- Distance from Seattle: 77 miles
- Best time: Year Round
- Best for: FamilyBudgetOutdoor
If you've spent any time in Seattle, you've seen majestic Mt. Rainier—the Cascades' tallest peak—looming to the southeast of the city, just beckoning adventurous types to visit. Families flock to the 14,410-foot mountain year round for skiing, climbing, and hiking. It's no wonder: It's an easy three hour drive away from downtown Seattle. The late-spring and summer route we recommend takes you in a circular path. The first stop is the popular resort town of Crystal Mountain, then to the north side of Rainier along wildflower hikes, old-growth forests, and alpine lakes, and finally looping around the popular Paradise stop. That way, you can maximize your time spent exploring nature and minimize the "when will we get there?" inquiries. – By Lora Shinn
Mount Rainier Cheat Sheet
View a printable list of all sights, restaurants, entertainment, and hotels from this itinerary. View
1For a dose of afternoon enjoyment, plan to arrive at Crystal Mountain Resort in the early afternoon. Grab a microbrew at Snorting Elk Cellar (a traditional Austrian pub). Then head out to the resort's 30-hole course of disk golf, which is free and open to anyone.
2At the resort, ride a cherry-red gondola (the first installed in a Washington State ski resort) for dinner at the onsite Summit House, featuring comfort food at 6,872 feet (the highest elevation restaurant in the state). Atop Crystal Mountain, enjoy a Wagyu steak salad or soul-warming chicken pot pie, surrounded by unparalleled alpine views.
1Break your night's fast at Crystal Mountain Resort's Bavarian accented Alpine Inn Restaurant, which serves a buffet continental breakfast. Then continue south on 410 for about twenty-five minutes to Tipsoo Lake at the top of Chinook Pass. In summer, a lupine-embroidered trail winds around the quiet alpine lake, which reflects the mountain's face. Pose with the kids for pictures or look for tadpoles swimming in the lake's clear waters.
2The Grove of the Patriarchs, one of Rainier's best destinations to view old-growth trees, is your next stop. From Tipsoo, head back down, west on 410, then turn left onto Cayuse Pass (WA-123 South), about twenty minutes to Grove of the Patriarchs. An easy two-mile round-trip hike will take you past sentry-like western red cedars, lead you across a suspension bridge, and introduce you to granddaddy evergreens that are more than 1,000 years old. Feel free to hug a tree.
3For an adventurous lodge-style lunch, take Stevens Canyon Road for about forty minutes to the east entrance of the Paradise area of the Mount Rainier National Park. Dine at the Paradise Inn Dining Room, a restaurant that tips its hat to pioneers. Dig into bison burgers or a smoked salmon Caesar salad while seated near big windows overlooking alpine vistas.
4At the same location, step into Mt. Rainier's most popular visitor's destination, the Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, framed by views of the Tattoosh Range mountains. Check out displays of local plant and animal life and read about the mountain's volcanic legacy. Then head out to explore. There are plenty of great paths near here for an afternoon hike—the only trouble will be choosing one.
5Before it gets dark, drive down the mountain's west side along Paradise Park Highway for 40 minutes toward Alexander's Country Inn in Ashford. The inn's restaurant is a favorite for kids: They can catch a trout in the pond, which the restaurant will cook to order. That and other regional Pacific Northwest fare will please parents, as well. Dinner reservations are a must in summer.
1Fuel up with a hearty brunch at Ashford's Copper Creek Inn, Cabins and Lodge, famed for their blackberry jam, fresh-baked breads, veggie-studded scrambles, and fluffy pancakes. The wood-paneled surroundings and 1955 Mt. Rainier mural add to the vintage charm. Then drive five minutes west on the National Park Highway (State Route 706) and make a quick stop at the sculpture garden at Ex Nihilo, where artist Dan Klennert has welded metal, assembled wood, and other "found" materials into shapes of dinosaurs, monsters, and mythical seahorses.
2For a final mountain adventure, take a train trip through the forest. Drive west on the National Park Highway for five minutes to the small town of Elbe. Kids and parents rave about the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad, where they can experience Washington forests at a slower pace than in the car, chugging past Douglas firs, western red cedars, and maples and passing over vintage trestles. These trips can take up to three hours, so plan accordingly.
3Or, for a wildlife-spotting adventure, head over to the Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, where a 55-minute tram ride introduces the family to bison, elk, and moose roaming free across 435 acres. Forested pathways lead you past rehabilitated bears, bobcats, cougars, and other predatory creatures in protective exhibits. From Elbe, drive west along the Mountain Highway (State Route 7) to Hwy 161. Turn north on 161 and drive through the town of Eatonville to Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, located just six miles north of Eatonville.
Where to Stay
Note: We recommend you stay overnight in two different locations to prevent long evening drives.
First Night: For the first night, try Alta Crystal Resort (rooms from $169/night), a lodge that dates back to the 1920s and offers a 90-degree pool, outdoor grills, snowshoe rentals in winter, and kitchens. For a more family-friendly or group alternative, look at the Silver Skis Chalet (rooms from $200/night), condo rentals equipped with kitchens and living rooms, just steps from the chairlift and gondolas.
Second Night: Choose to stay to the mountain's west, in Ashford. Copper Creek Inn (rooms from $79/night) provides room for two to twelve in retro, wooden bungalows and suites. Alexander's Country Inn (rooms from $99/night) is a fine twelve-room choice, though rooms are cozy. The inn also has two vacation rentals nearby for larger families who want more space. Note: If you're planning far in advance, try to get a reservation at Paradise Inn, a rustic but central government-run resort right on Mt. Rainier.
When to Go
Mt. Rainier draws families in spring for easy-access hiking, panoramic views, and wildflowers galore. It's also very accessible in summer—no snow chains required. However, year-round weather is temperamental, and downpours can hit at any time.
Cool temperatures are the norm, even in sunny July and August. Dress appropriately, in layers, and stay up-to-date on the changing weather forecasts.
How to Get There
By car from Seattle: To Crystal Mountain (first night): Take I-5 South to Exit 142-A Hwy 18 East toward Auburn. Off of Hwy 18 take Hwy 164 East and drive toward and through the town of Enumclaw. At the intersection of Hwy 410 and Griffin Avenue take a left onto 410. Continue on 410 East for approximately thirty-three miles. Turn left onto Crystal Mountain Boulevard and continue up six miles to the resort. Drive time is about ninety-five minutes.
This itinerary follows a circular route along the mountain's west side. After finishing your trip in Eatonville, it's about another hour north to Seattle along Meridian Avenue East to State Route 512, which rejoins I-5, south of Tacoma.
Follow the directions listed above, but bring a recent map and a GPS device (with a compass for backup). Road names change and in the right conditions, roads can become confusing. Times listed here are approximate and might vary widely due to road conditions and traffic. Pack activities for the kids in case the trip takes longer than you thought it would.
A map of drive times around the park is available at Visit Rainier.
Driving on Mount Rainier: It can't be said enough: Prepare for all extremes and check the weather and traffic reports before heading up any mountain pass in our region—and particularly so in this region, at these altitudes. Being caught in a blizzard or stuck after discovering a pass is closed isn't fun for anyone—particularly kids.