For a while, I lived in a van. When it was time to explore any given place I usually gave myself an unlimited time limit on my adventuring since I lived where I parked. When it came time to hike in Mt. Rainier National Park, and after already doing my fair share of travel up to that point, I knew this place was going to have me parked for quite a while. But even after just driving into the park, I knew that this place was special. Rainier has a bit of everything: reflective lakes, lush greenery, dark nights for sky watching and of course the classic peak of Mt. Rainier. Even if you don’t have a van, any single trail can be fulfilling with just one day. But if you’re taking the scenic route and have three days to spend there, here’s how I’d do it.
Mount Fremont Lookout
Let’s start with the 5.5-mile Mount Fremont Lookout Trail. This is the hike that gives the adventurous spirit you’d expect from seeing a gigantic mountain up-close. The 1,100 feet of elevation isn’t too harsh on the lungs but will still give you a nice workout, especially with no shade from the sun the entire trek. The view from the top is breathtaking though, especially at the crowded sunrise hour.
Along the way, you’ll pass a small lake that you unfortunately can’t cool off in. If you go during Spring or Summer though, there will typically be colorful meadows of wildflowers to admire. Don’t expect too much else on the way up besides the loose, rocky terrain. But the lookout and panoramic views at the conclusion of this trail are a great payoff, trust me. There aren’t many other vistas out there that make you feel as submerged into the landscape as this one.
Next up are two lake trails that you can do back-to-back with no issues, squeezing in as much of the park as possible. Head first to Tipsoo Lake. This grassy area is more like a walk in a neighborhood park rather than a hike in a national one, but the tranquil vibes from the greenery makes this stop worth it. Of course, the shimmering lake in constant view also contributes to the peacefulness here.
Tipsoo makes for an awesome warm-up before your next adventure, just remember to walk across the street before leaving for an incredible view of Rainier (the layers of the landscape are especially epic at sunset).
Bench and Snow Lakes
About 45 minutes down the road is your next stop at the fairly more difficult Bench and Snow Lakes Trail. At slightly more than 2.5 miles long (roundtrip) with 600 feet of elevation gain, you won’t be making a life and death decision on this little gem, but it will require some sweat for its views. Classic postcard scenes of Rainier reflecting off the lake is definitely the highlight, but the forested trail and trees dotting alongside the lakes also gives this spot a bit of diversity from being up on the rocky cliffside.
Skyline Trail at Paradise
Your tour ends with the Skyline Trail on the Paradise side of the park. Walking through a paradise is exactly what it feels like as you hike through the meadows of color from the wildflowers, pass through creeks and mini-waterfalls, enjoy the surrounding mountain views (Rainier, Olympics, Mt. Hood) and encounter plenty of wildlife (mostly marmots, chipmunks and black bears).
The nearly 1,800 feet of elevation is definitely felt on certain parts of this trail, mostly at the beginning if you take the loop clockwise. It gets particularly tricky when having to cross a couple of snowfields usually present and in the way. But from both a visual and technical perspective, this loop is never boring. These picturesque 6 miles can easily put you over your normal hiking time just from all the pit-stops for photos. Hands-down the closest you’ll get to the Garden of Eden — not a bad way to end your trip.
The variety of environments coupled with the incredible landscapes usually makes Mt. Rainier National Park an instant favorite for most. Whether you do one day or a few, the impression left upon you by the mountains, lakes and flowers is to want to discover more. The depth of this place truly epitomizes exploration and wonder.