Olympic National Park is one of the most diverse National Parks in the US. It ranges from coastal beaches with sea stacks, soaring mountains with glaciers, crystal clear lakes, and one of the best preserved temperate rainforests in the Northern hemisphere.
While Olympic NP actually has 4 rainforests, the Hoh rainforest is the most accessible. There are 3 trails in the Hoh rainforest – all relatively easy depending on the distance you want to cover.
“The Hoh Rainforest, pronounced “Hoe”, earns its name from the ever-flowing Hoh River that carves its way from Mount Olympus towards the Pacific Coast. However, where the name originates, is up to some debate. The word “Hoh” undoubtedly comes from Native American languages; possibly the Quileute word “Ohalet” which means “fast moving water” or “snow water.” Since the river itself forms from glacial runoff, that origin seems straightfoward.”
When to visit the Hoh rainforest:
The road into Hoh rainforest and the campground are accessible all year round. The rainforest is temperate so any time of year will result in abundant greenery and likely wet conditions. I would base your visit on other areas in WA and what weather/ activities you plan to do there. Keep in mind on summer weekends, the trailhead parking can reach capacity as early as 11AM.
$30/ private vehicle. Free with an American the Beautiful- National Parks pass.
We visited during probably Washington’s busiest tourist month- August. That being said, we drove out on a moody (read: rainy) Friday evening and the parking lot was just about empty. We saw a handful of people along the trails but as they are one way, we didn’t have to pass too many of them.
We saw several deer and particularly enjoyed the low hanging clouds along the river. Maybe this hike is busier on a weekend or sunny days, but I can attest that packing your rain jacket and visiting in less ideal weather conditions is just as magical
All trails for the Hoh Rainforest start just to the right of the visitor center if approaching from the parking lot. (Across from the flag pole) As you arrive to the National Park, there is a large parking lot labeled “hikers parking lot.” This is confusing as the trails don’t actually start from this parking lot.
You need to cross over the tree divider/ picnic area to the main visitor center parking lot where you will see the restrooms and main trailhead.
Best hikes in Hoh Rainforest
From there the 2 shorter loops will branch off with the Hall of Mosses on your left and the Spruces trail on the right.
The Hall of Mosses
This is the trail that almost everyone told me we “had” to do. It’s a nice short loop with you guessed it – an amazing display of moss along with towering trees. While we thoroughly enjoyed this trail, we like the Spruces trail for its variety and solitude a little bit more. That being said- if you can do both- do both.
The Maple Grove is particularly spectacular with towering trees over 250 feet in a close cluster. The trail also sports an incredible variety of moss and ferns along the forest floor. This trail is enjoyable rain or shine but prepared to get wet as well as for some mud along the trail.
The Spruces Trail
Maybe it was the lack of expectations going into it, but the Spruces trail really surprised us and blew us out of the water. There was no one on the trail with us on a Friday evening and the trail had a little more variety to it than the Hall of Mosses.
There’s still that beautiful moss and towering trees that you visit the rainforest for, but you also luck out with beautiful riverside views as well. The lack of crowds also helps persuade wildlife to hang around so we actually spotted a few deer on this trail.
The river views and sparsity of crowds are definitely the highlights of the trail. There are plenty of tall tress and just as many moss/ ferns as the Hall of Mosses. I highly recommend both of the trails but if you want moody river views specifically- this is your trail.
Where to stay near Hoh rainforest:
Hoh Rainforest Campground:
There are 78 first come first serve campsites at the Hoh rainforest campground. Fees are $20/ night. There are a few sites that can accommodate RVs up to 21 feet long and a couple that can fit one 35 feet. There is no dump station or hookups however the campground provides flushing toilets and potable water.
We did not stay in the campground but admired it as we drove by. The sites are stationed along the river dispersed among giant trees. Just be prepared to get wet if you camp here!
Forks is the closest town (about 1 hour away) to the Hoh rainforest part of Olympic NP. It’s a fantastic place to base for a day or two to also visit the many nearby Pacific Beaches including Ruby Beach and those of La Push. Be warned hotels don’t come cheap and are pretty sparse in the small town- book early. My recommendation: Forks Motel
What do you think? Is Hoh Rainforest on your must do list? Anyone hike both trails and think the Spruces trail trumps as well?
Madison Falls is the perfect easy hike for families and waterfall enthusiasts alike. The trail is mostly level and just under 0.5 a mile round trip. It’s also an easy convenient spot when travelling along hwy 101 from Lake Crescent to Port Angeles making the the excursion a perfect quick stop to stretch your legs when travelling between the two popular spots.
Distance: 0.4 miles RT Elevation: Flat Fees: Included in the Olympic NP fee or with a National Park Pass Facilities: porta potty
If headed North to Port Angeles, turn right off hwy 101 onto Olympic Hot Springs Rd. The parking area will be 2 miles down the road on the left.
We had the trail and waterfall just about to ourselves for the 30 minutes it took to hike and take photos. Since we visited in sunny August with no recent rain storms in the area, the water was falling serenely but I’ve heard it can really rage after or during a storm. It was a great way to break up our drive for the day and see another small part of Olympic National Park.
Olympic National Park is brimming with beautiful and accessible hikes with Sol Duc falls as the piece de resistance. It’s a short, relatively flat trail through the towering forests that the national park is well known for. The falls are thunderous and a beautiful. With a trail as easy as this one, families and adventurers alike will enjoy this trail making it a must do for anyone in the Lake Crescent/ Port Angeles area.
Sol Duc Falls Trail Details:
Distance: 1.85 miles RT Elevation Gain: 210 feet (easy) Time: 1 hour Fees: Sol Duc Falls is within the Sol Duc Valley fee area for Olympic National Park. A week pass to the park is $30 or included with a National Park pass.
Take hwy 101 and turn left onto Sol Duc-Hot Springs Rd if coming from Port Angeles. Follow the road 13.8 miles passing the hot springs and Salmon run on the right until the road dead ends at the trailhead. The parking lot is huge and offers facilities/ trash. The trailhead also serves a number of other great trails in the area including Lover’s Lane which is a 6 mile loop that includes a stop at the falls.
Sol Duc Falls trail description:
The trail starts at the far end of the parking lot from the road, straight from where you came in. Shortly after the trail starts, there is a trail split to the right, stay left (or straight in this case) following signs for Sol Duc Falls. Just before you reach the falls around 0.75 miles in there is another trail split. Keep right (again straight) and follow the trail as it crosses the bridge and gives you the best view of the falls.
The falls are located in a deep scenic gorge which is unfortunately inaccessible at the bottom so you can only view the falls from above.
If you cross the bridge you will find many small paths down to the water to get different angles of the falls. Use caution especially as you near any edges of the falls.
Return back down the same trail for the short version or take the Lover’s Lane trail all the way down to the hot springs resort.
Nearby: The Salmon run cascades
*Make sure to stop by the Salmon run cascades as well for a glimpse of salmon and trout swimming up river. The fall will bring more viewing possibilities, but even in August I watched at least 10 fish make the 6 foot jump up the cascades in about 30 minutes.
Mount Storm King towers above Crescent Lake on the Olympic Peninsula offering the quintessential view of the Peninsula’s largest lake. Hikers will climb just over 2500 feet from the shores of the lake to the top of the mountain in barely 2.5 miles each way.
How hard is the hike?
If you’re a gluten for punishment on the trails or just really motivated to achieve the best views in the area, this trail is for you. It is relentlessly steep but on the shorter length side so at least your misery will have a limit. The top section is also *SO steep that there are fixed ropes to help you climb up and down the most vertical and exposed sections.
A note on heights
If you have a fear of heights, this trail might not be for you but if you’ve managed to do other hikes like Angel’s Landing you will find this trail a bit more tame in comparison.
*Some write ups say that if you don’t want to do the ropes section, you can still get good views and photos from lowers spots. I kind of disagree with this… We checked all the lower views and nothing comes close to the view you have at the top
Bonus: Top off your hike to the top with a refreshing and easy visit to Marymere falls afterwards! It is on the same trail and adds less than a (flat) mile to your overall trip.
Mount Storm King Trail Details:
Distance: 6.1 miles RT with Marymere Falls Elevation Gain: 2,526 feet (hard) Time: 3-4 hours Fees: none Facilities: flushing toilets
The trailhead starts at the Marymere Nature Trailhead. From Port Angeles, drive west on Hwy 101 for 20 miles. At milepost 228 you will see a right turn into a large parking area- look for the Marymere Falls nature trailhead signs. The large parking area offers restrooms and a boat launch. If it’s hot enough after your hike, take a dip in Lake Crescent right from the dock.
The trail begins on the Marymere Nature trail as it passes by the Storm King Ranger station. Shortly after the station, the trail passes through a tunnel under hwy 101. It’s a flat easy trail until the left turn comes in to head up to Mount Storm King. (about 0.5 miles from the parking lot) The turn off is a sharp 180 degree turn at a signed boulder and not too hard to spot.
Mount Storm King turn off
The trail switchbacks continually and steeply up the hill side with a diverse range of trees as you climb starting from dense rain forest, changing to towering pines, and ending with sparse madronas. There’s very few flat spaces to take a break so pace yourself as you go.
It’s easy to follow and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife, especially if you are hiking in the morning. We spot a mama deer and here fawn just off the trail in the final 3rd of the hike.
There’s a couple spots to catch glimpses of Lake Crescent but nothing really compares to the final top view.
The rope section
Once you reach the marked “end of the maintained trail” continue straight to the bottom of the ropes section.
The first climb goes steeply up a rock face before turning slightly to the right and steeply climbing from there.
There’s not really switchbacks but the trail is easy to follow, if not that easy to climb. There were sturdy ropes for our entire climb up making about 7 sections in all. Most of the climbs I didn’t actually need the ropes going up but they were helpful on the slippery descent down.
Once at the top, bask in one of the best views of the region and try to protect your snacks from the wild Canada Jay that flock around that area.
*it seems to be hit or miss on whether the birds are around as someone hiked 2 days before me and said they didn’t see any. Yet when we went there were dozens of birds… all very friendly. Whether you had food or not they would happily fly over and perch on you which made for some very fun photos.
**I don’t recommend trying to eat up there as then you might get more birds crowding you than you bargained for.
The hike to Marymere Falls
Follow the same trail down that you came up and be patient on the ropes section where you will likely run into others going up and coming down.
Once you reach the junction with the Marymere falls trail, turn left and continue along the flat peaceful trail until you cross the stream and start to hear the falls.
Follow the wood steps/ boardwalk as it makes a small loop to give you a view at various elevations of the falls before it reaches back up with the main trail.
(We followed the loop clockwise which made the most sense to us) All in all it adds less than a mile and is a very pretty trail, plus a wonderful cool down.
Once back at the lake, go for a swim, enjoy a picnic, or head back to your lodging for a much earned nap.
A note on crowds:
Due to hiking this trail on a busy summer Sunday (and not much of an early start) we had a short line to take a photo in “the spot” and afterwards hiked back down so as not to be in others’ way.
So keep in mind, you usually won’t have a lot of solitude at the top although the trail up and down didn’t feel too busy.
There are many beautiful beaches along the NW coast of WA featuring sea stacks, foggy rainforests, sculptured drift wood, and miles of gorgeous coast line. The trick is which one to visit! If you have time I highly recommend them ALL but Rialto Beach really captured our attention the most. The reason being is it has a very doable and gorgeous trail to Hole in the Rock!
While the La Push beaches have trails that connect to other smaller beaches, there really was something magical about the short trip to the hole in the rock.
There’s beautiful sea stacks and tide pools along the route and the way the fog slowly dissipates out from the trees over the water is something magical to see. It can be completely sunny over the beach but the trees will still hold a haze until the late afternoon.
Best time to visit Rialto Beach:
Rialto Beach is accessible all year round and “mostly” snow free in the winter. For the best chances at sun and warm weather to enjoy the beach I recommend the summer but know that it WILL be crowded. If you visit on a Saturday morning like we did, get to the beach by 8AM to get a spot in the parking lot.
Best time of day
*By day, check when low tide is and aim to go around then, or at least avoid the hike at high tide. This gives you a lot more space on the beach to roam and will keep you dry. It also reveals all the little tide pools.
Beach/ Trailhead directions:
From Forks, WA, head North on US 101 for 1.5 miles before turning left onto WA-110W/ La Push Rd. Follow this road for 5 miles before taking the right fork onto Mora Rd. Drive to the end of the road where it forks again into two parking areas. The parking lot is on the right and is where the restrooms/ TH is located but either parking area will work.
Hole in the Rock Trail Details:
Distance: ~3.7 miles RT Elevation Gain: flat Difficulty: Easy Time: 2 hours for the trail, extra time for beach combing Fees: free Facilities: flushing toilets in the parking area
*Recommended footwear: While you can certainly wear sandals for the hike, keep in mind the distance and how difficult it can be walking in sand and small rocks. Only wear sandals if your feet can handle lots of small pebbles and grits of sand getting under foot.
This trail is incredibly difficult to get lost on. Just turn right from the parking lot (heading North) and follow the shore the whole way until you reach the cliffs.
You may encounter a stream (river?) crossing along the way that cuts from the trees down to the beach. It was mid calf deep the morning we hiked here. Since I wore chacos, I waded through. Braden made a harrowing leap.
Then you can actually walk through the hole in the rock (again low tide) and wander along the shore a little further. Return the same way you came and explore around as you may find some hidden gems.
All in all this trail and this beach blew my expectations for a PNW beach experience out of the water! I’m sure backpacking/ camping along the beach would also be fantastic! Either way, this trail and this beach definitely belong on any Washington bucketlist.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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:
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
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.
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
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.
Copper Creek Restaurant: Mid to high range prices, delicious food, super cozy atmosphere. (They also have a fantastic brunch on weekends)
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.
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.
Fees: Within Mount Rainier National Park so fee is $35/ car or free with the National Park Pass
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”)
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.
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.
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.