Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
The landscape of Mount Rainier National Park is easily overshadowed by the enormity of Mount Rainier itself -- a 14,000-foot-tall volcano looming over surrounding forests and meadows. This grand landmass is the reason over 2 million visitors come to the park yearly, and provides a wealth of activities that include snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, or brave attempts to hike to the volcano's summit. Mount Rainier is the resting ground for at least 25 glaciers that cover over 35 square miles of the volcano, and have carved its slopes and ridges over time. At Mount Rainier National Park, it's possible to view the largest glacier on the continental United States from Emmons Vista, or trek to Gobbler's Knob for views of Mount Rainier, the highest peak in the Pacific Northwest, dominating the landscape.
Of course, this national park is much more than a glorious volcano - it has also been designated a National Historic Landmark District for its 1920s- and 1930s-style architecture, and is home to thousands of acres of old-growth forests and meadows teeming with wildflowers. Longmire Village has gained notoriety for maintaining an original rustic appearance that includes natural raw materials and color schemes, log framing, wood siding, cedar-shake roofs and boulder foundations. Forest-lovers can explore an old-growth Douglas-fir ecosystem known as "The Grove of the Patriarchs" in the Ohanapecosh Valley. The Douglas firs, western hemlocks and red cedars that define this forest have survived avalanches, fire and floods for over 10,000 years.
Geological History: Mount Rainier is a volcano built up from repeated eruptions of molten lava that cooled and formed layers over millions of years. The mountains of the Cascade Range surrounding Mount Rainier were created from the buckling of tectonic plates far beneath the Earth's surface. During the ice age, glaciers moved through this area and shaped the landscape as they froze and thawed, breaking off rocks from the slopes, carrying away debris, and smoothing the hillsides.
Park Activities: Hiking is the most popular and thorough means of exploring Mount Rainier. Hardy backpackers may choose to take 1 or 2 weeks and hike the Wonderland Trail that winds around the mountain - though it's certainly possible to take a "mini-hike" along a portion of the trail. Well-worth exploring is the slightly hard-to-reach Carbon River Basin where visitors will encounter one of North America's few temperate rainforests. For experienced climbers, attempting to scale the 14,410-foot summit of Mount Rainier is an awesome challenge, though folks looking for a more relaxing visit may want to try boating or canoeing on the sparkling waters of Mowich Lake.
Where to Say: With its cozy fireplaces, sparkling Christmas lights and proximity to incredible ski resorts, Alta Crystal Resort can be easily touted as a "winter wonderland" escape. Yet, the hiking and horseback riding trails through verdant forests, and the nearby streams ripe for fishing all ensure that this hospitable lodge remains a wonder through all four seasons. The resort also hosts a variety of nightly seasonal activities that include bonfires and barbeques. A variety of chalet accommodations are available, and surround a pool and hot tub area.
Nearby Sights/Side Trips: Visitors to the "Emerald City" can only hope they'll be "Sleepless in Seattle" ... This is a city full of activities. Take a ride to the top of the famed Space Needle, or let some salmon fly overhead (literally, over your head) at the Pike Place Market. Pioneer Square is the place to be after dark, when a world of restaurants and bars open their doors to a public intent on experiencing the cooking of some of the Northwest's finest chefs. One of the greatest things about Seattle is its proximity to outdoor retreats like tranquil Alki Beach. Should your body grow weary, never fear! Chances are a piping hot Starbucks coffee is just around the corner!