Magnificent Mt. Rainier Road Trip in Washington

Route Details Length: About 220 miles When to go: Best in summer (for wildflowers) and early fall (for foliage and

Mt. Rainier
Courtesy of Washington State Tourism/Sunny Walter

Route Details

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).

Supplies: Longmire

Visitor centers: Longmire; Paradise: Ohanapecosh; Sunrise.

Further information: Superintendent, Mt. Rainier National Park, Ashford, WA 98304; tel. 206-569-2211;

Print a map of this route.

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.

2. Elbe
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.

6. Paradise
As the road climbs ever higher, the forest thins out, yielding to sub-alpine meadows and clear views of Mt. Rainier’s upper slopes. Beauty and accessibility have made Paradise the most popular destination in the park.

7. Stevens Canyon Road
Beginning at Inspiration Point, an
overlook that affords an impressive
view of Mt. Rainier, this beautiful
road scales canyon walls, skirts
lakes and waterfalls, winds south
and then north again along Backbone
Ridge, and ends in the park’s
southeasterncorner. Along the
way are the glacier-gouged Reflection Lakes, so named because
their still surfaces provide clear
mirror images of Rainier’s gleaming
summit. W h e re Stevens Canyon
Road crosses the Cowlitz River,
churning water has etched a deep
chasm in the volcanic rock. A
bridge spans the narrow gorge,
which is known as Box Canyon.
From the top of the bridge, visitors
can gaze at the roiling river some
180 feet below.

8. Ohanapecosh
Near the Stevens Canyon entrance
to the park, two trails invite
visitors to stroll through the
stately old-growth forest of the
Ohanapecosh River valley. The
Grove of the Patriarchs Trail winds
for a mile and a half through stands
of enormous Douglas fir, western
hemlock, and western red cedar
that are believed to be some 1,000
years old. Another rewarding trail
is the three-mile loop to Silver
Falls, where the waters of the
Ohanapecosh River gush through
a slot in ancient volcanic rock and
then plunge into a deep, turbulent

9. Sunrise
Much of the road between Ohanapecosh
and Sunrise runs steadily
north along the banks of creeks,
with Rainier’s gleaming icecap
looming to the west. Beyond the
park’s White River entrance, an
especially scenic spur zigzags upward
and emerges on subalpine
meadows at Sunrise, the highest
point in the park accessible by
car. Its most prominent vista
takes in nearly four-mile-long
Emmons Glacier, the largest
glacier in the lower 48 states. Botanical exhibits and a scale model
of Mt. Rainier are featured at the
Sunrise visitor center.

10. Mather Memorial Parkway

After twisting and turning downhill
from Sunrise, the drive reconnects
with Rte. 410, known as
Mather Memorial Parkway. Following
this route south and turning
east at lofty Cayuse Pass, the
drive eases along hairpin turns to
Tipsoo Lake, a gemlike, glacier carved
basin near Chinook Pass.
From there, the route heads east
out of the park, through the Naches Valley (prime apple-growing country), and to Yakima.

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