Sunday, November 7, 2021

Mt Rainier National Park

Clutching the brakes on the steep paved trails
at Paradise in Mt Rainier National Park

In different online forums, I've seen the question, "Is Mt Rainier wheelchair-accessible?"  Even though it's in my own backyard, I never really knew the answer, so I decided to do some research.  The answer will be disappointing to lovers of clarity, since it depends on what you mean by "accessible" and what you want to do.

Mt Rainier from Paradise trails

In early September, my husband and I spent three days at Mt Rainier National Park.  Answering the question of accessibility did not even cross my mind until about half-way through our visit, so there was not nearly enough time to explore this park of over 200,000 acres.  Acknowledging that the park is huge, I wanted to narrow my exploration  to what was unique about this place -- the mountain, with its alpine meadows, and the big trees below.  Even with this truncation, the area is too large for such a limited visit, so I relied not only upon my own experiences, but also on previous posts, suggestions from friends, and the insightful guide book, Barrier-Free Travel: WA National Parks for Wheelers and Slow Walkers by Candy B. Harrington of Emerging Horizons.  In addition, I trained myself to think of this as a contribution to that answer, rather than a comprehensive conclusion.

Blazing fall colors
from Paradise meadows at 
Mt Rainier National Park
Before I get to accessibility, let me briefly go off on a tangent of beauty.  The magnificent and awe-inspiring Mt Rainier floats above the horizon at a distance, boggling the mind as to how earlier humans could have understood it.  Covered in (unfortunately melting and receding) snowfields and glaciers, the lower half boasts fragile and lush alpine meadows.  Further below, the park visitor can enjoy mountain views, rushing rivers, and big trees.  The growing season is short, but the meadows explode with colorful wildflowers in the second half of summer, berries (and berry eaters) around Labor Day, and fall colors in mid- to late- September.  Our visit corresponded with the last warm(ish) sunny day of the season, rewarding us with the picture of a mountain seemingly on fire, as the mountain ash, vine maple, berries and other plants of the alpine meadows were awash with fall color.  The insane beauty of that day was definitely a highlight -- even in a life filled with beautiful memories.

Mt Rainier from trail near
Myrtle Falls, Paradise

Now, on to the main topic -- accessibility.  It's important to remember that Mt Rainier is a 14,411 foot volcano, and because it is so close to sea level, its prominence is over 13,000 feet.  This means that the land around the mountain is necessarily extremely steep, and accessibility needs to be accommodated to this geographical reality.  My conclusion? The accessibility of the park is related to your goals.  If you want to see the mountain up close, the park is quite accessible.  If you want to experience the mountain by hiking its trails, not so much!  Here's my humble run-down:

Visiting the park

You will definitely need a car and the ability to drive curvy mountain roads.  An Access pass, available for free by mail to disabled visitors, can be used to gain entry into the park.

Viewing the mountain

The main reason for visiting the park is to experience the mountain up close.  This is best accomplished by visiting the tourist areas of Paradise and Sunrise.  As the official park brochure reads, "Most visitor centers, restrooms, picnic areas ... are accessible or accessible with help for wheelchair users." To me, this is frustratingly vague, because "most" does not mean "all" and "accessible" is different from "accessible with help."

Parking lot at Paradise in
Mt Rainier National Park

The Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise is fully accessible.  Outside, there is a picnic area on pavement,  but no specific tables designed for wheelchairs (wheelchair users can sit at the table ends).  The large paved parking lot fills up quickly, but there are many disabled parking spots to the right of the visitor center and near Paradise Inn at the top.  There are seasonal accessible restrooms inside the visitor center and year-round accessible restrooms with flush toilets outside of Guide Services.  

Paradise Inn
The Paradise Inn has an accessible indoor dining room and an accessible cafe, with an accessible outdoor porch that offers a great mountain view.  The beautiful meadows at Paradise can be viewed from the parking lot, the inn or cafe, or from the visitor center.  They can also be viewed up close from the lower reaches of the meadows (there is a steep path that bypasses the stairs).  The Paradise webcams offer good pictures of actual conditions on the mountain and in the parking lot.

The Sunrise Visitor Center is accessible with help (steep ramp), through the north side entrance.  There are accessible restrooms, with flush toilets, and there are disabled parking spaces.  There may be accessible picnic tables.  I have read that there is a semi-accessible seasonal snack bar opposite from the Visitor Center (but I did not visit or verify that).  Sunrise webcams offer good pictures of actual conditions on the mountain and in the parking lot.

Log outside of
Ocanapecosh Visitors Center
The Longmire and Ohanapecosh areas do not offer mountain views, but Longmire is a good place to learn about the history of the park and both are filled with big trees.  The visitor center at Ohanapecosh and the Longmire museum and the national park inn are accessible, as is the dining room at the inn.  The Longmire webcam offers a good picture of actual conditions.

Throughout the park, there are various pull-outs on the road.  Some of them are unnamed and unmarked -- you can pull out and gaze at the mountain from your car whenever it is safe.  Some of them are officially designated, and you can pull off and park.  Waterfall views are tricky for wheelchairs, since most paths end in narrow, rocky trails with steps, meaning you can only see the falls from the top.  However, mountain views are scattered throughout the park and definitely appear on the way up to Paradise and Sunrise.

Reflection Lakes and Mt Rainier

One of these official pull-outs is at the aptly named (on a calm, sunny day) Reflection Lakes, east of the turn-off up to Paradise.  Along with the view, there is a paved lot with disabled parking and some benches (but no picnic tables).  Unfortunately, there is no accessible path to reach to trail around the lake, but the mountain is best viewed from the parking lot anyway.

Parking lot for Box Canyon
and Cowlitz River

Farther east is the pull-out for Box Canyon.  As I remember it, the parking lot side was a bust -- the path to the restroom is inaccessible and the path to the overlook is paved but steep, without a good view at the end.  (The Box Canyon Picnic Area further on is also very inaccessible.). 

Mt Rainier from
Cowlitz River

On the other side of the street, the short, paved trail along the Cowlitz River is better, leading to a bridge with a view of the river and mountain.  However, the trail is steep enough to make it very challenging for a manual chair, and the final downhill before the bridge has an evil cross-slope, so even power chairs may just want to stop and admire the view before the descent to the bridge.   Beyond the bridge, the trail completes a loop as a dirt trail that quickly becomes inaccessible, so it's better to turn around and return down that same paved path.

Tipsoo Lake and Mt Rainier

My favorite viewpoint is at Tipsoo Lake on Chinook Pass (eastern edge of the park on Highway 419).  A large paved parking lot (I think with disabled parking spaces and accessible restrooms?)  offers a view of the mountain, which positively glows at sunset --thus the crowds of people and tripods.  The trail around the lake should be accessible, but is definitely not (narrow and bumpy).


The recently-renovated Paradise Inn at Paradise has at least two accessible rooms.  

The National Park Inn at Longmire also has an accessible room.

Despite our intention, we didn't stay at the White River Campground, so I'm not sure about its accessibility.  There were a few sites along the river, which seemed nice and flat, but not official ADA sites.  Otherwise, the campground looked and felt rather crowded.

ADA site at
Ohanaecosh Campground

We ended up camping at Ohanapecosh Campground.  I think it is often overlooked, because it is shaded and far from mountain views, but that means that the trees are bigger and campsites more private.  Loop D contains a couple of ADA sites (D20, D21) and a few flat non-ADA sites (the nicest was D24), next to an accessible restroom.  Unfortunately, Loop D is closed after Labor Day, and there are no other ADA campsites (and the Loop A restroom by our site was truly inaccessible).

Accessible restroom at
Ohanapecosh Campground

A ranger told me that Cougar Rock Campground has ADA campsites and an accessible restroom open past Labor Day.  A brief stop there showed that many sites were closed for tree hazard, including an ADA site.

There were several campgrounds on the map just outside of the park, and I just feel like some of those might be accessible.  But, I don't know yet!


The official park brochure tells me that I can "find fully accessible trails at Kautz and Paradise.  Some trails at Paradise and Longmire are accessible with help."  So, my husband and I set off to explore.

We didn't make it to any of the Sunrise area trails, because of time.  Two of the trails are listed as "Easy," so they may be accessible; then again, they may not.   Does anyone know?

Ohanapecosh hot springs --
very warm water
springing from the ground

The trails in the Ohanapecosh area were disappointing.  We tried to roll to the hot springs from the campground, but the trail soon grew narrow and rocky.  Likewise, the Grove of the Patriarchs Trail should be accessible, since the path is a boardwalk around big trees, but the path to and from the boardwalk is frighteningly inaccessible.  

Paradise, Mt Rainier
(most trails near the visitors center
were paved)

Paradise offers a network of trails, sprouting from the visitor center and parking lot.  Wheelchair hikers can head toward the stairs and mountain on a paved path to right of visitors center, and then turn right before the steps onto a short gravel path, leading to alpine meadow trails.  The mountain's steep prominence makes for difficult/thrilling/dangerous wheelchair hiking even though the paths leading out of the visitors center are paved.  The park brochure claims that there is at least one fully accessible trail at Paradise, while other trails are accessible with help.  The park ranger at Ohanapecosh Campground told me that the Skyline Loop was accessible.  My take is colored by the type of chair I use (manual off-road Freedom Chair by GRIT) and by my assistance (super-human spirit and strength of an able-bodied pusher/braker who does not want me to get hurt).  Nonetheless, I would not call any of the trails accessible for manual chair hikers, and they are only barely accessible for hikers using power chairs.  Unfortunately, two of the most iconic views are not accessible -- you can get close to Myrtle Falls and Glacier Vista on the steep paved trails, but the accessibility stops short of the actual viewpoints. 

Inaccessible Iconic View #1:
Mt Rainier from Myrtle Falls

The Skyline Trail to Myrtle Falls is paved, but very steep.  The paved part ends at bridge over the falls, so you can see the river as it disappears over the edge, but you can't actually see the falls. The trail beyond the bridge becomes unpaved and inaccessible.  The greatest travesty is that the trail to see the falls, which turns off of the main trail just before bridge, is totally inaccessible --meaning that you can get near to the falls (with a lot of steepness and difficulty), but you can't actually see them.  I asked my husband to hike the short distance from the main trail to the falls, and he took a photo for me, which is one of the most gorgeous spots accessible to walking visitors -- but not to those of us in wheelchairs!

We also took the Skyline Trail to Glacier Vista. The Skyline Trail is paved, but this part is incredibly steep.  I ascended only because of my Freedom Chair's levers and husband's strength.  I survived the descent only with clenched teeth, aching brake muscles, and the tenacious hold of my husband behind me.  I know that at least one hiker in a power chair uses a chest sling so as not to fall forward off of the chair.  Maybe going on the Waterfall Trail to Deadhorse Trail instead of Skyline is better, but I have also heard that Deadhorse Trail is incredibly steep.  Either way, you can only get so far, because the trail to  Glacier Vista becomes hard-packed dirt with water channels --obstacles which probably prove impassable to all but the most sturdy off-road wheelchairs.  This is truly unfortunate, because the view at Glacier Vista is amazing.  Inaccessible Iconic view #2: Mt Rainier from Glacier Vista:

Nisqually Valley

Perhaps most forgiving of the inaccessible accessible trails is the Nisqually Vista Trail.  I actually hiked this trail a couple of years ago (see 2019 post), so things may have changed.  The typical access to the trail is from the lower parking lot at Paradise, but this involves a large staircase, so we approached the trail from behind the visitors center.  There are views of the Nisqually Glacier and the mountain, and there is a multitude of blue/huckleberry plants.  The trail is paved, and the altitude gain is minimal, but the trail is very hilly, and it is extremely challenging for a hiker in a manual chair.  A hiker in a power chair with a strong battery should be able to enjoy this 1.2 mile loop and the berries -- but watch out for bears!

Mt Rainier from overlook
at end of Kautz Creek

Longmire-area trails hold a little promise.  The Kautz Creek Trail, highlighted on the park brochure, was easy to find.  It begins across from a a paved lot with accessible vault toilets and with picnic tables on hard-packed gravel, about halfway between Longmire and the south-west Nisqually entrance.  Unfortunately, there is a steep approach from the highway to the trail.  The trail itself is a short (500 feet each way) boardwalk ending with hard-packed gravel and a view of the mountain.  Unfortunately, the slope on the trail would be challenging for hikers in manual chairs, and the poor access from the highway makes it difficult for any chair.

The Trail of the Shadows begins across from the National Park Inn at Longmire.  I've read that this historical interpretive trail of hard-packed dirt through the woods is accessible for about 700 feet, although I don't think there are any mountain views.  I didn't actually try this trail, so I can't speak to the conditions.

Mt Rainier from Westside Road

The Westside Road, now closed to vehicles, provides good wheelchair access to a river with mountain views for a short while, but the road surface soon devolves into rocky unpleasantness, so it's more of a short roll to a viewpoint than a hike.

Is Mt Rainier National Park accessible?  If you want to visit the park to experience the mountain, the park is quite accessible.  If you want to stay overnight in the park, it is minimally accessible (a few rooms and a few campsites).  However, if you want to go hiking in the park (which, of course, I do!), the park is woefully inaccessible.  Every year, power wheelchairs descend onto Paradise for "Ride Tahoma" (they have a group by that name on Facebook), to help raise awareness about the need for accessible trails. 

Tipsoo Lake -- future ADA trail???
The other mountain passes in WA boast at least one wheelchair-accessible trail each (Rainy Lake Trail in the North Cascades, the Iron Goat Trail near Stevens Pass, and Gold Creek Pond Trail near Snoqaulmie Pass).  Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a wheelchair-accessible trail at Mt Rainier's Chinook Pass, as well?  An accessible trail around Tipsoo Lake at Chinook Pass seems feasible, since there already exists an inaccessible trail.  The lake and trail sit at a large paved parking lot, with accessible vault toilets and disabled parking spots (I think), and a spectacular mountain view.