As one of the most popular treks along Washington’s iconic Mount Rainier, the Skyline Trail takes advantage of the mountain’s southern exposure, allowing for comfortable hiking weather for an extended season. The trail is at its lushest and most colorful in July and August, when wildflowers like lupine, mountain heather, cascade aster and scarlet paintbrush dot the meadows along the path and glacial waters feed its rushing waterfalls.
The trail features a very manageable 1,700-foot elevation gain over the 5.5-mile hike, drawing both novice and experienced trekkers to its spectacular scenery.
Getting to the Skyline Trail
Coming from Tacoma, take Highway 7 South for 30 miles until you arrive in the town of Elbe, where the road splits into Highway 7 South to the right and WA-706 straight ahead. Stay straight and continue on WA-706 for 15 miles to the Nisqually entrance of Mount Rainier National Park, where WA-706 becomes Paradise Road East.
Remain on Paradise Road for 16 miles, following the signs to the Paradise Visitor Center, where parking is available in several lots and along the road past the Paradise Inn, the historic lodge built at the foot of the mountain in 1916.
Skyline Trail Facilities and Regulations
To enter Mount Rainier National Park and access the Skyline Trail, you’ll need to purchase a National Park Pass for $30 per car, $15 per person on foot or bicycle and $25 for motorcycles. The pass is good for seven days, or you can fork over a little more cash and get an annual pass for $55; however, the latter is only valid at the park where it was purchased. Passes are available at the park entrance, or you can save time and purchase it online and print it to bring with you.
The Paradise Visitor Center offers restroom facilities as well as trail maps, and with multiple trails departing from Paradise, it’s a good idea to grab one before heading out. Additional bathrooms are available at the nearby Guest Service building.
Pets are not permitted on the Skyline Trail.
Navigating the Skyline Trail
While the Skyline Trail may be navigated both clockwise and counterclockwise, most hikers opt for the former for their first outing along the trail. Starting from the trailhead located just behind the Visitor Center, head north and follow the Skyline Trail signage. You’ll notice a few ancillary trails branching off from the main trail, including the Dead-horse Creek Trail and Waterfall Trail, but continuing straight will keep you on the Skyline Trail.
The first half-mile of trail includes some grueling inclines, but hang in there and you’ll soon be rewarded with a gentler grade. Stay to the right as you pass options for the Dead-horse Creek Trail and Glacier Vista, heading up several flights of carved stone stairs that offer breathtaking glimpses of the imposing peak of Mount Rainier.
Be on the lookout for Glacier Vista to your left; the groups of hikers posing for photos will be a dead giveaway that you’ve reached one of the most picturesque points along the trail. At an elevation of 6,300 feet, this is also the spot where some hikers—having secured a few Instagram-worthy photos—turn around and head back to the Visitor Center. As a result, those who keep going will enjoy a less-crowded pathway ahead.
However, you may have to dodge a few hoary marmots and pikas as they dart across the path and snack on the grasses, roots and other rodent treats growing along the trail. While these curious critters are certainly captivating, remember to keep your distance and stay on the marked trail to avoid disrupting the tenuous balance of the park’s ecosystem.
Passing By Glaciers and More
The next half-mile of hiking will take you past the Nisqually Glacier and along a series of tight loops and turns as you approach Panorama Point to the southeast. You will then arrive at a junction with options for Pebble Creek and Camp Muir, which is the route aspiring summiteers of Mount Rainier will take to the demanding climb’s base camp.
Continue straight in a southwest direction and within a quarter-mile you’ll reach Panorama Point, the highest elevation along the trail at just shy of 7,000 feet. Stop here to catch your breath and drink in the breathtaking views of Paradise Valley as well as Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and even Oregon’s Mount Hood in the distance. If you need to take a bathroom break, a pit toilet is available during the summer months.
As you depart Panorama Point, the trail will lead you through an imposing snow field on the east, although you do have the option of staying to the north on the less rugged “high Skyline” trail, which rejoins the main trail after about half a mile. Once the trails merge, you’ll keep going down for another half-mile to the Golden Gate trailhead. If you’re ready to call it a day, this branch will get you back to the parking lot via a shorter, more direct route, but you’ll miss several key landmarks along the full Skyline, so if you can, keep going.
After just over a half-mile, the trail will take you to a junction with the dead-end Paradise Glacier Trail, a spur that once took hikers past vast ice caves along the glacier that have since melted and disappeared. Continue southward to the Stevens-Van Trump Historic Monument, dedicated to the first official summit of Mount Rainier in 1870 by adventurers P.B. Van Trump and General Hazard Stevens.
Four-tenths of a mile beyond the monument, you’ll have the option to take the Lake Trails turnoff, which will extend your trek by four miles and take you toward Reflection and Louise lakes. If you prefer to stick to the original Skyline Trail, keep west and within a mile, you’ll arrive at the unforgettable sights of Myrtle Falls.
Take the bridge over the Edith Creek Basin and make a quick left to reach the Myrtle Falls lookout, which offers some of the most impressive views and photo opportunities on the trail. Once you’ve spent sufficient time appreciating the sights and sounds of nature, get back on the trail for another half-mile to reach the Paradise parking lot where your journey began.
If you opt to tackle the trail in the counterclockwise direction, the initial elevation is less striking and the scenery more peaceful, while the clockwise route hits hikers with immediate inclines but also rewards them with incredible views and several spur trails to discover.
Skyline Trail Fast Facts
- Length: 5.5 miles round-trip
- Elevation gain: 1,700 feet
- Peak elevation: 6,800 feet
- Location: Mount Rainier National Park
- Difficulty level: Moderate
- Seasonal availability: Year-round, although summer and fall are the preferred hiking seasons due to heavy snowfall in winter that may linger well into the spring