I was recently asked by a weekend-type RVer about our favorite places to visit. As any full-time RVer is well aware, this is both the most common question we get asked and also the most difficult to answer. I mean, how can we possibly choose favorites when there are so many amazing places?
I started rattling off my usual list of favorites – southern Utah, the Oregon Coast, New Mexico, Crested Butte, Colorado, Acadia National Park – you know, all those places that everyone else loves as well. As the conversation continued, I added the Cascade Mountain Range and Tim threw in the North Cascades National Park, which reminded me how hard I fell for Mt. Rainier NP during our visit this summer. I am not sure if the reason why so many places in the PNW made the list is because we’ve spent a lot of time here recently, or because they really are our favorites.
The more I thought about it, the more I think the latter might be true. There’s no doubt that the Oregon coast is the best coastline anywhere in the country, and the North Cascades and Mt. Rainier are some of the last places in the continental U.S. to see glaciers, not to mention eye-popping volcanic mountains, so of course, they made our favorites list. All of this is to say, that while I am always hesitant to choose favorites (and I reserve the right to change my mind!), Mt. Rainier National Park is currently at the top of my favorites list.
We visited the park at the end of July smack in the middle of wildflower season. The late summer heat was sizzling over the lower elevations, but up high in the mountains it was perfect weather for hiking and exploring as much of the park as we could during our week-long vacation adventure.
Where We Stayed
Even though this was a vacation week, we still needed to be connected, which limited our campground options quite a bit. There are some fantastic sounding National Forest campgrounds in the area, but no reported cell service at any of them. Same with the campground inside the park. So we branched out to look at private parks within a reasonable driving distance.
Our focus was on the southern side of the park along Rt. 12. I first tried the Packwood RV park which was reported to be somewhat on the rustic side, but with good cell coverage and within walking distance of the local brewery. They didn’t have availability, but recommend that I try the Cascade Peaks Family Campground only a few miles down the road. I was hesitant because the word “family” in the name makes me think of a KOA or Jellystone type campground, which is not the experience we’re ever looking for. But with few other options, I gave them a call and found that they have 600 sites and unless you absolutely need to stay in the full hook-ups section, a reservation is not required.
After an extraordinarily busy summer, it was hard to believe that we could show up anywhere without a reservation and find an open spot so I called the week before and was told once again to just come on in. We showed up on Sunday, paid for a week, were given a map of the campground, and told to find ourselves a spot. The full hook-ups area is a grid of narrow sites at the front of the park mostly full of RVs that looked like they were morphing into permanent fixtures in the dirt lot. Thankfully, we were able to skip that section in favor of the more private and spaced-out partial hook-up sites.
We drove very slowly around the extremely dusty roads until we found a site we liked near the far edge of the park that was surrounded on all sides by dense foliage. By parking the truck sideways in front of the trailer, we were able to create a small private outside area and block some of the dust from drifting into our windows. For most of the week, we didn’t have any neighbors, and even on the weekend the campground never filled more than maybe a third full. The campground itself is old, with buildings in disrepair (the bathroom closest to us had a boarded-up shower reminiscent of something you would see in a horror movie) and the sites and roads are in desperate need of gravel to cut down on the dust. But the staff was friendly, the price more than reasonable, and the cell service speedy. Also, the location turned out to be perfect.
Only a short 10-minute drive up the road took us to the tiny mountain town of Packwood where we found a decent selection of restaurants including a brewery that we visited twice, a small grocery store, and an Ice Cream Airstream!
Continuing past Packwood and onto WA 123, both the Stevens Canyon and White River park entrance stations were easily accessible. Overall, it was a little more than an hour-long drive to reach both the Paradise and Sunrise areas of the park from our campground. Since it was a vacation week, we didn’t mind the drive. In fact, the drive was very scenic with some great mountain views!
Hiking around Mt. Rainier
The boundary of Mt. Rainier National Park forms a large circle around the mountain with four entrance stations offering access to different areas of the park. We only made it to two areas – Paradise and Sunrise – because we didn’t want to spend more time driving than we already were. Also, it was a vacation week which means that while hiking and exploring the park was our priority, we also wanted some downtime so didn’t push ourselves to see the entire park during this visit.
For our first hike, we picked what we thought would be the most crowded trail, thinking that Monday morning would be the least busy time to hike it. Wrong! By the time we wound our way up the park road to the Paradise parking lot, it was nearly full with cars already starting to line the road. I guess we weren’t the only ones to decide that Monday morning is a fine time for hiking.
It really didn’t matter though because as soon as we stepped on the trail, we were in such awe of the surrounding scenery that all the other hikers melted away. We choose the 5.5-mile Skyline Trail because it promised up-close glacier encounters and sweeping views. We got all that and more!
We enjoyed this trail so much that before the hike was even over we had already decided to come back and hike it again at a later time of day. A few days later, we made the drive again, arriving at the parking lot around 4 pm. This time it was only half full with many cars on the way out. We passed lots of hikers coming down the first section of the trail but only a few others going in the same direction as us.
I’m not sure if it was the time of day or the fact that the trail was so much less crowded, but we had two separate wildlife encounters this time around. First was a pair of mountain goats who sauntered past, and second, was a marmot right off the side of the trail who seemed not at all concerned about our presence.
We had miscalculated the angle of the sun and it slipped behind the mountain before we could see much of sunset, but the evening glow on the glaciers and flowers more than made up for it.
Even with a quick stop for dinner sandwiches at Panorama Point, we nearly made it back to the parking lot before dark. Only the last 10th of a mile required a flashlight and by that time we were back on the paved trail so it was easy peasy. We really do love a summer evening hike!
Our times two Skyline Trail hikes ended up being the only ones we did in the Paradise area. We considered several trails near Reflection Lake and around some popular waterfalls, but all the recent reviews reported hoards of mosquitos and biting flys which sounded less than fun. So we decided to skip them this time around. Instead, we drove over to the Sunrise area of the park for a long hike that combined several trails into one big, amazing loop.
Our research on the Sunrise area of the park led us to several popular trails. Not wanting to pick just one (and not wanting to drive the one hour and 20 minutes it took us to get over there again) we decided to arrive early and combine a few trails into an epic loop. While I wouldn’t recommend the loop we hiked to anyone else since a section ended up being accidentally off-trail and very steep, I will say that there are several shorter trails over there that you could easily combine for a full-day experience.
We started with the trail to the Mt. Fremont Lookout. One of the four historic fire lookouts in the park, this is a family-friendly hike (although the mom we saw carrying three backpacks while her kids dragged themselves along behind her might argue this point) that follows a wide trail along Sourdough Ridge, past Frozen Lake, and across an exposed rocky section. We reached the tower and took in the views before turning around and heading back the way we came.
Back at Frozen Lake, we turned right and traversed down and then back up a large meadow area to the start of the Skyscraper trail. A short but very steep trek to the top offered us some great views to the north and west.
At the bottom of the Skyscraper, we followed a faint trail south hoping that it would eventually lead us to the Burroughs Mountain trail. Even though the trail was listed on the Alltrails app, it soon became obvious that this was not an official trail. We followed the barely marked path down a field of boulders and then slogged our way up a very steep slope, stopping to enjoy a snow patch on the way. Finally, we joined up with the Burroughs trail and took a much-deserved rest.
To complete the loop, we jumped on the Sunrise Ridge Trail and took it all the way back to the parking lot.
After taking a day off to rest our feet and legs, the last hike of the week was a long, yet pleasant stroll through the woods on the Eastside Trail. This trail crosses the Ohanapecosh River and leads to a popular area called the Grove of Patriarchs. The grove is full of massive old trees and a popular spot for families with small kids since it’s only a short, almost-flat walk from the parking lot. On this very hot day, the trail and the river were teeming with kids and parents. Not feeling up for navigating crowds, we skipped the trees in favor of continuing on the Eastside Trail passing several small waterfalls until we reached the impressive Ohanapecosh Waterfall which made for a good turnaround point. Since we missed out on seeing most of the other famous waterfalls in the park, this was a nice way to see some with the absence of big crowds.
We stopped at the brewery on the way home for some much-deserved beers and burgers from a delicious nearby place called Cliff Droppers. It was a perfect end to a perfect week!