Located in the northeast corner of Mount Rainier National Park, Sunrise sits at an elevation of 6,400 feet and is Mount Rainier’s highest visitor center. Accessible from early July through late September, visitors are astounded by spectacular views of the massive Emmons Glacier and meadows of colorful wildflowers.
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The area known as Yakima Park was used by the Yakima Indians as a summer hunting ground and to engage in horse racing and other events of the season. Dancing, wooing, religious ceremonies—all these things were part of the old-time Indian life associated with the park. For thousands of years, these and other subalpine meadows have been important to Native American people for their beauty and valuable plant and animal resources.
Originally developed as an alternative destination point in the park taking some pressure off the very popular Paradise area, Sunrise proved to be a challenge for both park administrators and the concessioner, Rainier National Park Company (RNPC). The development was hailed as the most coordinated planning effort by the National Park Service and the first instance of master planning of a complete area. The Bureau of Public Roads surveyed a route from the White River to Yakima Park and by 1929 road construction projects were in place and a power plant, water supply, and sewage system installed at the new site. Once the road was completed, the new hotel construction would be underway.
As the road neared completion, controversy arose over the name of the new development. Boosters in the Puget Sound region lobbied for changing the name to Sunrise in order to avoid confusion with the city of Yakima. The Yakima Chamber of Commerce wanted to retain the name, Yakima Park and L.V. McWhorter, a rancher and friend of the Yakima Indians pushed for “Owhi’s Meadow” in honor of a Yakima Chief. The Park Service settled the dispute by using the name Sunrise for the development, Yakima Park for the physical landform, and Owhi for the Owyhigh Lakes.
With the economic downturn in 1930, RNPC had a difficult and frustrating search for investors. In earlier plans, it was expected they would build a full-service hotel and cabins at the site. In July 1929, RNPC described their plans to Great Northern Railroad for construction of a 300-room hotel, cabins to accommodate 300 guests, and 80-100 housekeeping cabins to accommodate auto tourists. When the two million dollar proposal was turned down by the railroad in January 1930, and a hotel was not to be, the National Park Service was left with an overdeveloped site in spite of their careful planning. When Sunrise opened for tourists, accommodations consisted of 215 housekeeping cabins and a central service building containing a cafeteria, camp store, post office, storage, and employee dormitories.
Throngs of tourists drove up the new road to Sunrise after its opening on July 15, 1931, and each succeeding weekend brought more people with travel to Sunrise exceeding that to Paradise on many weekends. The park officials were confident that travel to Sunrise would eventually double what Paradise received but visitation soon stabilized with about twice the number of visitors to Paradise as Sunrise.
Visitors found a variety of amenities including half-day horse trips for $3.00, housekeeping cabins could be rented for $2.50 a day with blankets and linen or $1.50 a day without. The Sunrise Lodge opened in 1931 where visitors could rent bathtub, shower, and laundry facilities, purchase groceries, and enjoy cafeteria-style dining. By 1934, a free public campground and picnic area were established near Shadow Lake, less than a mile from Sunrise Plaza.
During the 1930’s and 1940s the park service with help from the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) developed an extensive network of hiking trails radiating from Sunrise and they continue to be among the most popular in the park with easy access to alpine meadows and awe-inspiring views of the massive glaciers on Mount Rainier’s north face.
The cabins at Sunrise were not popular and did not endure the high elevation environment well. The 215 cabins were sold to real estate companies in 1944 for $110 each and removed from the park to alleviate housing shortages among war industry workers in the Puget Sound area and migrant farmers in the Yakima Valley.
The cabins are gone and no overnight lodging exists, but the Sunrise Lodge, now operated by Rainier Guest Services provides cafeteria-style dining and a visit to Sunrise should not be missed. The road leading to Sunrise offers one of the most scenic drives in the country and the pullover at Sunrise Point offers views of five volcanoes including Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, Mount Adams, and Mount Hood in Oregon.
For those early risers, plan to arrive at the point in the wee hours of the morning and experience a spectacular sunrise that will literally take your breath away!