Mount Rainier National Park offers a number of hikes with incredible views of Washington’s tallest mountain, but perhaps none as stellar as those that you’ll find along the Skyline Trail. In fact, between its technicolor wildflowers, rushing waterfall, and massive glaciers, if you’re going to hike just one trail in the park, the Skyline Trail may be the perfect choice.
So if frolicking past wildflower fields and views for 300 miles in every direction sounds like your idea of a good time, lace up those hiking boots and let’s hit the road- here’s everything you need to know about the Skyline Trail, Mt. Rainier’s most spectacular hike.
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Psssst… heading to Mount Rainier National Park? You may want to check out our other posts about some of the other amazing hikes in the park:
- 10 Best Mt. Rainier Hikes to Add to Your Bucket List
- Fremont Lookout: Hike to Mount Rainier’s Highest Fire Lookout
- Tolmie Peak Fire Lookout: Hike to Mount Rainer’s Most Beautiful Viewpoint
- 24 Hour Guide to Fall Hikes in Mount Rainier
We also have a ton of content all around Washington state (what can I say, my home state is pretty great!), which you can check out here.
About the Skyline Trail
Length: 6.2 miles
Elevation gain: 1,788 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to challenging (there’s nothing technically challenging about this hike, but it’ll certainly get your heartrate up!)
How to Get to the Skyline Trail
The Skyline Trail is located here in the Paradise section of Mount Rainier National Park, found in the southern portion of the park.
Quick lil’ history lesson- while Mount Rainier (or Tahoma, as named by the Puyallup people) has long been the ancestral land of the Cowlitz, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, and Yakama tribes, James Longmire was one of the first white men to settle the area around the mountain. When his daughter-in-law, Martha, first laid eyes on the site, she exclaimed “Oh, what a paradise!” and the name has stuck ever since.
Most visitors reach Paradise by driving through the tiny town of Ashford and entering the park through its southwestern Nisqually entrance. To enter the park, you’ll need to purchase a $30 pass per vehicle (good for seven days) or have an annual interagency pass, like America the Beautiful. Past the entrance station, you’ll follow the curvy Paradise Road through a beautiful pine tree forest, winding up along the side of the mountain until you reach the Paradise parking lot.
This is the most popular section of the park so if you’re visiting on a weekend from July through October, I’d suggest getting here early (like, early early)- parking can fill up by 9 AM on busy days.
When to visit the Skyline Trail
So here’s the thing- the Skyline Trail is actually beautiful year round, but you’re going to have a vastly different experience depending on what time of the year you visit.
- July through August is considered the hike’s peak season- the meadows around the trail will be blanketed by vibrant wildflowers and the waterfalls you’ll see along the trail will be at their maximum flow.
- September through mid-October is a fantastic time to enjoy the beautiful autumnal foliage. In Mount Rainier (and throughout other parts of the Pacific Northwest). Along the Skyline Trail, not only do the deciduous trees turn beautiful shades of gold, orange, and red, but the wildflowers and shrubs carpeting its valleys also explode into vibrant fall colors, making it one of the best fall hikes in Mount Rainier National Park!
- Due to Rainier’s extreme elevation, there’s a good chance of finding snow on the trail, as well as along the road leading to the parking lot, from mid-October on. By December, there will be several feet of snow blanketing Paradise.
On the bright side, Paradise Road is one of the only routes in the entire park to stay open throughout the snowy winter months (although you will need tire chains to make the drive), so you can actually even enjoy and experience portions of the trail even when Rainier is blanketed with thick layers of snow (just don’t forget your snowshoes and a solid understanding of the risks of winter hiking!).
- The snow starts rapidly melting around late May through June and depending upon the year, you may be able to enjoy the trail through this timeframe with just some microspikes and hiking poles.
What to Expect Along the Skyline Trail
You’ll start the trail from along the stone steps behind the Henry M. Jackson Visitors Center to the left of the parking lot. There’s quite a few junctions along the way- while the trail is well-signed, it may be a good idea to pick up a map at the Visitors Center to make sure you stay on the right path (or better yet, use the AllTrails app while you’re hiking!). Once you follow signs for the Skyline Trail and reach the beginning portion of the trail, you’ll have an option to either hike this loop clockwise or counterclockwise.
- If you hike the trail clockwise, you’ll have a steep initial climb to Panorama Point along the first 2.2 miles, but you’ll get to enjoy spectacular views along your thigh-burning ascent, as well as enjoy a mostly downhill journey the last half of the trail.
- If you hike the trail counter-clockwise, you’ll have the trail mostly to yourself in this direction. Your first mile or so of the hike will have a lower initial elevation gain, with the most breathtaking views saved for the very end.
While both routes have their benefits, for whatever reason, most hikers (including myself!) do this trail clockwise– perhaps to get the worst of the elevation gain out of the way on the front-end, which is how I’m going to describe it in this post.
The initial 0.4 miles of the hike is tough (with an incline of up to 20% in some areas!), but the climb will eventually become a bit more forgiving. A half-mile into the trail, you’ll reach a fork, with Dead Horse Creek Trail on your left and Glacier Vista on your right. Bear right to continue up a series of stone steps- and a little ways up the trail, you’ll reach Glacier Vista to your left, which provides sweeping views of the Nisqually Glacier and an enormous waterfall thundering down Rainier’s valleys.
Continuing along the trail, you’ll climb up a few switchbacks and reach yet another junction. The left will lead to the Pebble Creek trail, which takes you to Camp Muir, the jumping off point for mountaineers looking to summit Rainier, or the right continues along the Skyline Trail. Unless you’ve got your ice axe at the ready, you’ll continue right and eventually reach Panorama Point 1.9 miles into the trail.
Panorama Point is aptly named, providing both up-close-and personal views of Mount Rainier, but also of the mountains behind you- the jagged Tatoosh mountain range, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and even Mt. Hood, all the way in Oregon, on a clear day. Some people opt to retrace their footsteps back to the parking lot from here (meaning you’ll usually see a lot less hikers after this point), but if you’d like to continue on, follow the signs leading you north. Keep an eye on the slopes covered with scree (i.e. a collection of broken rock fragments) for the next half a mile or so- this is an excellent spot to see mountain goat friends!
You’ll soon start making your descent towards the southeast, with views of the valleys of Rainier’s foothills and the stunning Tatoosh Mountains as your backdrop. At around 3.1 miles in, you’ll reach a junction with the Golden Gate Trail to your right.
This is a more direct path back to the parking lot if you’re looking to shave some time and mileage off your trek, but you will miss some of the most tranquil parts of the trail, like the babbling Paradise River or Sluiskin Falls, considered to be one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Paradise basin (and named after the Native American guide who led the first documented group of white settlers that summited the mountain in 1870).
Continuing along the Skyline Trail, you’ll reach the Lake Trails turnoff 4.1 miles into your journey. If you’re looking to extend your hike, this is an excellent option, adding an additional 3.5 miles past Reflection Lakes and Louise Lake to your journey before looping back to the Paradise lot. If you’re not clamoring to add additional mileage to your trek, keep on going straight. One of the best views of the hike is saved for the very end- Myrtle Falls, which drops 72 feet in a gorge carved by the glacially-fed Edith Creek. With a short 0.4-mile walk downhill back to the parking lot, give yourself a high five- you just completed one of the most iconic hikes in Mount Rainier!
Tips for the Skyline Trail
- There’s tons of signs along the trails reminding you of this, but please don’t step or otherwise trample on the wildflowers for any reason (yes, that includes for TikTok). When most species of wildflowers are trampled, they can’t produce seeds, which is generally how they reproduce. So if you step through a meadow of wildflowers, you’re not just killing those wildflowers, but also their future flower grandbabies for years and years to come. And do you want to be a flower grandbaby killer? I didn’t think so.
- While there are no grizzlies in Mount Rainier, there are a hearty amount of black bears, which have certainly been spotted in Paradise. Whenever I go hiking in Washington or in any bear country, both my husband, Justin, and I each carry a canister of bear spray, which temporarily deters (but does not injure) large or aggressive animals if you ever have a close encounter. I suggest you do the same!
Pro-tip for flying visitors- you can’t take bear spray on plane (even in checked luggage), so instead, use the link above and have a canister shipped to an Amazon Hub Locker somewhere between the airport and your accommodations.
- Between the high elevation and the extreme incline found along the trail, this hike can feel pretty intense in some spots- I hike almost every weekend and there are definitely areas towards the beginning that kicked my butt! As such, I’d recommend bringing along lots of water– Justin and I each have one of these giant Nalgene bottles that we take on all our hikes. They’re way better for the planet than single-use plastic water bottles, plus easier on the wallet- win-win!
Where to Stay in Mount Rainier
Paradise is fairly remote- it takes about two and a half hours to drive there from Seattle, the nearest big city. Between the drive time and the amount of epic hikes Rainier offers, I’d recommend making a weekend out of your visit. Check out:
- Paradise Inn: This historic lodge from 1916 is located literal steps away from the trailhead, along the southern slopes of the volcano. While the inn is rustic (without internet, TV, or telephones), it’s the perfect place to disconnect for the weekend, enjoy a bottle of wine, and simply take in Rainier’s incomparable beauty.
- Paradise Village: Located in the neighboring town of Ashford, this clean and quiet hotel is located right outside of the park’s entry gates. With a surprisingly tasty Ukrainian restaurant onsite and a wood-fired hot tub (intriguingly named the “Cannibal Hot Tub”) that you can reserve for an additional fee, this is an excellent place to make your homebase during your stay (Justin and I have stayed here and had a lovely time!).
- Mountain Meadows Inn: This is a quaint and charming bed-and-breakfast, with each room offering its own kitchenette and lots of sweet touches throughout the property, like hammocks to relax in, a hot tub (not of the cannibal-variety), and s’mores kits. Lots of cozy vibes at this one!
Enjoy the Skyline Trail- it’s one of my favorite trails in Mount Rainier! Do you have any questions about the hike? Sound off in the comments below!