More than two million people each year make the trek to Mt. Rainier National Park. For more than one hundred years, the park has attracted climbers, hikers, naturalists and of course photographers. The Northwest’s highest mountain anchors this area which is replete with old-growth forests, flowery sub alpine meadows, and rivers born from the glaciers that streak the peak’s upper slopes.
Mt. Rainier is located about 90 miles south, southeast of Seattle. If you are flying, Sea-Tac International Airport is the closest major airport. Rent a car and head south on I-5. If you want to concentrate your visit on the park’s west side, leave I-5 near Tacoma, Wash. and follow Washington Highway 7 to Washington Highway 706. This will take you to the Nisqually Entrance. If you want to work the park’s eastern flank, take I-5 south all the way to Washington Highway 12 going east. As you drive past Packwood, Wash, take Washington Highway 123 to the park’s Stevens Canyon or White River Entrances. July through September are the park’s peak months, although portions of the park are open year-round. A one-week vehicle pass that gains the vehicle and all occupants access to the park (but not camping areas,) costs $10.00.
WHERE TO STAY
You can camp in the park or stay at one of the national park lodges on Rainier. These sites fill up quickly so visit the NPS web site link at the bottom of this story for more information.
If you want to stay in a hotel, there are several to choose from. Since I prefer starting my Rainier trips on the park’s east side, I suggest Packwood, Wash. as a base of operations. It is only 20 minutes from the park’s entrance and offers four or five small and affordable hotels. There are also some basic restaurants, gas stations and a grocery store. Hotel rooms run from $50 to $100 during peak season.
If you want to work the west side of the park, the town of Ashford offers the closest accommodations just outside the park’s entrance. During peak season expect to pay $80 to $120 a night on this side of the mountain. For lodging info visit http://www.mt-rainier.com/.
Mt. Rainier has so much to see and shoot that you will want to bring everything, including the kitchen sink. Unfortunately, sinks are heavy so I advise that you make a decision on what you want to concentrate on and bring the equipment to do that job. For instance, if you want to shoot the wide variety of wildflowers on the mountain, bring a super wide angle lens to make interesting landscapes that feature flowers as dominant foreground elements. You may also want to bring macro equipment since the park is filled with macro opportunities. Wildlife shooters will want their long lenses to capture the Roosevelt elk and Black Tail deer that make the park home. You may see a Black bear, eagles and marmots. Long telephotos also work for landscape mountain scenes when you want to draw background mountains into the picture. If you like to shoot waterfalls, bring your mid-range zooms and have at it. Waterfalls abound on Mt Rainier. Panoramic photographers can use the variety of lakes in the area to frame panoramic vistas of the mountain’s reflection in pristine waters.
I like to start my Mt. Rainier expeditions on the park’s east side. It seems less crowded and more remote than the west side which is closer to Seattle. From the Stevens Canyon entrance, you can start your visit at Grove of the Patriarchs. An easy walk of less than a mile (one way) along the Ohanapecosh River leads to the grove of old-growth trees that rise-up above an island in the river. Cross the bridge to explore mossy, gnarled limbs, and touch the rough, deeply furrowed bark of the huge trunks, some a good 10 feet in diameter. Many of these Douglas-firs and Western red cedars have lived more than 600 years. There are photo opportunities in the grove, from the bridge, under the bridge and along the river. (NOTE: This is a perfect place to work on a foggy or slightly overcast day.)
While you are on this side of the park, you might want to take the winding road leading west up to Sunrise, which is the highest point in the park accessible by car (6,400 feet). Allow plenty of time to make your way up the 16-mile road. There are two vista points that lead to incredible views in all directions. From the Sunrise visitor center there is an extensive trail system that leads to views of the mountain surrounded by fields of flowers. From these vantage points you may get lucky enough to see and photograph Bighorn Sheep.
Moving east, you will come to Box Canyon. An easy, half-mile hike from the Box Canyon/Muddy Fork Cowlitz bridge leads to a deep and narrow river gorge, In some places it’s 180 feet down to the bottom and its chasm is around 20 feet wide. There are glacial rocks protruding everywhere and the canyon itself photographs well in all but the harshest light.
I like this point for both sunrise and sunset shots. This means that you will make the trip up (or down) the winding road in the dark but it’s worth the trip.
Moving east to west, you will pass the Reflection Lakes area. This shot has been made hundreds of times, but it is special to have your own version. Be here at Sunrise or Sunset and have a split ND filter with you to hold the sky. Oh, and expect a crowd. 365 days a year, photographers gather at this spot for a special shot. Look at a park map for directions to Tipsoo Lake below if you want to avoid the crowds, but get a similar shot.
Moving to the west side of the park, I love the views of the mountain from Longmire. There is also a nice .8 mile trail around an old cabin, hot springs, various forest vegetation, etc. On the way from Longmire to Paradise you will pass Paradise River Falls (Located on the Paradise Valley Loop Road). This is a must-have shot if you are lucky enough to be there on a misty, foggy, rainy or overcast day. You can shoot the 169-foot falls from the top parking lot or hike down for a more dramatic view.
The view from Paradise Point is well, paradise. You can shoot the western view of the mountain, move up and down an extensive trail system, or just walk up to deer that are very used to being photographed. This is the wet side of the park so, you will probably see more flowers at this location than any other. (There are more than 30 varieties in the summer.)
There is no gasoline available once you are inside the park so make sure you have a full tank before you go. Distances inside the park can be deceiving. In the summer, bring insect repellant. Also try to avoid weekends. The place is packed, and photo opportunities are significantly diminished by the crowds. You should also know that recent landslides and floods have closed some roads and campgrounds. Check with the park rangers prior to taking your trip to make sure the area you want to visit isn’t impacted.
For more information on park conditions, road closures, weather and more call 1 (360) 569 2211 or visit http://www.nps.gov/mora/.
Mt. Rainier is a huge place, and there is just too much to mention in one article. Explore the mountain and you will no doubt find your own hot spots.
If you want to photograph the Rainier area but avoid the clichs, try taking Highway 410 on the mountain’s east side to Tipsoo Lake. While technically outside the park, it offers some of the best views of the mountain and an inspiring set of lakes from which to base your photo expedition. Also try Forest Road 52 otherwise knows as Skate Creek Road. This road is only open in summer and runs along the park’s west side between Packwood and Ashford. It is incredible in every sense of the word and worth a day or two on its own. Lastly, two places that only locals visit are Packwood Lake (A good six mile hike that leads to a lovely jade-green lake high in the mountains) and Jody’s Bridge (Take Highway 12 to Forest Road 1270 to see a beautiful view of the Cowlitz River.)
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