Mount Rainier: Mountaineering, Hiking and Things to do

Mount Rainier: Mountaineering, Hiking, and Things to do

Mt. Rainier is Cascade Range’s highest mountain and the highest peak in Washington, the U.S. It is an active volcano which sits southeast of Seattle and is within the Mt. Rainier National Park. It is quite prominent topographically and it rises to an elevation of 4,392m. Mt. Rainier forms part of the notorious five in the Ring of Fire or Cascade Volcanic Arc. It is one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes and even appears on the Decade Volcano listing.It is also the most heavily glaciated peak in the region with the ability to produce massive lahars that may pose a grave danger to the southern section of Seattle. Mt. Rainier summit is home to 26 major glaciers and two craters about 300 m in diameter. The craters are free of snow and ice due to the geothermal heat generated below. A small crater lake occupies the west crater to the south.
NW side of Mt Rainier
NW side of Mt Rainier Photo byPeter Stevens

Geology and eruption

The summit of Mt. Rainier is quite unique when compared to other mountains. It has 3 separate summits; Columbia Crest is the highest, the second highest at 4315m is Point Success and Liberty Cap at 4,301m is the smallest. Mt. Rainier is heavily eroded and it may have stood at an even higher elevation before the major debris avalanche that occurred 5,000 years ago. The mountain is recorded to have last erupted between 1820 and 1854. Although there have been reports that eruptive activity had continued up to 1894. Mt. Rainier is now dormant but very much alive. Considering it is almost twice the size of Mount St. Helens, if Mt. Rainier was to have an explosive eruption, the damage would be much greater when compared to the former. Typically, about 5 earthquakes are recorded near the summit monthly.

Mt. Rainier Climate

Mt. Rainier experiences a warm and temperate climate which is majorly influenced by its elevation, latitude and the Pacific Ocean. It is generally cool but mostly rainy even in July and August when it is the warmest and sunniest. August is the hottest month with an average temperature of 19°C. The average annual precipitation is 703mm with November being the wettest month with an average of 119.3mm Snow remains at an elevation of between 5,000ft and 8,000ft till mid-July. The average annual temperature is 13.0 °C. December is the coldest month with an average of 5 °C April is the windiest month with an average speed of 10 km/hour.

Climbing Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainieraspirants should be mentally and physically prepared to face a number of challenges which include but are not limited to; bad weather (frigid temperatures, high winds, lightning, blizzards), altitude sickness on higher altitudes due to low atmospheric pressure, crevasse falls, ice/rock falls and avalanches. You are advised to be well informed on current weather and mountain conditions. At least two deaths occur annually on Mt. Rainier due to severe weather, rock and ice falls and avalanches. The worst recorded mountaineering accident was in 1981 which claimed 11 lives in an icefall. The mountain is a difficult climb with a success rate of about 50%. You must have solid mountaineering, crevasse, glacier travel, route finding and winter camping skills. Additionally, you should have knowledge of techniques on the use of crampons, the use of an ice ax, rope travel and hazard recognition. If you are inexperienced in the above, you can learn from a qualified instructor in any of the nearby mountaineering schools. Ensure you have the proper mountaineering equipment and clothing. It will take you about 2-3 days to climb the mountain. If you use the DC route, getting to Camp Muir will take about 5 hours of leisure walking, then using the Disappointment Cleaver Route from Camp Muir, another 6-8 hour depending on your fitness level and weather conditions.

When is the best time to climb Mt. Rainier?

The climbing season begins in April and runs through to September. When it comes to Rainier weather is the key determining factor to success, so many trips come to a halt mostly due to bad weather than any other contributing factor. Weather becomes more stable in the first week of July. The trick is to find a balance when the weather is stable and mountain conditions are good.

Any permits, passes or reservations needed?

You will require a number of permits as listed below.
  • Rainier Annual Pass:$55
  • Rainier Single Vehicle Fee: $30
  • Per Person Fee either on foot or using a bicycle: $15
  • Motorcycle Fee: $25
  • Campground Permit: $20 per person per night
  • Campground fee for groups between 25 and 40: $60
Climbing permits can be obtained from:
  • Carbon River Ranger Station
  • Paradise Climbing Information Centre
  • Jackson Visitor Centre
  • Longmire Wilderness Information Centre
  • White River Wilderness Information Centre

Accommodation on Mt. Rainier

Camping on Mt. Rainier

You can camp in the backcountry for a maximum number of 14 days. The allowed number of a party size is 12 people. A team with more than 5 individuals is considered a group. The standard routes have two main high camps; on the east side-camp Schurman (at 9,440ft) and on the south side, Camp Muir. Camp Muir’s facilities include a solar toilet and a Ranger Station. It can accommodate about 25 people and the camping approach is on a first come, first served. It is located at an elevation of 10,080ft. Rainier Mountaineering Inc. has a hut on Camp Muir and it can only be used by those climbing with them. Alternatively, you can tent camp on the glacier.
Camping at the Ohanapecosh campgrounds at Mt. Rainier
Camping at the Ohanapecosh campgrounds at Mt. Rainier Photo byMichael Hanscom
Other campgrounds that offer group sites are Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh.

Mountain climbing routes

Mt. Rainier offers a variety of options when it comes to climbing routes. Your choice will depend on your ability and experience. If you are a beginner I recommend using Disappointment Cleaver, Emmons Glacier or the Ingraham Glacier Direct. These are the most popular routes and it may be quite tricky to secure a camping permit during the climbing season. I suggest considering getting your permit earlier enough. The Kautz Glacier and Fuhurer Finger routes are a bit less crowded but slightly more challenging and technical. The Tahoma Glacier offers the best wilderness experience, so why not give it a shot if you’re up to it? The Liberty Ridge, after being included in the 50 Classic Climbs of North America has become a magnet for experienced alpinists who want to step up their game. For a more challenging and steeper climb experience, I recommend the Curtis Ridge, Mowich Face, and the Ptarmigan Ridge. These should only be attempted by true aficionados!

Ingraham Glacier-Disappointment Cleaver Route

This route is the most popular with about 75% of summit attempts. It is also among the most guided route in the whole of North America and has a well-worn trail during summer which comes at the expense of lots of human traffic, especially over the weekends. Additionally, it has an elevation gain of approximately 9,000ft and about 13-15km long. It will take you on average 1-3 days to climb. Typical hazards that you may encounter are crevasse falls, navigation errors and steep icy slopes. The summit success rate averages 51%. From Paradise, use the Skyline trail to Camp Muir. Head straight to Cathedral Ridge across the Cowlitz Glacier, you will find three notches, take the center notch and climb scree to the Ingraham Glacier. Once you cross it, you will reach Disappointment Cleaver, from where you will get to a snowfield. Proceed to the summit and descend via the same route.

Emmons-Winthrop Route

The best climbing season for this route starts in May and runs through August when snow on the surface has melted enough to expose crevasses. This route will require you to be revamped on crampon use, crevasse rescue, route finding, and self-arrest techniques. It rises to an elevation gain of 3140m and is about 15-16km long. The average time it will take to climb is 2-3 days and has a summit success rate of 54.2%. Starting from the White River Ranger Station, proceed for about 3.1 miles and consider camping at Glacier Basin. Continue past the crevasses and possibly camp again at Camp Curtis. Descend slightly onto Emmons Glacier and proceed upwards to Camp Schurman. From here, head upwards along a ramp called Corridor. The climb will steepen towards bergschrund after which the summit awaits. Descend via the same route.

Kautz Glacier

This route is considered the third most popular after Disappointment Cleaver and Emmons-Winthrop. It is quite a long approach and climbers need to be proficient in glacier travel and ice climbing. During weekdays you can be all by yourself but you may encounter a few parties during weekends. It has an elevation gain of approximately 2900m and is about 17-19km long. It may take you 1-3 days to climb and has a summit success rate of 52%. Begin at Paradise and head a mile to Glacier Vista then descend to Nisqually Glacier. Once you cross it, you will come to a section of snowfields where you can camp. Proceed past chutes and notches till you get to the summit.

Liberty Ridge

This ridge with an elevation gain of approximately 3500m is considered one of the most dangerous and difficult routes up Mt. Rainier. It is about 16-19km long and takes about 3-4 days to climb. Its average summit success rate is 53%.
Liberty Ridge
Liberty Ridge photo by Laurel F
Approach it from White River campgrounds onto the Carbon Glacier. Climb past the ridge, snow slopes and rocks till you get to Thumb Rock. Proceed and go round a cliff, stay on the ridge till you reach Black Pyramid onto Willis Wall. Climb past several pitches onto Liberty Cap Glacier, surpass the bergschrund and after a slight slope angle decrease, you will reach the summit. You can choose to descend via the same route or use Emmons-Winthrop to Camp Schurman.

Emergency/Information Center

  • In case of an emergency call 911
  • For Emergency Physicians: 253-697-4200
  • Rainier National Park (Headquarters): 360-569-2211/2177
  • National Park (for Park information): 360-569-6575
  • For Lost and Found: 360-569-6608
  • Rainier City Hall: 301-985-6585
  • Police Department (Emergencies): 301-985-6565

Flora on Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier is home to over 100 exotic plant species, 890 vascular and 260 non-vascular plant species. Vegetation varies remarkably depending on climate and elevation creating diverse habitats that support different plant species.
Whitebark Pine trees
Whitebark Pine trees Photo by David Fulmer
The Forest zone, found in the lower elevations is dominated by the douglas fir, Pacific silver fir, western red-cedar, western hemlock, whitebark pine, mountain hemlock, Alaska yellow cedar, subalpine fir and Englemann spruce. The Subalpine zone is a mixture of tree clumps and meadows. The huckleberry shrub is quite dominant here. The Subalpine Meadows has a variety of plant communities like that entail blueberries, paintbrush, American bistort, avalanche lily, lupine, mountain daisy, hawkweed, alpine buckwheat, alpine aster, black sedge, alpine willow-herb, saxifrage, partridge foot, cascade aster, and bunchgrass. The Alpine zone is mostly covered in ice and snow and little vegetation cover is evident. The pink mountain heather, penstemons, asters, and sedges exist in little clusters.

Fauna on Mt. Rainier

There are 182 bird species, half of which are migrants from southern and central America. Some of these include the Northern spotted owl, marbled murrelets, peregrine falcons, little willow flycatcher, bald eagles, Northern Goshawk and the harlequin duck. Mt. Rainier has the largest system of the glacier that creates many streams and rivers which are home to several fish species. The species include the rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, eastern brook trout, pink salmon, sockeye, sculpins, mountain whitefish, coho salmon, coastal cutthroat trout, chinook salmon and bull trout. Amphibians include larch mountain salamander, Pacific giant salamander,ensatina, Western toad, red-legged frog, cascade frog, rough-skinned newt and long-toed salamander. Reptiles include the rubber boa, common garter snake, wandering garter snake, Northern alligator lizard, and Northwestern garter snake. Mt. Rainier is also home to over 65 mammal species that include bats, carnivores (red fox, coyote, mountain lion, raccoon, skunks, bobcat, weasels), hoofed animals(elk, mountain goat, deer), insects, rodents(squirrels, mice, beaver, porcupine, marmots, chipmunks), rabbits and hares.

Hiking with Kids

There are many hiking trails on Mt. Rainier with scenic views that children can enjoy.

Things to do

  1. Silver Falls at Ohanapecosh

If you love waterfalls, the Silver Falls will also be a breath of fresh air to you too. It is also one of the best falls in Mt. Rainier National Park too. Get the forest experience with its uplifting water roar as it meanders through the tall trees. To get there, just follow the Silver Falls loop trail which is about 3 miles from the Ohanapecosh campgrounds.
Silver falls Ohanapecosh
Silver falls Ohanapecosh Photo by David Fulmer
  1. Wildflower walk

Take a nature trail at Paradise and walk the famous wildflower meadows. In the summer months of July through to August, they come alive with pomp and color. Go marvel at this jaw-dropping beauty of purple lupine, red paintbrush, pink penstemon and yellow cinquefoils.
  1. Sunrise Visitor Center

The center offers great history about volcanic forces that formed Mt. Rainier, the glaciers that dominate it, the wildlife and plant life that beautify it showcased by videos, artifacts, models, photos, and words. So go get some enlightening, it won’t hurt!
  1. Brunch at paradise

Imagine a Sunday brunch in a rustic and historic lodge that is located halfway up a mountain! Indescribable, right? Well, visit the Paradise Inn Dining Room which offers unrivaled cuisine that includes smoked salmon, seasonal fresh fruits, desserts and other brunch favorites. Add to these crab mac and cheese - yummy! The Inn is open from June through to September on Sundays from 11: 30 am to 2 pm.
  1. Hike the Sourdough Ridge

Welcome to alpine splendor! This trail is quite family friendly for anyone looking to lazily explore the Sunrise area. It has amazing mountain views and its famous breathtaking sunrise. Go and have your heart stolen-literally!
  1. The Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad

All aboard! If you are a train fanatic, this is your treat. It is historical and scenic. You can also board the train at the Elbe and enjoy a picturesque ride, about 18 miles, on a vintage locomotive too. Apart from the great views of the mountain, the train comes loaded with a snack bar, enough bathrooms, plenty of space for children to freely walk and play around and a cool conductor who will be narrating to you a brief history of the area. And! Wait for it…prepare to catch your breath as the train crosses the Nisqually River!
  1. Breakfast at the Copper Creek Inn

This inn is one of the amazing rural restaurants in the state. Locate just at the mouth of Nisqually, breakfast here is a must especially if you plan to hike all day long. It is known to whip up the best pancakes and blackberry pies. In addition, it is famous for its home-roasted coffee.
  1. Mountain Goat Coffee

Cops are known to love doughnuts while park rangers are into muffins. This joint offers the best coffee. Stop by for a cup of home-brewed coffee and mouthwatering baked goods. And while at it, make a khaki-clad guy your friend.