One of the biggest questions for us Seattle residents often concerns Mount Rainier: Is the mountain visible or not? Most of the time clouds obscure our perspective. On clear days, however, days when we can see the snow-capped, 3-mile-high mountain jutting out of the distance, we say it’s “out.” And we marvel. A lot.

Just as we Seattle folks only get a limited number of days when the mountain is “out,” the high season for visiting Mount Rainier National Park is short but oh-so-sweet.

Visitors really start coming around July 4. Rangers say the high season runs through early September, since, starting in mid-September, the weather gets iffy. By mid-October, they say, the general forecast usually calls for snow. While all the roads through the park are open in the summer, some trails are still closed due to snow through mid- to late July.

Considering this limited window for visiting Mount Rainier National Park, here are some suggestions for what you can do to make the most of your next (or first) visit.

Planning

For information about parking, open hours, fees, camping reservations, hikes, nature programs, and more, visit the official park website.

You can inquire about road conditions at the park entrance. Once inside the park, stop at either the Longmire, Paradise, Sunrise, or Ohanapecosh visitor centers to talk to a ranger about current trail conditions.

Meadow near Longmire

Hiking

Rangers at the visitor centers can recommend trails based on ease or difficulty of the route, elevation gain, time, and distance. They also will let you know which routes provide the best views of Mount Rainier and the surrounding mountains. On my most recent visit, I saw Mount Hood, Mount Adams, and Mount St. Helens, all from one vantage point. Just around a corner was a view of Mount Rainier.

Be sure to ask the rangers about snow-free trails—they will have a map highlighting all the routes open for the day you visit.

Also, remember that weather on the mountain can change very quickly. Always carry more water and food than you expect you’ll need. Wear hiking boots and base layer(s), and be sure to bring an extra jacket. Depending on the difficulty of the trail and your abilities, consider hiking poles as well.

Viewfinder Tip: Thanks to a lack of snow, the Carbon River entrance, in the northwest corner of Mount Rainier National Park, is open year-round to foot and bicycle traffic only.

Driving through

Mt. Rainier National Park is an excellent place to hike, snowshoe, or camp in the backcountry. But it’s also a beautiful place to visit by car. Most of my visits to the park have been to drive (or ride my motorcycle) through. Trailheads branch off of the main roads through the park so it’s easy and fun to pull over and check out old-growth forest, explore a riverbed, or spend some time with a great view of the mountain.

Summer is the best time to drive the roads, since most of them are closed during  winter. The two notable exceptions are the Nisqually entrance (in the southwest) and the road to Paradise Visitor Center, which stay open for most of the year (barring a huge storm).

When to go

There are multiple entrances to Mount Rainier National Park; check the website for hours of operation for each entrance, as times change during different seasons. During high season expect parking lots to fill quickly. The earlier you arrive, the more likely you’ll find parking.

Sign at Nisqually Entrance

The best weather (and best chance to see Rainier and other mountains) usually occurs between late June and late August. If you’re interested in seeing meadows filled with blooming wildflowers, visit sometime between late July and early August—this is when snow in the high altitudes has melted and flowers are in their all-out glory. The meadows are found in several locations throughout the park; rangers can tell you which ones are best to see during your visit.

Other considerations

If you’re making the effort to get to Mount Rainier National Park, it’s wise to check ahead to see if the park is having a fee-free day. These happen a few times per year; the next one for 2014 is on Aug. 25. (For a list of all fee-free days, click here.) Be warned: The park can get very crowded on these days. Personally I prefer paying the entrance fee to avoid the crowds.

Also, note that there are park services inside Mount Rainier National Park, including lodging, restaurants, and toilets at some of the trailheads. The one service the park does not offer is gas; you’ll need to fuel up outside. If you’d like to stay nearby, try the Gateway Inn in Ashford near the Nisqually entrance.

Which National Park is your favorite and why?