Yes, Mount Rainier National Park is one of Washington’s greatest treasures. But it’s also hella crowded on summer weekends—finding a parking spot at Paradise can feel harder than getting into a godly paradise.
1. Ascend High Rock Lookout
The view (see above) makes this hike a worthy thigh-burning workout. First drive to Towhead Gap near Ashford, then climb on trail for just a mile and a half to the 1929 lookout perched on a fin of rock. With its wraparound deck and view east to Mount Rainier, it’s a popular site for sunrise excursions.
2. Ogle Eagles at Northwest Trek
Though they may be majestic creatures, canny hunters, and America’s patronus, some bald eagles are also unable to live in the wild due to injury. On August 3 the Eatonville-area wildlife park run by Metro Parks Tacoma opens its brand-new Eagle Passage aviary, a walk-through grove surrounded by mesh where visitors can see the birds up close. While it’s long been home to bear exhibits and 435 open acres hosting bison, elk, and mountain goats, this is a fitting time for Northwest Trek to expand skyward.
3. Shop a Classic Main Street in Enumclaw
The burg of Enumclaw has long teetered between charming mountain gateway and no-pretense farm town. Its well-preserved downtown includes the shaggy but lovable bookstore Sequel Books and Espresso (360-825-3144), whose shelves are crammed with pulpy western series and Agatha Christie, but also a robust Native American section and vintage Émile Zola. Down the block, Bridget’s Boutique (360-625-8032), with its embroidered blouses and trendy jumpsuits, feels lifted straight from Portland’s Eastside. Position yourself right outside the industrial home of Cole Street Brewery and you’ll catch a view of the mountain over your Cascadian Rye pint.
4. Wind Down at La Wis Wis
Sites within the park fill quickly, but a number of Forest Service campgrounds ring the national park and offer serene alternatives. La Wis Wis has more than 100 berths, including some that are walk-in, somewhat removed from parking spots—a style that has all the convenience of car camping without having to stare at your bumper gleaming right behind your tent pad.
5. Give Rover a Taste of Sourdough Gap
Hiking trails within the park are off-limits to pups—dogs can only go to parking lots and over paved areas—but the Cayuse/Chinook pass area has several routes that are just outside park boundaries. The six-mile Sourdough Gap trail winds up to subalpine Sheep Lake and the saddle above it. The trail offers glimpses of Rainier, but also the kind of wildflower meadows that made the whole area famous.
6. Invite Everyone to Alta Crystal
Located on Highway 410 on the northeast corner of the park, Alta Crystal Resort sees both heavy winter use (it’s a short drive to Crystal Mountain) and summer popularity thanks to its proximity to Sunrise. The woodsy, modest compound offers a variety of hotel styles, like lofts with kitchens and a wheelchair-accessible cabin. Because this is the Cascades, the heated pool (different from a hot tub, though they have that too) is heavenly year-round.
7. Party in Packwood
South of Mount Rainier National Park, in a dry, sunny pocket of Cascade forest, the town of Packwood has always had top-tier outdoor recreation: fishing in Packwood Lake, skiing at White Pass. But the social scene is slowly catching up, from lines for the morning cheddar bacon scones at Mountain Goat Coffee to evening beers at the patio of burger joint Cliff Droppers. Newcomer Packwood Brewing Company pours craft pints and slings street tacos in a historic old market building in the middle of town—yet another reason to stick around.
8. Go Beyond Thunder Dome
The brand new Thunder Dome Car Museum in Enumclaw, open since May, is about shiny, show-off kinds of motor vehicles. Rows of hot rods and convertibles line a building that resembles a gleaming car dealership without all the purchase pressure. While it’s a welcome distraction, especially on rainy days, the organization has a lofty goal—proceeds support epilepsy awareness and research.
9. Trek to Mount Tahoma Cabins
Three huts and a single yurt, run by the Mount Tahoma Trails Association, sit along 50 miles of trail and are especially popular in the winter, when the ridges both north and south of Ashford are ripe for cross-country skiing. In the summer, the huts are open for hikers to take a daytime break or even stay overnight. The view of Mount Rainier from the Copper Creek Hut is national park–worthy without the entrance fee.
10. Kick Back in Carbonado
The Carbon River entrance of the park is by far the least used, with access only to a small walk-in campground at Mowich Lake and a smattering of excellent trails. Just outside, the tiny town of Carbonado is equally off the radar. While its neighboring hamlet of Wilkeson has a coffee shop and a tasty pizza restaurant, this town boasts only the Carbonado Saloon. The dust in the corner might date back to the bar’s 1889 opening, but 8,000 square feet of beer garden, complete with stone fire pit, is timeless.
11. Pick Up a New Hobby in Elbe
The historic train cars in the town outside the park’s southeast corner are home to a pizzeria and, since winter of 2018, Rainier Mountain Sportz. The outdoor shop rents stand-up paddleboards and mountain bikes, including electric versions, and snow gear in the winter. Staff will even shuttle you and a bike (seasonally) to trailheads within 20 miles for $20.
12. Glamp with a Fallback Plan in Greenwater
The Elk Crossing vacation home near the northeast corner of the park has the ideal camping setup for the tent-averse—Instagram-ready triangle tents with full beds draped in colorful blankets. They come as part of a rental package with a full three-bedroom cabin that has heat, running water, and a kitchen. The covered patio hot tub only cements that this is an outdoor sleeping experience where the actual roughing it is optional.