Skyline Trail is widely regarded as being one of the most picturesque and spectacular day hikes in Mt Rainier National Park. It is the glittering jewel in the crown at the most visited part of the park – Paradise – located 5,400 ft up the Southern face of Washington’s most domineering stratovolcano.
The iconic Mt Rainier Skyline Trail Loop hike ascends through beautiful sub-alpine wildflower meadows, passes by cascading waterfalls, and provides extraordinary views over ice cold glaciers and jagged mountains. But let’s not forget, it’s also a real workout.
Mt Rainier’s hiking window is very narrow and the Skyline Trail is insanely popular. These two factors mean parking can be a real issue and the hike can feel a bit like a theme park if you visit on a weekend or holiday.
We’re going to explain everything you need to know about hiking the unrivaled Skyline Trail in Mt Rainier National Park, Washington, starting with the questions we get asked most about the hike.
Let’s take a look at those majestic mountain views!
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Skyline Trail Mt Rainier FAQ’s
Is Skyline Trail The Best Day Hike In Mt Rainier National Park?
We never realized quite how many amazing hikes there are at Mt Rainier National Park. The likes of Mount Fremont Trail and Tolmie Peak Trail are extremely popular day hikes, offering entirely different experiences, views and crowd levels.
After exploring each section of the park on 5 separate visits, we know why people travel across country to hike in Mt Rainier. But the ‘best’ day hike depends on your personal preferences.
Skyline Trail is stunning and the summit views are remarkable, but it is wildly busy and parking can be a drama.
- If you prefer a more relaxing hiking experience, this probably won’t be your favorite day hike in the park.
- If you don’t mind sharing the trail with hundreds of other hikers, it is hard to beat Skyline Trail for an all round hike.
How Hard Is The Skyline Trail Loop Hike?
Personally, we think the Skyline Trail Loop has the perfect blend of time vs difficulty vs reward.
Washington is renowned for its easy and short hikes leading to beautiful viewpoint summits. But sometimes you want a challenge to earn those views.
Skyline Trail is hard enough to feel like you’ve had a good workout but not too hard so that you feel overwhelmed. And it is long enough to feel weathered but not too long so that you start to get bored.
When Is The Hike Accessible?
The ‘open’ season for hiking Skyline Trail is incredibly short. Unlike many popular northern US national parks, snow does not melt in Mt Rainier until way into the Summer season.
As a rough guideline, we would suggest visiting between the beginning of July and the middle of September. A few weeks either side of that might be fine, but you will be taking a chance.
We hiked the Skyline Trail twice in the Summer of 2021:
- Once in mid June, when the trail was still underneath 10 feet of packed snow.
- And once at the end of July when the trail was clear, the sky was a deep blue and we had perfect hiking conditions.
There were plenty of hikers wearing snowshoes and even skiers climbing the mountain when we visited in June. It is a completely different experience to the classic wildflowers-and-waterfalls of a typical Summer hike.
Is It Better To Hike Clockwise Or Anti-clockwise?
This is another one that depends on personal preference.
Typically, we prefer to get the steep climbing done and dusted. But we chose to hike Skyline Trail anti-clockwise because we knew everyone else was going to hike clockwise. And we didn’t see a single person on the ascent until we reached the summit.
Here’s what you need to know:
Clockwise – Steep ascent and longer slower descent. Mt Rainier views straight ahead the entire climb. Dusty trail with stones most of the way up.
Anti-clockwise – Longer and more gradual ascent with steeper descent back into Paradise. Pass waterfalls earlier in hike. Varied trail type, getting more dusty near the top.
If you read recent comments from your fellow hikers on All Trails you will notice many of them say they hiked clockwise. However, both are going to provide staggeringly beautiful views and both are going to be busy if you start anytime after 8am.
Here are the questions you should ask yourself:
- Do you prefer the steeper part on the way up or the way down?
- Are views of Mt Rainier going to motivate you?
- Would you prefer to share the trail up with the masses or pass them on the way down?
When Are The Famous Wildflowers Best In Paradise, Mt Rainier?
We asked a park ranger at Jackson Visitor Center in Paradise and he said wildflowers were at their best between mid July and mid August. Remember that wildflowers will peak at different times based on altitude.
However, we have to be honest and say we were slightly underwhelmed during out visit at the end of July. A late snow melt caused a later peak wildflower season so we think we missed the best colors by being a week or two early.
Changeable and more extreme climates are causing certain processes to be harder to predict, but we would suggest visiting in the first week of August for peak wildflowers at Paradise and Skyline Trail.
How To Get To The Skyline Trail In Mt Rainier National Park
Click or touch the map above to activate. Zoom in and out, move around the area and orientate yourself with the geography of Mt Rainier.
The roads look a little crazy when you see the route up to Skyline Trail, but they are smooth and fun to drive.
Skyline Trail Loop begins and ends at the Jackson visitor center in Paradise, Mt Rainier. You will have to pay US$ 35 to enter the park at either Nisqually entrance (southwest) or Stevens Canyon entrance (southeast).
Top Travel Tip: We buy a new America the Beautiful annual US national parks pass each year. It is also known as an interagency pass and it gives you entrance to as many national parks as you can visit for 365 days at a cost of US$ 80. Read our review of America the Beautiful Annual National Parks Pass for more information.
Once you enter Mt Rainier at either entrance, you will gain elevation until you reach 5,400 feet at the Paradise parking area. Both time and distance are slightly less from Nisqually entrance to reach Paradise.
Here are distances and average times from major nearby cities to Paradise and the Skyline Trail (with no traffic):
- Seattle – 105 miles / 2 hours 30 minutes
- Bellevue – 102 miles / 2 hours 30 minutes
- Renton – 91 miles / 2 hours 15 minutes
- Everett – 129 miles / 2 hours 55 minutes
- Tacoma – 77 miles / 1 hour 55 minutes
- Portland – 156 miles / 2 hours 55 minutes
Parking At Skyline Trail Mt Rainier
Getting parked for any hike in Washington is a challenge, but when you’re talking about Mt Rainier, you just know it isn’t going to be simple. We struggled for parking across the entire park each time we visited.
However, with that being said, parking for the Skyline Trail wasn’t as bad as we expected. Paradise is the most popular part of the park and therefore you will find far more spaces available than other areas.
In the image above you can see Jackson visitor center to the right and the parking lot in the center. We didn’t count but we’d estimate somewhere around 150 spaces total, plus parking spaces further left for those staying at Paradise Inn.
Arrive before 7.30am and you can almost guarantee you’ll get a spot. Once the lot is full, you’re going to be waiting for super-early sunrise hikers to return back to their cars.
Around 10am through 12pm, you will see a lot more spaces open up as the hikers who set off between 6am – 7am arrive back to Paradise. Just keep circling the lot until a space presents itself.
If you can’t arrive early, plan to hike later in the afternoon once the trail has emptied. Hiking the Skyline Trail for sunset would be awesome and much quieter.
Skyline Trail Mt Rainier Hiking Details
- Trail Distance: 5.5 miles roundtrip
- Type of Trail: Loop
- Trail Difficulty: Moderate / Hard
- Time Required: 3 – 5 hours
- Elevation Gain: 1700 ft
- Trailhead: Jackson visitor center, Paradise
Top Tips For Hiking The Most Popular Trail In Mt Rainier
- Hike very early or much later in the afternoon to get parked and avoid crowds
- Try to avoid holidays and weekends at all costs
- Robust shoes are better for dealing with snow on trail in sections
- Take poles if you typically use them to help with snowy areas
- Skyline Trail is NOT a dog friendly hike
- Bring plenty of water and snacks or a light lunch for the hike
- There are multiple short spur routes to potentially take
- Track your hike with offline maps using one of the best hiking apps
Skyline Trail Mt Rainier Under Snow
Just before we get into the Skyline Trail walkthrough, here’s what you can expect if you visit too early or too late in the season…
Beautiful, but slow going when you don’t have spikes, snowshoes or skis on.
The snow was dense and very compact so there was no danger of falling through. We had over-ankle hiking boots on, but we did see people trying to crunch through snow in running shoes. Needless to say, they didn’t get far!
We didn’t take any particular trail, just walked directly straight until we reached a drop off to the left. At the time we weren’t sure where we turned around but after hiking it again when clear of snow, we know we made it to Glacier Vista.
It was awesome to see Mt Rainier like this, with snow on the ground and covering surrounding mountains. However, it did mean we couldn’t actually hike the full loop trail or enjoy the famed wildflowers…
Skyline Trail Walkthrough
…So, we returned a month and a half later!
We had high expectations for Skyline Trail and it didn’t disappoint. It is easily one of the most picturesque trails in the park, but what few mention is how diverse the terrain is throughout the hike, which keeps things interesting.
We set off at 6am and hiked anti-clockwise, so we will walk you through the trail in that direction. However, you can simply flip the walkthrough on its head if you would prefer to get the steep part out of the way first.
Usually we would only include a few photos of the hike, but this is one of the most famous trails in Washington after all.
Starting the hike at 6am meant the sun didn’t show itself until we reached Stevens-Van Trump monument, so the first half of photos are a little darker.
Let’s climb the iconic Skyline Trail!
Start The Hike Anti-clockwise
After getting parked up, use the restrooms either inside the visitor center or in a small building around 100 feet to the right.
As your attention is naturally drawn to the towering volcano summit, look down between the two buildings and you’ll see the trailhead.
Three things to note at this point:
- The trail is smoothly paved and accessible, but this will end after a half mile at Myrtle Falls.
- You will find the very first part of the trail to be surprisingly steep. Don’t worry, it does flatten out and become more gradual.
- A maze of trails greets you at the start if hiking clockwise. However, by taking the very first right turn onto Skyline Trail, you are on the correct and only anti-clockwise trail.
The first half mile is easy going on the paved surface with a very gradual incline.
Immediately after leaving the parking lot, you become entranced by Mt Rainier with sunlight kissing its summit and colorful wildflowers bursting out from emerald green vegetation.
This part of the trail is arguably the most photogenic lower elevation section. Photographers should make the most of it before sunlight casts shadows and blows out skies.
After a quick half mile you will reach a very short but steep spur trail leading down to a viewing point for Myrtle Falls. It is worth the extra effort.
The 60 ft cascading waterfall with Mt Rainier perfectly framed in the background is just stunning. Starting early means you might have this overlook to yourself.
We were hiking light and already had enough camera gear so we didn’t carry our tripod but this would have made a great 2-3 second exposure.
Note: The steep staircase down to the viewpoint can be dangerously slippery if you hike this trail in late Spring. Take care with footing if wet, cold and icy.
Climb Through Gorgeous Meadows
A wooden bridge crossing Edith Creek marks the end of the paved section. Just look at how attractive the view upstream is with Mt Rainier glowing behind in the photo above.
Less than 1 minute after the bridge you will reach a fork in the path. Both will bring you to the same point but here are the differences:
- Left – Golden Gate Trail: This is a shorter 0.9 mile climb which would cut out maybe 15 or 20 minutes of time, but it is steeper.
- Right – Skyline Trail: We strongly recommend you stick to the Skyline Trail Loop. It meets up with Golden Gate Trail after 1.9 miles, so it is longer but it is more gradual and the scenery is unmissable.
Note: If you are hiking clockwise and need to make up some time on the descent, you can save 20 to 30 minutes on Golden Gate Trail.
Follow Skyline Trail as it begins to steadily climb and wind through lush meadows filled with a dozen varieties of wildflower spanning the color spectrum.
The trail flattens and snakes around a steep hillside, which temporarily cuts off your view of Mt Rainier. But you will be entirely surrounded by an ocean of deep greens with the occasional dash of pink or blue from those vibrant wildflowers.
As you climb, you will notice there is an option to take Mazama Ridge Trail to Reflection Lake. Only take this if you don’t want to continue Skyline Trail or if you want to hike another trail after descending this way via the clockwise route.
The next waterfall is called Sluiskin Falls, and this 155 ft tall horsetail waterfall along Paradise River is regarded as the best falls in Paradise.
However, you can’t get a good shot of the waterfall front-on or side-on from Skyline Trail at any point. To see it, you’ll need to look left when driving Paradise Loop Road on the way out of Paradise after the hike.
This part of the trail remains extremely picturesque (far more attractive than the clockwise ascent, which you will descend later).
Stevens – Van Trump Historical Monument
If you set off at 6am as we did, by now you will be opening up mountain views behind you and the first sun rays will begin to warm your any cold and exposed skin.
Just 1.3 miles after leaving Myrtle Falls and climbing through gorgeous sub-alpine meadows, you will reach Stevens-Van Trump Historical Monument.
The bench made of rock commemorates the first recorded ascent of Mt Rainier in 1870 by Stevens and Van Trump. This was the last campground they used before making their climb.
Take a short break at the rocky bench and enjoy the views that have just opened up of rolling hills to the south and east.
The sun will now be illuminating wildflowers throughout the meadows of Paradise but at this altitude it isn’t going to make you overheat.
After the monument, you will walk across a very shallow section of the Paradise River using stones and small rocks to keep your feet dry.
When we hiked Skyline Trail, the section after the river crossing was completely covered in snow. Therefore, we had to walk up the snowy trail where others had carved ‘footsteps’. Be very careful here if the snow is slippery.
Long Climb To The Summit
Everything changes over the next mile and a half:
- You leave the lush meadows and enter a more rocky, dusty and arid terrain.
- Hikers are more exposed to sun, rain, snow and wind depending on weather conditions.
- The trail turns into a bit of a slog with stone paths, lots of steps and switchbacks.
But despite the obvious change for the worse in terms of the actual trail itself, all you have to do is look behind you every minute or so to keep your motivation levels sky high.
It is now that you really begin to get to the business end of summiting the Skyline Trail in Mt Rainier National Park.
Take the right turn when you reach the next fork in the path. Left would take you directly to Panorama Point via what is known as ‘Low Skyline’ but you want to gain a little more elevation yet and take the ‘High Skyline’.
Once you reach the point where you stop climbing and the trail flattens out, you are at the eastern side of a long flat summit path. And this exact point is where we saw our very first other hiker of the morning.
Note: We had perfect weather for this hike but we recommend you take plenty of layers for this exposed part of the trail if your weather isn’t as agreeable.
Sweeping Mountain Views At The Skyline Trail Summit
The summit really begins once you stop climbing. But the unofficial ‘summit’ point is a bunch of rocks on the western side of the flat High Skyline trail.
You will know the spot either because there are already people there, or because it is the closest point you can get to Mt Rainier on the Skyline Trail.
Looking to the distant south on a clear day like in our photo above (ignoring the middle ground mountains) you can see:
- Left center – Mt Adams (closest and most obvious peak)
- Center – Mt Hood in Oregon (just to the right of Mt Adams but very small and faint in the distance)
- Right – Mt St Helens (obvious flat top after blowing in 1980)
Turning around to face north and look directly at Mt Rainier you can see unmelted snow and ice up close.
Look closely on the left and you’ll see a waterfall crashing down a steep cliff. You will hear a loud and powerful waterfall echoing throughout the dry Niqually River and Pebble Creek it lands in.
You will notice a small spur trail leading further northeast and gaining even more elevation. This is Pebble Creek Trail and it will take you 0.3 miles closer to Mt Rainier. However, it is likely covered in snow and you may need spikes.
After enjoying the views, taking a ton of photographs and eating a light lunch, it’s time to begin your descent. The trail still is rocky, dusty and arid until quite a way further down.
After 0.3 miles and around 10 minutes of downhill walking, you will reach Panorama Point. This is a popular out and back turn around point for hikers short on time to blast up and back down the clockwise route.
Spend a quick minute or two enjoying the views from here. You’ve already seen the same view but from even higher so you can move right through this overlook.
Note: There is a small and smelly pit toilet you can use at Panorama Point in emergency situations!
From Panorama Point back to Paradise parking lot, you need to descend a total of 1.7 miles and that is going to take you somewhere around the 1 hour mark.
Steep Descent Into Paradise
You will notice the trail is rockier, dustier and less green than your ascent. But the most striking difference you will see is how much busier the Skyline Trail has become as you approach mid morning.
There are a number of short trails you can take on the way down that rejoin Skyline:
Glacier Vista for elevated views over Nisqually Glacier
Deadhorse Creek which also takes you deeper into the Nisqually Glacier valley
Alta Vista is a steep bank providing panoramic views closer to Paradise
Personally, we stuck to Skyline Trail the entire way, not only because it is quicker, but also because we couldn’t cope with not completing the full loop!
At the point in which Skyline Trail meets Alta Vista, the path transitions back into being paved for the rest of the descent. Right before this point we watched a Marmot eating wildflowers and being a troublemaker no more than 10 ft from the path.
The sun was much higher in the sky as we joined back up with the paved path in Paradise at around 10.30am, brilliantly illuminating the famous Mt Rainier sub-alpine meadows and wildflowers.
Right at the very end of our hike as we approached the parking lot, we saw maybe 5 or 6 ‘tour groups’ with at least 10 hikers in each group.
Some had skis on and were heading for Camp Muir to ski on what remains of the snow. Others would maybe only reach Panorama Point.
But the point is: This side of the trail is exceptionally busy and for us it had lost that sense of being alone in the wilderness, and was replaced by that same feeling of standing in a theme park rollercoaster line.
Pros and Cons
- One of the most picturesque trails in Washington
- Mixed terrain trail keeps things interesting
- Summit views are wonderful
- Wildflowers are beautiful if timed well
- Can become unbearably busy
- Takes a long time to reach Paradise from Seattle and surrounding cities
- Parking can be a problem on weekends and holidays
- Window of opportunity is very narrow
More Day Hikes In Mt Rainier …
- Paradise – Bench and Snow Lakes Trail
- Sunrise – Mt Fremont Lookout Trail
- Chinook Pass – Naches Peak Loop Trail
- Mowich Lake – Tolmie Peak Trail
- Mowich Lake – Spray Park Trail
Our comprehensive guide to the best easy, moderate and hard day hikes in Mt Rainier includes an example 3 day hiking itinerary to use as a reference for your visit.
More Day Hikes In Washington …
- Leavenworth – The Enchantments Trail
- Granite Falls – Lake 22 Trail
- North Bend – Rattlesnake Ledge Trail
- Issaquah – Poo Poo Point Trail
We hope this hiking guide to the incredible Skyline Trail helps with planning your visit to Mt Rainier National Park!
Please let us know if you have any questions about the Skyline Trail hike, Mt Rainier National Park or your visit to Washington in the comments below.
Mark and Kristen