As is typical for our travels, we explored Mount Rainier National Park on a shoestring budget. I can say with a certainty that our experience wasn’t diminished in the least. In fact, when exploring a place known for its natural features it seems a bit silly to spend money on the luxuries that largely isolate you from them.
Our trip included only two days time in Rainier, and many arbitrary choices such as the specific trails we hiked but this write-up should be useful as a rough template for other thrifty adventurers looking to explore the park.
Mount Rainier National Park provides the chance to do many free activities including mountaineering, road biking, photography, etc. It was my first visit to the park so the obvious choice was a hike that included views of the mountain’s peak and glaciers. Instead of purchasing a guidebook, we cruised up to the Paradise Visitor’s Center and asked the rangers for a suggestion. Unlike a pricey guidebook, these folks live in the park, hike many of the trails themselves, and hear visitor’s reports of the current conditions of all trails. We talked to ranger Jenny, who pointed out the popular Skyline Trail, but recommended detours along the Dead Horse Creek Trail and Glacier Vista trail to get away from the crowds. She also warned us of two alternate trails that were closed due to snow.
Before we headed out, we got the downlow on lodging options in the park.
Our ranger friend Jenny pulled out a map of lodging options within Mount Rainier National Park. She went over the Paradise Inn ($117-$216, yeah right!), National Park Inn($119-$252) and campsites ($20). She finally spoke our language when she pointed out an unmarked area in the bottom corner of the map and out of park boundaries. “This is US Forest Service Land” she said, “you can disperse camp for free.” ($0, Booya!)
We drove down a USFS Road and camped at the end of an unnamed offshoot road. We set our tent just three miles from the park boundary, and the forested hillsides looked unsurprisingly identical to that of the park. The sound of a fast flowing river accompanied us as we ate our delicious dinner.
Hot top ramen warmed us wonderfully in the high elevation chill of evening. We have added a degree of classiness to this oft-scoffed at dish by adding dehydrated shitaki mushrooms, foo chuk (tofu bean curd), broccoli and sriracha garlic sauce. The final sips are a fantastic mix of spicy mushroom broth. For dessert we drank hot coacoa with a bit of fireball added for a cinnamon kick.
Food is a very personal preference and it can be quite an amazing experience to go out to a nice restaurant. I must point out, however, that there is an inherent cost inflation applied in any national park due to the restaurant’s position as a monopoly. The same monopoly allows other deficiency to go unpenalized as patrons have literally no other options in the price range. Lastly, the fine dining fanciness that graces an excursion to the eateries of the city are wholly out of place in a National Park. Instead, treat yourself to an authentic wilderness experience, spending only what you need to and roughing it a bit. You might just find that you enjoy yourself more when unburdened from the luxuries you once found essential.