By Michael Lanza
Among hikers and backpackers, Mount Rainier National Park may be best known for the Wonderland Trail, which makes a 93-mile loop around Mount Rainier—the 14,411-foot volcano that Washingtonians refer to simply as “The Mountain.” The Wonderland constantly ascends to sub-alpine meadows exploding with wildflowers, with Rainier’s gleaming, white slopes repeatedly popping into view, and plunges into valleys carved by glacial rivers in a rainforest of giant trees.
But one doesn’t have to embark on a multi-day hike to enjoy those vistas. You reach some of the best scenery in America’s fifth national park on dayhikes.
This list of Mount Rainier’s best dayhikes draws from my numerous trips dayhiking and backpacking all over the park over the past three decades, formerly as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and even longer running this blog. Using this story as your guide, you will see the best scenery in Mount Rainier National Park that’s accessible on hikes ranging from short, easy walks to moderate and very long days.
Below are my picks for the 14 best dayhikes in Mount Rainier National Park. While this list includes popular hikes like the Skyline Trail, Glacier Basin, and Summerland, it also describes hikes not usually mentioned on many other lists of Rainier’s best hikes (where you’ll often find the same trails listed over and over). This story deliberately spotlights hikes to amazing areas of the park that are off the beaten path, as well as a few long, strenuous one-day outings that drop the crowds found on the popular trails.
Some of this story is free for anyone to read but reading it in full—beyond the first seven hikes—requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside. (Join for a year and get a free or discounted e-guide.)
Many of the hikes described below I’ve done as dayhikes; others I’ve enjoyed on various backpacking trips, including the entire Wonderland Trail, which ranks indisputably among America’s best backpacking trips and best national park backpacking trips. All distances given in the hike descriptions below represent the total length, including for out-and-back hikes.
If you’re interested in backpacking in Mount Rainier National Park, see my Wonderland Trail e-guide, my stories “American Gem: Backpacking Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail,” “5 Reasons You Must Backpack Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail,” and “How to Get a Permit to Backpack Rainier’s Wonderland Trail” and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan this or any trip you read about at this blog.
While summer weather is often pleasantly dry and stable, Mount Rainier creates its own weather, which can change rapidly. See my blog story “How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking.”
Please share your thoughts on any of these hikes or your own favorites in Mount Rainier in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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Summerland and Panhandle Gap
Summerland: 8.6 miles, 2,100 feet both up and down
Panhandle Gap: 11.4 miles, 3,000 feet both up and down
One of the finest dayhikes in the park, this out-and-back walk offers a classic Rainier experience, beginning in a forest of tall trees and ascending to wildflower meadows with views of Rainier and Little Tahoma Peak. The sub-alpine meadows of Summerland, at around 5,900 feet, bloom with wildflowers in August and have views of Rainier towering some 8,500 feet above the meadows. Marmots are often seen in this area.
While some hikers turn back from Summerland, the 1.4 miles and 900 feet of uphill from there to Panhandle Gap at 6,750 feet—the highest point on the Wonderland Trail—gets exponentially more scenic. Follow the Wonderland south as it meanders across meadows, talus, and glacial moraine, passing raging waterfalls on the creek draining the Fryingpan Glacier, to reach Panhandle Gap, one of the best views of Rainier in the park. Watch for mountain goats. The hike begins from a trailhead parking area near the Fryingpan Creek bridge on Sunrise Road (limited parking), three miles past the White River entrance.
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5.5 miles, 1,450 feet both up and down
Starting this popular hike at Paradise, at an elevation of 5,400 feet, 12 miles east of Longmire, you’re immediately walking through sprawling sub-alpine wildflower meadows. And the 5.5-mile Skyline Trail loop above Paradise delivers the quintessential hiking experience at Rainier: in-your-face views of The Mountain and the heavily crevassed Nisqually Glacier; thick carpets of lupine, mountain heather, and other wildflowers; waterfalls; and even marmots commonly perched on trailside boulders as if modeling for photos.
Have lunch at Panorama Point, at nearly 7,000 feet, with a sweeping view of the Tatoosh Range and sister Cascade Range volcanoes like Adams, St. Helens, and Hood. At the footbridge over Myrtle Falls, follow the short spur trail descending to a better view of the waterfall. The trail system at Paradise allows you to create shorter or longer loops, too.
Tip: Often buried in snow until early August—Paradise averages over 640 inches of snow per year—this hike is prettiest when the wildflowers are in full bloom, in early to mid-August.
Grove of the Patriarchs
1.5 miles, nearly flat
This short, easy, popular hike, much of it on a wooden boardwalk in one of the park’s lowest areas, at 2,200 feet, provides a quick tour of a shady, cool forest of old-growth cedar, hemlock, and Douglas fir trees spanning as much as 40 feet in diameter and rising over 300 feet tall. Interpretive signs explain what you’re seeing.
My kids, when young, loved crawling inside the massive root balls of fallen giant trees and crossing the suspension footbridge over the Ohanapecosh River.
The trailhead is on the Stevens Canyon Road just minutes from the park’s Stevens Canyon entrance and a quarter-mile west of the road’s bridge over the Ohanapecosh River.
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8.4 miles, about 1,700 feet both up and down
From Mowich Lake, at 4,900 feet, reached on a good gravel road in the park’s northwest corner, the Spray Park Trail traverses through quiet forest of immense Douglas fir, hemlock, and cedar trees, passing a very short side path to Eagle Cliff, an overlook of Mount Rainier looming high above the deep valley of the South Mowich River, and a second worthwhile side hike on a spur path to 354-foot Spray Falls (which adds about a half-mile out-and-back and a little up and down to the total distance). Beyond that junction, the trail climbs relentlessly through numerous switchbacks to reach the sub-alpine meadows of Spray Park.
There, you continue weaving upward through stands of stunted, subalpine fir trees and some of the national park’s most vibrant wildflower meadows. Marmots whistle and scurry for cover. You can turn back at any point, but a logical spot is the trail’s high point in the Spray Park Trail, at 6,400 feet north of Tillicum Point, Ptarmigan Ridge, Observation Rock and Echo Rock on The Mountain’s north side.
Snow blankets the ground through July and vast snowfields linger throughout the short summer at this elevation, over 6,000 feet; rivulets and miniature cascades drain off the snow. Take this hike in August or September.
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Comet Falls, Van Trump Park, and Mildred Point
Comet Falls: about four miles, 900 feet up and down
Van Trump Park: about 5.5 miles, 2,000 feet up and down
Mildred Point: 6.2 miles, about 2,700 feet up and down
This tough hike offers the options of going only to 392-foot Comet Falls, one of the park’s highest, continuing to the wildflower meadows and sweeping views of Van Trump Park, or going all the way to Mildred Point, with its unobstructed panorama of Rainier.
The trail ascends steadily through the tight gorge of Van Trump Creek, which roars and plunges over several small waterfalls and cascades, including the triple drop of Bloucher Falls at 1.6 miles. At just under two miles, a side trail leads a short distance toward the base of Comet Falls. From there, the trail turns very steep for the next 0.8 miles to a junction with the Rampart Ridge Trail. A half-mile spur trail leads to the right to wildflower-carpeted Van Trump Park, with views of the Van Trump Glaciers and Mounts Adams and St. Helens and common sightings of mountains goats, marmots, and pikas.
From that junction, the Rampart Ridge Trail swings southwest and descends about 200 feet in about a half-mile to a junction with a rugged, difficult spur trail that climbs through wildflower meadows for 500 feet in 0.4 mile to Mildred Point, at around 5,900 feet, overlooking the stark canyon sliced into Rainier’s flanks by Kautz Creek, the glaciers on Rainier’s south side, and the summit cone.
The hike begins at the Comet Falls Trailhead at 3,600 feet on the Longmire-Paradise Road, 10.2 miles from the Nisqually entrance and five miles west of the Stevens Canyon Road junction.
Want more? See “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes”
and “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes.”
6 miles, 1,600 feet both uphill and downhill
This relatively easy, out-and-back hike begins at White River campground at 4,300 feet, where you’re serenaded by the constant roar of the glacial silt-laden White River. The Glacier Basin Trail—which is also the approach hike for climbers taking the Emmons Glacier route up Mount Rainier—makes a moderate ascent up the valley of the Inter Fork to Glacier Basin camp at 5,900 feet, amid a landscape torn up by the receding Inter Glacier.
Sightings of marmots and even black bears are common along this popular trail, especially if you get out early, ahead of the crowds of dayhikers. If you really want to leave the hordes behind, make a loop up to the Burroughs Mountain Trail—a burly ascent of nearly 2,000 feet—to the five-star perspective of Rainier from a high point around 7,400 feet, then descend past Sunrise camp and Shadow Lake to the Wonderland Trail back to White River campground.
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Carbon Glacier Trail
17 miles, 1,900 feet both uphill and downhill
The Carbon Glacier holds four distinctions among all U.S. glaciers outside Alaska: It’s the longest (5.7 miles), with the lowest glacial terminus (3,600 feet above sea level), and greatest volume (0.2 cubic miles) and thickness (700 feet). It’s also the easiest glacier in the park to see up close on a dayhike. At 17 miles round-trip, the out-and-back jaunt to the Carbon Glacier is no casual stroll—but also not as hard as it sounds, gaining just 1,900 feet in elevation over the 8.5 miles to the glacier overlook.
Starting at the Carbon River ranger station, walk or mountain bike the former Carbon River Road—which was closed and restricted to foot and bike traffic following catastrophic flooding in 2006 (caused by a 100-year storm event equivalent to one I backpacked through solo on Rainier’s Northern Loop just three years prior)—for five miles to the Ipsut Creek campground, passing the quarter-mile spur trail to Chenius Falls.
Hiking trail beyond the campground, you’ll soon reach a short side path to Ipsut Falls. Turn left and follow the Wonderland Trail 1.6 miles to where it crosses the Carbon River on a log footbridge, then another 1.1 miles south to the east end of the Carbon River suspension bridge. While this hike doesn’t cross the bridge, it’s worth walking out onto it to stand over the roaring river and enjoy the view up and down the Carbon River Valley.
From the east end of the bridge, continue south on the Wonderland Trail about a half-mile to an overlook of the north face of Mount Rainier and the Carbon Glacier, which loudly and violently births the heavily silted, battleship-gray river from an ice cave at its snout. The park warns against trying to hike off-trail down to the glacier—there’s real danger of falling rocks or taking a bad fall on the unstable ground. Backtrack the route to the ranger station.
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See my stories “American Gem: Backpacking Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail” and “5 Reasons You Must Backpack Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail,” and all of my stories about Mount Rainier National Park at The Big Outside, plus my Wonderland Trail e-guide and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan this or any trip you read about at this blog.