Report From the Pacific Northwest National Parks: Of Hikes and (mostly no) Hordes

The skeptical cardiologist notes that a NY times article last week reported “packed parking lots, congested trailheads, overrun campsites and interminable lines” at National Parks (Yellowstone, Acadia, Zion, and Grand Canyon) but after completing the post-pandemic Pacific Northwest Adventure I can report we had no waits at National Park entrances and had large stretches of magnificent hikes and scenic viewpoints to ourselves.

Mount Rainier National Park

After flying into Seattle-Tacoma airport late we stayed in Puyallup and then awoke reasonably early on July 4 (to avoid crowds) and reached the northern White River entrance to Mount Rainier National Park at 9 AM where we encountered one car in front of us at the entrance.

We drove the beautiful Sunrise road with no cars ahead or behind us and arrived at Sunrise Point by 10 AM and had this large stunning viewpoint nearly to ourselves for about 15 minutes.

(I should note that when we drove back down the Sunrise road about 4 hours later the Sunrise Point parking lot was jam-packed; people were everywhere.)

When we pulled into the Sunrise Visitor Center the ranger directed us to park in the auxiliary gravel parking lot where there were lots of still available spots. The visitor center (like all the ones we encountered) was closed but a ranger was giving out maps and information outside. We had one person in line in front of us to talk to the Ranger.

After a discussion with the Ranger we decided on this “strenuous” level hike which was awesome:

Mount Fremont Lookout Trail 5.6 miles. 900′ elevation gain. Average hiking time: 3.5 hours. Follow the Sourdough Ridge Trail to the junction at Frozen Lake, then take the Mount Fremont Trail to the old fire lookout.

This was an absolutely glorious hike and although clearly a lot of people were taking it we found that above and beyond Frozen Lake there were long stretches where we were alone on the trail, soaking up the peace and quiet and being amazed by the stunning vistas of subalpine meadows, snow-capped giant peaks and mountain lakes.

View from trail to Mount Fremont Lookout looking back at Frozen Lake
Note the absence of hikers during this beautiful stretch of hiking

At the top of the climb there were a fair number of hikers who had like us stopped to eat and drink and spend some time enjoying the 360 degree panoramic views of Mount Rainier and surrounding peaks and valleys.

Although the lookout station was popular for selfie shots we had it to ourselves for about 10 minutes .

For the most part the trail was free of snow but we did encounter two stretches of snow, one of which was somewhat intimidating as slipping meant sliding down a steep incline on the icy snow for a scary distance. Many hikers had hiking poles and hiking boots but we hike low tech. Our timing was good for many of the trails had only become hikeable in the last week.

From Sunrise we drove to the Paradise Visitor Center which is in the southwest portion of the park and which attracts the most visitors. We grabbed some wine and snacks at the Paradise Inn and chilled in the Great Hall for a while. The Inn was built in 1916 and I really enjoyed its design and furniture.

Upper mezzanine section Paradise Inn Great Hall. Note absence of hordes. Note leg of one mother reading to her daughter

Wikipedia notes:

Hans Fraehnke, a German-born carpenter created furniture from local materials for the inn including two 1,500 pound (680 kg) tables, a 14 feet (4 m) tall grandfather clock and a rustic piano which President Harry S. Trumanplayed on during a visit to the inn in 1945.

Alas, the piano was under lock and key and I could not tickle the ivory that Truman tickled 76 years earlier.

The next morning we again set out somewhat early from our B and B in Ashford and arrived at the entrance sign for Paradise at 9 AM. After getting our maps, our bearings, our coffee and food for the hike we started off on the Glacier Vista/Panorama Point hike at 942 AM.

This view looking back at the beginning of the main trail from the Visitor center shows a parking lot beginning to fill but relatively few fellow hikers

The main trail is the beginning for a much longer hike which unfortunately was still predominantly snow-covered. Many hikers had the gear for making that hike and some were carrying snow skis, presumably for some downhill skiing.

A short hike with a fair amount of easily crossed snow led us to this wonderful vista of the Savant Glacer on the side of Mt. Rainier.

At 1030 AM there were a few other hikers sharing this wonderful spot with us but for the most part it was peaceful with only the sound of rivulets from melting snow and waterfalls with occasional bird calls marring the solitude.

Shade is difficult to come by on this hike (and the Sunrise hike) but Jen managed to find a shady spot for contemplating the majesty of the mountain

After a leisurely lunch on the patio of the Paradise Inn we took an “easy” hike to Myrtle falls which was jam-packed with people at 1 PM.

Myrtle Falls with Mt. Rainier in background

Other Monuments and National Parks

After spending a few restful days on Whidbey Island and Orcas Island (the “gem” of the San Juan Islands National Monument), we drove into North Cascades National Park.

Although there was a nice sign at the entrance there was no line of cars and no NP Ranger to check my senior National Parks pass. Similarly, a few days later we entered massive Olympic National Park multiple times without delays or lines.

On a drive around the Lake Quinault Rain Forest we were virtually alone on the road.

We visited Beaches 1 through 4 south of Ruby Beach on the wild and beautiful Pacific coast of ONP and had them mostly to ourselves.

Ruby Beach itself was quite crowded when we visited it mid-afternoon but its beauty is worth braving hordes of people.

The largest crowds we encountered while viewing natural features were at Snoqualmie Falls, a key feature of the Twin Peaks portion of our tour. Trust me when I tell you I was surrounded by hordes of fellow tourists when I took this iconic shot of the Salish Lodge (aka The Great Northern) and the enchanting Snoqualmie Falls.

Of course, it was very easy to reach this viewpoint by parking a car across the road and walking about 100 yards. The farther you hike to experience the glories of nature the more alone you will be while contemplating them which, in my experience, enhances the overall experience.

My experience in the first two weeks of July may not be reproduced later in the summer but at least for now I can report three National Parks which were absolutely delightful to experience and mostly free of hordes.

I recommend you consider pulling out your Senior National Parks Pass and using it with abandon this summer.

Peripatetically Yours,

-ACP

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7 thoughts on “Report From the Pacific Northwest National Parks: Of Hikes and (mostly no) Hordes”

  1. Judging from the number of newbies and environmental refugees, the open feeling at NW parks and trails will not last much longer.

    Reply
  2. I live on the hill north of Puyallup, so I try to see our beautiful Mt. Rainier as often as the weather permits. I plan my walking/driving routes in hopes of a glimpse of the mountain every day and can’t imagine living away from it. So I am very happy to hear that you had a wonderful trip.

    Reply
  3. Having lived in the Pac NW for quite awhile and still go there, I can attest that nature there is stunning. So glad you took these trips. When I remained able to hike/ski/light backpack, I was in love with the Lower Elwah Valley in the Cascades. If I recall correctly, the upper Elwah is one of the quietest places in the world or is the most quiet? (Someone might know.) Sorry they locked you out of the piano at the Paradise. (Sad face) Never been! The photos remind me of the Awahnee in Yosemite. Yes, I indeed have my senior Golden Forever Pass! Cheers!

    Reply
  4. Having done this in 2018, we really appreciated your article above on the Mt. Fremont Lookout Trail. Please note that this wonderful trail is in Mt. Rainier National Park (not in Mt. Ranier National Park as you spelled it.)
    Keep up the good work.
    Dave in Pennsylvania.

    Reply
    • Dave,
      Thanks for the heads up. I noticed at some point during the trip I was consistently misspelling Rainier. Perhaps if it had rained while we there the correct spelling would have stuck.
      Dr P

      Reply

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