Washington state is home to three amazing national parks – Mount Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park and North Cascades National Park. Visiting national parks is a great way to have an adventure and still maintain social distance during this challenging time. Active duty military and dependents are eligible for a free America the Beautiful park pass, which gets you into all national park system facilities for free, just show your ID at the gate.
Mount Rainier is the tallest mountain in the continental United States. On a clear day I can see this wonderful mountain from my back porch, yet it takes us two and a half hours to drive to it and begin climbing its foothills.
My family and I chose to travel to Mount Rainier National Park for our summer vacation a full year ago, and it was a happy accident that we didn’t need to cancel due to COVID-19. Please check with your command about rules regarding distance and counties you are allowed to travel to before planning a trip.
Here’s a quick guide if you plan to visit the park soon:
When to Go
Mount Rainier is open all year round, although during the winter only two park entrances are accessible: Nisqually Entrance, in the southwest corner of the park, and the Carbon River Entrance, in the northwest corner. Fall is a wonderful time to visit the park, just be sure to check the weather forecast and dress in layers.
Given the choice I would not have traveled on a weekend. It was very busy but by getting up and heading out early we were able to find parking and we finished with our adventures before peak crowds arrived.
Where to Stay
We opted to stay at Betsy’s Cabins in nearby Ashford, WA, for a little bit of privacy. Some of the lodging right outside the park can be crowded. We were not disappointed with our choice. At peak season rooms can be scarce so be sure to book your stay a few months in advance if possible. Betsy provided us with all the comforts of home, and we only brought food, clothing, and a few other items. The Nisqually entrance to the national park was a quick 10 minute drive away.
Hikes With Children
Saturday was our first day in the park and we did not plan it well for our younger children, ages four and seven. The trails we picked were too challenging. We left our cabin by 8:30 a.m. and there were only a few cars in front of us waiting to get into the park. We headed up to Paradise and arrived right around 9:00 a.m. We were able to get a parking spot but there were not many left. Because of the crowds it was essential to keep masks on. We also opted to avoid the visitor’s center because of all the people. On a quieter day I would have liked to look at the exhibits.
The day was very wet and cold even though it was the beginning of August. We brought sweatshirts, waterproof windbreakers, winter hats and gloves to keep us warm. Bringing an extra mask would have been a good choice. Walking around in a cloud made all our masks wet and uncomfortable.
Our plan was to walk the Skyline Trail from the visitor’s center to see the Nisqually Glacier. A ranger at the base let us know there were some black bears on the trail and advised not running or yelling so as to not startle the bears. The bears leave people alone if they do not feel threatened.The trail had a very steep incline from the first few steps. After about 0.2 miles it was clear that the trail was much too hard for our four-year-old. We opted to turn around and find something easier. I was disappointed we didn’t see any bears or glaciers.
A different ranger gave us a Paradise specific map as well as a flower guide. In August the wild flowers were beautiful. We made a game of walking for one minute then one of the girls would locate a flower and find it on the guide. We enjoyed Dead Horse Creek Trail and Water Fall trail. If you’re interested in seeing the Paradise specific map we were able to find it here.f It would have been helpful to have in our planning.
We stayed for about two hours total. After that the kids were tired and visibility had gotten even worse. This is one of the perks to staying close to the park. If necessary you can call it a day early. We returned to the cabin and enjoyed a fire and the hot tub and took a nap so we could enjoy the meteors that evening. Early August always brings the Perseid Meteor Shower.
Day two was much more kid friendly. Instead of a big hike we used the car to park at various trail heads and take short hikes to see some sights. The sky was completely clear and the views were amazing. We could see Rainier from the moment we entered the park where as the day before all we saw was fog and trees.
We got a much later start, around 10am, and waited 15 to 20 minutes to get into the park.
Stop #1 was Kautz CreekTrailhead. There was a small boardwalk with some information boards where we learned about the changes to the Nisqually River over the last decade or so. The walk ends with a great view of Mount Rainier. We took a few pictures then got back into the car. This area was not crowded.
Stop #2 took us to a real bathroom and the Longmire General Store. There is a museum here as well as a restaurant, hotel, and other trailheads. This area was not crowded. There was plenty of parking and it was easy to maintain social distancing in both the rest rooms and the gift shop.
Stop # 3 was the most amazing part of our trip. I wanted to get down to the river and an entrance to The Wonderland Trail provided just that. The Wonderland Trail is a 96 mile hike around the base of Mount Rainier and is rated “hard” by All Trails. I’m sure the trail as a whole deserves a hard rating but the portion that we visited was very flat and smooth and better rated as “easy.” We were able to cross the river on a log bridge. I felt comfortable letting the girls cross. Our four-year-old held an adult’s hand. We spent about an hour playing on the rocks with beautiful Mount Rainier as our backdrop. By this point in the day parking was getting a bit more difficult, though the trail itself was not crowded.
Stop #4 was a quick park to admire the Christine Falls Bridge. Parking here was very challenging. We pulled very close to another car to get off the road and were quick to get back into the car. If you can find a parking spot there is a stairway down to the river and the bottom of the falls.
We turned around and started back down for stop # 5 at the Comet Falls Trailhead. Parking was very difficult. If someone hadn’t been leaving we would have skipped this stop for the day. By following the Comet Falls Trail we were able to get up above the Christine Falls Bridge and look down at the waterfall. The trail is also rated as “hard” by All Trails but the portion up to the waterfall is not terribly steep and is just fine for tiny legs, again I’d rate the portion up to the bridge as easy. The bridge to pass over the waterfall is a little nerve wracking for moms so littles should hold hands. We wore our masks the entire time since there were so many people.
Know Before You Go (COVID-19)
- As always, make sure you check with your command to confirm you can travel during COVID. This is always changing and it’s always possible your trip will need to be canceled.
- Expect crowds. Arrive early for parking, and be prepared to avoid indoor buildings to maintain social distancing.
- Check the weather forecast. Clear skies make for amazing views!
- Make your reservations as early as possible if you need lodging. Mount Rainier can be a day trip, but plan for a very long day. The drive from Silverdale to Mount Rainier is nearly two hours one way.
Be brave and explore, but there’s no shame in changing plans to keep everyone happy! For the latest COVID restrictions or updates on the park, click here.
We had some high and low points during our visit, but overall was an amazing time. Use the comments section to share your own experience at Mount Rainier, especially if you were able to take your kids up to the Nisqually Glacier! I’d love to give it another try someday.