Mt. Rainier Scenic Byway Road Trip
Parks: 1 • Miles: 325 • Days: 4 • Hours: 8
Mount Rainier stands 2,000 feet higher than anything surrounding it. Around it is a 368-square mile National Park that features three visitors centers, old-growth forests, waterfalls, 26 glaciers, and numerous alpine meadows.
Seattle is the perfect starting point for this trip, as it’s a major airport that is easily accessed from just about anywhere in the country. It also has a vibrant downtown that offers plenty of activities and amenities that can give you a sort of ying-and-yang experience on this trip. Go from the hustle-bustle of Seattle to the tranquility of the National Park within 2 hours.
You’ll want to schedule a rental vehicle at the airport before you arrive. Most rental counters have limited inventories, and are usually sold out to walk up customers.
This trip is best done between June and October. This is when the alpine flowers are in bloom, but more importantly – when all the roads are open. Chinook Pass closes in the winter and reopens late May or early June.
This road trip can take as few as 3 days, or as long as a week. It is really up to you and how much you want to squeeze into each day. For our money, a 4 day trip around the park seems to be best.
Seattle is the best city to start this trip from. Locals call Mount Rainier “the Mountain”, and for good reason. Mount Rainier towers over the city’s southern horizon on cloudless days, and is only about an hour and a half from the Sea-Tac airport.
Because of the short distance, we suggest making the trip down to Ashford, WA after landing. Of course, you could also spend a night in Seattle and take in the vibrant downtown.
The next location is 72 miles away (~1.5 hours).
The drive from Seattle to Ashford, WA follows route 167/161 south until just past the town of Eatonville, where you turn east towards Ashford.
The town of Ashford is the gateway town to the park you’ll be exploring for the next couple of days.
Mount Rainier National Park (Southwest)
Situated a couple of miles outside the main Nisqually entrance of Mt. Rainier, Ashford is the perfect spot to explore the southern part of the park from.
Aside from the handful of local Airbnb or VRBO options, Ashford also has the classic Whittaker’s Motel and Bunkhouse created by the legendary mountaineer Lou Whittaker in the early 1990s. Just west is the small town of Elbe, which also has a number of local options, as well as the Hobo Inn and Diner.
The Nisqually entrnace is surrounded by lush old-growth forests of behemoths that date back over 700 years and stretch over 200 feet into the sky. Just past the entrance is Longmire, known for its hot springs. The Trail of the Shadows Loop is an almost 1-mile loop that starts at the local museum and circles through more old growth forests while giving you glimpses of the towering Mt. Rainier summit.
Ricksecker Point is the park’s premier viewpoint of Mt Rainier. From this vantage point, you can see 5 of Rainier’s 26 glaciers. However, the summit you can view from here isn’t actually its highest. The obscurred summit is actually 275-ft higher than the one you can see.
Narada Falls can be seen via a very short yet steep trail just beyond Ricksecker Point. This 168ft waterfall tumbles over a basalt cliff and is the parks’ most popular waterfall.
Mount Rainier National Park (Southeast)
Paradise, WA is in the southeast portion of the park, and only has one real lodging option if you’d prefer to stay here instead of making it a stop along your drive. The historic Paradise Inn was built in 1916 and refurbished in 2008.
The starting point in this part of Mt Rainier NP is the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center. It is the largest visitor center in the park, and it also features a museum.
From the elevated alpine meadows of Paradise, you can access Reflection Lake and Ohanapecosh, both full of hiking trails and views that will amaze. The most popular trail in the area is the Grove of the Patriarchs, which is a 1.5 mile trail featuring 1,000-year-old hemlocks and douglas firs.
The next location is 100 miles away (~3 hours).
From Ashford to Naches, you won’t be taking the quickest or easiest route. There is a quicker way that stays on major routes 7 & 12 that will take about an hour less time. However, this trip is about seeing the park and its beautiful scenery, so instead you should take the byways through the park and past Paradise again.
In fact, the drive to Naches mostly follows the White Pass Scenic Byway along Route 12. As you travel from west to east, you will access premier wilderness areas of the state, as well as charming and unique communities providing cultural, recreational and historical experiences.
There are plenty of places in Naches and the surrounding communities to spend the night. Naches and Nile, WA have the most Airbnb options in the area. There are also a handful of hotels around as well.
Mount Rainier National Park (North)
Along your drive north, make a stop at the north entrance of Mt Rainier National Park in Sunrise, WA. The Sunrise Visitor Center is located here and has lots of interesting exhibits and an interpretive hike.
Sunrise is the highest point in the park you can reach by car, and it features plenty of trails that offer fantastic views. The popular Sourdough Ridge Trail is a 1 mile trek across a subalpine meadow with the hands-down best view of the mountain from anywhere in the park.
Across the Sunrise Lodge is a trailhead that provides access to Emmons Vista, where you can catch good views of Mt. Rainier, Little Tahoma Peak and Emmons Glacier.
The next location is 130 miles away (~2.5 hours).
The Chinook Scenic Byway stretches from Naches all the way north to Enumclaw.
Recognized as the premier driving tour in Washington State, the Chinook Scenic Byway travels through the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and Mount Rainier National Park. Experience the diverse landscape of the Central Cascades, from Enumclaw and the glacier-fed White River Valley to the west, up and over 5,430 feet Chinook Pass, to the fertile valley of Naches to the east.
Depending on when your flight home is, you may be able to make the last leg of the trip the morning before you board. However, since the drive will be along maybe the most scenic byway in the park, you’ll probably want to take most of the day exploring and sightseeing instead.
Regardless, once you reach Seattle, return the rental vehicle to the airport and head home. It was a jam-packed trip that gave you the best trip around Mount Rainier National Park.