Mount Rainier, at 14,409 feet, has more glaciers on it than any other mountain in the continental U.S.
(Above) Rainier from the south. If you're fortunate enough to visit on a cloudless day, Rainier will suddenly loom out of the forest in its massive glory! First impressions are often, "Wow, it's sooooo big!"
This trip will help you interpret what you see at Paradise.
Why Go: Rainier is probably the most dangerous volcano in America, as well as one of the most beautiful mountains. The volcano is deeply glaciated, holding 27 glaciers that cover 35 square miles and feed 6 major river systems -- no other mountain comes close. The old-growth forest in the national park is serenely breath-taking, and will make you want to stay forever.
Natural Hazards: Rainier is dangerous because it looms over large population centers at Tacoma and Seattle. It's dangerous because history shows it doesn't have to erupt to cause destructive landslides and lahars (debris flows with the consistency of concrete) that have raced all the way to the Puget Sound. It's dangerous because it holds billions of cubic meters of ice in its glaciers, which if melted could create enormous floods down one of its river valleys. It's dangerous because there is a body of magma inside the peak that is steadily rotting the mountain from the inside out by circulating corrosive hot water through the rock.
Getting There: Rainier is accessible from any direction, but this trip will focus on the Paradise visitors center area on the south side of the mountain (see map). The road up is windy and steep in places, so be prepared. It is open to RVs, but please be sure your vehicle and its brakes are in good condition.
Road Status: Road Status The road from Longmire to Paradise is open year-round, but check this link when the weather is questionable. Chains are often required.
Difficulty: Easy for anyone if you stay by the visitor center, moderate if you hike to the Nisqually overlooks (highly recommended!). More strenuous hikes are readily available from Paradise, including expert-only and guided climbs to the summit.
Time: A day is sufficient to see Paradise. Add additional days for Sunrise and the wonderful old-growth forest in the park.
The Paradise Visitor Center has all amenities, including good food. It also has good descriptions of the mountain's history, hazards, and glaciers. It's the best place to start.
The Geology: Mt. Rainier started erupting about 500,000 years ago, forming a broad blanket of pyroclastic flows (explosively erupted avalanches and air-fall). You can see this broad plateau from the mountain or any distant view. Note how the younger cone sits on top of the plateau. The volcano went through several phases that eventually formed the composite cone we see today. The date of the last eruption isn't very clear, but appears to have been pyroclastic flows and lahars about 1000 years ago. There may also have been steam explosions in the 1800's.
See my "Volcano Primer" page to learn the rock types and features you'll see at a volcano.
Lahars are the most immediate hazard of Mt. Rainier. A lahar is a debris flow from a volcano -- essentially a flood of rocks and concrete-like mud. They can travel 45 miles per hour, and will remove anything in their path. Past lahars have flowed all the way to the Puget Sound and covered broad areas (see map below).
The Route (see map):
Visit every scenic turn-out you encounter! The next 2 photos were taken at the high bridge across Nisqually Creek.
Take your time and enjoy the Paradise visitor center. Don't worry to much if you have to park in the lower lot -- the walk isn't very strenuous, and you're surrounded by world-class views! Just enjoy!
When you're ready, take the Nisqually vista trail west from Paradise (there are plenty of good signs). The trail is actually easier to access from the west end of the lower parking lot (the loop-shaped one). The trail is paved and not very strenuous, but some folks will want to stop along the way to rest on one of the several benches. There are sections that are too steep for wheelchairs. It's just long enough that you'll want to take water and snacks with you, particularly if you have children.
You'll soon arrive at the views below.
I hope you're there on a clear day!
(Above) This is an older lateral moraine left behind by the Nisqually glacier. Its height indicates the maximum thickness of the glacier -- more than 700 feet!
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M.S. -- More Science
You can look at a geologic map of Rainier here: NPS.gov (PDF)
You can read more about Mt. Rainier's geology here: USGS.gov
Read more about lahar hazards here: USGS.gov