Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park rewards visitors with a glimpse into its historic past, one-of-a-kind vistas and delectable local foods including suc culent blackberry pie
I have a real penchant for avoiding summer crowds when I set out on an RV trip. I’ll go to almost any length to avoid the peak-season pack – and that’s precisely what I had in mind when I paid a visit last May to Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park.
My plan to explore the park was set in motion when I was invited to join a group on a Holland America Alaska cruise set for the first week in June. A perfect opportunity, I thought, to slip into Rainier – the only major national park in the West that I hadn’t visited – during the last week of May with my Canadian friend Melinda, who’s always ready to go RVing, anytime, anywhere.
Admittedly, my research into the feasibility of such an early visit pointed to some limitations, including the probability of overcast skies and rain. Plus, only one of the park’s three campgrounds would be open and roadways through much of the mountainous, snow-packed interior of the 369-square-mile park would be closed until early June. Still, with the southwestern (Nisqually) entrance open to traffic, and with visitor facilities up and running in the popular Longmire and Paradise areas, I decided there would be enough to see and do to make for a worthwhile visit – well ahead of most of the 2 million folks who swarm the park each summer.
No wonder Rainier attracts so many visitors, considering its proximity to more than 3 million people living within a couple of hours’ drive of the park. It’s no wonder either what draws people to the park – once you lay eyes on one of the most spectacular mountain peaks in America. Mount Rainier is a massive mountain, soaring 14,410 feet high and standing 8,000 feet above any of its neighboring Cascade peaks. On clear days its snowcapped summit can be seen from Seattle and most of western Washington, and sometimes from as far away as Portland and Victoria, British Columbia.
Rainier is an active volcano – one of the largest in the world – and one of five in Washington’s Cascade Range, all located along the western edge of the North American tectonic plate. Mount St. Helens was the last to blow its top, in 1980. Rainier hasn’t erupted since the mid-19th century. Geologists don’t expect it to do so anytime soon, although warnings of volcanic hazards are posted throughout the park. Hazards include unpredictable mudflows and glacier-generated floods. The big volcano’s 25 major glaciers form the largest concentration of permanent ice on any U.S. peak south of Alaska.
Looking back on the park’s early history, there is solid evidence of human habitation in the area of the park dating back at least 2,000 years. Later, Native Americans, primarily members of the Nisqually, Puyallup, Cowlitz and Yakima tribes, visited the area seasonally to hunt and gather roots and berries. Regarding the mountain they called Tahcoma as sacred, and possibly fearing its volcanic potential, they rarely ventured above the snowline and based their villages well outside the present borders of the park.
The first (documented) white man to see the mountain was Royal British Navy Captain George Vancouver in 1792. He named the mountain, which he described as a “high, round mountain covered with snow,” in honor of his friend, Rear Admiral Peter Rainier. The first Europeans to explore the area of the present park (in 1833) were members of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had a settlement near Tacoma. The first documented ascent of Rainier, by Hazard Stevens and Philemon Von Trump, occurred in 1870.
Among the area’s early settlers was Indianan James Longmire, who discovered some hot mineral springs in the southwest corner of the present-day park in 1883 and built a rustic resort, which became known as Longmire Springs. The resort attracted climbers and conservationists, among them naturalist John Muir, who vigorously advocated preserving Mount Rainier as a national park. Momentum began to build when, in 1894, the National Geographic Society, the Sierra Club, Appalachian Mountain Club and others petitioned Congress for the establishment of a national park. That happened in 1899, making Mount Rainier the nation’s fifth national park – after Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia and General Grant.
During its early days it was difficult to get to the park. In the first year, Rainier attracted only about 2,000 visitors. But in 1905, the Tacoma-Eastern Railroad built tracks to Ashford, just outside the Nisqually entrance, and soon thereafter built a hotel – the National Park Inn – at Longmire. Vehicles could now access the park and by 1911, a road had been completed to Longmire and was soon extended 11 miles to Paradise, a mile-high flower-studded valley nestled on the south slope of the glacier-shrouded volcano that would soon become the park’s classic showcase.
Situated on a wooded rise overlooking the valley, the Paradise Inn opened in 1916. Built in the classic National Park Service Rustic style of the day, it was designed to tie in visually with the surrounding landscape by utilizing local materials such as fire-salvaged timbers, river rock and cedar shingles.
During the 1920s and ’30s, development of the park took a great leap forward, aided by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which expanded the road network, built bridges and added visitor facilities. By the late 1930s, visitor numbers had increased to more than 50,000 a year.
A colorful chapter in the park’s history unfolded at Paradise during that same time period. Paradise gets more snow than just about any place in the country – averaging 680 inches a year – and winter sports enthusiasts pushed for development of a ski area. Concessionaires built a rope tow and later added a T-bar lift. In 1935, the U.S. Olympic downhill ski team held their tryouts at Paradise and the Army’s 10th Mountain Division trained there before being deployed to the Italian Alps during World War II. The National Park Service (NPS) eventually removed the lifts, deeming them incompatible with the wilderness nature of the park.
More recently, another major park development misfired when a new visitor center was unveiled at Paradise in 1966. A futuristic concrete behemoth that drew frequent comparisons to a flying saucer, it was a radical and controversial departure from the National Park Service Rustic style of other park structures. It also suffered a serious design flaw. The roof couldn’t handle the copious amounts of snowfall, requiring up to 500 gallons of diesel fuel a day to heat the building sufficiently to melt the snow. It was torn down and replaced with a smaller, more energy-efficient, and far more appropriately designed visitor center in 2008.
The new $21.2 million Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center, named in honor of one of Washington’s longest serving and most influential U.S. senators, is a handsome multilevel layout, built like other park structures using native timber, and loaded with informative state-of-the-art exhibits. It ably serves as the warm, inviting heart of the Mount Rainier National Park visitor experience.
Our visit commenced, under cloudy skies, at the Nisqually Entrance, where my tattered Golden Age Passport sufficed for the $20 entry fee. Immediately enveloped in a dense old-growth forest of giant Douglas fir, cedar, spruce and hemlock, we drove slowly – somewhat mesmerized as we passed through this veritable tunnel of towering trees – emerging after roughly 7 miles at Longmire.
We had no problem parking the Winnebago at the nearly vacant lot adjacent the National Park Inn, where we settled in for lunch. Dining within the park at this point of the season was limited to the two inns, so we were pleased with the excellent food and service here – Mel selecting a sesame shiitake mushroom wrap, while I downed a spinach salad and a platter of fish and chips. Following lunch we checked out the Longmire complex – a National Historic District – comprised of a scattering of old log-and-stone buildings including a small museum, a 1920s gas station and the park’s original administration building.
Next, we strolled down the 3/4-mile Trail of the Shadows that leads to the mineral springs and the site of James Longmire’s resort hotel, which was demolished after the NPS purchased the property in 1919. A cabin built by Longmire’s son in 1888 remains but the springs (named “Soda Spring” and “Iron Mike”) have long been off-limits to bathers, by edict of the NPS, which apparently didn’t want to get involved in providing spa facilities for park visitors.
Back in the motorhome, we drove along the Nisqually River for a couple of miles to Cougar Rock Campground. Before leaving home, I’d attempted to make reservations for our two-night stay through the recreation.gov website, but was advised they weren’t taking reservations until June 24 and that spaces would be available on a first-come, first-served basis until then. No worries, as only a dozen or so of the 173 sites were occupied.
Although the park’s website specifies a maximum length for RVs of 35 feet, we were hard-pressed to find a site large enough to accommodate the 29½-foot Winnebago. The campground is situated in a heavily forested area with sites laid out around a series of oblong loops and the access roads leading into them are so narrow that we couldn’t enter them – let alone maneuver into one of the sites. We finally found a space of sufficient depth on the outer perimeter of the loop nearest the entrance and wedged the Winnie into it.
The site was reasonably level and featured a picnic table and fire ring – but beyond that the only other facilities are toilets and a dump station. There are no hookups or showers. This applies to all three of the park campgrounds that accept RVs (the other two are Ohanapecosh and White River) – so in essence RV camping at Rainier is just one step above boondocking. Sites are, however, appropriately priced at just $20 per night.
Wanting to see as much as we could of the park during our stay, we made the winding and stunningly beautiful 7-mile drive up to Paradise the following morning. We headed first to the Jackson Visitor Center where we watched a film about the park’s human and natural history and perused the exhibits for an hour or so. Armed with hot chocolates from the center’s cafeteria, we went outside to watch groups of climbers and their guides gearing up to climb Mount Rainier.
Reaching the summit involves an arduous 8- to 12-hour climb, gaining more than 9,000 feet in elevation, and it requires top conditioning and solid mountaineering and glacier (ice) climbing skills. All but the most experienced climbers are advised to sign on with a guided expedition.
We fell in behind one group for a couple of miles up Skyline Trail, but turned back when the snow began topping our sneakers. The vistas from this trail are outstanding and would be even more so during midsummer when wildflowers carpet the landscape. I’m sorry we missed all the color, but I’ll still say it was a small price to pay for outflanking the summer crowds.
Next on the day’s agenda was Paradise Inn, where we marveled at the Great Hall with its massive timber rafters, wraparound mezzanine and big stone fireplaces. The room truly epitomizes the grand old National Park Service Rustic-style architecture. Weary from hiking, we sat for a couple of hours sipping wine – serenaded by the inn’s pianist-in-residence William Powell – playing a vintage piano that looked to be whittled out of logs, and is said to have been played by President Harry Truman during a visit in 1945.
Clouds continued to shroud the big mountain until our last morning in the park – so with the dawning of a clear, sunny day we scurried out to make some photos. Based on brochure photos and post cards, we determined the best and most accessible spot for pictures would be at Reflection Lakes, about 15 minutes east of the campground. We arrived in time to catch the iconic shot of Rainier mirrored in one of the small lakes right beside the main road – relieved to come away with at least a few photos revealing the beauty and grandeur of Mount Rainier.
Exiting the park that afternoon, we made our way to Mounthaven Resort, an RV/cabin campground just a half-mile west of the Nisqually Entrance. We’d looked it over on the way into the park, thinking it might serve as a good alternative to the Rainier campgrounds – especially for those desiring hookups and other amenities. That proved to be the case after owner Zandy Ball assigned us a full-service site nestled in a stand of towering cedars – and tipped us off to her favorite restaurant, Copper Creek Restaurant, just up the road in the village of Ashford.
Copper Creek has been serving up its old-fashioned, home-style cooking since 1946. It’s an institution, favored by foodies far and wide. So we’re just the latest to say that our meal – fresh, flaky grilled trout fillets, topped off with blackberry pie – was sensational. The blackberry pie, baked daily on the premises, merits special mention. It’s been written up in major newspapers and magazines, and it really is soooo good – a sweet summation to our Mount Rainier visit.
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