Taking the kids? 10 things to know about visiting Mount Rainier National Park
A 14,000-foot active volcano may not seem like a kid-friendly destination, but Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state has plenty of adventure for children of all ages. There are more than 369 square miles filled with hiking trails, waterfalls, river beds and lush forests, making it a perfect natural playground.
Visiting a park of this size requires a plan, though — especially if you want to avoid crowded trails, hangry children or snowed-out experiences. Here are my mom-approved tips to experience Mount Rainier National Park with kids.
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Pick the best time to visit
If you’re visiting Mount Rainier for winter sports such as skiing or snowshoeing, obviously go during the winter. But, if you’re planning to hike, aim for late summer if you can. Late-July and all through August is also the best time to see wildflowers when the subalpine regions erupt in a riot of blooms, including lupine, strawberry, Calypso orchids, yellow violets, starflower plants, and salmonberries.
We visited in mid-July, and some trails in the Paradise region were still covered in snow, so take weather into account when planning your time to visit.
Choose the right region
You don’t need a full itinerary, but you should at least decide which region of the park to visit. This is especially true because limited cell service makes it tough to navigate inside the park without a good map. Pick your destination by the type of terrain or views you’re seeking. And remember, the $30 vehicle entry fee is good for multiple days (you can also use your annual America the Beautiful National Park pass if you plan to visit other parks and nationally-managed lands this year). Plan a multiday visit if you want to see more than one region:
Easily the most popular region, Paradise is best known for its contrast of snowfields and wildflower meadows.
Ohanapecosh is less trafficked than Paradise and filled with lush forests and waterfalls.
Home to the highest point in Mount Rainier you can reach by car and famous for its panoramic views.
The Longmire region is home to the historic National Park Inn, which was built in the early 1900s and is one of the only on-site hotels. You can hike to falls and hot springs nearby.
Related: Cold weather essentials for babies and toddlers
Check the park webcam for weather conditions
Weather can change quickly in the mountains. Luckily, the National Park Service has a webcam feed on its website. Check the weather and look for snow on the ground to help you plan what you'll need for the conditions. Dress the kids in layers and bring extra shoes and socks for water play.
Related: Cold weather essentials for babies and toddlers
Find trails marked ‘easy’ or ‘kid-friendy’
If you have young kids, you’re probably not looking for a 10-mile hike (and if you are, I’m impressed).
Use a trail map app like All Trails to sort trails by easy, moderate or hard. There are also filters for kid-friendly, stroller-friendly and paved paths. I browse pictures and read the most recent trail reviews for more context. You can also stop by the visitor center for recommendations and details on current conditions.
Our favorite kid-friendly trails at Mount Ranier National Park are:
- Nisqually Vista Loop: This 1-mile-long, mostly paved trail in the Paradise region leads to an overlook area with a view of Nisqually Glacier and the river valley. Enter the trail through the south parking lot at the Paradise Visitor Center.
- Myrtle Falls Trail: Another mile long, out and back hike in the Paradise region to a waterfall with opportunities to see wildflowers, wildlife and views of Mount Rainier along the way.
- Silver Forest Trail: This is a 2-mile-long, out and back trail in the Sunrise region with panoramic views of Mount Rainier and Emmons Glacier.
- Sunrise Nature Trail: Take this 1.5-mile hike in the Sunrise region through wildflower meadows for views of both Mount Rainier and the Cascades.
- Grove of the Patriarchs: In the Ohanapecosh region, take this 1-mile nature walk through a cedar forest to a suspension bridge river crossing.
- Silver Falls Trail: Also in Ohanapecosh, this is a 4-mile-long moderate trail that leads to a gorgeous waterfall. You can do the 4-mile loop from Ohanapecosh or an abbreviated 2-mile out and back hike from the same parking lot as Grove of the Patriarchs.
Related: Tips for taking kids to national parks
Get to the park entrance early
We got a late start one day and didn’t arrive at the gate until noon. The line was more than 30 cars long and the trails were just as crowded. Treat a trip to Mount Rainier like you would a vacation to Disney World: arrive as early as possible — definitely well before 10 a.m. — to beat the crowds. If you miss the morning, early evening is also less busy. Just make sure to bring a flashlight or headlamp and emergency supplies if you’re hiking near dusk.
Don't miss this attraction
If you only hike one trail with kids, this is it. Grove of the Patriarchs is located inside the Stevens Pass park entrance near Ohanapecosh. Park in the first lot just inside the gate to the right. It’s a 1.5-mile out and back trail through the forest, with a suspension bridge and river bed to explore. It’s rated easy and really more of a nature walk. If the kids are up for it, Silver Falls trail across the street is a 2-mile hike and leads to the park's largest waterfall by volume.
Order a Junior Ranger park passport
The National Park Junior Ranger program teaches kids to explore and appreciate the country's natural resources. Each visitor center hands out a junior ranger activity map. Order a National Park passport online before you go. Kids can stamp each park they visit for an interactive keepsake.
Related: From national parks to theme parks, from baseball to bourbon: 7 unique passport programs
Pack extra food and water
Other than a couple of small snack stands, food options are limited in Mount Rainier. Hotels and shopping are more than 30 minutes away, and the park is about a 2-hour drive south from Seattle. Add that variable to active kids, and you’ve got major meltdown potential. Pack picnic meals, snacks and more water than you think you’ll need. Fruit and granola bars are great for easy access, and we kept a cooler and gallon jugs of water in the car to refill our backpacks as needed.
Ride the Gondola
It’s not technically inside the park, but the Mount Rainier Gondola at Crystal Mountain is a fun hiking break for the kids. Enjoy a 10-minute ride up the mountain, ascending more than 2,400 vertical feet, and be rewarded with breathtaking views of Mount Rainier and the Cascades. Reserve your tickets online ahead of time (young children are free), and remember, you'll find a restaurant, bar and gift shop at the top, too.
Where to stay in Mount Rainier National Park
Stay in or close to the park for easy nap access, as all that hiking wears out little legs. If you’re brave enough to camp with kids, there are four campgrounds open from late May to September: Cougar Rock, Ohanapecosh, Whiter River and Mowich Lake. Campsites are mostly first come, first served, but you can make reservations in advance at Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh.
If your family prefers hotels, like ours, be warned that points-friendly accommodations nearby are limited. Independently owned inns and lodge-style motels are more common. The National Park Inn is centrally located in the park, but with only 25 guestrooms, space fills up quickly. You can also search for a place to bed down in nearby towns such as Enumclaw, Asheford and Crystal Mountain.
We chose Alta Crystal Resort for quick access to Ohanapecosh and Crystal Mountain. We paid about $300 a night for a one-bedroom chalet with a loft. The rustic, treehouse-inspired design was perfect for the kids. There's no restaurant on site, but the small amenity shop had all the essentials including eggs, milk, sandwich supplies and wine (a true necessity after a busy day exploring Mount Rainier with kids).
You don’t have to be a seasoned mountaineer to visit Mount Rainier National Park. There are plenty of kid-friendly hikes and a variety of terrains to explore. But a well-laid plan certainly makes the trip more enjoyable for the entire family.