Most tourists that visit Mount Rainier National Park enter through the main gate entrances to visit the most popular areas such as Paradise and Sunrise. It is at these areas that visitors get the most close-up, eye-popping views of the mountain. But did you know that a long stretch of Highway 410 runs along the east side perimeter of the park past the cut-off to the White River/Sunrise entrance? Washingtonians may know it as Chinook Pass. The highway continues across the Cascades with its hairpin turns and switchbacks through miles and miles of forests until it finally levels out near the city of Naches. But right at the top of Chinook Pass, still within the Mount Rainier National Park boundary, is a place called Tipsoo Lake. There are actually two small lakes: the upper lake and the lower lake. There are pull-out areas with parking spaces as well as a few picnic tables and toilets. There are park hiking trails connecting to this area. The Pacific Crest Trail meanders in and out of the park boundary near here as well. Be forewarned that the highway’s speed limit is only 35 mph though the top of the pass and for good reason. You better have a tight grip on the steering wheel and not be looking at the views for too long. Yes, they are spectacular, but there are not many guard rails along most of this windy, narrow strip of road to my amazement. It can be a white-knuckled drive even for the most seasoned traveler.
For those travelers that visit Mount Rainier National Park from the eastern side of Washington State, they are well aware of this vista area at Tipsoo Lake. It is also a popular destination for landscape photographers, especially during the autumn. To say that the area is gorgeous during the peak autumn colors is an understatement. I took a trip out there this week to see if the colors were in place since we’ve had a early start to winter with a few dustings of snow already in the higher elevations. And believe me, Chinook Pass is a high elevation at over 5400 ft! On this day, it was freezing cold, breezy, and there was snow on the ground in some places. To my disappointment, the colors were barely beginning to change.
What colors am I talking about? I am not talking about leaves changing color as much as ground cover changing color. There are evergreen trees in this subalpine area, so you won’t be seeing lots of red maple leaves. You’ll be seeing red swatches of color up and down the slopes from huckleberry plants, heath, shrubs, and other plant varieties. The best time to see these colors is generally the first week of November. You want to arrive at Tipsoo Lake in the morning hours to get the best photo shots of the mountain. It lights up beautifully from the sun in the east.