Mt. Rainier misses Mt. Whitney's record as the highest mountain in the lower 48 states by a couple of hundred feet. It is nevertheless by far the most imposing, and unlike Mt. Whitney, it doesn't suffer just any old backpacker to stand on its summit. The instructors at the Rainier Mountaineering school consider it the toughest endurance climb in the lower 48 states. They should know. That band of peak-baggers makes a career out of upward mobility.
But you don't have to brush up on your cramponing technique or brandish an ice ax to experience Rainier. Just as the linear route isn't always the best way to get from here to there, the vertical route isn't the only way to know a mountain. While the summit of Rainier is reserved for climbers, the lower slopes of the mountain offer backpackers a superb lateral experience. The Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile loop, affords spectacular (and sometimes close-up) views of Rainier's 27 glaciers and countless cascading mountain streams.
Rainier is unpredictably temperamental, frustratingly mercurial, and both a weather maker and a weather catcher. Even when the rest of the region is clear, it's not uncommon to see a halo of clouds surrounding its summit. So bring your raingear and a couple of extra pairs of socks. Also your camera (wrapped in a Ziplock or two), because when you've got a clear day, you're going to want to record it. The best (and driest) months are July and August.
Location : Mount Rainier National Park. There is bus service to Longmire. Another popular starting point is Paradise.
Distance: 93 miles.
Maps and Guidebook: With a map and the guidebook Wonderland Discovery Trail, you'll be all set; no need to bother with USGS quads.
The Route: Beginning at Longmire and traveling west, the trail climbs steadily, passing close to the Tahoma and Puyallup glaciers and crossing Tahoma Creek on an 80-foot-high suspension bridge. Total elevation gain on the trail is more than 20,000 feet over its 93 miles; twice, it rises to 6,700 feet.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication