There is no doubt that Fall is the time for hiking. As you start to make your exploration plans, consider the following five trails in and around Mt. Rainier.
1) The Moraine Trail – Easy | Paradise Area
For reasons we’ve never understood this trail doesn’t get much attention, perhaps because trails with views of Mount Rainier take precedence for first-time visitors. For hikers seeking views of Mount Rainier without a lot of company, the Moraine Trail is ideal. From the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center, walk up the steps onto the well-marked trail system; follow signs to the Moraine Trail. After climbing through meadows the trail enters forest before descending to the moraine. Don’t get too close to the edge; it may be unstable. Listen to the clatter of falling rocks as the glaciers grumble in this wild and desolate setting. Chances to encounter wildlife here are greater than on busier trails.
2) Knapsack Pass – Moderate | Mowich Lake Area
Start at Mowich Lake for one of the most spectacular hikes inside the park. Behind the patrol cabin find a trail that climbs through the forest. Gradually meadows replace the forest with small, mossy tributaries bordered with monkey-flowers. The trail climbs steeply to a ridge-crest then descends a boulder field; this stretch is often in the shade; you may encounter steep snow and/or ice. Take trekking poles and traction devices. Unless you are an experienced navigator go back the way you came; otherwise you can continue on a path to Spray Park and hike back to Mowich Lake. There are not enough adjectives that live up to the splendor of the setting.
3) Grove of the Patriarchs – Easy | Ohanapecosh Area
This is an easy hike for all ages and persuasions. The trail starts behind the restroom near the Stevens Canyon entrance of the park through old-growth forest. Short spurs lead to the banks of the Ohanapecosh River. After admiring the massive Western Red Cedars and Douglas firs you’ll come to a suspension bridge. Kids may be tempted to jump up and down on the bridge; please discourage them as it causes the bridge to sway. The loop trail continues through an ancient grove of trees where awe is the only possible response once you see these giants. In fall, fiery vine maples fill in the gaps between the big trees. Benches invite quiet contemplation.
4) Crystal Peak – Moderate | Chinook Pass Area
This is a strenuous but precious gem off Highway 410 that shares the trailhead with Crystal Lakes. Cross a small stream and at 1.5 miles turn right at the junction for Crystal Peak (the trail to Crystal Lakes continues straight). After crossing a stream the trail switchbacks through old-growth forest that gradually transitions to meadows with views of Mount Rainier and colorful mountain ash, asters and other late summer flowers. The trail climbs to a notch in a rocky ridgeline (site of an old lookout) with views down to Crystal Lakes. You can follow the ridgeline a little further to another highpoint but watch your footing especially if the trail is frosty or snow has fallen.
5) Alta Vista Trail – Easy | Paradise Area
You can’t go wrong no matter where you hike at Paradise. Get a free printed map of the trail system (at the park entrance or the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center) and/or follow signs. Alta Vista is a 1.5-mile loop suitable for all ages and abilities (experienced hikers can continue to higher points including Panorama Point, even Camp). Start out on the stone steps across from the Visitor Center, listen for the shrill whistle of marmots or better yet, see them as they scurry about preparing for a long winter. The steep meadows that flank the mountain burn with fall color – save Paradise for a clear day if possible and discover why Paradise is thusly named.