Mount Rainier and the North Cascades
If the views don't give you the chills, the snow sure will.
Our first stop in the park, requiring a round-trip detour of 40 miles, was Sunrise, which, at 6,400 feet, is the highest point reachable by car. We got a close-up view of Emmons, the largest (at 4.3 square miles) of Rainier's 26 glaciers, before stopping to pull out our cooler contents and picnic along the White River. It has its name for a reason: It appears white in color, a result of the silt--crushed rock called "glacial flour"--that is carried by glacial melt.
Doubling back, we headed west to Paradise, which is the park's hub. The mini-village has a visitor center, a restaurant, trailheads to the summit, and a climbing school. Rainier's last major eruption was more than 500 years ago, but it could spout off again at any time. There are signs pointing the way to evacuation routes in the park, should you be on hand for the next eruption. Needless to say, I found the warnings a bit unnerving.
The best way to view Rainier, a ranger told us, is to hike one of the well-marked trails at the edge of Nisqually Glacier. A low portion of the Skyline Trail led us through fields thick with wildflowers. A side trail took us up to a point where snow started. Not too far past that, the snow was so high it blocked our path, and we were forced to return to the original trail.
That night, we stayed in Paradise, at the Paradise Inn. Built in 1917, it's a handsome wooden structure. In the grand lobby, the furniture is made of hand-hewn cedar. And upstairs, the rooms are tiny; a double bed all but fills one, leaving space for only a nightstand and--if you're lucky enough to get one of the bigger rooms--a chair and desk. But rates are reasonable, and the views in every direction qualify as luxury-class. It's the best place to stay in the park, and for that reason, it tends to book up months in advance.
- Paradise Inn Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park, 360/569-2275, guestservices.com/rainier, from $92
- Paradise Inn Dining Room bourbon buffalo meat loaf, $15.50
- Mount Rainier National Park 360/569-2211, nps.gov/mora, $10 per car, valid for one week
On our way out of the park, we stopped at Narada Falls. The magnificent waterfall spills over a cliff's edge in a roar and hits a huge rock; the water is then dispersed, spreading wide in a flow that seems as delicate as a Spanish fan. At the base of the falls, we picked up the 93-mile-long Wonderland Trail, which encircles Mount Rainier. We hiked for an hour and then turned around. But it led us into a quieter side of Rainier, with shadowy forests where the peace is broken only by the splashing of a stream.
Before returning to Seattle, we caught a last glimpse of Rainier's glaciers out of the car's rear window. Just the memory of the ice seemed to keep us cooler for the rest of the summer.
Finding your way
At least five discount airlines serve Seattle-Tacoma International Airport: America West, American Trans Air, Southwest, Frontier, and JetBlue. You should be able to rent a car with unlimited mileage for under $140 a week. Keep in mind that snow in both North Cascades and Mount Rainier national parks can close parts of this route from November to May.
If you go during any season other than summer, it's wise to check ahead about road conditions. Even in summer, on the western slopes of the Cascades you'll need a jacket, and it's possible that you'll also need a poncho or other rain gear.
On the sunny eastern slopes, shorts and T-shirts should be sufficient. Temperatures reach 80 degrees.
1. Seattle Airport to Winthrop, 200 miles
From the airport, take I-5/I-405 north to Route 20 east (North Cascades Highway) to Winthrop. Be sure to allow plenty of time for the drive; after leaving the interstates, the road becomes narrow and windy, and its edges are sheer drop-offs.
2. Winthrop to Yakima, 190 miles
Take Route 20 south via Twisp to Route 153 south. At Pateros, continue south on U.S. 97, detouring four miles west into Leavenworth on U.S. 2. Return to U.S. 97 south to Ellensburg, picking up I-82 south into Yakima.
3. Yakima to Mount Rainier National Park (Paradise), 125 miles
Take U.S. 12 west, picking up Route 410 into Mount Rainier National Park. Once in the park, detour north to get to Sunrise. To reach Paradise, you'll have to double back the way you came.
4. Paradise to Seattle airport, 95 miles
Follow the park road to the Nisqually entrance. Pick up Route 706 west to Elbe, connecting to Route 7 and then to I-5 north. From the park, the drive to the airport should take about two and a half hours.