Route taken: east on WA 161 to 706 up to Paradise, then south on WA 12...the roads to Rainier are pretty straightforward
I drove into Rainier National Park late at night, after driving down from Olympic that day. The campsites were almost completely full when I rolled in at midnight, so Mental Note: drive in a little earlier to make sure you have a spot. There was a decidedly wet air when I woke up shortly after 9 am. It all made sense when I looked up from my tent and saw a fresh layer of snow on the ridge that towered over me. The ranger who stopped by to check each campsite was quite friendly, and it felt good knowing that the campsite is managed by the National Park Service instead of a 3rd party concessionaire.
There was a decent amount of construction in Mt. Rainier National Park; one of the campsites as well as various parts of the road were roped off. Right after one of the construction spots, a bridge provided quite a view of a river emerging from a cloud-covered mountainside. With Mount Rainier, it is possible to be so singularly focused on getting as close to the mountain as possible that you can miss so many of the other sites leading up to it. Mental Note: take some time to explore the side trails and attractions on the road up to Rainier.
Driving farther up the mountain, it became apparent that it had snowed- and heavily- the night before. Looking at the cute little Prius surrounded by heavy wet snow was almost comical. The sun was out, and though the air had a slight chill to it, the weather was overall quite pleasant. The storm that had covered the mountain had lifted most everywhere...except on Rainier itself. Rainier is often shrouded in clouds, so while unsurprising, it was a little disappointing that I couldn't see the mountain. I then reminded myself that I've had perfectly ideal weather for every other National Park, so I shouldn't get greedy for sights of beautiful glaciated mountains.
The Visitors Center at Paradise is new, and so far, it is the best visitors center I have seen. The interactive displays were made to entice anyone, no matter your age. Mental Note: Do not miss the Paradise Visitors Center. Honestly, that alone was worth the drive up the mountain.
Keeping my eye on the summit, it appeared that the clouds were attempting to dissipate, so I decided I'd get my hiking boots on and got for a quick hike. Besides, after being in a car for the last few days, I was ready to stretch my legs. I genuinely considered going in Chacos, but for the first time in all the parks, I decided I needed to have something with a little more bite on my feet. With my backpack prepared (jacket, first aid kit, water, snacks, etc.) I headed up the engraved steps towards Camp Muir. With no real end point in mind, but just wanting to go up, I started walking. It was about 20 minutes before the clouds allowed Mt Rainier to peek out, and it was worth the wait. With the fresh snow and vibrant blue skies, the pictures were stunning, but couldn't fully capture the enormity of the beauty I was surrounded by. If there was one takeaway from Rainier, it was that there was simply no way to capture just how breathtaking that mountain is. The Ranger told me later that was the first time the mountain was visible in a month, so I was especially grateful for the good timing.
After taking ample pictures about an hour and a half up the trail, I decided it was best to turn around and start heading down to the car. The snowy path was an interesting challenge after having the sun melt it into a super-slick slush. I, quite innocently, thought that the trails would be clear by mid-June, and that my Chacos or regular hiking boots would be fine. Mental Note: you will want to bring snowshoes, yak tracks and/or trekking poles for walking up the snowy trail if you're hiking before July.
I stopped by the Lodge at Paradise, the historic lodge that has been there since 1916. Mental note: if you're looking for a unique getaway in an historic place, check out the Lodge at Paradise. Even if you don't spend the day there, do a lunch at their restaurant, and check out the historic photos on the wall. Did you know there used to be a golf course at Paradise? The Park Service has restored the area, so while no remnants of the golf course exist, it is a good reminder of the dynamic nature of managing our National Parks.
The diversity of the groups enjoying Mt Rainier National Park was also striking. From the skiers skinning up the mountain, to the picnic-ing family at Paradise, the guided groups summiting, the older couple out for a day hike, and to the Japanese tourists who would only wander 20 steps up the snowy trail, I was impressed at the park's ability to cater so well to so many different guests.