stevens Canyon where there is roadside parking for a view across the canyon of Martha Falls (46° 46′ 14.7″, -121° 41′ 23.1″) below Unicorn Peak. Water spills 150 feet in a dramatic display along Unicorn Creek. Watch the water plunge into the glacial valley, once occupied by Stevens Glacier.
|9 Louise Lake
Famous for its rugged setting beneath Faraway Rock, Louise Lake sparkles like a turquoise jewel. At about 300 yards in diameter, park rangers report decent trout fishing here and sandy beaches offer a nice place to sit and enjoy this tremendous sight.
|10 Reflection Lakes
Now descending down the mountain, stop and see Mt. Rainier’s stunning reflection in the crystal waters of Reflection Lake. Its picture-perfect beauty makes it one of the most photographed areas of the park — and you can get there by car. On a peaceful day, the reflection is almost too grand. For the best view, walk to the end of the turnout. A short trail leads to the lake shore, but sorry anglers, no fishing is allowed. In spring and summer, enjoy the beautiful wildflowers that line its shores. In autumn see the huckleberries that have turned brilliant shades of red and orange. Just across the road is the trailhead for the popular but steep trek to the Pinnacle Saddle.
|Side Trip: Paradise
Discover Paradise. At 5,400 feet, this area with its glorious views of Mount Rainier is the primary destination for many visitors to the park. Tourists are drawn to the area year-round. In the summer months, alpine meadows are ablaze with the color of the wildflowers and during winter, its deep snow is ideal for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center offers interpretive displays about the geology, flora, fauna and mountain climbing in the area. The Jackson Grill, a book store, gift shop and information on climbing Mt. Rainier are also located here.
It’s just a short walk to the historic Paradise Inn with rustic rooms, the Paradise Inn Dining Room, Glacier Lounge, and a gift shop. Built in 1917, this beautiful inn displays hand-crafted furniture, a magnificent 14 foot grandfather clock and a rustic piano built by a German carpenter. Leaving from both the inn and visitor center is one of the most popular activities at Paradise — the short, family-friendly, paved nature trails. Suitable for just about everyone, these pathways lead through colorful meadows and offer spectacular mountain vistas. On the Nisqually Vista Trail, walk where the clouds go and see how weather shapes the landscape, plants and animals of these high-country meadows. See splendid fields of wildflowers while taking in the stunning views of Mount Rainier and Nisqually Glacier. And keep your eyes peeled for area residents — the amusing whistling marmots sunning themselves on the rock outcroppings. During the winter season, the road is not plowed beyond this point.
To reach this destination, follow the signs to Paradise. Turn right off Stevens Canyon Road onto Paradise Valley Road and travel two miles to the visitor center.
|11 Glacier Vista Viewpoint & Exhibit
Be sure to stop at the pullout on your left to take a look at the Glacier Vista Exhibit. Learn about the fascinating glaciers of the mountain. Look up to the summit and see Nisqually Glacier and its origin on the permanent Nisqually snowfield. Beginning at 14,000 feet, this is the fastest moving glacier on the mountain, moving at over one foot a day.
|12 Narada Falls
Don’t miss Narada Falls at 15.5 miles; there is plenty of parking. Walk the short trail to a view of the falls at 0.2 miles. If you time it right you may catch rainbows dancing in the mist of the falls. This massive 168-foot waterfall is truly breathtaking, as the waters fan a thick mist out over this popular viewpoint.
|13 Ricksecker Point Loop Drive
Six miles down the road, the one-way Ricksecker Point Road (signed as “Viewpoint”), offers fantastic views of the area’s beauty. See it all — views of Mount Rainier, Nisqually Glacier, Eagle Peak, Rampart Ridge and several of the mountain’s 25 glaciers including Pyramid, Success, Kautz and the Wilson Glacier. You can also see Point Success – the false summit of Mt. Rainier, Gibraltar Rock and Cowlitz Cleaver. The cone-shaped peak down the valley is Tumtum Peak. The Ricksecker Point Road is open in the summer only.
|14 Christine Falls
Just up ahead, the road passes very pretty Christine Falls. Stop at the turnout on the right to have a better look. This waterfall can be viewed without having to lace up your hiking boots. Notice the 1928 stone masonry highway bridge forming a picturesque frame over the lovely 40 foot falls as it splashes down the lower reaches of Van Trump Creek. A small flight of stairs leads to another beautiful lookout of the falls.
Open daily, year-round; be sure to stop in at Longmire. Visit Longmire Museum, one of the oldest museums in the National Park System with several exhibits on the cultural and natural history of the park. Stop in and take a look around the beautiful and rustic National Park Inn. Offering a full-service restaurant and gift shop, as well as a cozy lounge and oversized stone fireplace, it is the perfect place for relaxation on the mountain. See the historic 1911 log cabin adjacent to the inn, housing a general store. Also located here is the Longmire Wilderness Information Center with information on hiking and climbing in the area.
From Longmire, stretch your legs with a walk along the Trail of the Shadows. This loop trail explores a mineral hot springs discovered in 1883 by James Longmire, an early settler in the region. The short nature trail displays an early original homestead cabin and a variety of plants and animals. In the winter this pathway is a popular snowshoe trek. Another nice afternoon stroll is to walk through the operations and residential area and cross the wooden suspension bridge over the Nisqually River to a magnificent view of the mountain. It is also a starting point for hikers of the Wonderland Trail.
|16 Kautz Creek
The Nisqually-Paradise Road continues to the Kautz Creek Bridge at 3.3 miles. This is the site of a massive mudflow which occurred in 1947. The original road through this area now lies 20 feet below the surface. A parking lot will allow you to get out and have a look around. Take a short walk along a fully accessible boardwalk leading to an overlook of the 1947 debris flow and a splendid view of the mountain. Notice the young forest that has undergone a complete succession of re-growth within the past fifty years. A popular trailhead for the Kautz Creek Trail leading to Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground departs from this point. It is also a link to the world-renown 93-mile Wonderland Trail.
|17 West Side Road
At 0.9 miles inside the park, the West Side Road turns left and can be driven to where the road is gated at 3.3 miles. Hikers often walk or bicycle the road from the closure to trailheads for several hikes including Tahoma Creek, Klapatche Park and Gobblers Knob. During the winter months this area is a popular destination for recreation and snow play.
|18 Nisqually Entrance
Standing at the Nisqually Entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park, notice the wooden entrance arch built in 1922 and reconstructed in 1973. Just inside this entrance see the oldest building in the park, a cabin built in 1908 that was occupied by a park ranger. This district is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. It is the only entrance to the park opened year-round.
|19 Ashford Visitor Center and Base Camp
Located in the Summit Haus along SR 706, just outside Mt. Rainier National Park, stop by the Ashford Visitor Center offering a wide selection of brochures and area information. Discover the wide variety of recreational opportunities and services offered in this southwest corner of Mt. Rainier National Park.
|20 Elbe Depot and the Elbe Evangelical Lutheran Church
Since 1906, the Elbe Evangelical Lutheran Church has watched over the mountain community of Elbe. Built by German immigrants, this tiny, charming church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and still contains many of its original items including its 4-foot iron cross on top of the 46-foot bell tower-steeple housing its original bell as well as the original alter, and one pew.
In the same area, view the Elbe Depot serving as a visitor center, gift shop and ticket station for the Mt. Rainier Railroad. The original two-story depot was built in the early 1900s. At that time, the rail line served the busy area saw mills and shingle companies.
|21 Pack Forest
Winding your way back to Enumclaw, stop at Pack Forest for outstanding hiking trails with little elevation gain, suitable for small children and enjoyable for all. Managed by the University of Washington, Pack Forest is an outdoor laboratory focusing on wildlife enhancement, education, research, timber production practices and recreation. Pick up a map and brochure at the gatehouse illustrating the major roads, trails and points of interest throughout the forest. At the entrance to the forest, take a walk through the miniature-scale Pack Forest a favorite for kids. Enjoy miles of trails leading along wetlands and through old-growth forests with striking views of a series of pretty waterfalls. The forest is open to hikers, cyclists and equestrians.
Eatonville, a former logging community, is one of the larger communities around the mountain. It is home to Northwest Trek, and The Pioneer Farm Museum and Ohop Indian Village. Dining options and support services are available.
|Note: Lake Kapowsin
Take a look at pretty Lake Kapowsin. It is a favorite among anglers. Covering 512 acres, the lake was formed by the Electron Mudflow which occurred 500 years ago at Mt. Rainier. The mud formed a dam in the valley creating the lake.
|Side Trip: Carbon River Entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park
Before reaching the park, drive past the historic communities of Wilkeson and Carbonado. A trip to these communities offers visitors a rare opportunity to take an authentic step back in time to the rich heritage and culture of the 19th century Pacific Northwest. Once known as the roughest mining town west of Butte, Montana, Wilkeson offers attractions including the historic Wilkeson Elementary School, the coke ovens and the Wilkeson Sandstone Quarry. Next, drive by the town of Carbonado, retaining the texture and scale of a company mining town. Visit the graveyard in Carbonado and view the graves from a major mine explosion that killed half of the town, ending the coal mining era of this community. Continuing 2.8 miles past Carbonado, note the Fairfax Bridge. It was built in 1921 and when the 494-foot long bridge was constructed, it was the highest bridge in the state. Spanning the Carbon River, today the bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Carbon River entrance to the Park offers tremendous beauty and yet another unique area of Mt. Rainier National Park. However, the Carbon River Road remains closed to motor vehicles due to flood damage. Sightseers and outdoor enthusiasts are welcome to walk along the road to the entrance of the park enjoying the unspoiled beauty of this remote corner of the park. Once you have reached the Carbon River Entrance Station, explore the fascinating Carbon River Rainforest, a unique sight as rainforests seldom occur this far from coastal areas. Several spectacular hikes leave from this area including the Green Lake Trail and the Carbon Glacier Trail.
For those not interested in walking to the park, choose to drive the Mowich Lake Road to the pristine waters of Mowich Lake. It’s the largest and deepest lake in the park. During the summer months it is home to fields overflowing with colorful wildflowers as well as a bustling campground. In the winter, it is the destination of snowshoers and winter campers who make their way to the lake on foot. Near the lake, discover old-growth trees, fabulous meadows, bubbling creeks, and dramatic cliffs. The road is unpaved after the first three miles and may be rough. In the winter this road is closed 10 miles from the lake and opens each summer in early July.
To reach these areas, turn right on SR 165, rather than following the driving route as it turns left. Continue 8.7 miles to the fork in the road. To the left, the Carbon River Road continues a short ways before closing to vehicle traffic. To the right, the Mowich Lake Road continues 25.5 miles to the road’s end at Mowich Lake
Drive through the bustling community of Buckley. Dining and services are available.
|END: Return to Enumclaw after a day getting to know glorious Mt. Rainier.|
|NOTE: All roads in this itinerary are windy and many have steep drop offs on the either side. Always drive with caution and expect wildlife. Please check local ranger stations for winter road closures.|
You’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain
WHEN TO GO: Mid-May through early October
START/END: Enumclaw, WA
I love Mount Rainier. Seeing it from a plane means I’m close to home, viewing it in its full splendor while driving down a highway signals a good weather day and actually visiting the snow-clad peak gives me a sense of peace and quietness that filters out the busyness of the daily world I live in. As much as I appreciate the mountain itself, today I want to talk about what you can see and do around Mt. Rainier.
Depending on the road conditions, you can access the peak a variety of ways, but my favorite is through Buckley and Enumclaw on Highway 410 East (also called the Chinook Scenic Byway). Beer aficionados should stop for an impromptu tasting at Elk Head Brewing Company in Buckley. Be sure to try the Citrionic, which is infused with citrus fruits and tantalized my palate the most, Gold, Peacharino, Glacier and Blast Zone. The latter is a spicy, smoked hot pepper ale brewed with five kinds of smoked hot peppers and the drink of choice for most of my traveling companions. One even bought a growler of Blast Zone to take home. Elk Head is located at 28120 State Route 410, Buckley.
One of my favorite shops has to be Sweet Necessities in Enumclaw (1215 Griffin Ave.) because of their scrumptious homemade salted caramels. I often dream of biting into those soft, sweet, salty delicacies. If you prefer a cold indulgence, try the shop’s handcrafted Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream. On this trip, I had the chance to share this treasure with other travel writers. Fortified with snacks for later, we continued the drive knifing through massive stands of fragrant cedar and fir trees.
We started late in the day on this journey, so we were all ready to wind down when we pulled into Alta Crystal Resort in Greenwater. The Resort is recommended by Trip Advisor, Northwest Best Places, Fodor’s and now, me. I stayed in a lovely mountain lodge style suite that easily could have accommodated three or four more travelers and still had lots of room. All the suites have the major comforts – a fireplace, fully-equipped kitchen, satellite TV and free WiFi. Plus, some of the rooms are dog-friendly.
Besides spending time soaking in the hot tub and swimming in the heated pool, you’ll want to watch for native wildlife like elk, blacktail deer, bobcats, mountain goats and maybe even a cougar, if you’re lucky. Owner Steven Cadematori says, “There are times when we have more animals here than people.”
During weekends and holidays, you’ll be treated to bonfires, movie nights, karaoke and more in the evenings. In winter you can try skiing or snowboarding at nearby Crystal Mountain, just 7 ½ miles away or explore the snow-drenched wonderland just outside your door on snowshoes you rent at Alta Crystal. Weather and snowfall are very unpredictable in this area, so much so that a couple of years ago Crystal Mountain hosted skiers through part of July.
Between late May and early November (usually), Crystal Mountain Resort has an abundance of summer activities you can try. Disc golf, horseback riding, hiking, and mountain biking all make this destination just as much fun in the sun as it is in the snow. All year long you can ride the Mt. Rainier Gondola, which climbs 2,500 feet up the mountain over meadows, wildflowers, and wildlife. At the top of the ride, you’re only 12 miles from Mt. Rainier – you can feel the crisp chill she sheds off her slopes even on an 80-degree day. You can sit and savor the view or dine at the Summit House.