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
Blazing fall colors
from Paradise meadows at
Mt Rainier National Park
Mt Rainier from trail near
Myrtle Falls, Paradise
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 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.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
|Mt Rainier from
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
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
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
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
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!
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???