This loop hike begins and ends at Paradise, on the side of iconic Mount Rainier. The 14,410′ peak is the tallest in the Cascade Range and the highest in the state of Washington. It is an active volcano. It is the most glaciated peak in the continental United States. Five major rivers get their start on this mountain. Climbing Mt Rainier is a multi-day trip requiring specialized mountaineering skills and equipment. Only about 50% of those who attempt to reach the summit are successful. But you can get a taste of this magnificent mountain with this moderate, 4.6 mile loop hike on the Skyline and Golden Gate trails that reaches the lower section of the Muir Snowfield – the route used by a vast majority of climbers attempting to summit Rainier.
Getting to the Skyline Trailhead
The Skyline Trail begins outside the Henry M Jackson Visitor Center in Paradise, within Mount Rainier National Park. Entrance to the park requires either an entry fee or an annual pass. Paradise itself has a lodge that is open during the summer months, and the road to Paradise may be closed in the winter due to snow. For all practical purposes, this guide assumes you are hiking during the summer months. Get turn-by-turn driving directions from Google Maps here.
Hiking the Skyline Trail
The area around Paradise gets plenty of visitors, so the trails closest to the lodge are paved. Signs will remind you to “stay on the trails” to protect the fragile environment. Most impressive are the first few steps, hewn in granite and engraved with the words of John Muir as he described Mount Rainier, writing “…the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever behold in all my mountain-top wanderings.”
From those first few steps, follow the paved path straight up, watching for signs to keep you on the Skyline Trail.
As you climb, you follow a rounded ridge with stunning views of the surrounding area.
As you leave the trees (and the paved trail) behind, the route becomes rocky, but well-built and easy to follow. Even here, the rangers have erected cables to keep hikers off the fragile alpine terrain.
On this particular day, clouds were swirling around us, sometimes giving us a glimpse of Rainier or a flash of blue.
The climb was cold and windy, a common experience on Rainier.
At 2 miles, you reach Panorama Point, renown for its panoramic views. On this day, the views were of the clouds that enveloped us, thick and heavy with moisture that made us grateful for our waterproof shells. There is actually a stone restroom available near Panorama Point, the only one on this trail outside of Paradise.
From Panorama Point, the Skyline Trail continues climbing another 300 vertical feet before heading east and eventually beginning a downhill trajectory.
At about 3.75 miles, you reach a junction with the Golden Gate Trail. Most people were continuing on the Skyline Trail. We opted for the less-busy route down Golden Gate, and were not disappointed. We counted at least half a dozen marmots on our way down. These marmots were larger with bushier fur coats than those I have seen in the Sierra Nevada.
As you descend the broad, rounded valley you soon see signs that you are nearing the Paradise Lodge again, as you run into families with young children not quite ready to wander far from the parking lot. Here, the beauty of the cascades and waterfalls are accessible to all.
When you reach the paved trails again, follow them back to the lodge and visitor center to close your loop.
Skyline to Golden Gate Trail Map & Elevation Profile
Skyline to Golden Gate Tips and Resources
- Plan Your Visit – Official Mount Rainier NPS website
- View the webcam to check conditions at the visitor center
- The road from Longmire to Paradise closes at night during the winter months, reopening each morning after snow plows clear the road (as weather permits). Paradise is the primary area in the park for winter snow activities, including snowshoeing, tubing and winter camping. That will be another post. 😉
Mount Rainier National Park Weather Forecast
Originally hiked on September 10, 2018 with Joan.
We hiked Skyline trail last week while in MRNP. We hiked in the counterclockwise direction which I would recommend! The initial paved trail is beautiful thru fall colors. We saw 44 marmots during our 5+mi hike. The only difficult part was more at the top of the hike, climbing over some uneven rocks in an area that was not well marked. It was very cloudy the day we were there which made this section more difficult. It was also very cold! We had lunch on a monument bench about halfway through and had an overly friendly (hungry) marmot visitor. (We did not feed him) Great views of Nisqually glacier. The hike down was more steep, lots of steps and generally not as beautiful…but all in all a fun interesting hike.