It’s summertime and the living’ ain’t easy if you’re trying to wedge your way into Mount Rainier National Park. That’s because this spectacular park sees upwards of two million visitors a year, mostly in the summer.
Sure, park trails are melted out now. Temperatures are on the rise. Wildflowers are in full bloom. But if you choose a clear, sunny, postcard-perfect weekend in July or August to visit the park, get ready for long lines and waits.
Here are ten tips* for avoiding summer congestion at Mount Rainier:
- If possible, avoid visiting the park on busy summer weekends. Visit on week days. We hiked Paul Peak on the NW side on a Tuesday in July. We encountered less than a dozen people on the entire hike. Ditto hiking Crysta Lakes. On a Wednesday.
- Arrive in the early morning or late afternoon. Crowds and long lines are the norm by late-morning.
- If you encounter long lines and waits at entrance gates, check out nearby communities like Elbe, Ashford, or Packwood.
- Try hiking trails that are close but outside park boundaries, like Sheep Lake, Glacier View, or the Cispus Loop. (Note: Parking lots at popular trailheads like Comet Falls or Grove of the Patriarchs are very small. Either arrive early or have a Plan B .)
- Use an annual park or interagency pass or have the correct payment in cash to reduce your wait at the entrance gate. Credit card transactions take longer. So does making change. You can also save time by buying your pass online through YourPassNow.com and printing the pass before you visit.
- Check road status for closures or other delays that may affect your travel plans.
- Check Twitter for congestion updates. The park tweets weekend and holiday wait time information to help with your trip planning.
- Check the park’s web site for current trail conditions and other info.
- If the park’s busy SW entrance near Ashford is jammed, try the southeastern entrance near Packwood. It’s usually a shorter-wait alternative on busy weekends during July and August.
- Do your homework. Know which trails are uber popular and likely to be uber crowded during the summer season. Like:
Save these heavily-trafficked trails for the off-season if you can. Instead, try some more challenging/lesser known trails such as:
Additionally, as one of the most spectacular trails in the state, Tolmie Peak is likely to resemble crush hour traffic in Seattle during July and August. You might want to save that for the off-season, too.
We hiked Summerland in late September last year. There were plenty of people on the trail. But not anywhere near the throngs and masses you’ll encounter during July and August. Located across the street from the Summerland trailhead, the parking lot here is also quite small. Arrive early or have a Plan B.
Following our hike to Summerland, we zipped up the road to Sunrise. It was all but deserted. We snagged a picnic table. Fired up the cook stove. Ate dinner with a virtually private sun set show over the Mountain.
The same was true of our Mazama Ridge and Skyline hikes. Also in late September. Post-hikes, we set up the cook stove and had dinner at the Paradise picnic area. There were only three other cars in the entire lot.
My top tip for avoiding long lines and waits at Mount Rainier National Park? If possible, schedule your trip for the off-season, typically before July and after Labor Day.
I’ve been hiking at Mount Rainier since the 1960s. My favorite time to visit? Mid-September to mid-October, weather permitting. Less stress, hassle and heartburn. Bonus points: the Mountains pulls out all the stops in donning her fall finery. And the crowds have thinned considerably.
*Adapted from Avoid Summer Congestion.
NPS photo: Full parking lot at Sunrise, Mount Rainier National Park.