Home to one of the most iconic mountains, not only in the United States, but the entire world, Mount Rainier National Park is a truly incredible place. The massive Rainier towers 14,410 feet above the sea and nearby Seattle-Tacoma region. This dormant volcano belongs to the beautiful Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest, and has had a long history of eruptions, lava flow, and seismic activity that has shaped and formed the mountain and its surrounding landscape to what it is today.
Now the mountain is a training ground and playground for serious mountain climbers, testing out their skills on the massive glaciers that cling to the peak. For photographers, your adventures are endless, as well as the photo opportunities, and while it may seem like there is only one mountain and view to capture, that is far from the truth. Mount Rainier National Park, if visited, will leave a strong impression, and make you want to revisit to shoot, time and time again. Here are my top criteria for any National Park I photograph, and why I believe Rainier is worth the trip out to Seattle on its own.
Trails and accessibility:
Mount Rainier National Park is a lot bigger than you think, because when you finally get to the park, you realize that Mount Rainier itself is way bigger than you can imagine. The park is centered around this behemoth of a mountain, and thus all the roads and trails circle and revolve around the mountain.
There are two main Ranger and Visitor Centers in the park: Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center next to the iconic, Paradise area of the park, and Sunrise Visitor Center. As one can figure out, Sunrise lies in the east, and Paradise in the west, on the sunset side of the mountain. While they appear close, thousands of elevation gain, winding roads, and sometimes park traffic can hinder a quick traverse through the park, so be prepared to plan for that when you shoot. You don’t want to get started too late on a hike or miss a certain time of your day due to driving time.
But once you do reach either of these main visitor centers, you have countless options for hiking trails and vistas. The trails, like most in the National Park system, are very well maintained and marked, and offer opportunities from casual strolls with your family to serious mountain climbing high up over 14,000 feet. It’s worth every second you drive. Just give yourself more time than you think you need to travel in the park.
The weather revolves around a massive mountain that can create its own system in a heartbeat. Like most high alpine photography excursions, it’s best to avoid afternoon and midday due to sudden storms that don’t mix well with your metal tripods, cameras, and lenses. But once the weather does clear after a storm, it can lead to some of the most incredible cloud cover and sunsets, as the clouds wrap around Rainier and add character and drama to an already dramatic mountain.
Just remember: always be patient, not just when shooting Rainier, but any mountain that may be cloudy or covered with a storm system. Sometimes the best sunsets and shots come right at the last minute, as the clouds clear right as the sun is going down. Always be patient and don’t give up until the sun goes down.
Mount Rainier has some wonderful wildlife to shoot, including black bears, mule deer, elk, and mountain goats. But some of the best wildlife to shoot lives higher up, where the treeline ends. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to spot a marmot or pika scampering around the scree and boulder fields of the mountain. Cascade pikas and marmots look much different than those found in the Rockies, as they are bigger and shaded gray to blend in with the prominent stone color of the Cascades. All these animals are a treat to shoot, and you won’t have to look hard to find opportunities in this park.
While this park is heavily visited, like most National Parks, I found that it feels very remote, and once you get started on your trail, you truly can be the only human on that path for miles. This is surprising at first, especially because of the park’s close proximity to Seattle and Tacoma, but most of the hikes tend to be several miles long with serious elevation gain, which weeds out a lot of tourists passing through. Again, always get started early and stay late, and always take proper safety precautions, and you should have fantastic opportunities to photograph Mount Rainier without the frustration of crowds and tourists.
Shot opportunity is where this park truly shines. Mount Rainier is simply a treat to shoot. It is massive, but also rich with texture, depth, and personality. The mountain is draped with massive glaciers that extend like fingers down the mountains summit, which create gorgeous tarns and lakes to photograph, like the famous Reflection Lake. The amount of rain, glacier water and snow the park receives also creates two distinct features of the park: the waterfalls and abundance of lushness, vegetation, and wildflowers. Large waterfalls, like Comet Falls, which flows year round, cascades down over three hundred feet, and is incredible to see and photograph. Beautiful fields of wildflowers and lush temperate rainforest surround Mount Rainier, and add a beautiful dimension unique to the Cascade and Pacific Northwest region. It does rain a lot, but that rain fuels some incredible opportunities for your camera.
However, my favorite photography opportunity comes from the unique fire lookout towers that perch above the peaks, weathered and beautiful. There’s something special about the contrast of a human building in such a severe and high alpine environment that really yields some incredible photo results. Mount Fremont and Tolmie Peak have the best fire lookout towers, and if you start early and beat the crowds, you even have the chance to stay overnight in these buildings, as long as you don’t mind sleeping alongside new backpacking friends. As long as you acquire a permit, you are able to sleep in these towers, for free, and the experience will be one you won’t ever forget.
Mount Rainier National Park truly amazed me, and I came away wanting more. It’s a mountain that beckons the boldest climbers and most talented creatives, and it looks good at any angle while doing it. It stands in solidarity, towering above the rest of cascade range peaks in the park, and allow for some incredible photography. You will capture mountain layers and alpine shots that seem too good to be true. Do yourself a favor and plan a trip to this iconic place, and see all it has to offer for yourself.