I’ve been traveling Mount Rainier’s trails since before I could walk, strapped into a hulking child carrier backpack in the totally tubular 1980s. Sure, there are dozens of places to find objective and factual information about Rainier day hikes—try the excellent Washington Trails Association, Visit Rainier, or even the park itself. But these are my personal favorites, selected for totally capricious and utterly subjective reasons.
I recall my mother being so eager to see the famed Summerland meadows that when she injured a tendon midhike, she did the last uphill half mile from Fryingpan Creek backward—the only position that wasn’t excruciatingly painful. To this day she says it was worth it. Just past the White River Entrance on the park’s north side; total distance 9 miles.
There’s a photo of my family hiking this Tatoosh trail in the late ’80s where we all look like we dressed in the dark, pulling only from a pile of clothes meant to be cut up for dust rags. I try to associate this trail with the spectacular views it has of Rainier itself, but it’s hard to ignore all the neon sweatshirts and hideous shorts. A mile east of where Stevens Canyon Road turns off from Paradise Road; total distance 2.5 miles.
This hike has old-growth forest, a log bridge, and beautiful views from the flank of Mount Ararat (and you can add an extension to the gorgeous Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground meadows). It’s a semi-forgotten gem (relatively, for Rainier), close to the entrance station and far from the buzz of Paradise. Kautz Creek Picnic Area about 3 miles past the Nisqually Entrance Station; total distance 6 miles.
Van Trump Park
First time I heard of this hike I was picturing, like, swings and teeter-totters on the side of the mountain. Now I know that the “park” designation means a sweeping meadow with mountain views, and I was truly not disappointed by the lack of play equipment. On Paradise Road between Cougar Rock campground and Paradise; total distance 5.6 miles.
Grove of the Patriarchs
You can't not love the name of this trail—it sounds like something out of an Arthurian legend. Also I dig the big 1,000-year-old trees it shows off, its suspension bridge, and the fact that it’s flat enough for tiny tots and nonhikers. About two miles north of Ohanapecosh Campground; total distance 1.5 miles.
Sorry to pull the old-timer card, but back in the day this used to be a fantastic day hike off the Westside Road. Now that the route is closed, this high alpine park is accessible only on a multiday (or epic day) trip—though you could ride a bicycle down the closed road to the old trailhead. Eight miles past the closure point of the Westside Road; total distance 2.5 miles of trail, 16 miles of road.
Not the most heralded hike in the park, but a lovely ramble out to a collection of lakes. When I asked my mother what she remembered about it, she recalled “meadows, meadows, meadows,” and that it's great in wildflower season. Two miles past the White River Entrance Station; total distance 7 miles.
I saw twin baby bears here once, while on the approach to Camp Schurman out past Glacier Basin. Felt like a good omen for what turned out to be an awesome summit climb. Plus it's one of the easiest places to hike on a glacier; the modest and mellow Interglacier starts at the top of the basin. White River Campground; total distance 6.5 miles.
Snow and Bench Lakes
This easy ramble over boardwalks, through a meadow to a lovely lake, is the ideal gentle hike for visitors, so I remember doing it often with various visiting family members. That was usually after we'd gone into the old Paradise visitor center that was shaped like a UFO. That place was cool. On Stevens Canyon Road about two miles east of the Paradise Road turnoff; total distance 2.5 miles.
As much as I try to embrace the crowds at MRNP—our national parks are for everyone, and congestion just means lots of people enjoying the grandeur—I’m not immune to crabbing about them. The park’s northwest corner hardly offers solitude, but the hike to Eunice Lake and ascent to an old lookout is far from the madhouse of Sunrise or Paradise. It's worth the final, steep push. Mowich Lake Campground; total distance 6.5 miles.