Washington’s National Parks: Mount Rainier, Olympic & North Cascades

By Jonathan Shipley

It was the venerable environmental philosopher John Muir who once wrote, “Keep close to nature’s heart … and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” 

People who venture forth into the wilds of Washington state’s three national parks must emerge, then, immaculate. Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades national parks offer unsullied beauty at every trail’s turn. 

Whether it’s atop a rocky crag overlooking an immense valley of ancient forests; meandering through bloom-soaked meadows alive with bees and birds; or along the ragged roaring beaches of the Pacific Ocean, the three parks offer intrepid travelers a thoughtful journey. “Between every two pines,” Muir wrote, “there is a door leading to a new way of life.” Washington’s national park doors are swung wide open.

Mount Rainier National Park
Perhaps the most iconic feature in the entire state of Washington is Mount Rainier. Rightly so. It is one of the highest peaks in the country, at nearly 14,500 feet, and the most glaciated mountain in the Lower 48. It became a national park in 1899, America’s fifth. Travelers have been driven to its shadow at every opportunity ever since, to see the glorious peaks, to wander in hushed cathedral-like forests, to be bedazzled by the abundance of subalpine wildflowers and to dip a toe in the milky glacial rivers that wind down resplendent landscapes rich with wildlife.

The park offers more than 250 miles of maintained trails. Some are short, paved and easy to navigate. Some are long and arduous, leading folks up to fire lookouts, or down into rain-soaked forests or to the summit of Rainier itself.

Nisqually Vista is an easy hike off the park’s main visitor center in an area in aptly-named Paradise. It offers magnificent views of Rainier with little effort. Camp Muir, a trail starting at the same location, requires much more of an effort. Eight miles up a snowfield, the hike gets one as close to the summit as possible without a climbing permit. Look back at the way you came, and you’ll be able to see, on a clear day, some of the Pacific Northwest’s other iconic peaks, such as Mount St. Helens and Oregon’s Mount Hood.

Bench and Snow lakes are two crystal clear and deeply cold lakes. Flowers abound on the hike. So do marmots, birds of prey and the cutest rock dweller you will ever see – the guinea pig-like pikas.

On the other side of the mountain, there are a bevy of hiking options including an easily accessible fire lookout (Fremont Peak). Burroughs Mountain Loop Trail (six to nine miles depending how far one wants to go) rewards hikers with amazing up-close views of the mountain and potentially resident mountain goats.

Those with strong legs and a handful of days can do the penultimate Wonderland Trail. The 93-mile trek circumnavigates the entire mountain. Not even John Muir himself ever did that.

Olympic National Park
Olympic is one of the most geologically diverse parks in the country. The Olympic Mountains, with its famous Mount Olympus peak rising at nearly 8,000 feet, are white jagged teeth biting at the most vibrant blue skies. The Olympic forests are primordial and some of the quietest places on the planet. The coastline is a tumult, showcasing the Pacific Ocean’s power. 

Designated by UNESCO as an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site, the park has three distinct ecosystems, all of which can be visited: subalpine forests, temperate forests and the ocean coast.

The glaciated mountains are reminiscent of Europe’s finest. The easiest way to soak up the beauty is on Hurricane Ridge. A short hike extends beyond the visitor center to showcase the brilliant panoramas of the coastal range.

To step back in time, take a step into the Hoh Rainforest. Walking beneath the mighty trees cloaked in emerald mosses is like walking back to the age of pre-man. It has been something like this for eons – a place long devoid of humanity that makes one think of their own place here. With over 12 feet of precipitation a year, the place is an overgrown ethereal natural wonder with Sitka spruce and western hemlock towering over all.

If beaches are what you’re after, reach toward Rialto Beach. Sea stacks and rocky shorelines make you feel like you’re at the edge of the world.

North Cascades National Park
For those who want a rugged, return-to-the-land experience, turn toward North Cascades National Park. Almost entirely protected by wilderness, the park has few structures, few roads and few amenities. What it lacks in catering to tourists it more than makes up for in its staggering beauty.

The North Cascade Mountains are a subsection of the Cascade Range that stretches from Northern California to Canada’s British Columbia. The area has more than 500 lakes and ponds. It is also ribbonned with hundreds of rivers and streams. The waterways, often formed by glacial meltwater, can appear turquoise.

One of the most popular hikes in the park is the 3.7-mile Cascade Pass Trail. Used for millennia, first by the indigenous population and, later, by trappers, miners and settlers, it showcases the mountains in their brilliance. Adventurers can extend the hike to 20 miles, finding oneself in the mountain community of Stehekin.

The Maple Pass Loop Trail is seven miles, treating hikers to old-growth forests, open ridgelines and dramatic views. Perhaps you’ll come upon one of the 75 mammal species that call the park home: wolves, bears, wolverines, bobcats and more.

For those wanting postcard beauty, dip into the splendor that is Diablo Lake. With views of the park’s most prominent peaks, while waterfalls cataract down, and old-growth forests eternally reach for the sun, the seven-mile trek, as Muir wrote, “Will flow into you as sunshine into trees.”