Hiking in Mt. Rainier NP is the best thing to do there. With over 260 miles of trails, 93 miles of which are dedicated to the Wonderland Trail, there isn't a place where you can't find beautry to visit and photograph. All you have to do is go and explore, either in the visitors area trails, the many day hikes or the extensive backcountry hikes.
To do that, however, you need to know where the trailheads are in the NP. And that is the purpose of this description and the accompanying map of the trailheads in the NP, to provide you the basic information to locate the trailhead for the hike you want to take in the NP.
There are over 40 trailheads outside the two major and other smaller visitor areas, of which each of those area have upwards of a dozen trailheads for short, day and backcountry hikes originating at or near the parking lots. The other trailheads range from roadside ones found on highways in the NP, one at the end of road in or to the NP, or ones on adjacent US Forest Service (USFS) lands.
All of the trailheads in the NP have parking at the trailhead, either along the road with turnouts or roadside facilities or at large visitor facilities. The pass you have to enter and visit the NP allows you to park at any trailhead in the NP. The trailheads on USFS lands have varying degrees of parking along the roads with differing road conditions to the trailheads. In addition all of these areas requires a Forest Recreation Pass to park anywhere on USFS lands, at designated parking areas or at trailheads.
Each of the areas offer different views of Mt. Rainier and the NP, and while some of the trails in each area connect to trails in the other areas or to the Wonderland Trail, which circumnavigates Mt. Rainier through all five areas, the trails in each area offers their own views and hiker experience along with different photographic opportunities.
All the trailheads are at visitor (facilities) areas, along highways or roads, or at the end of roads. These vary with the quadrant in the NP as presented below.
White River.-- The White River area is mostly accessed by highway 410 from the north (Seattle) and by other directions from the east via highway 410 over Chinook Pass and from the south via highway 123 over Cayuse Pass. The area has trailheads along the highway (410) and the White River road to the White River campground which also has trailheads at the campground.
Sunrise.-- The biggest attraction for visitors, hikers and photographers in the northeast quadrant of the NP is the visitors area at Yakima Park (Sunrise). There are trailheads on the road to Sunrise at Sunrise Point and many trailheads at the parking lot at Sunrise visitors area.
Cascade Divide.-- The area at the meeting of highways 410 and 123 at Cayuse Pass and Chinook Pass offers a range of trails with trailheads at Tipsoo Lake (picnic area) and at Chinook pass (roadside parking), including the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and north and east along highway 410 and south along highway 123 over Cayuse Pass.
Ohanapecosh.-- The Ohanapecosh area has trailheads along the highway from Cayuse Pass south to the southern NP boundary, and on USFS lands beyond the NP to highway 12 and White Pass with the wilderness area and the PCT. In addition there are trailheads at the Ohanapecosh visitors area and campground.
Stevens Canyon.-- The Stevens Canyon Road (Highway 706) from the NP entrance at highway 123 to the intersection of highway 706 and the road to Paradise has many trailheads at some of the most popular photographic opportunities, including Cedar Flats, Grove of the Patriarchs, Box Canyon and both Louise and Reflection Lakes, as well as along the Stevens Canyon Road.
Longmire.-- The Longmire are has many trailheads along the highway from the Nisqually entrance to the Nisqually Bridge and up the hill to Ricksecker Point and farther to Narada Falls and Paradise. Additional trailheads are on the Westside Road east of the NP entrance, across the highway at Longmire, and across the Nisqually River at Longmire.
Paradise.-- The Paradsise area has many trailheads at the visitors area (parking lot) with other trailheads at Narda Falls, the Paradise Loop Road (north end and at highway 706) and both directions on highway 706.
Mowich Lake.-- The Mowich Lake area has trailheads in two places, along highway 165 from the NP entrance to Mowich Lake and at Mowich Lake, the latter with trailheads in many directions to Tolmie Peak, Carbon River, Spray Park and the Wonderland Trail.
Carbon River.-- The Carbon River area has one main trailhead, the Carbon River trail (formerly road) at the NP entrance with a wealth of secondary trailheads off this trail, from the West boundary trail at the entrance to the Ipsut Creek campground and beyond to the Carbon Glacier. Many of these connect to other trails and the Wonderland Trail.
Access to each area is completely dependent on the seasons in the NP. This is obvious and known to frequent visitors, hikers and photographers to the NP, but to the infrequent or first time visitor or hiker, outside of the summer season, which is from after the Memorial Day weekend through the Labor Day weekend, planning and preparation become the important part of the hike and road conditions.
With respect to advisiories, there are a few visitors should consider, many covered by the NPS Web pages on safety. Others are as follows.
Highways.-- The highways are narrow and outside of the turnouts do not afford the places to park along the highway to stop and access the view or the nearby forest. You should restrict your parking to the established turnouts and parking areas, and only park on roads where you can safely pull completely off the highway without impeding or endangering traffic and people.
Parking.-- The parking during the peak hours at Sunrise and Paradise is limited to existing spaces in the parking lots and overflow areas. These are well marked. Do not park outside these areas at the visitors centers unless you want a ticket and/or be towed. The NPS is strictly enforcing the parking and will not allow parking when the lots are full, so you have to get there early or use the shuttle if it's operating for the season.
In some years (not 2013) during the summer season the NPS has used a shuttle service for the Paradise area. You can park at a designated lot in Ashford and the 15-30 minute shuttle transports visitors to Longmire and Paradise with stops in between and return. This accommodates those who want only to visit Paradise or trailheads on the highway when parking isn't available.
I don't have any significant more on personal notes about trailheads except the obvious as the NPS states, check the trailhead when you get there for unusual people hanging around and make sure your vehicle doesn't have anything important to you visible in the passenger area. Lock your valuables in the trunk.
Some guides suggest leaving a note indicating the trail and destination you're hiking and when you plan to return, often in case you're overdue and helps any possible search and rescue. I don't recommend this since people will know if your car is vulnerable. I usually leave a note, "Gone on short hike, be back soon.", to avoid giving any clues for others.
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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