Planning a trip to national parks has typically been a big deal for me. The closest one from where I live is about a three-hour drive away. So naturally, given the distance between where I live and any national park, it’s always been useful to iron out general details – at the very least – for trips like this.
That, however, wasn’t the case for a trip I took to Mount Rainier National Park.
When I visited Seattle in June, I saw on a map that the city was a couple of hours away from two national parks: Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier National Park. I initially planned on going to both, but decided to just go with Mount Rainier National Park when a few Seattle residents told me Olympic was more of a three-hour drive than two-and-a-half like Google Maps said. But I was still on the fence about going to a park because I wasn’t sure if it would rain or not or not.
A few hours after I arrived in Seattle, I decided on a bit of a whim to reserve a rental car since the weather forecast the next day was sunny. The days afterward were forecast to be rainy, so it was really now or never. It would be challenging to explore a national park in the rain if I went on another day.
Debating with yourself about whether or not you’re going to rent a car to drive two hours can be quite a stressful process, particularly when you haven’t planned any sort of itinerary. But that’s what I did. I reserved a car 13 hours before I would pick it up, and I didn’t have any plans on what I was going to see or do at Mount Rainier National Park. Still, I wasn’t too worried and believed it would all work out in the end. (It always does, anyway!)
The next morning, I picked up the rental, popped in “Mount Rainier National Park” into my GPS, and drove out of the parking structure.
Two hours after leaving Seattle, I found myself at the Carbon River Ranger Station – where Google Maps led me – and found out that most visitors go to a place called Paradise. That was closer to the south of the park, which was about two hours away from where I was.
Crap. Why didn’t I at least do research on the park entrance?
I doubled my trip time by failing to do the bare minimum of Googling where specifically to enter the park.
It was around 10 a.m. when I got to the ranger station, which was part of the rough plan I threw together: get to Mount Rainier at around 10 a.m., explore the park for six hours, then drive back up to Seattle to return the rental before the office closed at 6 p.m.
I parked the car and walked into the station where I was greeted by a ranger. He was an older man who explained that the south entrance of Mount Rainier National Park was about a 2-hour drive away, and that that’s where most people go.
I was frantic and frustrated. That would mean I’d get to the other side at around 12 p.m. or so, and then I’d be left with a measly four hours to explore. It would be rushed.
I kept my composure as best as I could, and I think I did pretty well. But I expressed concern that I wouldn’t have enough time to enjoy Paradise and that maybe there was somewhere else I could explore near the Carbon River Ranger Station.
The ranger gently suggested a nearby trail that I could walk, but he seemed convinced that driving to Paradise would be the better choice.
When you find yourself forced into decisions like this, it’s not fun. Having had no clue which was going to work out the best stunted my ability to calmly choose an option. My mind was calculating the pros and cons of both choices, and it was a mentally exhausting five minutes before I decided to just hop back into the car and drive down to Paradise.
At that point, I had no cell signal so I had to rely on my memory, a not-to-scale map that the ranger kindly gave to me, and the blue dot on my GPS to get back out of where I was. The ranger said when I regained signal, I should type in “Ashford,” a town on the way to the park.
The drive to Mount Rainier National Park turned out to be a real treat. It was scenic and I created my own little adventure by pulling over to the side of the road when I saw sights that piqued my interest on two occasions: Once was to see the Carbon River along a biking trail and the other was to awe at houses along a random lake. (It must have been Lake Kapowsin, but I don’t remember for sure.)
Seeing both of those places made me thankful for the detour my lack of planning led to, because I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to stop by them if I had gone straight to the entrance to Paradise. It was fun to make the most of the extra drive and stumble across those unexpected gems.
When I finally got to Mount Rainier National Park, it turned out I was still a ways from Paradise. It was past 12 p.m. when I arrived at the park (the drive from the ranger station was about two hours, including all the stops I made), and Paradise was still at least a few miles away! I was probably barely going to be able to see anything there at this point, so I decided I would just stop wherever caught my eye.
Here are the spots I stopped by:
Carter Falls trail
One of the most memorable places I spent some time was along the Carter Falls trail. I figured it would be good to get a hike in, and I found out from a couple on their way back that it was only a 2-mile trail roundtrip.
Well, I got lost and ended up on an impromptu hike where I improvised my own trail. It was probably closer to 1 mile (or less) round trip and involved walking across a wide log with a rail to hold on to. (Thank goodness it was wide!)
When I got to the other side, I followed what I thought was the clearest path, climbed over rocks that looked like they were probably submerged in water during the winter, and ended up at a dead end with nowhere else to go but right where I was: in front of an unreal view of Mount Rainier.
Christine Falls was another nice quick stop I made that involved a short walk down.
Then there was Narada Falls, another highlight of my time in the park. Getting to the view point required a short downward hike. It sounds easy, but the problem was that it was a hike on a melting snowpack. I was not prepared for that. Why was there snow up here in June?? I probably would have known that if I had done more research. But there I was, having decided to be foolish and walking down slippery snow in a pair of rundown Nikes.
Not gonna lie – I was borderline terrified. I saw several brave people nearly run down the snow in regular old tennis shoes, while I was descending at the pace of a slug, intentionally digging my heel with every step I took. I was determined not to slip, although I nearly did a couple of times.
The incline doesn’t look terrible in these photos, but it was worse than what my camera captured. There were a few times I seriously considered just climbing back up because I had no idea how much farther down I needed to go and I didn’t have anyone with me to help me make it except myself. Plus, there was the thought of having to climb back up. The safest thing to do obviously would be to turn around. I could live without seeing these falls – I’ve already seen a few anyway! The rational part of my brain was screaming at me with fear.
I chose not to listen. I already made it as far down as I was. I fought the fear, took my time digging my heels into the wet snow, and made it down without slipping!
The pressure at Narada Falls was so powerful that I was sprayed on quite a bit! But it was such a grandiose sight I would have missed out on if I allowed fear to turn me back before I made it.
A closed Paradise
Narada Falls was my last stop before Paradise, which, disappointingly, was closed due to road conditions. I wasn’t actually too bummed out, though. I ended up getting to return the car after the office closed so I got a little bit more time at the park so I didn’t have to rush things. Exploring at a slow pace, I felt like I saw so much in the few hours I was there – I had an adventure at the Carter Falls trailhead and I completed my first snow hike! (Albeit a really, really short hike.)
Also, as someone who hasn’t experienced a snowy winter before, I was amused with being able to tolerate a “snowy” environment in a thin top and leggings 😛 I also felt like a happy kid when I saw the shoe prints I was able to leave in the snow.
While the road to the rest of Paradise was closed, the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center was open, so I spent several minutes in there, just reading about how animals cope with the seasons, how erosion continues to shape Mount Rainier, and how debris flow can occur at the park without warning.
From the visitor center, seeing Mount Rainier so close was mind blowing: I had seen the mountain as a small speck from the Space Needle, and now it was this huge wonder right in front of me. I spent time just appreciating how remarkable nature can be, watching families hike in the snow… Believe it or not, I was actually tempted to hike up there, too, but I didn’t have any extra shoes and my Nikes would have been soaked. (My trip there has made me add snow hiking shoes to my list of gear I want to purchase next.)
Although it’s always a good idea to have some sort of plan when going on trips, it can also be rewarding and fun to embrace a poorly planned adventure. Not having done any real research before visiting Mount Rainier National Park, I was able to experience the sights I saw with a fresh perspective, one that wasn’t tainted with images that other people have already captured. While there were some mishaps along the way, it was all part of the experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I hope this post will encourage you to consider taking your own spontaneous trip (if that’s not something you already do/have already done), whether it’s at a national park or somewhere in your own city 🙂