Location: SW corner of the park
Access: Open year-round through the Nisqually Entrance
Mount Rainier National Park’s first visitor center and park entrance station, Longmire has been welcoming visitors since the 1880s. Located in the southwest corner of the park in magnificent old-growth forest along the Nisqually River, Longmire is just 16 miles east of Ashford. But when it was founded by intrepid Northwest emigrant James Longmire in 1883, it was quite remote and far removed from any population centers.
Longmire arrived in Washington Territory in 1853 via wagon train over the Cascades at Naches Pass just north of Mount Rainier. Settling on a prairie in Yelm within sight of the great volcano, Longmire set out exploring, ascending, and eventually guiding others up it. One night in 1883 while camped near the Nisqually River, Longmire’s horses went astray. In pursuit of them, he stumbled upon a series of small mineral springs. It didn’t take long afterwards for him to develop a rustic resort at the springs and build a trail to Ashford.
In 1899 Mount Rainier National Park was established and visitors soon began arriving from Ashford via Longmire’s trail. By 1911 the trail was replaced by a road and Longmire’s resort (now run by his family) had grown to include cabins, tents, and a large hotel. The Tacoma Eastern Railroad which had laid tracks to Ashford, constructed the National Park Inn allowing visitors another (and better) lodging choice. The railroad also constructed a hiker’s center and members of the Longmire family built trails to Paradise and Indian Henry’s Hunting Grounds allowing park visitors opportunities for up-close-and personal views of Rainier.
Throughout the 1910s and 20s the park service constructed other facilities near the National Park Inn including an administrative building, community kitchen and service station. These structures were all designed to harmonize with the rugged nature of the park through a style that became known as National Park Service Rustic. The 1928 administrative building with its columns and use of local stone is one of the most architecturally significant structures from the park service’s nascent days.
In the 1920s owing to the rise and popularity of automobile touring, the park service constructed a large car campground at Longmire on the south side of the Nisqually River. A beautifully built 1928 road-bearing timbered suspension bridge connects the campground (now open for picnics and special group use only) to Longmire.
The National Park Service eventually bought James Longmire’s holdings, and the area around the small mineral springs with its established visitor facilities collectively became known as Longmire. James Longmire’s old resort which had slipped in appearance and suitability was demolished-although a cabin at the springs built by his son Elcaine in 1888 still stands today. It is the oldest surviving structure within the national park.
The entire Longmire district is now a national historic district. The area’s charm and various restored structures invite wandering and exploring. The 1911 Hiker’s Center is now a general store. The community kitchen became the park’s library. The old service station still stands but is no longer in use; instead it offers visitors displays of the park’s early auto days. In 1976 the park’s administrative offices were moved to Ashford allowing for the eloquent 1928 administrative building to become a museum and wilderness center for backpackers and climbers needing information and permits.
The National Park Inn was remodeled in the 1930s and 1990s and continues to serve as a hotel providing year round accommodations and meal service. The Inn is particularly inviting in winter with its cozy rooms and large stone fireplace. And cross-country skis and snowshoes can be rented from its gift shop.
The museum with its exhibits, information stand, and book sales is also open year round. Backpackers and climbers can attain their permits at the museum when the adjacent wilderness center is closed from October to May. There is no car camping at Longmire but the Cougar Rock Campground (opened from Memorial Day to Columbus Day: reservations accepted) is a mere two miles away.
Longmire sits at an elevation of 2,700 feet offering good late and early season hiking options. Several of the area trails also make nice cross-country skiing and snowshoeing routes as well when snow blankets the region. The Trail of the Shadows is a .7 mile nearly flat kid-friendly loop hike to the old resort site, historic cabin and mineral springs. The Rampart Ridge Trail takes off from Longmire climbing steeply through luxuriant old growth to splendid viewpoints along the 4,000-foot high ridge. Return to Longmire via the Wonderland Trail for a 4.7 mile loop or continue along the ridge another 3.0 miles to Van Trump Park.
The 3.6 mile hike to 5,958-foot Eagle Peak in the Tatoosh Range is one of the more challenging-and rewarding hikes from Longmire. And the 2.0 mile hike on the Wonderland Trail along the Nisqually River to Cougar Rock is one of the more mellow trips particularly delightful in autumn. The Kautz Creek and Comet Falls Trailheads are both just short drives from Longmire.
Now the second busiest visitor center in Mount Rainier National Park, Longmire was the first part of the park to become accessible by road. And Mount Rainier was the first national park to allow automobiles, welcoming them in 1907. President Taft came for a visit in 1911 but his vehicle didn’t take kindly to the muddy road, getting stuck on several occasions. Today’s visitors however, have it much easier on a well graded and constructed road-yet they can still capture the park’s early history and charm at Longmire.
– Craig Romano