Rainier National Park Guide

If I’m being honest, Mount Rainier National Park was a spot I felt we needed to visit more to “check the box” of national parks in Washington than out of any natural curiosity. I thought “eh it’s a mountain.” Boy was my mind blown. This national park is huge and diverse, and every bit as hype-able as the internet claims. Wildflowers and mountains as far as you can see, waterfalls around every bend in the road, a rich and dense forest with towering cedars and lush ferns- the real question is, “what is Mount Rainier missing?”

Table of Contents:

Best day hikes in Mt Rainier National Park

Best trails in Paradise:

The Skyline Trail-

This is THE trail to do if you find yourself in Washington and near Mount Rainier National Park, but be warned it is only open for the entire loop from around the end of July through September and even in those months there may be snow on the trail.

The wildflowers in mid August along the route are out of this world and the glacier views are also something to see. It’s moderate and could be considered difficult trail for some so use caution but if up for a little challenge, this is the trail to do. See my guide here for more details.

Distance: 5.5-6.5 mile loop
Elevation: 1,680 feet (moderate- hard)
Time: 3-4 hours

Myrtle Falls-

If you aren’t feeling up for the entire skyline trail, Myrtle falls is a short and sweet (paved) little adventure along part of the Skyline Trail. It offers nice views on clear days of the mountain and of course a really beautiful waterfall.

Distance: 0.8 miles RT
Elevation: 160 feet (easy)
Time: 30 minutes

Directions: From the Paradise Visitor Center, go up the Muir quoted stairs and turn right on the paved trail. It will lead up on a moderate incline past the Paradise lodge. Continue straight on the trail until you reach the bridge and then there is a steep side trail that goes to an over look below the falls. The bridge is the top of the falls.

Glacier Vista Trail-

Another alternative for shorter hikes for those with less time but still wanting to see glaciers is the Skyline trail to Glacier Vista. (I would combine this trail with Myrtle Falls since they start in the same location) This trail gives you some of the best views of Mount Rainier up close without doing the entire Skyline Trail.

Distance: 2- 2.5 miles RT
Elevation: 885 feet (moderate)
Time: 1-2 hours

Directions: From the Paradise Visitor Center, go up the Muir quoted stairs and follow the paved trail straight (staying left) following the Skyline trail signs. This trail will very steeply gain elevation but is paved so easier footing. After a bit of climbing, you will come to signed intersections. Continue along the Skyline Trail after it rejoins with the Alta Vista trails (they come in on the right) and the Dead Horse Creek Trail which will merge on the left.

Shortly after the Dead Horse Creek trail merges, there will be another trail on the left that leads to the Glacier Vista or you can continue climbing along the Skyline trail when the Glacier Vista point comes obviously into view and a short trail descends down to it. Once you reach the overlook, enjoy the thunderous sound and sight of Wilson Falls before returning back down the same Skyline trail. 

Best trails for families

Grove of the Patriarchs –

Besides Myrtle Falls, this is probably the best trail in the park for families but it is a little bit of a drive from Paradise. The trail is short and relatively level making it an easy jaunt for all. Also shortly into the trail you get to cross a fun suspension bridge and then past the bridge you are surrounded by beautiful towering Cedars not unlike the Redwoods. I highly recommend this trail even on cloudy/ rainy days since views of Mount Rainier aren’t paramount in enjoying it.

Distance: 1.2 miles RT
Elevation: 45 feet (flat/easy)
Time: 30 min- 1 hour

Carter Falls –

One of the least visited trails in the summer, Carter Falls is along a portion of the famous 93 mile Wonderland trail that encircles Mount Rainier. This trail is another great one for cloudy days where Mount Rainier is obscured and leads to a secret beautiful waterfall. It steadily climbs uphill but is never steep making it a great option for families.

Distance: 3 miles RT
Elevation: 500 feet (easy)
Time: 1-2 hours

Trails to take with your furry friends

High Rock Lookout-

This trail is actually outside of Mount Rainier National Park avoiding the park fees (but incurring the national forest fees so a pass is still helpful to avoid $5 at the parking). This is one of the best trails outside the park with beautiful views of mountain and surrounding cascades and offering a chance to view a cool historic lookout. This trail isn’t easy but it is on the shorter side. Beware in August the entire trail closes for maintenance for several weeks so check your dates before visiting.

Distance: 3.1 miles RT
Elevation: 1,318 feet (moderate)
Time: 2-3 hours

Visit here for more info and recent updates on hiking this trail.

Summit Lake Trail –

The last trail on my list and another trail outside the national park, this one is very popular for backpackers (and those who are travelling with furry companions) It again offers great views of Mount Rainier with reflections in the lake if you are lucky. It isn’t close to Ashford or Paradise so a bit out of the way but another great area to visit if you have time.

Distance: 5.7 miles RT
Elevation: 1,443 feet (moderate)
Time: 3-4 hours

Visit here for more info and recent updates on hiking this trail.

Best Views in Mt Rainier NP:

While most of the truly outstanding views are from the trails listed above, not everyone has access to them so here’s my list of the most accessible and best views in the park!

  1. Nerada Falls – This is an easy stop along the drive from Ashford to Paradise, WA. It offers views of one of probably the most impressive roadside waterfalls. It’s a steep trail to the bottom of the falls but paved and still a nice stop at the top if you don’t feel like venturing down.
  2. Myrtle Falls- This one is a little more work (see information in Paradise trails above) than the other 3 listed but still on the doable paved path list and very worth the time!
  3. Reflection Lake – Another easy roadside stop, this time for awesome views of Mount Rainier is at Reflection Lake. The lake is only a short drive away from the Paradise Visitor center and great place to capture photos of the mountain without having to put hiking boots on.
  4. Paradise Visitor Center – Of course the visitor center offers great views of the mountain as well along with great views of the surrounding “skyline” of mountains in the distance. The arch
  5. Christine Falls Bridge- This is a small pullout about 2 miles past Cougar Rock Campground on your way to Paradise. There are a couple parking spots on either side of the bridge and it is definitely worth taking the short trail to view the falls under the bridge.

Best time to visit Mount Rainier National Park

I highly recommend visiting in Mid- August. It’s true it’s busier but it is worth it for the legions of wild flowers everywhere and to have more predictable weather (aka clearer views). Late July would also work (although the entire Skyline Trail may not be open by then) and into September is an ok shoulder season.

Park Fees:

The park has a $30 fee for week long access for a single vehicle. Entrance is free/include with the $80 America the Beautiful National Park Pass. (Worth it!)

Two Days in Mount Rainier National Park

Day 1 – Waterfalls and the Skyline Trail – Visit Nerada Falls- Visit the Paradise Visitor Center and hike the Skyline Trail or the 2 shorter/easier trails (plan for later afternoon/ early evening for less crowds and better lighting!)  – Definitely visit Myrtle Falls 
Day 2 – Hike Carter Falls – Visit Reflection Lake – Hike the Grove of the Patriarchs Trail- Enjoy the scenic drive of Steven’s Canyon Road 

* If you’re a hiking machine and really have 2 full, nice weather days to visit the park you could visit all the above places in a day and then still have a second day to do one of the other top trails in the area such as High Rock Lookout or the further away Summit Lake trail. 

Lodging near Mount Rainier NP:

There are a couple of great small towns around the park that are perfect for launching your travels into the park. Ashord, WA is perhaps the most accessible and with the most reasonable values. Staying in the National Park lodge at Paradise would be an absolute dream if you can afford it and get a reservation. Otherwise here are my top picks:

  1. Copper Creek Inn: The Copper Creek Restaurant is the center of it all with a beautiful historic feel (considering it the longest continually operating restaurant in the area since 1965). The property is so authentic and in a great spot within town. The lodging options include 9 cabins and several suites with almost all having access to a hot tub. We stayed in one of the small 1 room cabins that have reserve times to a shared hot tub and it was great! The restaurant also had excellent food. Highly recommend although note you have to book 2 nights at this property which maybe less convenient for quick stop overs. Prices starting around $137/ night
  2. Mountain Meadows Inn– Another nice option in Ashford at a great price is the Mountain Meadows Inn. Starting around $140 with breakfast and great amenities, I would book here if it is available for your trip but this place sells out quick.
  3. Alexander’s Lodge – Another historic option at a great price and an iconic establishment as you drive into the park. This property has stunning views and small walks and offers pet friendly yurt options as well. No hot tub at this one though (and I’m rather a fan of hot tubbing personally). Rooms start around $150

Campground options:

Camping is a super affordable way to visit any national park and experience the full abundance of nature in the area. Mt. Rainier NP is home to many a campground with most costing around $20/ night. The reservable sites go FAST so make sure to book as soon as you know your dates if you want to camp in the park. Visit here for more information on booking a campsite and to view the campground options within Mt Rainier NP.

***Cougar Rock is the campground most convenient for hiking in Paradise.

Where to eat near Paradise, Mount Rainier NP:

There are cheaper places to eat if you are staying in Elbe or don’t mind backtracking back to the main hwy but it is a bit of a trek from the National Park. I suggest picking up some groceries for breakfast/ lunch and eating on your own during the day and then trying the below restaurants for dinner.

  1. Copper Creek Restaurant: Mid to high range prices, delicious food, super cozy atmosphere. (They also have a fantastic brunch on weekends) 
  2. Wildberry Restaurant: Owned and operated by a former Mount Everest Sherpa, this restaurant is a gem! The decor is cool including the owner’s Everest climbing memorabilia and Nepalese flags. The outside eating area is fantastic and the food was great! They had traditional American food for the pickier eaters in your group and amazing Himalayan cuisine for those feeling more adventurous. 

Trail Guide: Grove of the Patriarchs

I’m going to be honest, if you are visiting Mount Rainier for views of Mount Rainier, this trail isn’t for you. If you are looking for a pleasant easy walk in the woods surrounded by tpwering Cedars and a bit of informative flora plagues, than sign right up. If you are staying in the more centralized Rainier region of Ashford, WA- this trail maybe a bit of a drive for you but it is at least scenic one. I highly recommend this trail on an overcast or rainy day or for young or old hikers looking for an easier trail.

About the Grove of the Patriachs:

The trees along this trail are some of the largest and oldest in Mount Rainier National Park (with several over 1000 years old) Many trees are more than 25 feet in circumference and the “Big Cedar” highlight is almost 50 feet around. Several info plaques describe the trees and other growth along the trail and of course my favorite always comes down to “nurse logs” where youngers trees sprouted from a felled older tree all in a straight line.  

Trail details:

Distance: 1.2 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 45 feet (flat)
Time: 30 min- 1 hour

Fees: Within Mount Rainier National Park so fee is $35/ car or free with the National Park Pass

Trailhead:

The trailhead is located along Stevens Canyon Rd (closed in Winter) which connects Paradise/ Ashford parts of Mount Rainier NP to the SE side of the park. The drive from Paradise is very scenic with nice overlooks and viewpoints (including Reflection Lake). If driving from Paradise, the trailhead will be on your left with a small parking area that fits about 10 cars. Street parking is available if the small lot is full but with a few trails starting here, it can get busy.  

Trail description:

The trail surprisingly isn’t super well marked with its name but starts right next to the bathrooms and follows the East Side trail before it splits off to the right to cross the bridge. There’s a trailhead sign but it serves all the trails so is also not very evident. Follow the trail about 0.3 miles and you’ll see the trail split to the right shortly followed will be the suspension bridge.

Cross over the suspension bridge and follow the short loop trail around all the towering Cedars. The “Big Cedar” and a couple very impressive nurse logs are the highlights of the loop for me.

When we visited in August it was quite busy with cars parked along the road but we managed to snag a parking spot in the lot. There were lots of families along the trail but there were spots we could space out and feel a bit of solitude.

The suspension bridge was a “true” suspension bridge in that it swings and moves as you cross it. The railings are high enough it isn’t too scary, but use caution if you have issues with balance or vertigo.

That being said we loved the bridge and the beautiful blue glacier river that runs under it- the towering trees, and peaceful little walk. All in all for our rainy day in Mount Rainier region, we happily chose an easier trail to explore and wander on.

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Trail Guide: Carter Falls

When we visited Mount Rainier we were certain we’d end up with at least a day or 2 of rain (after all, why would you name a place Rainier) and so I knew in order to see the Skyline trail in its full glory, I’d give it the best chance possible with… a couple days visit. It turned out that our first day driving down from North Cascades NP was the best weather we were going to get- So we hit the Skyline trail the very first evening in town. Our second day was rainy (not surprised) and overcast with almost no views of the mountain. So the challenge was- where to hike?

Mount Rainier has a number of amazing shorter day hikes and site seeing spots with the hike to Carter falls being just one of them. The hike was longer than we thought it would be but with almost an entire day to burn, we happily plodded along a winding trail through beautiful forest and ending at a secret cool little waterfall. Bonus points- we get to say we hiked a section of the famous 93 miles long Wonderland trail.

Trail Details:

Distance: 3 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 500 feet
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 1-2 hours

Fees: The trailhead is after the Mount Rainier NP fee booth. Fees for the park are $25/car or included with an American the Beautiful (National Park) Pass

Trailhead directions:

The trail starts from a large pullout on the right off the Paradise Road 8.4 miles from the Nisqually Entrance to Mount Rainier NP. The pullout is just before Cougar Rock Campground which will be on the left so if you see that campground you just missed it.

Trail description:

The trail starts from a pretty non-descript trailhead and descends down a steep bank onto the Nisqually River bed. Here is the best view of the mountain from the trail (if it isn’t overcast). Cross over the many small rocks and locate the bridge that will bring you across the water channel.

The trail continues along the famous Wonderland Trail route which is great bragging rights to say you hiked some of it.

After crossing the Nisqually river, the trail will start a slow climb up towards the falls. Most of the trail follows the Paradise River (smaller flow) with a few access points you could stop in to cool off on a hot day or let kids play. While the trail sign at the start claims only 1 mile each way, don’t be deceived. That 1 mile mark will come and go with no signs of getting any closer to the falls.

If you keep plodding along though as we did, there’s plenty to enjoy along the trail with beautiful flora and views of the Paradise River. Eventually you’ll hear the falls and arrive at a fenced overlook of them.

They are a little obscure to see but the lighting through the trees makes for great photos. While they aren’t the most impressive falls in Mount Rainier National Park they are far less visited even on a busy day and a great trek with less than amazing weather. After spending some time enjoying the falls, head back down the trail the same way you came or continue another 1.5 miles or so to Narada Falls.

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Guide to Artist Point, WA

Sometimes from the embers of burned and broken dreams, comes a phoenix of new plans and new ideas. I’m constantly reminded when travelling of how some things just can’t be planned for (no matter how hard I try) and how compromise with one’s travelling companions is just part of the whole experience. Our visit to Artist Point in the Mount Baker Wilderness is an example of both scrambled plans and compromise- an example that yielded a romantic evening and stunning photos at that.

While we HAD planned to spend the entire day and night at Park Butte lookout, another group beat us there (by 30 min) so we were left with the option of trying to camp outside the lookout or hiking down early and looking for other options to finish out our day. I am not going to lie, I was desperate to stay up there. Braden however, was keen on hiking down early and looking for a last minute hotel. We spent several hours deliberating and talking with other hikers at the lookout before coming to a compromise of hiking down at noon, driving to Artist Point (which I’d never even heard about in my research before the trip), and finding a hotel. It meant a LONG day since we started at 5AM and would add at least 3 hours of unplanned driving to our entire trip. It. Was. Worth it.

When to visit Mount Baker National Forest:

The road to Artist Point isn’t even accessible until late July/ early August so I highly recommend waiting until at least August or going early September if you want less crowds. The stream crossings will also be slightly less dangerous (still need caution) later in the summer. Otherwise crowded or not, summer is a fabulous time to visit to see the glorious meadows or wildflowers and have the best luck with weather.

Fees to expect when visiting:

Several trails within the national forest/ wilderness area require a $5 recreation fee (per car/day – usually in cash paid at the trailhead) or proof of a national parks pass/ NW Forest pass. Artist Point is very close to the Heather Meadows Visitor Center where you might be able to pay your fees and/or buy a pass but at least in Covid 2020- it was not open.

Best hikes in Mount Baker National Forest:

Top hikes for everyone:

Huntoon Point

Since we had little time on our last minute visit, we opted for this trail and were so happy we did. It has beautiful views of both Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan (especially in the evening) and beautiful reflecting pools as well. The beginning of the trail was busy but we eventually found solitude further along- enough so that we brought our backpacking meals along with us and had a very scenic dinner. This trail is well maintained, easy to follow, and while it has a little “huffing and puffing potential”, it is short and sweet making it the best bang for your buck.

Distance: 1 mile
Elevation Gain: 157 feet
Difficulty: Easy

Bagley Lakes Loop

If you have plenty of time in the area but are still looking for easy hikes, Bagley Lakes Loop will fit that bill nicely. Not only are loop trails the best (so nice having new scenery the whole time) but this trail features not one but 2 beautiful lakes, mountain views, and in the summer: bundles of wildflowers.

Distance: 2.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 259 feet
Difficulty: Easy

Winchester Mountain Lookout:

If Parkbutte lookout is a little daunting but you want to experience a historic lookout with cooler views of Mt. Baker- look no further. This trail does still have some decent climbing but is much easier/ and shorter by comparison. It also features views of the stunning Twin Lakes where the trailhead starts from. While this hike doesn’t start from Artist point it does branch off Mt. Baker Highway as you reach the other main Artist Point attractions and would definitely be worth a visit. Just make sure you plan enough time for the road and drive something a little higher (SUV) if you have it.

Distance: 3 miles
Elevation Gain: 1300 feet
Difficulty: Easy- Moderate

Top hikes for experienced adventurers:

Table Mountain Trail

This hike isn’t actually all that hard but should not be attempted by anyone with a fear of heights. This trail continues past Huntoon Point up to the visible and quite unique Table Top Mountain. Go later in the season for sure to avoid tricky snow crossings that will exasperate the height concerns. Otherwise I highly recommend this for an adventurous, less busy addition to a short visit.

Distance: 3 miles
Elevation Gain: 692 feet
Difficulty: Easy

Ptarmigan Ridge

What must visitor’s to the area consider a must do, this trail sees many visitors but maybe not so many that make the entire trek and also starts at Artist Point. It’s a longer hike with a good amount of climbing but otherwise not very technical and features more panoramic views of the Mt. Baker valleys. It offers great up close views of Mt. Baker and starts from the Artist Point parking lot. Follow it as long as you wish, it would make a great addition to the shorter Huntoon Point.

Distance: 11.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,480 feet
Difficulty: Moderate/ hard

Heliotrope Ridge

This trail is at the top of my list next time I’m in Washington and offers superb up close views of the Coleman Glacier. It is actually the approach for popular Coleman Glacier climbing routes so it takes you right up to the glacier, although caution is warranted: If you do not have the equipment or experience with glaciers, do not approach the bottom of the glacier. Coleman glacier is very active and changes can happen very quickly with fatal consequences if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The viewpoint of the glacier from the trail is reason enough to experience this trail.

Distance: 6.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,800 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

*This is another trail that doesn’t start from the Artist point area but instead has a rough road spur off of the main Mt. Baker Hwy.

Must See Views near Artist Point:

The view from Artist Point itself

Again the view from Artist Point/ Artist Ridge whether you hike or not, is SO worth the drive. You don’t need to be fit or have hiking gear- just the time and car sick pills if you have that tendency to make your way up past the Mt. Baker ski snowfields to one of the best views in Washington. From the ridge, you’ll have unparalleled “drive-to” views of both Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan.

Picture Lake

We were told it wasn’t worth driving all the way up just for Picture Lake if the road to Artist Point was still closed, but I might disagree. Considering the drive is lovely and there’s other small hikes (like Bagley Lakes) that are before the road closure, Picture lake is absolutely worth seeing- especially if you are a photographer. There’s a short walk encircling the lake and nice wildflowers to frame your shorts. It’s a great place to spend a few calm minutes and considering how easy a stop it is, there’s hardly any crowds.

Our experience at Artist Point:

Considering we had zero expectations and hadn’t even know about the Mount Baker Hwy drive and Artist Point before it was recommended to us, I’d consider our experience a smashing success. While we left Park Butte disappointed and the drive up to Artist Point was exhausting (remember we woke up at like 4:30AM) we found ourselves absolutely entranced with the easy views along the road. We only had a couple hours in the evening so we did the walk around Picture Lake and the hike to Huntoon Point.

Part of our compromise in leaving Park Butte was Braden agreed to a mini photo shoot with me! So photo shoot we did: I busted out the old tripod, changed into my favorite golden dress and we explored along Artist Ridge. We found some great little ponds for reflections, got eaten alive by mosquitos, and enjoyed an easy backpacker meal with amazing views.

Where to stay near Artist Point:

Unless you can camp or can snag one of the fantastic few rented cabins along Mt Baker hwy, the closest towns with readily available hotels is either Bellingham or Mount Vernon. Both are a far drive off from all the trails mentioned here so I recommend camping or looking for your lodgings very early on.

Best cabin option: $478 for 2 nights

Camping:

There are surpsingly few developed campgrounds along Hwy 542/ Mt. Baker Hwy. The closest ones to the hiking trails mentioned in this article are the:

  1. Douglas Fir Campground: Open May 28- September 25th; $22-$25 for tent/ non electric sites. Reservable online here
  2. Silver Fir Campground : similar open dates but vary more; FCFS – check here for more info on opening dates and cost.

*If you can’t get a spot in either of these two, you can check into Maple Creek Park or Glacier Creek Sno-Park.

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Trail Guide: Skyline Trail, Mount Rainier NP

This trail is hands down the best trail we hiked in 2020 and one of the top trails I’d say I’ve ever hiked. Very few views bring tears to my eyes and this trail did  just that. From 10 minutes into the hike until the very end I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were at least 5x more wildflowers covering this mountain side than I’ve seen anywhere even come close to, soaring mountain ridges and peaks as far as you can see, 300+ foot waterfalls gushing from glaciers, marmots for miles, and of course the imposing Mount Rainier itself looming over you as you climb. If you only have time for one hike in Rainier National Park or hell if you only do one hike in Washington state, go for this one. 

Trail Details:

Distance: 5-6 mile loop
Elevation gain: 1,680 feet
Difficulty: moderate
Time: 3 hours
Fees: The fee for Mt. Ranier NP is $30 or included with a National Park Pass.
Facilities: Bathrooms at the visitor center (at TH) and at Panorama Point

When to hike the Skyline Trail:

Early August through September/ early October. This trail takes a VERY long time to thaw and in fact the lower skyline trail was still closed due to sketchy ice crossings so we had to take the high skyline trail (not a problem anyways). If possible, plan your trip for August so that the entire loop is open and safe and the wildflowers are at their peak.

*Special tip: go in the evening for less crowds and absolutely stunning lighting. We started at around 4:30 PM and the beginning of the trail was a little crowded (still not bad for a NP) and there weren’t many people at all along the rest of the loop. 

Trailhead directions: 

The trail starts behind the Paradise NP Visitor Center and is easy to find. From Ashford, WA, drive and park anywhere in the massive lot for the visitor center. Take the John Muir quoted stairs up and head to the left following signs for Skyline. I highly recommend hiking this loop in the clockwise direction so follow signs left instead of right. The first portion of the trail is STEEP but paved and is shared by multiple trails so don’t fret if it feels very busy. 

Skyline Trail description:

The first 0.5 mile or so is paved and steep. Don’t worry though. While your heart rate and sweat rate maybe high, you will be amazed at the blanket of wildflowers surrounding every trail bend and the views of Rainier only get more impressive as you climb. Eventually other trails like Glacier View will branch off to the left. Keep right and the pavement will turn to dirt as you start up the skyline trail. The wildflowers continue to amaze as you climb and you’ll start catching glimpses of dozens of waterfalls cascading from the glaciers on the mountain. 

Keep an eye out as well for the mischievous marmot. They. were. everywhere. You’ll be able to see where the glacier view trail ends and the glacier begins as you readily climb above that glacier terminus. Here the views of the mountain are the most incredible. While all the glaciers we saw in the N. Cascades were undoubtedly impressive, nothing really compared to how close you come to the glaciers along the Skyline Trail. 

The hike post Nisqually Glacier turn off

In the not so far distance you can see (and hear) the incredible Wilson Falls which are just over 300 feet tall falling from the glacier of the same name. The trail will give you a short break from the climb and turn you away from the mountain towards the other impressive view and what I actually think of as the skyline. 

Nothing really compares to how close to the mountain you feel. It’s giant and incredible and yet there you are standing beneath it and feeling more and more empowered as you hike. There’s few hikes that really do that for me.

There are conical mountain peaks in all directions and incredible shaped ridges just across the way. A small trail will branch off on the left but continue straight as the trail takes a couple stairs and starts climbing again.

Just after the iconic (but short) stairs section of the hike you’ll reach Panorama Point. Again this is one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen in fact I may just have cried a little bit at this spot as I just couldn’t take it all in. (I’m pretty sure Braden got sick of hearing “I can’t handle this’ and “I can’t even”) 

Panorama Point

Views like this, I mean come on! Photos below of me trying to handle my feelings about this hike.

At panaroma point, you will sometimes have options. There is a trail that cuts right across to where you start descending; however this trail sometimes never thaws and the snowy trail can disguise many hazardous conditions such as unstable ice and glacier river ice bridges. If the trail says closed, believe it. It is only another 200-300 foot climb until you are done climbing and the next uphill section is pretty cool.

This is taken from the other side looking at Panorama Point and you can see a “trail” in the snow. It is very hazardous and should not be attempted in these conditions.

At this point you likewise “might not even” and could be skipping up the trail like I was….. so what is 300 more feet of climbing. In fact I never wanted to go down, instead I wanted to bask in the beauty that was 360 all around me. 

The next little bit of climb also introduces you nicely to the volcanic terrain. The terrain becomes less dusty and dirty and turns to black rocks and cliffs (surrounded by ever present snow fields which make quite the contrast)

The return hike

Now you will have finally reached the end of the climb and can start descending. You can just about see the entire trail down from the vantage points up there. After 30 minutes or so of descent you’ll reach another trail option. 

You can take the Golden Gate trail (a more direct and steep but beautiful trail.) Or you can take the full skyline route which goes near the Paradise Glacier hike turn off and adds about 1 mile. We were running out of daylight so we opted for the shorter Golden Gate trail. 
ZERO regrets.

The Golden Gate Trail

The trail switchbacks down in even more glorious series of wildflower meadows than you start out in and has 2-3 visible waterfalls the entire way. We only saw a few people but saw at least 20 marmots and 1 billy goat. It. was. glorious.

The marmots unfortunately target my favorite wild flower- Indian Paintbrush but there were still plenty of flowers to go around. Again I was positively skipping when normally at this point in a “moderate” trail I’d be ready to be done.

Myrtle Falls

I still wasn’t ready to be done and I maybe never will be. (take me back!) After the short switchbacks the trail mellows out and crosses a bridge which looks down on the stunning Myrtle Falls and UP at the incredible Mt. Rainier. The trail once again changes to pavement here and I highly recommend going down the short little detour to the Myrtle Falls overlook.


After the falls, you continue straight along the paved trail eventually catching glimpses of the National Park Inn and then the visitor center. The loop completes right at the same Muir stairs you started from. 

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Guide to North Cascades National Park

The North Cascades National Park is one of America’s least visited National Park and definitely less busy than it’s big name neighbors Mount Rainier and Olympus. Like all outdoor spaces these days, it is increasing in popularity and for good reason: It’s awesome! It’s the one place/ park in the lower 48 states where you can see the most glaciers and the layers upon layers of mountains go on forever. It’s home to beautiful glacial lakes and towering Pacific Cedar trees. If you’ve got a couple days in Washington, I highly recommend a 2 day (at least) visit to this incredible park.

Best day hikes in North Cascades National Park:

Best hikes for families:

Blue Lake

Blue Lake in the North Cascades of WA is a short and sweet hike to a dreamy alpine lake with views of the incredible Liberty towers and many nearby peaks. It’s great for the whole family although I wouldn’t recommend a dip in this lake- it’s cold! You can check out my entire trail guide here for this hike.

Distance: 4.8 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
Difficulty: Easy- Moderate

Trail of the Cedars:

This is a great short 1 mile RT hike through towering Cedar trees with informational plaques on the flora as well as a really cool suspension bridge right at the start. This trail is great for families as it is flat and there’s lots of fun Cedar trunks you can climb in and a wide trail for people to spread out on. Read my official trail description here:

Distance: 1 mile RT
Elevation Gain: flat
Difficulty: Easy

Best hikes for experienced adventurers:

Cascade Pass Hike

Cascade Pass offers views of several impressive peaks and glaciers and on warm days you can hear blocks of ice break off of nearby glaciers booming down the mountainside. It’s a decent climb up 30-some switchbacks that define the first 2.7 miles of trail and then a little beyond that. It’s only 1800 feet over 3.5 miles to the pass so doable for experience hiker families but not a walk in the park either. Get there early to snag a parking spot, especially on weekends. The road out is also a long unpaved journey- take it slow.

Distance: 7 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 1800 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

Park Butte Lookout Hike

The best hike in the North Cascade range has to be Parke Butte Lookout. It’s challenging without being ridiculous, bursts with wildflowers in the summer, and just offers jaw dropping views from a beautiful, historic WA lookout. I consider it one of the best hikes in Washington state if you are up for the challenge and don’t mind the crowds. For a more detailed trail guide, visit my post just for this hike here.

Distance: 8.2 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 2030 feet
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous

Hidden Lake Lookout Hike

Like Park Butte lookout, this is another strenuous trail that offers a reward of being up close to multiple mountain summits and touching the sky itself in a beautifully preserved lookout. This is likely the most difficult trail on the list (right after Park Butte) and one that we missed being short on time. If you can, this is another fantastic hike experiencing beautiful WA backcountry and offering a chance (First come first serve) at staying the night in a historic lookout.

Distance: 9 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 2900 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous

Must see in North Cascades NP:

Washington Pass

This is a great viewpoint to stop and stretch your legs while taking in the views of one of the highest points along Hwy 20. The viewpoint is just under 0.2 miles RT from the parking lot and offers amazing views of the Liberty towers and  Liberty Bell Mountain. It also includes cool informational plaques about the building of the North Cascades Scenic Route 20 and designation of the park back in the 1970s. This viewpoint is right around the corner from Blue Lake’s trail head.

Diablo Lake Viewpoint

This is another glorified parking area with astounding views of Diablo Lake. Diablo Lake is actually a reservoir formed by the Diablo Dam and is great for canoeing or kayaking. The brilliant turquoise color comes from glacier flour (ground up rocks from nearby glaciers) that is suspended in the water.

When to visit North Cascades National Park:

While some roads and trails are still accessible in the winter, the North Cascades are definitely full glory starting in Early August. If you visit earlier than August, you risk the road to Artist Point still being closed and some of the trails still being icy. A visit in August ensures meadows bursting with wildflowers as well. Visit into the Fall (mid Sept- Oct) for less crowds and golden larches.

National Park Fees:

There is no fee to enter the park! However be mindful as a lot of the listed trails are just outside the park and managed by BLM so require at $5 fee if you don’t have a pass.

Where to stay near in the North Cascades:

There are not many towns within the park however I highly recommend some of the towns along the outskirt.

Winthrop: Best access for hiking Blue Lake and seeing both Washington Pass and Diablo Lake view point. (also one of the cutest towns we visited in Washington)

Concrete: Best access for Cascade Pass, Trail of the Cedars, Hidden Lake Lookout or Park Butte Lookout.

Hotels:

  1. Rivers Edge Resort– Winthrop $100+ in summer. We stayed here and absolutely LOVED it. It is located perfect on main street in Winthrop meaning you can walk to the (limited) restaurants and bars and really enjoy the old wild west feel of the town. Each of their cabins is private, well thought out, and most have private hot tubs on their balconies. We loved our stay here!
  2. Cascade Mt. Baker Hotel – $90 in summer. Great spot especially for hitting Park Butte lookout as it is the closest hotel to the TH. The room was huge, comfortable, and convenient to any of the again limited food options in Concrete.

Best campgrounds:

  1. Goodell Creek Campground- FREE. Easy access to the Skagit River for kayaking/ boating receational activities. 19 first come, first serve sites- vault toilets and drinking water, no showers or hookups.
  2. Gorge Lake – $10. Easy access with a boat launch and nice views onto Gorge lake. 8 sites available online. Vault toilets only- no drinking water or hookups.
  3. South Loop campgound- $16. Easy access with boat launch onto Diablo Lake boat launch. Reserve online during high season. Flush toilets and potable water/ no hookups or showers.
  4. Newhalem – $16. Very convenient to the Trail of the Cedars and other close by nature walks. Reservable online (see link below) and has flush toilets and potable water- no showers or hookups.

*For more options and details about camping in North Cascades National Parks- or to make reservations, click here.

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Trail Guide: Park Butte Lookout

Whew ok this hike- top 3 hikes in Washington EASY. It is a workout but not too draining, and has some of the best views of any hike we did except the Skyline Trail in Rainier NP. It has a cool river crossing, heaps of wildflowers, up close glacier views, and one of the most unique fire lookouts I’ve seen. There is also the added bonus of staying the night in the lookout but it is FCFS and incredibly difficult to snag. 

Park Butte Trail Details:

Distance: 8.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,030 feet
Difficulty: Moderate – Difficult
Time: 3-5 hours
Fees: $5 National forest cash fee at the TH or display your NW Forest Pass/ National Park Pass

Trailhead directions:

If you are travelling from further W than Concrete or Seattle, take HWY 20 and turn left onto Baker Lake Rd. If you stayed in the town of Concrete, you can take a shorter route on Burpee Hill RD. Both of these roads converege at Lake Tyee and become just Baker Lake Rd. Once you pass Lake Tyee, you will drive another 5.5 miles to a left turn onto road NF-12. (This is where the dirt road fun begins). Drive 3.5 miles and turn right onto NF-13. Once on NF-13 you will drive 5.2 miles until the road dead ends in a large parking lot. The gravel road is full of deep put holes. Passenger cars can make it if you drive carefully and avoid the deepest of the pot holes. 

About Park Butte Lookout

This stunning lookout was built in 1932 to keep an eye out for wildfires in the surrounding Mt. Baker valleys. It is excellently perched with amazing vantage points of the Twin Sisters mountain range and even views of Rainier far off on the horizon. While the NFS has more advanced ways of keeping an eye out for wildfires now, you can see how well placed this lookout was back in the day. It is now just one of 106 lookouts left in WA and one of even fewer that you can enter and sleep in. The lookout is now maintained by the Skagit Mountain Club. 

Stay the night in Park Butte lookout

Sleeping in the lookout is free and available on a first-come first-serve basis. There is one double bed frame (Bring your own pads/ sleeping bags) and technically there is room for at least 2 more people on the floor. There are nearby water sources (about a 30 minute hike back down the trail) but the water is somewhat sulfur-y and not the most enjoyable tasting. I’d recommend packing in at least 3 liters and only using the water up there to boil and cook with. (you can drink it with a filter- it just tastes terrible) All waste must be packed out. Plan on using a wag bag for poop. 

If you want a shot at sleeping IN the lookout (especially during high season), plan a 2 night backpacking trip so you can tent camp near the lookout the first night and snag the lookout first thing the next morning. This is what MOST people do and the lookout is guaranteed to be taken every night. We didn’t bring tents with us so we started hiking up at 6:30 AM on a Tuesday morning. We were definitely the first people on the trail (I know because I hit every single spider web) and we got to the lookout at 8:30 AM only to have missed it by 30 minutes since a couple had tent camped the night before. It is extremely common to backpack a few nights up there… Plan ahead.

Trail Description:

The trail starts just to the right of the trail porta potties. The beginning of the hike is a relatively flat walk through boggy meadows with nice maintained boardwalks. After just under a mile, the trail leaves the meadows and enters a rocky boulder field with active rivers flowing down from the glaciers. The NFS maintains a bridge on this trail but it frequently changes position. Watch for cairns to show you the best place to cross through the boulders and water crossings. 

Once through the rocky fields, the trail will start to pick up on elevation gain quickly and the next 2 miles are definitely the worst part. The trail steeply switchbacks up the mountainside though the trees so views are a little limited (and if you are first on the trail, the cob webs are out of control)

The meadows

Eventually you will reach a signed fork in the trail and will only have 1.5 miles left. Keep left at this trail split and prepare yourself to encounter some incredible views. The trail will leave the trees and re-enter high alpine meadows bursting with all sorts of wildflowers. While the trail does still continue to gain quite a bit in elevation, the views are so good it is easier to forget you are working hard. 

Two more trails will split off to the right but keep left and within another couple minutes of your amazing views of Mount Baker you will start to be able to see the lookout. The last bit of the trail looks steep but is actually well graded all the way to the lookout. Take some time to enjoy the small tarns and reflections you can get of Mount Baker on clearer days. 

When you get to the tarns and lookdown on the small lake, you are almost there! Believe me, the views just KEEP getting better!

Once you reach the lookout, take in some of the incredible history and views of 1 hell of a lookout. There’s a “poem” and a guest registry inside and a few sturdy chairs around on the deck. Have your lunch and enjoy your stay before returning back down the same trail. 

Almost to the hut and the views were awesome

A note on crowds:

This trail is very busy on the weekends but on a Tuesday morning wasn’t bad at all. We got to the lookout at 8:30AM and hung around until about noon. In that block of time there were about 6 small groups of people that came and went. Overall don’t plan on having the place to yourself (even if you snag it for the night as other campers will be around) but who can blame anyone with views like this.

Additional Photo Gallery

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Trail Guide to Blue Lake in the North Cascades

Washington is definitely the land of stunning alpine lakes, and Blue Lake is numbered among 1 of the must dos. It’s great for families or adventurers just looking for a shorter time out. While it’s definitely still a bit of a work out, the switchbacks are all excellently graded and the overall length is short and sweet. The lake at the end is stunning and I particularly couldn’t get enough of the surrounding mountain peaks and spires of the North Cascades. You can also swim in this lake but be warned… it’s REALLY cold even by my standards.

Trail Details: 

Distance: 4.8 to the lake. (Add 0.5 if you do the upper loop add on)
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
Time: 2-3 hours
Difficulty: Easy/ Moderate
Fees: $5 cash fee at trailhead or display you NPW forest pass/ National Parks Pass to cover the fee.

Trail head Directions: 

The trailhead for Blue lake is just off of HWY20. If you are coming from the East (Winthrop) the trailhead will be just 1 mile on your left past the Washington Pass overlook (which is on your right and another worthy stop) If you are travelling from the West, the trailhead will be on your right about 4 miles past the Rainy Pass TH. 

Trail Description:

From the brown house potties and trail head marker, follow the trail back into the trees. It will follow the road a short ways before veering to the right and beginning switchbacks up the hill. 

The switchbacks are very long but even out the trail nicely so the elevation gain is less noticeable. As you climb higher you’ll start being able to see incredible mountain peaks through gaps in the trees and even the start of some high alpine wild flowers. Eventually the trail comes near a little creek and heads straight up alongside it. This is when you are almost there! 
Once you reach the lake, you’ll come to a fork. Continue left to stay long the shore and even when the trail looks like it ends- continue through the rocks and you’ll find even more peace and quiet without the crowds. 

If you want to extend your hike a little and get great views down onto the lake, take the right fork and follow it a short ways up. The trail to the right loops around in a 0.5 mile loop or you can just retrace your steps after getting a good view back to the main trail which you follow the same way down. 

A note on crowds:

This hike can and will get busy as it is one of the best known short trails in the North Cascades National Park. There is extra parking allowed on the road but be safe as it is a highway. We started hiking around 1 on a Monday and there was ample parking in the lot and the while we certainly saw people on the trail and around the lakes- it never felt crowded. So a weekday if you can is best.

A note on swimming

After the grand success of Colchuck I was ready to swim in another alpine lake. Let me tell you though this lake is NOT the same. It was pins and needles the entire time and I could barely handle having my upper body in the water at all. (Talk about sucking all the heat out of your body in an instant cold) We took a few photos where I stood on rocks off shore so my upper body could remain out of the water but just the short swims to get out there were a little painful. So unless REALLY cold water is your thing, I don’t really recommend a swim in this lake. It is allowed however if you so choose. 

Abort!

What do you think, would you take a dip in this alpine lake? Whether you swim or not, Blue Lake is yet another pristine alpine lake worth the hike in one of America’s most underrated National Parks. I highly recommend checking this one out!

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Trail Guide to Colchuck Lake

Colchuck Lake used to be a hidden gem but is now quickly gaining in popularity. It’s a pristine alpine lake with soaring, jagged mountains above you, turquoise clear water below, and the added plus: water warm enough you can stomach swimming in. This lake is a real butt-kicker hike but an oh so worth-it destination. If your travels bring you near the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area, I can’t recommend a hike here enough. 

Trail Details:

Distance: 9 miles
Elevation gain: 2300 feet
Difficulty: Hard
Time: 6 hours
Fees: $5 (cash only) forest service fee. Free with a displayed NPW forest pass or National Parks Pass.

Red tape:

This trail is getting notoriously busy. Get there early especially on weekend to park in the lot. The road has plenty of no parking signs yet people seemed to park there anyway. It seems it is hit or miss whether you will get ticketed or not. We drove in and got to the trailhead at 6:30 AM on a Sunday morning to find an already full lot. The bathroom facilities were out of TP and one of the outhouses was pretty gross. Bring your own supplies and make sure to take care of business before starting this hike. LNT and that includes poop! 

Trailhead directions:

From state hwy 2, take Icicle Road 8.4 miles until taking a left onto forest road NF-7600. Then take a slight right onto NF-7601 and follow this road 3.5 miles to Stuart Lake Trail’s TH. This is where you will park. The 3.5 miles on 7601 are rough and filled with large potholes. Drive slowly and carefully. A passenger car can make it although not very comfortably.

Trail Description:

We got there bright and early but still got a place in a pull out just outside the park lot that was full. As we drove an hour from our airbnb, we actually made breakfast at the car once we secured our parking spot so started hiking more around 7:30AM.

The first 2 miles are fairly easy going and follow a picturesque stream. You’ll reach a fork in the road with the right going down to the “horse ford” and the left to the bridge. Take the left fork to a very scenic bridge and prepare yourself now for the grueling climb. 

Almost all of the elevation gain is in the last 2.5 miles with a never ending uphill feel. It’s steep with few switchbacks and lots of roots/ rocks. You’ll pass a couple waterfalls visible just off trail and then reach a signed fork in the trail. Stay left for Colchuck Lake. 

From this fork it is another 1.5 miles. The trail almost immediately crosses another bridge into a boulder field and then continues its uphill onslaught to the end. There are plenty of great break spots however with one that faces incredible views of the valley you’ve been climbing out of and nearby peaks. Take your time and enjoy the journey. 

Eventually the trail will level out and you’ll catch glimpses of the lake but it takes some meandering to find a spot to get down to the shoreline. Even if the lake is busy, do some exploring and you’ll likely find some quiet shoreline to hang out and enjoy the views.

A note on crowds

The trail didn’t feel busy at all to us on the way up and even right around the lake where we were closest to the trail didn’t feel all that busy. On our way down however it was packed and we past constant groups of ill prepared hikers and families making their way up. Start your hike early if you’d like to enjoy the peace and beauty of this spot.

A note on swimming

Pack a swimsuit as well. We spent around 1.5-2 hours eating lunch, taking photos, and swimming. The water was the warmest of any alpine lake I’ve felt. I even had no problems sitting up to my waist for 30 minutes in the sun and when I hopped in to swim, there was little of that tell tale “take your breath away” cold. I paddled around some time enjoying the perfect swimming conditions before drying off and starting our hike down. 
*That being said, the water was definitely still COLD. Just not AS COLD as other alpine lakes. It still might not be your cup of tea. 

In summary

Colchuck Lake was one of my top favorite hikes we did. While it was a butt kicker, the scenery along the trail was beautiful and adventurous and the lake at the end was easily the coolest lake I’ve hiked into. Let me know in the comments what you think of this incredible lake and hike! 

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Trail Guide to Heybrook Lookout

If you are driving to the Enchantments area or heading out to chill around the charming town Leavenworth, this little hike to Heybrook lookout is a very worthy stop. It’s short (albeit pretty steep), has incredible views along with a historic lookout to explore, and will break up the drive from Seattle nicely. Bonus is how close it is to river fun so you can hike in the morning and tube or soak by the river in the warmer afternoon. 

Trail Details:

Distance: 2.5 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
Difficulty: Easy- Moderate
Time: 1-2 hours
Fees: FREE
Facilities: None at the TH. There is a pit toilet down the ridge from the lookout at the end of the hike. Bring your own TP. Bring your own water.

Trail head directions:

The trail head is right highway 2 just past the small town Gold Bar,WA. If you are heading East, the parking area will be on your left and is a small gravel area just wide enough for cars to park directly in (vs parallel parking on the shoulder). The actual trail start is on the West side of the parking area and is marked with a small trail sign a few feet back into the trees. There are NO facilities at this trail head so plan your pit stop prior. 

About Heybrook lookout

The lookout is one of the last lookouts in WA, (106 remain) and one of the few that can both be entered and reserved for sleeping in! It’s situated on a scenic ridge with outstanding views of the surrounding valleys and nearby Mount Persis and Mount Index. There have actually been a number of lookouts in this location prior to the current Heybrook lookout. Each time the lookouts were built a little taller with the current lookout finished with construction in 1965. The present lookout is around 67 feet tall and is open to the public up to the observation deck- 89 steps up. 

Spend the night in the lookout:

Heybrook lookout is one of the few Washington lookouts you can actually reserve for the night! It was unfortunately booked out for our trip but it looks beautifully renovated and is quite private as the rest of the public hikers can only hike to the deck below the lookout’s rooms. (You get a key from the forest service before you start hiking) The lookout reserves quickly and is released on a rolling 6 month basis. Check here for more information or to check for availability. 

We wish we could’be spent the night or “hungout” longer at the lookout

About our hike:

We started our hike in the late afternoon on a Saturday in August. There were only 5-6 cars parked in the parking area and for a weekend and easy hike, we didn’t think the trail was very busy at all. It parallels the the road for a brief moment before turning sharply and heading up the hill in a series of switchbacks. While you can hear the road for the first 10-15 minutes or so you eventually leave it all behind and find yourself in a mossy forest with little bits of sunlight trickling through.

I learned quick on this, our first hike in WA, the sunscreen I bought was going to go to waste or just coming home with us. (foreshadowing: almost all the hikes we did were in the trees 80% of the way) 

The trail is made up of a couple long switchbacks and overall very well graded. It’s a good workout, but never felt too challenging like you might lose your footing and slip. We had bonus origami cranes to amuse us as well on the climb as someone had hung strands of them every 0.25 mile or so. 

It isn’t too long before you reach your first big break in the trees and get a reward of a nice open view. BUT if you turn and look up you’ll actually see the lookout right above you at that same moment- you made it! While it may have felt challenging on the climb up, you realize just how quick a hike it is and excitement replaces tiredness for up 89 steps you’ll be ready to go. 

At the top

When we got there we waited a couple minutes for a group to come down as the stairs and landings are pretty narrow and small. (Thanks Covid for making it even harder) Once we started climbing, we went straight to the observatory deck in case anyone else was waiting to come up or go down. 
The view from the top is just breath taking and I bet it is even better at sunset or sunrise. As it was in the afternoon, our views were pretty hazy and backlit but I can still appreciate the incredible mountains all around and a unique (tall!!) wooden structure bearing the brunt of weather and time since 1965. It is seriously impressive to stand up there and think about. 

After a couple minutes we actually got the lookout to ourselves for 30+ minutes as the previous occupants all headed out. On our way down we passed another 3 or 4 groups heading up, but again… really not that busy for a Saturday afternoon! 

Stop in Leavenworth for victory meal!

After finishing our hike we carried on our way to the adorable Bavarian modeled town of Leavenworth. This is a great stop for exploring the nearby Alpine Lakes Wilderness, continuing onto other destinations in the Cascades, or enjoying some fine Bavarian cuisine and beer. I highly recommend a stop in Leavenworth (short or long) after your excursion to Heybrook lookout.

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