Mount Rainier National Park is located close to the center of the state of Washington though a bit closer to the western side. It is about 100 miles or 2.5 hours drive from Seattle to its north. It's about 70 miles from I-5 if you are driving up or down the state and expect to drive 2 hours from there into the park on mostly back roads. It's a 150 miles or 3.5 hours from Portland, OR. Though there is a limited shuttle in the park, there is no mass transit into it so it's likely you are going to arrive by car.
It costs a mere $15 for a carload to enter Mount Rainier National Park and that gives you a full week to explore. Single entrance fee is $5 per person on foot/bike/motorcycle. America The Beautiful Passes are accepted and if traveling in the park system for an extended time are well worth it. For $80, a carload can enter any National Park or Federally Administered Land for a year, surely the greatest value in the world of travel.
Some basic things about getting around inside Mount Rainier National Park:
Entrance Fee: $15 for a vehicle for 7 days. Or, if entering on foot, bicycle, horseback, motorcycle, etc. $5.
Suggested Route: Despite what your GPS or other advisor may say, from Seattle I highly suggest taking Interstate 5 through Tacoma to Highway 512, then east to State Route 7, south on State Route 7 all the way to Elbe. If it is a peak travel period or I-5 is otherwise a mess, take 405 to 512 to 7. Your GPS will likely have you take highway 161 south from Puyallup, which has now grown dense with traffic lights and suburban sprawl that takes a long time to get through. Currently, highway 7 south of 512 has somewhat less of a tangle to deal with, though the congestion is slowly arriving along that route too.
It is important to note that these roads inside the park are high country roads. Many of them require that you at least carry tire chains with you, and there is a possibility of snow at any time, even in June or September. The requirement that you put on your tire chains depends on the road conditions, and it is best to ask when you get into the park about the road conditions. The "Tire Chains Required" signs may have been left in place from an earlier snow storm, and the signs may also have not been folded down if the entire park staff is trying to deal with a sudden snow crisis. Thus, it is best to ask if you do not know about the current ongoing snow conditions.
Watch the tight curves! Keep in mind that small autos are not the only vehicles using this road, and it can be used by trucks, large tour buses and large motor homes. These larger vehicles may require taking up the entire road at tunnels, sharp curves and other road situations. Be ready to stop for such vehicles at these types of road constructs, should such a vehicle appear.
Tire chains are the only thing that have enough grip on sheer ice to slow you down and stop you, and keep in mind that if you go off the road in some places, it is a 1,000 foot or more drop to the bottom of the canyon. If you run into frozen conditions, it is best to take it slow, and allow enough stopping distance so that you don't go over the edge.
The mountain slopes represent a very significant barrier as they are steep, difficult to climb, and have a lot of loose rock. Thus, the roads and trails represent a very easy way for wildlife to get from one place to another. There is a 35 mile per hour speed limit in effect in most places and this drops to 20 miles per hour in a number of other places. You do not want to suddenly come across a 1,000 pound elk in the middle of the road if you are blasting along much too fast. Chances are, you will take its legs right out from under it and it will come through your windshield and kill you and the other occupants of your vehicle, so don't drive at stupid speeds on the roads in the park, especially when driving in the dark or at dusk.
Seasonal Road Closures and So On:
The roads are subject to seasonal road closures, and the roads at this altitude also require heavy maintenance on a more frequent basis than those at lower elevations and subject to less rock fall. Once September starts, it is extremely desirable to start making regular checks of the local road closures on the Rainier National Park web site. For example, US 12 is an important road for traffic to the park from Interstate 5, but has been subject to long term construction for most of 2011. In September and October of 2011, the road east of Box Canyon was closed in order to allow for major construction and restoration of the road before the major snow season set in. As the exact onset of heavy winter is unknown at this point it is also unknown if future closures in future years will be required to complete the work.
All entrances and roads are subject to closure due to avalanches, rock slides, flooding, large blocks of glacier ice fall, and various other problems as well.
As a general rule, here are some regular seasonal closures:
Westside Road, from Nisqually Entrance along Fish Creek: closed 3 miles (5 km) up the creek due to continuous flood damage and limited budget. It is open to hiking but not to vehicles past the viewpoint at the current end of the road.
Stevens Canyon Road (Highway 706): Closed from Paradise to the Stevens Canyon Entrance from approximately late October to May. As of 2011 closed beyond Box Canyon for reconstruction.
Highways 123 and 410 along East Side of Park: Generally closed late November through April.
Road to Sunrise Visitor's Center: Closed mid-October through June.
Raod # 52 along southwest side of Park, connecting Highway 706 to US 12: Generally closed late November through April.
Meadow Creek Road (Road #165): Generally closed mid-October to June.
Nisqually Entrance to Paradise: open all year except during exceptional weather conditions. Due to the many hazards associated with black ice on the roads, during the winter this road closes at dusk, so be sure to check the closure time before making your plans, and be sure you have left the area before the road is closed.
For those doing long distance backpacking trips and needing to get to a point near the mountain by public transit, the closest routes are offered by Lewis Mountain Highway Transit with a route running from Centralia, Washington up through Morton and Packwood. Packwood is approximately 11 miles from the Ohanapecosh River entrance to the park in the far southeast corner. After your adventure in the park you can eventually follow the Pacific Crest Trail northward about 40 miles you get to Snoqualmie Pass, and the junction with the east-west trail owned by the state of Washington , and known as the Iron Horse Trail. From Snoqualmie summit it is possible to follow this trail to the west to North Bend, which is served by a King County Metro bus route. Permitted camp sites are few and far between along the Iron Horse Trail in this area. Further north, it is possible to reach the Skykomish area and public transportation to Seattle via US Highway 2. I highly suggest extensive research if doing any of these trips.
Rainier Shuttle inside the Park
For the past three years, a shuttle bus service has operated between Ashford and Paradise, only on weekends. This is due to the severe overcrowding of the parking lots and heavy traffic on the roads. It is a cooperative venture between the city of Ashford and the National Park Service. It operates from late June to early September. However, you still have to get to Ashford somehow. Generally that involves a fairly expensive trip by taxi or driving your own car to that point.
Commercial Tours are available if you don't want to or can't drive to the park, but these are subject to the standard limitations of commercial package tours.
Circulating Shuttles do NOT operate in the park outside of the weekend shuttle listed above, and those only go from Ashford to Paradise - meaning they cover the most popular road in the park, but do not cover the vast majority of locations inside the park.
As stated in a previous tip, public transport services are quite far from Mount Rainier National Park. However, several companies operate bus, taxi or van service and/or commercial tours to the park from spring to fall. (If you try to come in winter, then you are on your own!) I have never used any of these companies, but this is to let you know they are available should you be wanting to get around the mountain and national park without driving there.
Frankly, there are many, many tour companies in Seattle that offer Mount Rainier tours, and getting here should not be a problem. Simply typing "Mount Rainier Tour" into your favorite search engine will yield many, many results. Most of these will do a day trip up to Paradise and then back to Seattle. This is OK, but it doesn't show much of the mountain or its surrounding area. If you want to see more, you need to look for a more specialized tour company. For example, Evergreen Escapes goes into the back country. However, it should be noted that the more specialized trips are also going to cost more money.
Some of these companies are:
Gray Line Tours:
This Seattle tour company that has been around for decades, specializing in tour bus charters and/or specialized trips for cruise ship companies and/or operating its own line of tours.
Ashford Mountain Center
At one time this mountaineering tour center offered shuttle services to and in Mount Rainier National Park. However, their web site is now closed down, and it appears they have ceased operations entirely.
For the past three years, a shuttle bus service has operated between Ashford and Paradise, only on weekends. This is due to the severe overcrowding of the parking lots and heavy traffic on the roads. It is a cooperative venture between the city of Ashford and the National Park Service. It operates from late June to early September. However, you still have to get to Ashford somehow.
Ace Taxi and Yellow Cab Inc.:
These are taxi companies that are able to deliver you from the Seattle and/or Tacoma area to the area around Ashford. In certain cases they are not licensed to pick passengers up at the SeaTac airport but may do many other locations.
Offers tours of various types of the mountain. Some of these are offered all year. Prices can be fairly high, but they also use specialized tour vehicles to get into locations where normal vehicles could not get. Some types of trips include certain meals.
Seattle City Tours / Tours Northwest:
Offers a day trip to the mountain from Seattle.
There are commercial tours available of Mount Rainier National Park; but I prefer having my own car. That way I can go where I want when I want and stay as long or short of a time as I wish. The nearest airport is probably SEATAC International Airport about 100 miles away.