The wildflowers were calling, and I had to go! For a few weeks a year, Paradise at MRNP lives up to its name by becoming awashed with purple, yellow, red, and blue.
COVID crowds here are abundant and very unmasked, which I expect to continue even as the wildflowers are past their prime. We arrived before 9am on a Wednesday and it will was an utter zoo by the time we left, one I cannot fathom on a weekend. But the sun (and the mountain!) was out, not a cloud was to be seen, and the bugs were non-existent. What a day!
Myself and Marissa from Postcards to Seattle chose to do a hike Jennie from Ordinary Adventures had recently raved about–Skyline Trail Loop from the Paradise area . Naches Loop is also a well-loved trail in the area that explodes with color at the right time, but we chose something with a bit more mileage to make the long drive worth it. Mt. Rainier can be notoriously fickle, with clear skies from afar and then be obscured by clouds once in the park, but it was a perfect day, weather-wise and view-wise.
We found a parking spot at Paradise and hit the bathroom (the ones at the lodge open after 10am). The iconic John Muir steps welcomed us, as well as a sign warning of bear activity–gulp! We did the trail clockwise, which has more climbing at the beginning but promises killer views. This first part is actually paved, so if bringing poles (which I’d recommend), bring your tip caps, too.
The climbing began, as we huffed and puffed and felt our calves tighten. We were in the shade at this part, but knew it would soon be gone. Keep in mind the visitor center itself is at over 5,000 feet elevation, so getting air to the lungs is more difficult even during flat sections. The trails can be intertwine-y at the beginning, but we felt signage was adequate enough. The climbing will slightly calm down as you approach Glacier Vista (which is also where the pavement ends). This is quite the photo op, not just of Rainier but 360* around you including a stunning view of Mt. Adams–but they will only get better with higher gain.
From here I had to shed my layers, as the climbing only continues. The dirt path gets fairly thin here, with signs everywhere begging hikers to stay on the trail (which we saw nearly everyone follow). The wildflowers here are very fragile, and sticking to the trail (and not picking the flowers) preserves them for all to enjoy. The view from the trail was jaw-dropping, as every step took us closer and closer to Mt. Rainier. This is the same trail those headed to Camp Muir or even the summit take, evident by the size of packs and those who had ice axes with them (or the shirtless guys we saw lumbering down with a half-empty bottle of Maker’s Mark). We passed the junction for Camp Muir and I bade some hikers good luck.
Not long after this we saw our first resident of the park, a hoary marmot. Beaver-like, these rodents are all over the park, and we saw several others from the trail (as well as some beggar chipmunks). They love foraging for edible plants, especially in the morning, and they sure seemed to enjoy the lupines still in bloom all over the hillsides. You wind up a bit more before reaching the most-aptly named Panorama Point at just under 7,000 feet elevation. True 360* views are astounding here, with Mt. Rainier looming overhead and Hood, Adams, and Mount St. Helens dotting the remaining skyline. If there are no open seats for a snack, don’t despair, as there are more even a little higher.
At Panorama Point is also the most charming alpine pit toilet I’ve ever seen that seemed right out of Switzerland. If you do use this, remember to fully close the door behind you so no marmots can enter and get trapped. Quickly after the toilet on the main trail we found an even better snack spot than Panorama Point, so we took a break there and simply marveled at all around us. It might have been the most stunning hike I’ve been on, and certainly not as hard at Mount St. Helens.
Once you leave Panorama Point, your descent begins! With it, you will almost undoubtedly hit some snowfields. Depending on snowpack and time of year, poles and microspikes can be necessary here. Marissa managed okay without hers, but I was thankful to have my poles not just for the small snowfields we traversed but the steepness too. WTA.org trip reports and the NPS website can be helpful for researching snow conditions (NPS even had a map showing what parts of the trail had snow). Luckily it was far warmer than I thought it would be even at nearly 7,000 feet elevation, and the small snowfields were a welcome bit of cooling every time, even with the slip risk.
Upon leaving Panorama Point, stick to the High Skyline trail, which has better footing than the ‘low’ Skyline trail. At your next signed junction about a half-mile downward, you have a choice–the Golden Gate trail will return you to the trailhead a mile sooner, but you will miss out on Sluiskin Falls. We were in heaven, so cutting a mile was out of the question. From here, the flowers seemed to get more bountiful. The mountain views alone make this hike worth the price of admission, but with purple lupine, scarlet asters, and other flowers in bloom everywhere, it’s no doubt this hike earned its place on the 1998 ‘100 Classic Washington Hikes’ list.
Sluiskin Falls were simultaneously mild and breathtaking. The entire hike had been, so I don’t know why every time I looked back towards Rainier I was taken aback, but I was. A few more signed spurs are here, and a monument for the men who accomplished the first documented ascent of the mountain back in 1870. The crowds had been steadily increasing on the trail here as the sun got higher in the sky. The signed turnoff for the Lake Trails turnoff is here as well, with the stunning Reflection Lakes, but, four additional miles was too much for us on that day. One more set of falls, Myrtle Falls, greeted us before a cruel last uphill.
We could tell we were close to the lodge by the hordes of people snapping wildflower pics, mostly unmasked. If you are at all nervous about crowds, I’d sadly avoid the park, even on a weekday, unless you are there very early or late in the day. We power-walked to get to the end safely, but were still enthralled with our visit. Despite living in the area my whole life, I think this was only my third visit to the park (I’ve been averaging one per decade!)–but far from my last.
Distance: 5.5 miles if doing the full Skyline Trail Loop, taking the Golden Gate trail shaves off about a mile.
Elevation: WTA said 1400, the NPS says 1700. Either way, not for the faint of heart!
Parking: $30 entry free gets you into the park for a week, or an America the Beautiful pass.
Bathrooms: Flushing toilets at Paradise (COVID-hours for the lodge open at 10am, others nearby open earlier but they had no hooks for hanging up your pack) and in summer months a pit toilet 2 miles along the trail in the hillside.
Best Beer Bet: Ten or more years ago, I greatly enjoyed a Paradise Iced Tea at the Paradise Lodge. I don’t know if it’s still on the menu and the lodge is currently closed due to COVID, but once life returns to normal I am checking if it is still there! We skipped stopping on the way home to stay COVID-safe, but in her write-up of the hike Jennie had some great recommendations!