This post has was updated in August 2022. Originally published in 2020.
My summer bucket list is filled to the brim with vacation ideas, must-see destinations and one-of-a-kind family fun activities.
One outing we recently experienced was a trip to Mount Rainier National Park in search of wildflowers and hot springs. We made the 2½-hour drive from Woodinville (twice!) to explore these natural wonders. Here’s what we found:
Wildflowers at Sunrise
At 6,400 feet elevation, the Sunrise Visitor Center is the highest point on the mountain that you can reach by car. The visitor’s center is equipped with a café (pre-packaged small bites and ice cream available for takeout), and an interactive information center. It is one of the most popular stops for panoramic views, sub-alpine meadows and family-friendly hikes.
We ventured out on a Tuesday morning to avoid the crowds and were surprised to see that the parking lot was already half-full when we arrived in the early afternoon. We headed up to hike the Sunrise Nature Trail, an easy 1½-mile lollipop loop offering amazing views of the mountain and colorful flowers. This year (2022), the colder spring weather brought on more snow. Rangers ask that families use caution on the Sunrise Nature Trail as some steep parts of the trail still have patches of snow on it. They also said that wildflowers should peak in about a week to two weeks and hikers now are only seeing patches of pretty flowers.
Planning your picnic
Although the Sunrise Day Lodge is open for take out food, water, and gifts, bring a sack lunch and extra water. Rangers let us know that because of staffing shortages, the Day Lodge may need to close unexpectedly. Typically the lodge is open everyday from 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. except Wednesdays and Thursdays. Plan for a picnic on the benches, tucked between the tall trees. Take in the views of all colorful the flowers in the meadow.
After a short hike and lovely picnic, we drove back down the mountain, admiring the beauty of Mount Rainier in all its summer glory, making many stops along the way and taking plenty of pictures.
Hot springs at Ohanapecosh
Hot springs had been on our minds one Monday afternoon when my husband and I decided to pack up the kids, water, snacks and towels for an impromptu trip to Ohanapecosh Campground.
Located on the southeast side of Mount Rainier National Park, Ohanapecosh is home to 188 campground sites. Serving as an entry point to many popular trails like the Grove of the Patriarchs (closed until further notice) and Silver Falls, Ohanapecosh is surrounded by old-growth forests and a snow-fed river.
We drove up the mountain, reaching our destination in the early evening and were pleased to find plenty of parking. We could see that many of the campers were at their tents, getting ready for the evening, making the trails and surrounding areas less crowded.
Hot springs history
The visitor center (open M-F 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.) and surrounding areas were once the site of a hot springs resort in the 1920s. Equipped with bathhouses, a hotel, concession stands and open for more than 40 years. The resort shut down in the 1960s and the National Park Service dismantled the structures and restored the area to its natural state.
Remnant pools of the hot springs are on the interpretive trail, located behind the visitor enter. They are past the log statue where tree rings are labeled to show the age of the forest. We walked the half-mile trail past the tall trees and over a log bridge. We found a small pool of warm bubbling water. Along the way you’ll find laminated information cards staked into the ground, describing various forest plants and interesting facts about the trail.
A little science lesson
The pool we found was not big enough to soak in, but enough to dip our feet and warm our hands. My kids, Nikhil and Simon, first commented on the smell, “Ew! Why does it smell like a rotten egg?” and then were amazed to see the water bubbling at the surface. It was a great time to explain to them how hot springs form.
Why does it smell? Hot springs are warmed by a geothermal reaction, deep within the volcano. Minerals in the ground, that include sulfur, break down and mix with bacteria to emit the (unpleasant) smell. It’s by no means for the faint of heart and the smell will stay with you until you can get to a shower. But hot springs are known for their ability to promote circulation and soothe aches and pains – and it’s just what we needed!
We found a couple more streams and pools of bubbling water, stopping at each one. After, we dried off and headed back to an empty parking lot. Then we changed our clothes, used the (very clean) bathroom and enjoyed a few of our own snacks.
Heading back down the mountain we saw the sun begin its descent. I felt my body sink comfortably into my seat. I knew then that a quick, unplanned trip to Mount Rainier was just what I needed to get through the week.
- Many families are venturing outside for the summer, waiting in long lines to enter the park. Your best times to go are weekdays, early mornings or late evenings. (Officials at Mount Rainier often give updates on wait times via Twitter.)
- Entrance to the park is $30 per vehicle. Passes are good for seven consecutive days, so if you find it crowded on one day, try another day and time. *Bonus: If you have a child who is in fourth grade, they can apply for a free annual pass for your family. (Psst: It’s quick and easy.)
- Hot summer days can mean lots of bugs. Don’t forget bug spray!
- Bring lots of water and sunscreen. More here on keeping kids safe and hydrated in the heat.
- If visiting lesser-known areas of the park take necessary precautions and bring enough food, water, and emergency supplies. Let someone know where you will be going and what time you will be back.
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