If you’re thinking about a Mount Rainier National Park family vacation there’s one thing you should know. This national park is not for the faint of heart. It’s remote. There are few roads. And trails can be challenging. But if you think your family is up to the challenge, there is no other national park in the lower 48 states that matches its beauty and untouched wildness.
Ascending to 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier is one of the most unmistakable icons of the Pacific northwest. It’s the towering focal point of Mount Rainier National Park. In addition to being an active volcano, Mount Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States, and the source of five major rivers in the region. Subalpine wildflower meadows ring the icy volcano while ancient forest covers the mountain’s lower slopes. Wildlife, including black-tailed deer, elk, Black Bear, bobcats, and coyotes thrive in the park’s diverse ecosystems. All of this and more make Mount Rainier National Park a family vacation destination you won’t want to miss.
Native American History in the Mount Rainier Area
Mount Rainier National Park is on the ancestral homeland of the Cowlitz, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, Yakama, and Coast Salish people. These tribes have a long history of cultural and spiritual connections to the land as well as the natural resources of the region.
For many First Nation peoples, Mount Rainier holds great spiritual significance. It is often referred to as “Tahoma” or “Tacoma”, which means “snow-covered mountain” in the language of the Puyallup tribe. According to Native American oral traditions, Mount Rainier is a sacred place and the home of powerful spirits and energies. Native American tribes have traditionally used the mountain as a location for spiritual ceremonies and practices and continue to do so until this day.
Mount Rainier National Park History
Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division
Scientists, mountaineers, conservation groups, local businesses, and large railroad companies all saw the potential benefit from a national park around Mount Rainier, and came together to help establish the park in 1899. They combined their often conflicting interests into a lobbying campaign starting in 1893. The groups stressed the potential for tourism from the nearby cities of Seattle and Tacoma, the unsuitability of land for other commercial purposes like agriculture, grazing, or mining, and a need to preserve the unique glacial landscape for further study.
After a hesitant Congress received assurances that the park would not come as an added expense to the government, the bill passed in 1899. Mount Rainier became the nation’s fifth national park and the first established after the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 that created the U.S. Forest Service.
Since the mid-1960s, Mount Rainier has seen a large increase in park use, attracting over 2 million visitors in 2019. That, coupled with the fact that attempts to summit Mount Rainier have grown almost tenfold since 1965, have led to a series of actions to protect the park.
The Washington Wilderness Act of 1988 designated 98% of the park as wilderness area, giving these lands greater protection against development. These efforts help raise greater awareness of the park’s complex ecosystems and the impact of human use.
Photo by Caleb Riston
Mount Rainier National Park is located in the south central part of Washington State. It’s about a 2 hour drive from Seattle and 2.5 hours from Portland, Oregon.
Mount Rainier is the highest peak in the Cascade mountain range and is the dominant landmark for hundreds of miles around. In fact, on clear days, Mount Rainier can be seen as far away south as Corvallis, Oregon and north from Victoria, British Columbia—that’s up to 300 miles away!
The park itself is vast, covering almost 250,000 acres and features hundreds of miles of hiking trails. In fact, very little of the park is accessible by motor vehicle so hiking-both family friendly day hikes and longer wilderness camping trips-are the best ways to truly experience the park.
Best Time of Year for a Mount Rainier National Park Family Vacation
Mount Rainier National Park is open all year. July and August are the park’s busiest times, when the majority of its 2 million annual visitors enjoy the warm, dry weather, blooming flora, and burgeoning wildlife. If you plan your Mount Ranier National Park family vacation in the summer, consider coming mid-week, which is generally less crowded. Keep in mind that parking is limited in many areas of the park. Wait times at the Nisqually and White River Entrances can be over an hour on the very busiest summer weekends and holidays. If you enter the park before 10:00 am or after 2:30 pm, you have a better chance of avoiding the heaviest traffic.
3 Must See Areas in Mount Rainier National Park
Photo by Mario Mendez
If your time is limited on your Mount Rainier National Park family vacation, or back-country camping just isn’t your jam, no problem. There are three main spots you don’t want to miss. Paradise, Longmire, and Sunrise are all accessible by car and feature some of the most beautiful views in the park.
- World famous for its breathtaking views and wildflower meadows, Paradise is one of the most popular destinations within the park. Winter activities include snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and sledding. This is also where you’ll find the Henry M James Memorial Visitor Center. This grand lodge-style building gives you up-close views of Mount Rainier’s glaciers and offers ranger-guided programs, park history, a cafeteria, and gift shop. See the visitors guide here.
- Longmire is a visitor center about 6 miles east of the Nisqually entrance. With easy access to the 164-site Cougar Rock Campground, it is also the location of Mount Rainier’s National Park Inn, the Longmire Museum, and one of the starting points for the Wonderland Trail.
- At an elevation of 6,400 feet, Sunrise is the highest point in the park that can be reached by vehicle. Stunning views offer a near 360 degree panorama of Mount Rainier, the surrounding valley, and other volcanoes in the Cascade Range. The Sunrise Road usually opens in late June or early July and closes in late September to early October. Check the road status before setting out.
9 of Mount Rainier’s Best Hiking Trails for Families
Photo by Nate Foong
If you’re planning a Mount Rainier National Park family vacation, hiking is going to be high on your list of to-dos. The park is a hugely popular destination for hikers, climbers, and nature lovers. Mount Rainier has over 260 miles of trails, ranging from easy, scenic walks to challenging backcountry routes. There are also several guided tours and ranger-led programs available, which offer visitors the chance to learn about the park’s history and ecology. In the winter, the park is a popular destination for skiers and snowshoers. Remember to check trail conditions before heading out on your adventure. And note that pets are NOT allowed on trails in Mount Rainier National Park (except for service animals). For a complete list of hiking trails in Mount Rainier National Park see here. It’s a huge
Northern Hiking Trails
- Carbon River Trail This trail system is located on the north side of the national park. This area gets a little less traffic than the area to the south of Mount Rainier because it does not connect to the main visitor centers. Carbon River Trail was a road before being closed off to vehicles. Now it is only open to pedestrians and cyclists. That makes this a great trail to hike and bike with family. The road extends for about six miles where it runs into Ipsut Creek campground. Bikes may not pass beyond this point, but there are several short hikes along the way that are fun for families.
- Rain Forest Nature Trail Great for famlies with little kids. This is a short .25 mile side trail toward the beginning of the Carbon River Trail. It’s a self-guided loop that is a perfect introduction to one of the only rainforests found inland. Round trip is a little over .5 miles.
- Old Mine Trail Great for families with bigger kids. This is another side trail located a little over one mile from the beginning of Carbon River Trail. Old Mine Trail peels off the main trail for about .25 miles and brings you to the gated entrance of an old mine. Expect only about 100 feet of elevation gain. Round trip is about three miles.
- The Wonderland Trail For experienced families withgrown-up kids.The Wonderland Trail, also called the Carbon Glacier Trail is 17.5 miles long. It is a strenuous hike with lots of elevation gain and loss, through lowland forests and valleys and into high alpine and subalpine areas. Be honest with yourself about you and your family’s hiking abilities and endurance. In any case, a wilderness permit is required to hike the Wonderland Trail.
Eastern Hiking Trails
- Pacific Crest Trail A portion of the Pacific Crest Trail weaves in and out of Mount Rainier National Park along the park’s eastern boundary, from Chinook Pass in the north down to Laughingwater Creek in the south. Note that this is the only trail in the park that allows pets.
Southern Hiking Trails
- Trail of the Shadows Great for families with little kids. This trail is located across the main road through the park across from Longmire Museum. It’s a self-guided loop with educational signs along the route that explain the area’s history. Round trip is about .75 miles.
- Christine Falls Great for families with little kids. Drive a little more than four miles east of Longmire and park in the pullout just past the stone bridge. The trail takes you a short 100 feet distance to a beautiful view of the falls framed by the stone bridge. Definitely worth a stop!
- Nisqualy Vista Trail Great for families with strollers. You can access this trail from the visitor center in Paradise. You’ll see beautiful views of the Mount Rainier and the surrounding area from this trail. It’s a little over one mile round trip. 200 feet elevation gain.
- Skyline Trail to Myrtle Falls Great for families with strollers. Waterfalls are always exciting destinations and Myrtle Falls will not disappoint. It’s a 72-foot fall that offers breathtaking views of Mount Rainier along the way. This is a short one mile roundtrip hike that only has about 100 feet of elevation gain, so it’s easy for all. Wheelchair accessible.
Family Vacation Camping and Lodging
Camping in Mount Rainier National Park will be a cherished family memory for decades to come. There are three main campgrounds within the park: Cougar Rock, Ohanapecosh, and White River all offer RV, trailer, car, and tent sites. There are toilets, water, and fire grates at all sites but RV hookups (water or electric) are not available. Mowich Lake is a walk-in campground with 13 primitive tents sites in the NW section of the park.
Camping in the park is seasonal so be sure to check campground status before planning your trip.
For a park this popular, demand for campsites is always high. Although campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis you can reserve sites at Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh by visiting Recreation.gov.
There are also two indoor lodging options both inside the park.
- Paradise Inn is a historic concessionaire-operated hotel, offers lodging, a dining room, and a gift shop. The Paradise Inn has 121 guest rooms. You can reserve them online at Rainier Guest Services.
- National Park Inn is located in the Longmire Historic District and is open year round. The Inn has 25 guest rooms, a full service dining room, and a general store. You can reserve a room online at Rainier Guest Services or call 360-569-2275 for more information.
Be Kind to Mama Nature
When planning your Mount Rainier National Park family vacation, keep this in mind. One of the park’s special features is that 98% of the park is pristine wilderness by federal law. We humans have plenty of space of our own to muck up. If we all follow the “leave no trace” doctrine in the outdoors, we ensure that these areas can continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.
More National Park Guides
Looking for more family-friendly guides to America’s national parks? See the complete list here.