Seattle's favorite national park has quiet trails and a cozy lodge

Kimberly Brown Seely

"October is actually my favorite month here," the front deskmanager confides. I've just driven two and a half hours to Mt.Rainier National Park and checked into the National Park Inn atLongmire - but if I hurry, he says, I'll have enough time to hikethe Rampart Ridge Trail before dinner.

Like most Seattleites, I usually start thinking about hiking Mt.Rainier during the dry summer months. But now is an ideal time toexplore. The park's fall season begins around the second week inSeptember, when school starts and attendance drops offdramatically, says Jill Hawk, Mt. Rainier's chief ranger. "Ifyou're looking to get away from the crowds, late September andOctober can be glorious."

Hike to the sky

The Rampart Ridge Trail is one of several short hikesoriginating from Longmire Meadow, steps from the inn's front porch.Enormous Douglas firs, some more than 250 years old, tower overheadas I climb, and the trail is carpeted with tiny fir cones, most nobigger than a thimble. I've never hiked through old growth alone.It is dark and hushed and resoundingly quiet.

The route ascends in a series of switchbacks opening onto asweeping view of Mt. Rainier and its valleys below. It's sospectacular, I have to sit down to take it all in. The leaves onthis side of the valley are just beginning to turn. Patches oflow-growing crimson alders edge the path and border the rock whereI sit. I slip on my fleece.

I make it back to the inn's front porch just as the sun issetting. There's a postcard view of Mt. Rainier from here, and afriendly crowd has gathered to watch the sun cast its tangerinelight on the snowy peak.

The National Park Inn welcomes that kind of easy camaraderie.Dating from 1916, the 25-room inn couldn't be more different fromthe popular 118-room Paradise Inn, a 30-minute drive up the road.People come to the Paradise Inn simply to bask in the glory of itssoaring lobby. The National Park Inn feels downright homey incomparison. I love holing up in my room, which has no phone or TVand has windows looking out toward Mt. Rainier.

The next morning, there's only a handful of other hikers on thelower Skyline Trail, a popular route that runs straight up themountain from the Paradise parking lot. As I climb higher, theworld slowly becomes reduced to distant peaks of the Tatoosh Range,deep blue sky, golden meadows, and cool breeze on skin.

At the end of the 5 1/2-mile loop, I meet a man lugging a camerawho says he hikes this time of year as often as he can.

"I'm 78," he grins. "When you've survived as many Northwestwinters as I have, you know when to take advantage of a day."

Quiet time at Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier National Park is 103 miles south of Seattle and 155miles north of Portland. Although most park roads close by lateautumn, the road between the Nisqually Entrance and Paradise staysopen through winter, weather permitting.

Mt. Rainier's weather is always variable; October is noexception. Average daytime temperatures range from the mid-40s tomid-50s; nighttime temperatures are typically in the 30s. Beprepared for rain or snow. For information, contact Mt. RainierNational Park ($10 per vehicle; www.nps.gov/mora or360/569-2211 ext. 3314).

WHERE TO HIKE

Although the Paradise trails can be crowded, if it's your firsttrip to Rainier, you won't want to miss their expansive views. Butif you're looking to escape the crowds, you can't beat Longmire forits quiet and accessibility, steps from the National Park Inn. InParadise, try the Skyline Trail (5 1/2-mile loop) for glaciers andfabulous views. Or in Longmire, head to Rampart Ridge, a steeproute with vistas at the top (take Rampart Ridge Trail toWonderland Trail; 4 1/2-mile loop).

WHERE TO STAY

The Paradise Inn closes Oct 4, after which the National Park Innis the only place to stay in the park. It has 25 rooms, 19 withprivate baths, and a stunning view of Mt. Rainier from the frontporch. The dining room serves three meals daily ($$$). From $95. www.guestservices.com/rainieror 360/569-2275.

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