A view of Mount Rainier (it's to the hiker's right), from Emmons Glacier(Jack Coble)
Washington State's Mount Rainier National Park is a rugged landscape of waterfalls, glaciers, and lakes. The upper slope of its highest peak, Mount Rainier, a 14,410-foot-high volcano in the Cascade mountain range, is covered with 26 glaciers and scores of snowfields. Together they total 35 square miles, making it the country's largest single-mountain ice mass outside of Alaska. And that holds true even in summer, when hikers find ample ammunition for snowball fights after only 20 minutes of climbing up any number of trails.
A four-day, 600-mile-loop drive out of Seattle is the ideal way to take in Mount Rainier, along with its national park neighbor, North Cascades National Park; an Old West mining town that's working hard to preserve its history; a bustling lake resort; and a curious village with Bavarian aspirations.
Day one: Seattle to Winthrop
The drive got under way inauspiciously as my wife, Sandy, and I negotiated the traffic on I-5/I-405 north out of Seattle's urban clutter.
But as soon as we exited east onto the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20), the road opened up, and a seemingly impenetrable wall of soaring peaks loomed ahead.
The Cascade mountain range is a 700-mile-long chain stretching from northern California into British Columbia. Within it, North Cascades National Park has the sheerest, most rugged peaks. More than a dozen soar above 8,000 feet; even the most experienced hikers can find them intimidating. Drenched by Pacific storms, the western slopes are covered in a dense, eerily dark forest dripping with moss. And on the high cliffs, hundreds of waterfalls cascade down--which is how the range got its name.
We stopped briefly in Newhalem, where the National Park Service operates a visitor center, and picked up a free guide to day hikes. A mile beyond, we entered a misty forest on the gentle Trail of the Cedars. Following the racing Skagit River, the path makes a short loop among giant Douglas firs and western red cedars, which rival the California redwood for size and beauty. Signs along the way introduced us to the region's plants and trees; I started my informal education on how to tell the difference between firs and cedars. (Though both trees have reddish brown bark, cedars have scale-like leaves, while firs have needles.) After our hike, we picnicked at the trailhead, buying bread and a sharp cheddar at the Skagit General Store, which is right in the parking lot.
East of Newhalem, the highway climbs through a spectacular gorge, edging high above a trio of slender lakes resembling the fjords of Norway. Gorge and Diablo lakes appeared bright green; Ross Lake, shimmering in the sun, reflected the deep blue of the sky.
Checking our guidebook, we kept an eye out for the trail to Rainy Lake. The trail is just a mile long (one way), and it leads to what we agreed was one of the prettiest views in the Cascades. The path plunges into a forest of spruce, fir, and mountain hemlock. We crossed two bridged streams that splash down the mountainside. Then we found a place where suddenly the trees give way to a small turquoise lake, with evergreens lining the shore and a wall of rock towering above. Three thread-like waterfalls pour down.
The road reaches its highest point at Washington Pass, at 5,477 feet. From a viewing area, we spotted climbers inching up 7,740-foot Liberty Bell, a massive rock that resembles the Philadelphia landmark. A ranger next to us watched the climbers' slow progress through her telescope.
The highway descends gradually through a winding canyon to the town of Winthrop, on the sunnier, drier eastern foothills of the Cascades. The old mining outpost has worked vigorously to preserve its frontier look. Balconies hang over wooden sidewalks, creating a main street that looks like it could be a Gunsmoke set. Old Schoolhouse Brewery now occupies the town's little red schoolhouse--a fake frontier structure that was actually built in the 1970s--and serves the award-winning Ruud Awakening. In addition to refurbishing some old buildings, the town also built new ones in an Old West style. In search of a decidedly more authentic experience, we walked a block off the main road, Riverside Avenue, to the multibuilding Shafer Museum. The weathered collection of historical structures outlines the town's mining past.
At the end of Riverside Avenue, the new 29-room Hotel Rio Vista lived up to its name; our room had a terrific view of the Methow River. For dinner, we took a two-minute walk down the street to the Riverside Grill, where I had a generous platter of excellent barbecued ribs.
Day two: Winthrop to Yakima
Before leaving town, we stopped in at the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery to learn about efforts to boost the number of chinook, steelhead, and coho salmon spawning in the waters here. The chinook and steelhead are officially listed as endangered species, and the coho is in even more serious trouble. Since the 1940s, the hatchery has been raising salmon, releasing almost 1 million youngsters annually on a 600-mile journey to the Pacific Ocean past nine dams, where the salmon live for an average of two to three years before returning to spawn. Annual returns number in the low hundreds. Due to the hatchery's efforts, the salmon are surviving, though certainly not thriving yet.
This area has been plagued by summer forest fires, and the 66-year-old North Cascades Smokejumper Base, just outside downtown Winthrop, is the "birthplace of smoke jumping." Sandy relaxed in the room while I took a free 60-minute tour. An on-duty smoke jumper showed me the crew's parachute rigging room and led me aboard the two-engine plane waiting on the runway for the next fire call.
Next up was Chelan, a busy resort town on a large lake. It was a little cold for a swim, so we enjoyed the views from the banks. Lake Chelan was carved by a glacier and cuts a thin swath into the heart of the Cascades. Passenger ferries cross the lake, which is 50 miles long, but we arrived too late to catch the 8:30 a.m. round trip on the Lady Express.
For the next 40 miles to Wenatchee, U.S. 97 south runs along the Columbia River and the massive Lake Entiat, formed by a river dam. We stopped at one of the many roadside fruit stands to purchase a small box of golden Rainier cherries, fresh-picked and luscious, before briefly detouring west into the mountains to the curious little Bavarian-inspired village of Leavenworth. Taking a cue from their Alps-like setting, the local folk--who are not necessarily of German descent--decided to revitalize their once-failing community by creating an ersatz Bavarian village. Shopkeepers and restaurant crews are decked out in lederhosen.
Yakima is an agriculturally rich city, noted in particular for its cherries, apples, and very good wines. It's possible to taste for free at 46 Yakima Valley wineries, many of which are clustered south of town.
Day three: Yakima to Mount Rainier National Park
We kept jackets and sweaters close at hand as we headed back to the high country. Even in midsummer, daytime temperatures can drop as low as 30 degrees, and lingering snowbanks line the road. On the way out of town, we stopped at a grocery store and picked up cheese, crackers, cherries, and cookies and packed them in a cooler in the car.
Our winding ascent began just outside Yakima. Initially we passed through the slender canyon of the Naches River, and then at Chinook Pass (elevation 5,432 feet), we entered Mount Rainier National Park. At the first sight of snow, Sandy and I pulled off the road to toss snowballs, each of us scoring a direct hit.
Though it's not America's highest peak, Rainier is the most awesome I've ever seen, because of both its massive bulk and easy accessibility. You can drive almost up to the edge of some of the glaciers. Practically filling the sky, the mountain towers in solitary glory above neighboring Cascade peaks like the statuesque ruler of a mystical ice kingdom.
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.
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.