Just a few hours’ drive from both Seattle and Portland lies Mount Rainier National Park.
In the words of one of America’s most famous conservationists, John Muir: “Of all the fire mountains, which like beacons once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest.” We couldn't agree more.
We recently spent three nights in the park, entering from the north via the White River Entrance. Here's our take on five amazing trail runs within the national park.
Glacier Basin Trail
The Glacier Basin Trail (6.2 miles round trip) starts just off the D campground loop. The trailhead is well marked as is the trail but we'd still recommend carrying a detailed map and compass since weather can change out here rather quickly and a lack of visibility can sometimes make navigation difficult.
The trail starts out easy enough with a gentle ascent under the forest canopy. Any hill work you've done leading up to your visit to Mount Rainier will pay off as the next three miles go up, up and up. The effort, however, is more than worth it. There are several viewpoints along the trail that will take your breath away.
There are also several gorgeous waterfalls (we stopped counting after we saw the fourth) that cascade down the mountain towards you and then pass below the trail's wooden boardwalks. One of the most beautiful waterfalls is located about 1.25 miles in.
The trail itself is a fairly soft surface with enough give in it to delight even the creakiest of joints. Though there are rocks and roots to contend with, for the most part the trail is very runnable and you can maintain a steady even pace, limited only by your ability to grind upwards. The last mile has some level sections, but you'll have to make it up several steps until you come to a primitive campsite.
Go just beyond the campsite, breathe deeply of the evergreens surrounding you, and feast your eyes on the view. Also, keep in mind: what goes up, must come down. Enjoy the easy descent and stop to take photos now that you can breathe a little easier.
This 5k crams a ton of amazing scenery into just a few miles. You'll run a 0.3 mile segment from the parking lot to Sourdough Ridge. From there, head west another 1.1 miles until you get to Frozen Lake. The trail is well marked.
When we started it was spitting slushy snow. As we ascended about 500 feet over the next mile and a half, it turned to little tiny balls of sleet and then to snow. We were there in mid-September and the colors of the foliage had just started to change, lighting the mountain up in the most glorious shades of red and orange, in stark contrast to the dark greys and greens of the mountain.
Chinook Pass Trailhead
There are several different trails that you can take from the Chinook Pass Parking Lot. The one we chose to do was along the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.
Technically, we started at the boundary of Mount Rainier National Park and the Naches Ranger District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (which meets at the top of Chinook Pass), we ran along the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail to Sheep Lake.
The PCNST runs for 2,650 miles so technically you can go as far as you like. We went about 2 miles out and back, checking out Sheep Lake and then heading back to the trail head.
The first mile is relatively flat with stunning views of the valley to your right. If you're afraid of heights you might want to look for another section of trail to hike or run since there are a few steep drops off to your right on the way out. If heights don't bother you, you'll have some magnificent views.
The trail follows the road for a little bit and the cars shrink in size rather quickly. The second mile is uphill and although difficult, it’s still very runnable. We both stood at the edge of the lake and caught our breath just taking in the sheer beauty of it all. Note: Dogs are allowed on this trail (unlike inside the national park) so long as they are manageable under voice control.
This is a popular spot for day hikers because it's only about a mile long and is relatively flat. There are interpretive signs along the way so if you decide to run this one as a shakeout run or a warmup, keep in mind that it will most likely be busy. Go early if you can.
That said, it's a place worth seeing. There are some really old, beautiful tress along the loop, some of which are 1,000 years old. In addition there's a really fun suspension bridge that makes for a cool photo op. Want to add some more milage to this run? Look for the East Side Trail to Deer Creek and Cayuse Pass and tack on another 9.3 miles.
The Wonderland Trail
All stretches of this 93-mile trail are worth seeing. The Wonderland Trail circumnavigates Mount Rainier and is a trail runner's dream.
You can pick it up from any number of points. We parked at an overlook near Reflection Lake at the southern end of the park and ran east towards Louise Lake. (If you need a primer to get you motivated, do a drive by along the park road and sneak a peek at the lake from above.)
It's only about 1.25 miles from the parking lot to the bottom of Louise Lake. Wild blueberries line the trail almost the entire way, many of which had started to turn red and made it seem as if we were running into a valley on fire.
Though parts of the trail really allow you to open up your stride and let go, cross each of the wooden boardwalks with caution. Several places had fallen over or were missing sections; easy to snag a toe and fall in (or worse). Still, it's worth it and part of the allure of the trail.
Once you make it down to Louise Lake (look for the sign or consult your map) and get your fill, you can head on back to the parking lot or continue running along the Wonderland trail until you literally tire yourself out.
On our last morning in the park we parked at the Box Canyon Trailhead. We wanted to run on the Wonderland Trail one last time. There is a good bit of trail work going on in this area, so to access the trail we actually had to take a brief detour through a tunnel.
Less than a quarter mile later, we were turning onto the trail and flying as fast as we could down into the forest, hopping over roots and rocks, and whooping with sheer joy. If you're looking for a ridgeline on this section, you won't find it. But you will come face-to-face with several wooden bridge crossings, soft, twisty singletrack, ferns and old trees – a landscape that literally makes you think you've gone back in time thousands of years.
Again, you can run as long as your heart desires on this trail. Even better? Get someone to pick you up further down the road.
What to Know Before You Go
This is bear country. And cougar country. Know what to do if you come across both.
Some primitive campsites are available at the end of the Glacier Basin Trailhead. Check with the park service for information about backcountry permits.
Checking the forecast is always recommended. Many of the ranger stations have a weather forecast posted but the weather out here is unpredictable and things can change in an instant.
Be sure to stay on the trails to avoid damaging meadows, wildflowers, etc and as always, leave no trace.
If you're debating whether or not to bring a camera, do it. There are so many amazing places to snap a photo that the little bit of extra weight the camera adds will be more than worth it.
Erin McGrady and Caroline Whatley are based in Asheville, North Carolina, but are currently traveling the country in their van. You can follow along with their adventures at Authentic Asheville.
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