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 Arthur’s Pass National Park

Arthur’s Pass is a small, but fantastic National Park along the West Coast road on the South Island in New Zealand. In only 2 hours from Christchurch you can find yourself surrounded by beautiful talus sloped peaks, bunches of wild yellow flowers, and wide braided rivers. There’s several short but worthy day hikes in the region and it’s a fascinating area to drive through and picture the historic highway/ railway that ran through it connecting the 2 different sides of the South Island. While hiking in the area be sure to keep an eye out for kea, the only alpine parrot in the world, that live in the mountains here.

Where to hike:

The Devils Punchbowl Waterfall

Distance: 2 km, time: 1 hour

A short and sweet hike that leads to one of New Zealand’s most spectacular waterfalls. It’s an easy-moderate trail with wooden steps, bridges, and beautiful beech forest. See my post here for more details.

Bealey Spur Track

Distance: 6 km, time: 4hours RT

Best done in fine weather, this track has beautiful views of beech forest, grasslands and subalpine scrub, and the nearby braided river. The most climatic part of this hike is at a cliff with dramatic views down on Bruce Stream. We were unfortunately rained out of this longer hike but if I was ever back in the area, it would be near the top of my list.

Castle Hill

Also known as Kura Tāwhiti Conservation Area, castle hill is an easy stop along the West Coast road from Christchurch. Its interesting landscape of limestone rock eroded into massive boulders makes for a photographer’s dream scale (tiny humans). It’s also great for comparing to film spots as nearby LOTR scenes were filmed as well as the Chronicles of Narnia. There’s no real track here so choose your track- make your own- hike, climb, be free.

Avalanche Peak

Distance: 3 miles/ 5km RT, Elevation: 3600 feet/ 1100 m, Time: 6-8 hours

Yet another hike that we lost to foul weather on our trip, Avalanche peak gives you astounding views of Arthur’s Pass as a whole- the surrounding peaks, the rivers- and you view it all from the top. It also gives you almost a sure fire meeting with Kea, but the drawbacks are this is a VERY challenging hike with steep exposed scrambles and should only be attempted by very experienced hikers.

Where to stay:

Luxury: The Wildnerness Lodge at Arthur’s Pass- from $290

Stunning mountain view rooms and the rate includes both dinner and full breakfast. The rate also includes free activities around the farm such as guided walks on the property and in depth explanation of sheep farming in New Zealand.

Midrange & Budget: YHA Arthur’s Pass– from $37/ bed in a dorm or $98 for a private double

The YHA hostels never fail around New Zealand and they provide a nice range for budgets. They also usually have full facilities for cooking and hanging around making for a fun atmosphere and cheaper eating budget.

Where we stayed: Mount Somers hut. $72 We opted to get a jump on our next day’s serious driving by staying in Mount Somers instead of Arthur’s Pass. It was so much cheaper and was a great little private hut for just the 2 of us. The bonus was the washing machine as well!

Where to eat in Arthur’s Pass:

Your options are limited in Arthur’s Pass National Park for food with only 2-3 cafes that mostly serve takeaways and all day breakfast. While the cost is reasonable for the demand in the area, I’d recommend stopping in at a grocery store in Christchurch before beginning your road trip out west. We bought sandwich supplies and made out own to save costs here but we couldn’t resist a coffee in the Wobbly Kea Café.

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HIKE TO THE DEVIL’S PUNCHBOWL

If you’re a fan of waterfalls, mountain passes, and Lord of the Rings, than the Devil’s Punchbowl hike is for you. It’s a shorter hike that leads to the base of a 430 foot (131 m) roaring waterfall and is situated right off the main road through Arthur’s Pass to the west coast. The hike itself will only take you 1-1.5 hours RT and will take you across 2 beautiful bridges and through lush vegetation. It’s a safe hike rain or shine with the steepness of the trail being negated by slip protected stairs.

Trail information:

Distance: 1.8 miles/ 3km RT
Elevation gain: 200 feet
Time: 1 hour + for exploring

Parking Area: 140 West Coast Road

The drive from Christchurch is a beautiful one. At only 2 hours, it packs in some beautiful farm lands, mountains, braided rivers, and interesting rocky hills (ie. Castle Hill). From Christchurch, take highway 73/76 (13.9km) until it turns right and becomes old West Coast Road. You’ll follow that all the way (133.5km). You’ll know you are getting close when you cross the long 1-way bridge across the Waimankariri River and the turn off will be on your right just on the other side of town. (Look for Punchbowl Road)

Don’t use google maps as it will take you just past the turn off for the actual parking lot (speaking from experience) At the trailhead there are some portapotties but otherwise no facilities. You’ll start out walking up river to a visible bridge. You’ll cross 2 long bridges in short succession and follow the trail from there as it heads up wooden boardwalks and multiple stairs. There aren’t any trail splits or conflicting signs making this a very easy trail to follow.

About our hike:

As we drove from Christchurch, we noticed clouds overhead and high winds in the area which deterred us from our longer hike of the day- the Bealey Spur track. However we were not deterred from hiking to the Devils Punchbowl since for one, it is considered inspiration for some of the waterfalls used to create Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings and for two, it’s just an incredible looking waterfall.

Once at the Trail head, we practically ran against strong winds to the crossing of the first bridge which has no wind protection. Aka it kind of sucked. Once we were across those bridges however the trees broke the wind for us making for an easy, albeit wet, hike. It only took us 30 minutes up and though thoroughly drenched at this point, we still took a few minutes to stand at its base and take it all in before a quick 30 minute jaunt back to the car.

I can only imagine how resplendent this waterfall is in the sun, but for now I’ll take our memories of running across bridges to find shelter from the wind, learning my rain jacket was not indeed water proof, and gazing up at the tallest waterfall of our trip.

See also my articles on:

Guide to Arthur’s Pass National Park

Guide to hiking Mount Sunday

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