Cloaked by clouds much of the year, Mt. Rainier has been called one of the country's least seen tourist attractions. Fortunately, summer brings blue skies to Washington, allowing visitors to witness the different faces of the state's 14,410-foot mystery mountain. Few are disappointed.
Start with a bracing coffee at Mocha Madness in Tacoma, about 30 miles south of Seattle. Then drive south on Highway 7 for 35 miles to the if-you-blink-you'll-miss-it hamlet of Elbe. (If you're out early, wet a trout line at Alder Lake.) Check your gas gauge then leave Elbe along Highway 706, heading east to the Nisqually Entrance of Mt. Rainier National Park ($10 fee). At Longmire, stroll through the natural history museum (free), then join one of the ranger-led interpretive hikes through the 500-year-old conifer forests that grace the mountain's lower slopes.
Load the camera before leaving Longmire because the road climbs to increasingly photogenic sites. During the next 5 miles, snap images of Christine and Nahunta falls. A mile past the Nisqually River Bridge, pull into Ricksecker Point for a southside view of the mountain you'll wish you could tack to your living-room window. Then drive 6 miles to the resort at Paradise, where you'll emerge from thick forests onto the exposed flanks of the volcano.
When skies are clear, Paradise lives up to its name. The views of Mt. Rainier inspire thousands of ovations daily. Words like "awesome" and "spectacular" hang in the air from lingering groups of tourists. While you add to those utterances, grab a bite at the Paradise Lodge before checking out the visitor center. Be sure to hike through alpine meadows, past snowfields and over volcanic rubble to the Nisqually Vista (1.2 miles) or Panorama Point (3 miles).
Leaving Paradise, descend to the Stevens Canyon Road and drive east past the aptly named Reflection Lakes. At Highway 123 head north to Cayuse Pass, being careful not to let the views overtax your rubbernecking muscles. Drive north on Highway 410 and decide whether time allows a side trip up the 16-mile road to Sunrise Lodge. Sunrise is perched on Mt. Rainier's northern slopes and, like Paradise, boasts jaw-dropping views and hikes. The walk up Sourdough Ridge offers a particularly rewarding sweat-to-view ratio.
Should you pass on Sunrise, drive 7 miles from Cayuse Pass to the Crystal Mountain Road and on to the Crystal Mountain Ski Area. In summer, the lifts run daily until Labor Day for hikers and gawkers ($12, round-trip). Hungry? Check out the mountain-peak Summit House restaurant, with views of Rainier that rival the panorama from any U.S. ski area. Hiking the ridge while staring at the hulk of Rainier is food for the soul and a walk you'll remember. The trails around the resort also provide great sport for mountain bikers and horseback riders; visit Crystal Mountain Sports at the resort's base to rent a bike or register for a trail ride.
The route back to Tacoma follows Highway 410 and passes through Enumclaw, where a stop at Cynthia's Pony Express, with its down-home cooking, provides refuge from franchised eateries. By the time you return to Tacoma, call yourself any number of clichés: dog tired, dead on your feet, pooped—you will have earned them all.
Drive Length 202 miles
Drive Time 5 1/4 hours
Try To Avoid Rush hour by returning to Tacoma after 6 pm.
Don't Miss A morning detour to Eatonville, just north of Elbe, for hot bread and fresh pastries at the Between The Bread bakery.
Get Out Of Your Car Enjoy the hikes at Paradise, Sunrise and Crystal Mountain. Also, view the mountain through the telescopes on the second floor of the Visitor's Center at Paradise.
Contact Mt. Rainier National Park, (360) 569-2211; www.nps.gov/mora