Run away to Rainier
Seattle’s favorite national park has quiet trails and a cozy lodge
“October is actually my favorite month here,” the front desk manager confides. I’ve just driven two and a half hours to Mt. Rainier National Park and checked into the National Park Inn at Longmire – but if I hurry, he says, I’ll have enough time to hike the 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 to explore. The park’s fall season begins around the second week inSeptember, when school starts and attendance drops off dramatically, says Jill Hawk, Mt. Rainier’s chief ranger. “If you’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 hikes originating from Longmire Meadow, steps from the inn’s front porch.Enormous Douglas firs, some more than 250 years old, tower overhead as I climb, and the trail is carpeted with tiny fir cones, most no bigger 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 a sweeping view of Mt. Rainier and its valleys below. It’s so spectacular, I have to sit down to take it all in. The leaves on this side of the valley are just beginning to turn. Patches of low-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 is setting. There’s a postcard view of Mt. Rainier from here, and a friendly crowd has gathered to watch the sun cast its tangerine light 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 from the 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 its soaring lobby. The National Park Inn feels downright homey in comparison. I love holing up in my room, which has no phone or TV and has windows looking out toward Mt. Rainier.
The next morning, there’s only a handful of other hikers on the lower Skyline Trail, a popular route that runs straight up the mountain from the Paradise parking lot. As I climb higher, the world 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 camera who says he hikes this time of year as often as he can.
“I’m 78,” he grins. “When you’ve survived as many Northwest winters 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 late autumn, the road between the Nisqually Entrance and Paradise stays open through winter, weather permitting.
Mt. Rainier’s weather is always variable; October is no exception. Average daytime temperatures range from the mid-40s to mid-50s; nighttime temperatures are typically in the 30s. Be prepared for rain or snow. For information, contact Mt. Rainier National 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 first trip to Rainier, you won’t want to miss their expansive views. But if you’re looking to escape the crowds, you can’t beat Longmire for its quiet and accessibility, steps from the National Park Inn. InParadise, try the Skyline Trail (5 1/2-mile loop) for glaciers and fabulous views. Or in Longmire, head to Rampart Ridge, a steep route 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 Inn is the only place to stay in the park. It has 25 rooms, 19 with private baths, and a stunning view of Mt. Rainier from the front porch. The dining room serves three meals daily ($$$). From $95. www.guestservices.com/rainieror 360/569-2275.