Hikes and Hiking
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MPG V2.8, January 2013

There are 240 miles of maintained trails in Mount Rainier National Park which offer the full range of hiking experience. About 105 miles of these trails constitute the Wonderland Trail which circumnavigates Mount Rainier. The rest encompass the range from short loop trails for showing some of the NP's unique nature to half day to multi-day trails to get into the backcountry or get to specific areas of unique nature and to multi-day trips which connect to other trails and the Wonderland Trail.


The trails on and around Mount Rainier have existed for centuries, going back to the indian tribes discovering the beauty and resources of the different meadows, rivers and wildlife. After the initial settlements, camps and homesteads by the settlers in western Washington, those trails were used and new trails were established throughout the area starting in the 1880's for access to homesteads and mining claims.

After those trails new trial were established by surveryers, scientists and adventurers who expanded the trails into many areas not previous explored in the area and later the NP. The first of these was the Grindstone Trail from Wilkerson to Spray Park and follows the now Mowich Lake Road to Mowich Lake and the Spray Park trail.

In addition to the trails in the northwest quadrant, those in the southwest were being established from Ashford to Longmire and Longmire to Paradise, which woiuld eventually become the current road. The first circumnavigation of Mt. Rainier was by J.B. Flett in 1911. Trails and roads into the other quadrants followed in the 1910's and into the depression era under the Civilian Conservation Corps.


In general there are four types of trails. The first are short loop trails to showcase the different environments in the National Park, such as twin Firs, Carbon River Rainforest, Trail of the Shadows, Silver Falls, Box Canyon Overlook, Grove of the Patriarchs, and Emmons Overlook. The second are the trails to other natural features, such as waterfalls, lakes, viewpoints, etc., such as Gobbler's Knob, Spray Park, Tolmie Peak, Rampart Ridge, and High Lakes/Mazama Ridge.

The third are the connecting trails. These are trails that connect trailheads to the Wonderland trail or to other trails into the backcountry which eventually connects to the Wonderland trails or trails outside the NP. The last is the Wonderland trail. All of these two types of trails require backcountry camping permits, especially the Wonderland trail which has designated campgrounds. Scrambling and off-trail hiking is one option for the experienced backcountry hiker under the restrictions for camping outside established campgrounds.


There are several general advisories visitors and especially hikers need to keep in mind when visiting the NP. These cover several topics as presented below.

The most important advisory is to carry a backpack with the ten essentials. The second is to carry adequate emergency stuff, namely water or water treatment gear, food, clothes and maybe emergency or overnight shelter. It all depends on the distance you will hike from the trailhead for the day hike and the need for extra stuff in the event of an emergency.

The third is know or have sufficient information about the trail before you go, especially if you haven't been in the area or on the trail before. It's easy to overestimate your abilities and time, your abilities to achieve your destination for the photo location or opportunities, and time to spend photographing before you find you won't get back during daylight.

This is important to learn the trail before your hike from trail guides. Every trail in the NP has some elevation gain and loss, from a little (< +/- 1,000 feet) to signigicant (> +/- 3-4,000 feet) over sections of the trail or over the length of the trail. This can quickly tire you if you're not sufficiently fit or experienced with hiking trails with elevation gain or loss.

This is important for both day hikes and backcountry hikes, but more so the former since that's the hike most visitors take as most backcountry hikers are sufficiently fit and experienced with trails in the NP or hiking with elevation gain. As the books will describe hikes uphill and downhill take more energy and puts additional stresses on the legs and feet compared to hiking on relatively flat terrain over a comparable distance.

After being prepared, the next to monitor your hiking, especially if you're not an experienced hiker or just the casual visitor planning a dayhike. It's important to turn around before you feel tired, thinking you'll go halfway and then return. You will overestimate your reserve energy, and the last thing you need to be is tired or have problems miles from the trailhead and your car.


The first advisory is about wildflower meadows and open areas. This applies from spring during snowmelt through the bloom of the wildflowers and seasonal growth of the bushes to the first snows of fall.

Stay on the designated paths and trails in the meadows, especially when snow covered.

You may not leave a trace, but others may not be so cautious and careful about their footprint in environmentally sensitive areas. This is especially important in the late snowmelt season where hiking on the thin snowpack can damage the fragile meadows underneath. In addition you will run the risk of being given a ticket by a Park Ranger for violating the rules (which all visitors accept when entering the NP).

The second advisory is about glaciers. Besides the dangers of being close to glaciers, especially near or below the terminus of a glacier, there is one important point.

Do not go on a glacier without experienced hikers or climbers and the proper equipment.

Glaciers are inviting to hike and explore. But they are dangerous for the inexperienced and ill-prepared hikers. Glaciers are very dynamic and constantly changing environments, so it's best to view and photograph them from a safe distance, but don't go on them without guide(s) and equipment.

Another constant problem is the flow below a glacier where the diurnal flow varys as water in the glacier freezes at night and thaws during the day. This causes a cyclical flow in the river below the glacier. This effect extends later in the day going downstream. This is important if you wade across a glacer or snowfed-stream.

Use caution crossing glacier-fed streams and creeks and follow proper crossing technique.

The flow in the creeks and rivers below glaciers will change significantly during the day (diurnal), rising during in the morning into the evening and night until the temperatures cool upstream and below the glacier. It's common to find the flows significantly higher later in the day so note the depth of the flow where you cross to judge the change if or when you return to cross on the trail out.

A potential serious problem glaciers are outburst floods. This usually occur in late summer after extended warm periods, but not restricted to these factors. Outburst floods happen when a rapid melting or breaking occurs within the lower end of the glacier causing an extreme amout of glacial ice and material to flow downstream in a wave, such as happened in recent years on Kautz and Tahoma Creeks.

In short, be careful around the terminus of glaciers and in the river channel below glaciers. Be alert to unusual sounds and other signs and move immediately (laterally) up the valley in event of unusual sounds or conditions coming downstream. And always follow the proper crossing technique.

The last advisory is about guns. Beginning February 22, 2010, openly carrying guns in the NP is legal and concealed with a legal permit. However, there are a number of conditions, which you can find here with links to additional information.

It is illegal to carry a gun indoors and it is illegal to use or fire a gun anywhere in the NP.

This is especially important in the visitors areas, the campgrounds, on the trails, and in the backcountry. You can only openly carry a gun or concealed with the proper (state) permit) and nothing else. You can not unholster, use or discharge the weapon anytime or anywhere in the NP. The NPS has trained and instructed the park and backcountry rangers to treat all visitors as if they are carrying a gun unless it is clear the visitor is not carrying a gun.

Additional Resources

Below are some books and Websites for additional information on the history of trails in Mt. Rainier NP. The first book is available from local or on-line bookstores and the second is out of print. There is a longer list in the List of Books.

Please use the contact link to send e-mail.

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WSR V2.8, January 2013