It is not an exaggeration to claim that Mount Rainier National Park is one of the most stunning places in the whole wide world. Mount Rainier has it all, from old-growth forests to wildflower meadows, and from picturesque mountain views to splendid waterfalls. There can be infinite three-day itineraries to make for such a variety-rich place. But this itinerary is slightly different from those out there. Even though it’s centered around Mount Rainier, it goes beyond that. We’ll also discuss some of the most interesting places nearby, such as cities, national forests and restaurants.
Summer and fall are the best times to visit Mount Rainier. Why? You get to experience snow-free trails, open roads, fantastic weather and the opportunity to see wildflowers.
DAY 1 – SEATTLE & OKANOGAN-WENATCHEE NATIONAL FOREST
Most people fly into Seattle, Washington to begin their Mount Rainier National Park tour. But since this is a road trip itinerary, here are the estimated drive times from all the nearby cities to Mount Rainier.
- Seattle, Washington – 2 hours
- Eugene, Oregon – 4.5 hours
- Portland, Oregon – 2.5 hours
- Spokane, Washington – 6 hours (winter route)
- Spokane, Washington – 4.5 hours (to the East Entrance, not available during winter)
- Boise, Idaho – 8 hours
The Seattle Experience
If this is your first time visiting the area, plan a quick visit to the iconic Space Needle. This quintessential Seattle experience offers visitors reclining glass benches on the observation deck so you can admire the views in style. The Oculus Stairs also have some excellent vantage points for more breathtaking views of the city.
On your way out of the city, stop for lunch at Seattle Fish Guys, a local seafood market and restaurant. With a variety of fresh regional seafood ranging from poke bowls to oyster shooters, you can’t go wrong with whatever you decide.
Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest
After lunch, hop in the car and drive to Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest for your first outdoor adventure in the Pacific Northwest. This national forest is a place that feels like something right out of fantasy books. It is spread around four million acres of land and offers over 3,000 miles of trails to explore. You’ll find an abundance of mild-to-tough active adventure experiences like camping, hiking, horseback riding and rock climbing here.
For a scenic waterfall hike filled with wildflowers in summer, go to the Eightmile Trailhead. This 7.2-mile hike takes about four hours to complete, passing by Little Eightmile Lake and ending at Eightmile Lake. While a bit lengthy, the final view of the lake and mountains will leave you in awe. Make sure to purchase a recreation pass beforehand, which you can print at home.
For more trail options, check out these top hikes in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest: Echo Ridge Summer Trails, Boulder Cave Trail and Icicle Gorge Loop Trail.
After you’ve hiked to your heart’s desire, head to Packwood—the base of your operations for the next couple of nights. Packwood is situated in the southeastern corner of Mount Rainier National Park, with a few lodging options to choose from. Cowlitz River Lodge offers complimentary breakfast and the Packwood Lodge has a convenient on-site restaurant, making them some of the best places to stay.
DAY 2 – MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK
Day two enlivens the spirit of the road trip experience by taking you to Mount Rainier National Park. From your lodging in Packwood, the drive is about an hour to the park’s Southwest Entrance.
The Road to Paradise
With so much to do and see, we’re kick-starting this road trip by hiking the Comet Falls Trail, accessible along the road from Longmire to Paradise. Plan to get to the trailhead early since there is limited parking available. The 3.8-mile trail has a 900-foot elevation gain and features scenic views of the forest and wildflowers. Prepare yourself for views that are out of this world! We’re not kidding—Comet Falls was named after its resemblance to the tail of a comet and is one of the tallest waterfalls in Mount Rainier National Park.
Next up, you can take the one-way scenic loop drive towards Paradise, taking a brief pause to experience Ricksecker Point and Christine Falls Bridge. Appreciate the river valleys and waterfalls, and learn more about how glaciers and lava flows have molded the landscape you see today.
After making a stop at the scenic vistas, drive to Paradise and discover the wildflower meadows Mount Rainier is famous for. You can also visit the educational exhibits and watch a park movie at the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center. Plan to get lunch at the visitor center or the dining room at the nearby Paradise Inn.
Ready for another waterfall sighting? One of the prettiest waterfalls, Myrtle Falls, is located in Paradise as well. A short stroll along the one-mile Skyline Trail will take you there while offering amazing views of the mountain itself.
End your evening by one of the most photographed destinations in the park. Enjoy a stunning sunset at Reflection Lakes and watch as the lake paints a reflective portrait of Mount Rainier as the sun sets beyond the horizon. The lake is accessible by car via Stevens Canyon Road. Arrive well before sunset to ensure you find a parking spot.
Make your way to Packwood to reminisce on your day in Mount Rainier and enjoy a delicious dinner. The White Pass Taqueria + Taproom serves a Tex-Mex style menu and a rotating selection of craft beer and wine.
DAY 3 – MOUNT ST. HELENS
Day three starts with yet another road trip adventure close to Mount Rainier National Park, i.e., a trip to Mount St. Helens. Check out from your accommodations and pick up coffee and a bite to eat from The Mountain Goat Coffee Company. It’s a three-hour drive to your last major destination on this road trip. Depending on what time you arrive at Mount St. Helens, you might want to stop at the Fire Mountain Grill for a sit-down lunch with a view or order a sandwich to go.
The History & Science of Volcanoes
Mount St. Helens has a tragic history when it erupted in 1980 and became the cause of death of 57 people. After the eruption ended, the volcano and the surrounding area was designated as the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Today it is one of the best attractions the state of Washington has to offer.
You can start by visiting Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center, a collaborative effort between Mount St. Helens Institute and the US Forest Service. Here you’ll get to learn about the volcano’s history, its eruption and the efforts that followed to preserve the nearby lands. The area around the center is covered in lush, stunning, green trees that are awe-inspiring to look at.
Another place worth visiting on your trip to Mount St. Helens is the Johnston Ridge Observatory. Here you’ll learn a great deal about the science of volcanoes in an interactive format. The observatory regularly features film screenings, which is a fun experience to engage in with family or friends.
Mount St. Helens is not short of hiking trails either, and hiking happens to be one of the most popular activities here. Some of the most rewarding hikes here are the Boundary Trail, Coldwater Lake Trails and the Harry’s Ridge Trail.
After you’ve absorbed your fair share of all things volcanoes, head back to Seattle to end your three-day road trip around Mount Rainier. Celebrate your Pacific Northwest vacation with dinner at Elliot’s Oyster House, one of the most famous restaurants in Seattle known for its fresh and mouthwatering seafood.