Length: About 220 miles
When to go: Best in summer (for wildflowers) and early fall (for foliage and fewer crowds). From November through April all park roads except the Nisqually-Paradise road are usually closed.
Lodging: Paradise Inn, Paradise (open summer only). National Park Inn, Longmire (open year-round).
Visitor centers: Longmire; Paradise: Ohanapecosh; Sunrise.
Further information: Superintendent, Mt. Rainier National Park, Ashford, WA 98304; tel. 206-569-2211;www.guestservices.com/rainier.
Like jewels on a necklace, the premier attractions at Mt. Rainier National Park — Longmire, Paradise, the Grove of Patriarchs, Sunrise and other locales – are linked by a single winding road that enters the park at its southwestern corner, zigzags up and down canyons and forested slopes, and swings around to the northeastern side of the mountain. Among the sights you’ll see along the way are massive glaciers, sub-alpine meadows, thundering waterfalls, ancient stands of first-growth timber, and — reigning over all — the sleeping giant volcanic peak that Washingtonians affectionately refer to as simply “the mountain.”
1. Mayfield Lake
Heading east through the farm country between I-5 and Mayfield Lake, Route 12 affords views of three lofty and nearby Cascade peaks; Mt Rainier to the northeast. Mt. Adams to the southeast, and Mt. St. Helens to the south.
The drive turns north onto Route 7 at Morton and leads to the little town of Elbe, home base for the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad. Steam-powered, with open cars and restored coaches, the train chugs through forests on a 14-mile round-trip to Mineral Lake.
3. Nisqually Entrance
Viewed from a few miles away, Mt. Rainier appears to hover in the sky like a massive mirage. The 14,422-foot-high dormant volcano, the loftiest in the Cascades, is the majestic centerpiece of Mt. Rainier National Park. From the Nisqually Entrance on Route 706 — the park’s main access point — the road winds through towering Douglas firs and beautiful stands of red cedars to Longmire, where a museum and the well-marked Trail of the Shadows introduce visitors to the history and natural wonders of the lowland forest.
4. Cougar Rock
From Longmire the road climbs through lush mountain growth to Cougar Rock, one of the park’s major campgrounds. About a mile-and-half farther on, pause to look at graceful Christine Falls.
5. Narada Falls
Here the Paradise River hurtles off an old eroded lava flow, plunging 168 feet to the valley floor.