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Taking an RV trip was something I had always talked about doing, but never actually took steps to do it. That is – until I attended the RVX trade show in Salt Lake City, Utah a few months ago. I was surprised to learn about the many different types of RVs and how RVing can fit into any lifestyle. Attending RVX inspired me to finally take my first RV trip this summer to Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. Here is my Mt. Rainier camping and hiking guide for 3-4 days in the park, and why why an RV is the best companion for Go RVing’s Kickoff to Camping Season.
Why Camping and Hiking With an RV?
There are so many reasons to take an RV trip, most of which can be summed up into convenience, comfort, and cost.
RVing takes all the logistics of traveling and combines them into one. While you would typically need to book a hotel, rental car, and find restaurants to eat at while traveling, with an RV, you can sleep, travel, and eat in one place. As a minimalist traveler, this type of streamlined travel is extremely appealing to me.
Another way in which RVing makes traveling more convenient is by getting you closer to off-the-beaten-path destinations. Exploring the wilderness or less touristy areas can be a challenge sometimes, since hotels and traditional accommodations are typically harder to come by in more remote areas. However, with an RV, you already have an accommodation, so all you need to do is find a place to park it overnight. RV campsites are much more readily available than hotels in remote locations, and the convenience of not having to drive hours every morning and every night to explore more remote and interesting destinations is enough reason on its own for me to want to take an RV trip.
While tent camping can be a lot of fun, there are always factors outside of your control that can instantly and completely derail your camping trip, such as an unexpected rainstorm, snow storm, or unseasonably cold or hot temperatures. With RVing, you don’t have to worry about inclement weather ruining your camping trip. You also have much more flexibility with an RV to customize your camping trip to your ideal comfort levels, such as by renting an RV with an indoor shower, heating and air conditioning, and a microwave. Some RVs I toured at RVX even had an indoor fireplace and a king size bed, for those who crave extra luxury while exploring the outdoors.
Traveling by RV can be much more economical than traveling by other modes of transportation. The RV I rented from Outdoorsy was big enough for six people and only cost $250 per night, which is much cheaper than paying for a couple of hotel rooms and a rental car. Some smaller 2-person campervans I saw on Outdoorsy cost as little as $50 per night. Of course, if cost isn’t an issue for you, there are also ways to splurge on an RV, such as renting an RV with a fireplace. The myriad options you have with renting an RV show just how versatile RVing is and how it can fit into every lifestyle – from the budget backpacker to the luxury traveler.
3-4 Day Mt. Rainier Camping and Hiking Guide
While it is possible to take a day trip from Seattle to Mount Rainier National Park, if you really want to explore the park and get a good feel for it, I would recommend spending at least 2-3 nights in the park. Even though it looks like there isn’t much on the itinerary for the fourth and final day, there are a couple of reasons why I included the fourth day in the itinerary and when I would recommend building that extra day into your itinerary:
- Most RV rentals will require you to dump the RV before returning it. The only campground that has a dump station at Mt. Rainier is Cougar Rock Campground, so you’ll have to drive all the way back through Cougar Rock to get to Seattle/Tacoma and return your RV. This can add on quite a bit of time onto your return trip from Mt. Rainier to the city.
- Most RV rentals require you to return the RV in the morning, so you would basically have to forego all the activities on the third day of your trip if you wanted to get the RV back to the city before noon.
Both of the above issues can usually be resolved by paying an extra fee for your RV rental, if you’re really tight on time and aren’t worried about additional costs. If you do have the time, however, I would recommend taking it slower and enjoying your time RVing and being in nature.
Day 1: Seattle – Cougar Rock Campground
RV pickup times vary, and you can usually negotiate this with your RV owner, but the times generally aren’t until late morning or early afternoon. After picking up your RV and getting an RV orientation from your RV owner (which can take up to one hour), head to a grocery store nearby and stock up on your food and drink essentials. Some really easy RV meals are ramen, pasta, eggs, and pizza. We also stocked up on beef jerky, our favorite hiking snack, and beer, our favorite post-hike beverage.
Once your RV is fully stocked, start driving toward Mount Rainier National Park. The drive from SeaTac Airport to Cougar Rock Campground is a little over two hours. If you’re coming from Seattle, expect to add at least 30 minutes onto that drive time, and if you’re coming from Tacoma, you can subtract about 30 minutes from that drive.
Driving a 24-foot RV was surprisingly much easier than I expected. I had never driven anything larger than an SUV before, so having to drive the motorhome was definitely one of the things I was most nervous for before this trip. However, I very quickly adjusted to the size and feel of the RV and felt entirely comfortable driving it through the winding mountain roads of Mount Rainier National Park.
Cougar Rock Campground accepts walk-ins, but if you want to guarantee a campsite for the night, especially during peak season, you’ll want to book online in advance. You can find a map of the campsites at Cougar Rock here, and you can make your campsite reservation here.
Once you arrive at Cougar Rock Campground, you can check in at the Ranger Station and find your reservation space. The campgrounds at Mount Rainier National Park are made up of multiple “loops” and are labeled alphabetically like “Loop A,” “Loop B,” “Loop C,” and so on.
The campsites were well-labeled, and our campsite was large enough to fit two RVs the size of ours.
There are no RV hookups at any of the campsites here (or at any of the other campgrounds we stayed at during our time at Mount Rainier National Park), but there is a dump station and water hookup near the Ranger Station and the entrance to the campground.
Get an early night’s rest, as you’ll be starting Day 2 of your Mt. Rainier camping and hiking trip bright and early.
Day 2: Cougar Rock Campground – Christine Falls – Narada Falls – Skyline Trail – Paradise Inn – Reflection Lakes – Ohanapecosh Campground – Silver Falls Trail – Grove of the Patriarchs
You’ll be covering the most ground on Day 2 of your Mt. Rainier camping and hiking trip, as there are several scenic waterfalls and lakes, and a big hike with incredible views of Mt. Rainier, on your way from Cougar Rock Campground to your second campsite at Ohanapecosh Campground. Thus, you’ll want to start your day early – as early as you feel comfortable starting, but try to aim for 6:00am or earlier. You can find a map of the campsites at Ohanapecosh here, and you can make your campsite reservation here.
Your first stop will be Christine Falls, which is about five minutes by car from Cougar Rock Campground. The parking lot should be mostly empty at such an early hour, so you should have no problem parking at the main parking lot by the falls. Across the street from the parking lot is the beginning portion of the falls, where you can see just how far down the water drops and just how fast the flow is. Then, hike down to the viewpoint to see the picturesque view of the falls under the bridge.
After marveling at Christine Falls, make one more stop at Narada Falls, which is about 10 minutes by car from Christine Falls. Like Christine Falls, there is an opportunity to hike down to a clearer viewpoint of the falls at Narada Falls. Most days, you can feel a mist from the waterfalls while walking on the viewpoint trail.
Finally, it’s time to do some hiking. From Narada Falls, drive another 8-10 minutes to the Paradise Visitor Center (formally known as the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center), where you’ll be starting your hike of the Skyline Trail at around 7:00am. Note that the Paradise Visitor Center was the only place we found in Mount Rainier National Park with reliable wifi, so if you need to get plugged in, this is the place to take advantage of the wifi, as the vast majority of the park is without any cell service.
The Skyline Trail at Paradise is 5.5 miles and takes most people 3-4 hours to complete. There is snow covering the trail year round, so even in the summer months, I would recommend checking with a ranger at the Paradise Visitor Center first to ensure trail conditions are safe before embarking on your hike.
When we hiked this trail on the last day of June 2019, most of the trail was still covered in snow, which completely took us by surprise. Despite being unprepared to hike in snowy conditions, however, we still made it and had a lot of fun doing it. In fact, having hiked impressive trails all over the world, like Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and the Salkantay Trail in Peru, the Skyline Trail in Mt. Rainier was one of my favorite hikes, both in terms of how fun it was to hike and the views we were rewarded with. So, if weather conditions are good when you visit and you’re feeling up for an adventure, definitely include the Skyline Trail in your Mt. Rainier camping and hiking itinerary.
After the hike, treat yourself to breakfast or lunch at Paradise Inn. If you just want to grab a sandwich and beer or something quick, head to the cafe at Paradise Inn. If you finished the hike early and want to splurge a bit on a nicer meal, head to the dining room at Paradise Inn. When we went, there was a brunch buffet for $29.95 per person that we felt was well worth it based on the selection of foods served.
After fueling up and resting after your big hike, head back to your RV and drive 8-10 minutes east to Reflection Lake. Once you get there, it’ll be easy to see where the name came from.
There’s a trail that loops around Reflection Lake, but we just stopped for a short time to admire the lake and were happy with the views we got from just off the parking lot.
After taking in the views at Reflection Lake, drive to your campsite for the night at Ohanapecosh Campground. You’ll want to decide before you leave or while driving whether you want to do any more hiking that day. If you’re up for more hiking, drive to your campsite, park your RV, and hike to Grove of the Patriarchs via the Silver Falls Trail, which starts inside the Ohanapecosh Campground. The hike is about four miles roundtrip and takes approximately two hours. There are beautiful waterfall views along the way, so if you’ve got any energy left in you, I would recommend parking your RV at the campsite and hiking to Grove of the Patriarchs.
Grove of the Patriarchs is a short loop trail filled with 3- and 4-story tall trees that are some of the oldest trees in the Washington Cascades. Even though the hike through the Grove of the Patriarchs is very easy, the views make it completely worthwhile. Many trees in the Grove of the Patriarchs are over 25 feet in circumference, with some are nearing 50 feet in circumference, and a few of the trees are over 1,000 years old!
If you opted to hike the Silver Falls Trail to Grove of the Patriarchs, you should be finishing the hike around 4:00-5:00pm, so it’ll be the perfect time to go back to your RV and cook up a big dinner to reward yourself for all the hiking you did today before turning in for the night.
Day 3: Ohanapecosh Campground – White River Campground – Summit House Restaurant – Glacier Basin Trail
Start your third day in Mount Rainier National Park at around 7:00am. Since White River Campground does not take reservations in advance, you’ll want to get there as early as possible for the highest chances of finding a vacant campsite. Make sure you have $20 in cash or check on you, as there oftentimes isn’t a ranger on site, and you’ll need to make your payment through the fee dropbox. You can find a map of the campsites at White River here. I would recommend looking for a vacant campsite in Loop D, so that you’re all set up to hike the Glacier Basin Trail later in the day. We stayed in campsite D19, and the trailhead for the Glacier Basin Trail and the Emmons Moraine Trail was directly across from our campsite, which was very convenient.
Once you get to White River Campground and claim your campsite, drive to Crystal Mountain to take the gondola up to Summit House Restaurant for an early lunch. The hours and menus at Summit House change depending on the season, so make sure you check online for the latest updates before you go. You can purchase your tickets for the gondola when you arrive, or you can purchase them online in advance at this link. The earlier you book, the cheaper the ticket will be. The gondola climbs over 2,000 feet, and the journey takes 12 minutes each way.
The food at Summit House Restaurant was very good, albeit priced on the higher end. If you’re lucky enough to arrive on a warm and sunny day, there is a large outdoor patio where you can dine and enjoy views from the highest altitude restaurant in the state of Washington. Unfortunately we were hit with some pretty heavy cloud coverage when we went, so the views were mostly obstructed, but the clouds did give the mountain a very mystical look, which was unique and special in its own way.
After lunch, you can either hike some of the trails at Crystal Mountain before taking the gondola back down, or if the weather is as cold and misty as it was for us, take the gondola down and drive back to White River Campground, where you can begin your Glacier Basin hike.
Like many trails in Mount Rainier National Park, the Glacier Basin Trail takes you through a variety of landscapes, including waterfalls, mountains, and glaciers. There was significantly less snow on this trail than on the Skyline Trail at Paradise, which made it feel much easier, but it is still a moderately difficult trail. The trail is 3.1 miles each way, or 6.2 miles roundtrip. If you decide to hike out past the Glacier Basin Campsite or take the Emmons Moraine Trail offshoot on your way there or back, you’ll probably be looking at around 8 miles roundtrip, which would take the average hiker 3-4 hours to complete.
The Glacier Basin Trail ends when you reach the campsite, but feel free to go a little further and keep exploring, weather permitting. Once we emerged from the forest, we came upon an open valley with a river that ran from the Inter Glacier down toward the trail. We walked upriver toward the Inter Glacier for a bit until the river got to be too wide, and we found ourselves stranded on an island of rocks in the middle of the river. The views from beyond the trail were some of the most beautiful, so I would recommend going a little further and exploring a little longer, if you are able.
You should arrive back at your campsite around 4:00-5:00pm again, just in time for another meal and early bedtime, so that you can wake up bright and early the next morning to watch the sunrise from the highest drivable point in Mount Rainier National Park.
Day 4: Sunrise Visitor Center – Cougar Rock Campground – Seattle
On your fourth and final day camping and hiking Mt. Rainier, wake up an hour before sunrise, so that you can drive to Sunrise Visitor Center for some of the most beautiful sunrise views in the park. There are also a number of trails that start from Sunrise Visitor Center, so if you want to get in one last hike before ending your trip, this would be a good place to do so.
Unfortunately, we were caught in thick fog again that morning, and sunrise was nowhere to be seen. We did linger for a bit, however, and marveled at these mystical forest views.
After exploring Sunrise to your satisfaction, drive back to Cougar Rock Campground to dump your RV before returning it to your pickup spot. Dumping the RV was much easier than I had expected and didn’t take us more than 15 minutes from start to finish.
Finally, drive back to your pickup spot, and start planning your next RV camping and hiking trip to another awesome corner of the world!
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