Mt. Rainier NP Photography Road Trips
Many photographers visiting Mt. Rainier NP have only one to three days in the National Park, and sometimes it's hard to determine the trip and places to go and photograph. I can't provide all the choices, but I can provide some ideas that have worked for many photographers, which are either road trips or destinations.
Mount Rainier NP was developed as a road accessable National Park to make access and visiting easier for the public, but it would be decades before the roads were built to provide the easy access visitors have today.
When the NP was designated in 1899, there was only one road to Longmire with a horse and later a wagon trail to Paradise, and horse trails from Carbonado to the northwest area and connecting trails to the southwest area. To say just getting there was a journey is an understatement which is hard for us today to comprehend with the ease of travel and ready turnouts and vistas.
You can get a complete description of history of roads in Mt. Rainier in David Louter's book, Windshield Wilderness. It wasn't until the post-WW IIand especially the 1960-70's periods when the roads we see today were completed in their initial work.
Since then, it's been a period of either maintaining them after severe winter storms, such as the 2006 and 2008 winter storms and floods, and closing the Carbon River road, the landslides and avalanches on highway 706 from Longmire to Ohanapecosh and highway 123 from the southeast boundary to Cayuse Pass.
That said, there are two ways to do a road trip to and in Mt. Rainier NP. The first are the different loop drives where you can stop for visits and photo opportunities and second are the destination trips. Each of these are explained below, along with travel guide and NP overview.
Circumnavigate.--The most common loop trip is from Seattle through the NP returning to Seattle via Interstate 5 through Tacoma, or from Tacoma via highway 7 and the reverse direction to Seattle. Either way you drive highways 167, 410, 123 and 706 through the White River area, the Stevens Canyon entrance and the Nisqually entrance.
This trip is a long day trip, 10-12 hours, much of it driving, but it also affords the most exposure to Mt. Rainier and the NP and seeing four of the five areas of the NP and provides the most number of photo opportunities. It also provides the opportunity to stay in one of the two inns in the NP, Paradise and Longmire Inns, but be aware to make advanced reservations.
With this trip you are afforded the many views of the NP and Mt. Rainier with turnouts for views and photo opportunities for vistas, waterfalls and forests, along with the Longmire and Paradise visitors centers with facilities and short trails for seeing and photographing more of the NP. See the links under resources for the individual area photo guides for additional information.
The second trip is from the south (Portland) or east (Yakima) where are several loops you can make via Highway 12, as described below.
Highway 12.-- The first is just driving the higway across White Pass, which affords many side roads and vistas without going into the NP, or just visitig the Ohanopecosh entrance area. There are many US Forest Service roads to see the area and get to some excellent photo vistas of Mt. Rainier and the Cascade Mountains.
Highway 12 to 123 and 410.-- The other two are access the NP via highway 123 through the Ohanopecosh entrance. The first is driving highway 123 over the passes to either Tacoma or Yakima via highway 410. This traverses the east side of the NP viewing the southeast to northeast sides of Mt. Rainier and viewing many old growth forests with creeks and waterfalls. This route also gives you the option at Cayuse Pass to go east to Yakima or north to Seattle.
Highway 12 to 123 and 706.-- The second is driving highway 706 back west to the Nisqually entrance. This traverses the south side of the NP and the southeast to southwest sides of Mt. Rainier through the Stevens Canyon road to the Paradise visitors center and through the Nisqually River valley to Longmire and the Nisqually entrance.
Below are the destinations in Mt. Rainier NP. Some are accessible and can be incorporated into the loop trips described above.
White River.-- This destination affords great views from two places. The White River campground area affords views of the White River valley, the river and forest, and trails to the upper valley with the alpine area and Emmons Glacier along with trails north to Sunrise and south to Summerland on the Wonderland trail.
Sunrise.-- The Sunrise area affords two of its own places. Sunshine Point offers a vista of Mt. Rainier, the White River valley, the area southeast and southwest in the NP and the Cascade Mountains, along with some small lakes and trails to the Palisades Area north of the point. Sunrise Visitors area offers the best view of Mt. Rainier and many trails to the whole northeast area of the NP.
Cascade Divide.-- The area at the meeting of highways 410 and 123 at Cayuse Pass and Chinook Pass is usually a drive through for the visitors to the NP, but consider it's a great place to be on the divide between the Puyallup and Cowlitz Rivers at Cayuse Pass and between the American River (eastern Washington) and Cowlitz River (southwestern Washington) at Chinook Pass, and there are many short trails with extensive parking.
Ohanapecosh.-- This destination offers fewer views of Mt. Rainier but offers the best access to the old growth forests with the Grove of the Patriarchs and other local areas via trails through the forest along the creeks and rivers, with some trails through the forest to viewpoints at higher elevations.
Stevens Canyon.-- The Stevens Canyon Road (Highway 706) to Paradise offers several turnouts for views of Mt. Rainier, waterfalls and trails to viewpoints of the southeast area of the NP. This road also leads to the Reflection Lake and Lake Louise turnouts and Pinnnacle Peak trailhead. The road north, Highway 123, goes to Cayuse Pass and the northeast area of the NP and has trailheads on both sides of the Ohanopecosh River and Chinook Creek.
Longmire.-- This area offers good views of the southeast area of the NP via turnouts or short trails to views of the old growth forest, waterfalls, the Nisqually River and Tahoma and Kautz Creeks, and smaller forest meadows. There are only a few places to get a view of Mt. Rainier.
Paradise.-- This area is the most popular and visited with the most short trails, viewing places, and amenities. It also offers the most photographed places in the vicinity and short drives, such as Reflection Lake, Narada Falls, Nisqually Glacier, alpine meadows, etc., everything is close by and easily a day's worth of places.
Mowich Lake.-- This area, along with the Carbon River destination, are trips with no connection to other areas in the NP. They are excellent destinations in their own right, the Mowich Lake with views of Mowich and Eunice Lakes and trails in five directions to the lookout on Tolmie Peak, Spray Park, waterfalls and views of Mt. Rainier on the trails such as Eagle Cliff.
Carbon River.-- This area is not a road trip as it's closed to vehicles at the NP entrance, but it's the best destination for the Carbon River valley with the old growth forest and Carbon River. And it you have a weekend for hiking and camping, the Ipsut campground and Carbon River cabin are excellent places for viewing the backcountry, Mt. Rainier and the Carbon Glacier (closest access for hikers).
What can be said here? Bring all your photography gear and be ready for anything. That said, that's about it, you'll be afforded all the photo opportunities for the range of scenes, from closeups of plants and flowers, to forests, creeks and waterfalls, and to a vast array of vistas of the Mt. Rainier and the entire Cascade Mountain range.
Hiking.-- One note about hiking, which is really two notes, and the other about pets.
First, don't overestimate you're hiking skills and stamina. For any decent hiking distance always wear appropriate hiking shoes or boots and take a daypack with the ten essentials for. Also, if you're not an experienced hiker, it's easy to hike too far and find yourself with tired muscles and sore feet miles from the trailhead. Always turn around earlier than you want to have energy to return and do other things.
Second, don't take dogs on the trail; it's illegal in any National Park and only irritates other hikers besides asking for ticket and maybe a lost pet. Pets are best left at home for any trip into an National Park. If you do bring one, follow the rules for them.
Meadows.-- Another note about the alpine and wildflower meadows which is very important.
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).
Highways.-- A word of note about the highways in Mt. Rainier NP. The highways are narrow and 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 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 and don't be surprised if a NPS ranger asks you to move to the nearest turnout.
Parking.-- A word of note about the parking at the visitors centers. 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.
During the peak summer days 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, and stops in between and return. This accommodates those who want only to visit Paradise or trailheads on the highway when those parking isn't available.
You can also get additional information and locations from the specific area photo guide.
Below are resources for planning your photo trip and opportunies, including the variety of published photo guides and some of the best examples by photographers. You can get a more complete list of books and information resources
Please use the contact link to send e-mail.
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