by Bill Shelmerdine

revised by Bill Shelmerdine

Many sought-after bird species nest on, or visit, the upper west slopes of the Cascades above Puget Sound, but much of this country is accessible only by backpacking. The three trans-mountain highways run through cut-over forests at relatively low elevations most of the way to the crest, and the species that live in these habitats can usually be found just as well in the lowlands. The best birding these roads have to offer is at the actual summits: Snoqualmie Pass on I-90 (page 262), Chinook Pass on SR-410 (page 318), and Stevens Pass on US-2 (page 404). By visiting these places birders can readily find the common and even some of the uncommon mountain species, but chances of finding any of the true alpine specialties are remote. Fortunately, one high-elevation Puget Sound site has both good birds and ready access. You will have to set aside at least one full day to go there, but even if you miss a target bird or two, you will not regret a trip to Mount Rainier. (Fee or America the Beautiful Pass required.)

A striking feature and major landmark, Mount Rainier is readily visible from many locations around Western and Eastern Washington. It is a composite volcano of massive proportions with an extensive system of glaciers covering roughly 37 square miles—the largest single-peak glacial system in the Lower 48. Currently considered dormant, it has had a history of intense volcanism. One can only imagine the incredible bulk and height of the 16,000-foot ancestral summit, reduced to its present 14,410 feet by violent eruptions, mudflows, and thousands of years of glacial erosion. The mountain and surrounding lush, old-growth forests are included within 235,625-acre Mount Rainier National Park, famous for spectacular scenery and subalpine wildflowers (July–August). The fall color change can be just as impressive.

The park is a good place to look for the typical birds of wet conifer forests, but the big treat is easy birding access to subalpine forest and alpine areas. Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Hermit Thrush, Cassin’s Finch, and Evening Grosbeak are common in the subalpine. Sooty Grouse, Golden Eagle, Mountain Bluebird, and Townsend’s Solitaire are fairly common, while Black Swift (rare) and Pine Grosbeak are seen occasionally. The most sought-after specialties—White-tailed Ptarmigan, Boreal Owl, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch—are present at certain times and places, but finding them may require intensive searching (and luck). The late season (mid-August–October) is often productive for these species.

Mount Rainier is popular with tourists from around the world and also with local day-trippers. Spring and summer—overall, the best seasons to visit—are also the most crowded. Visitor pressure declines after Labor Day, but even then, finding a spot in a designated pullout or parking area is much easier on weekdays and early in the morning. The park receives a lot of snow. Average annual snowfall at Paradise, on the south side of the park, exceeds 50 feet. In typical years, trailheads and trails to alpine habitats will be snow-free and accessible from July into October. The road to Paradise from the Nisqually Entrance is kept open year round (bring tire chains in winter). All other roads are subject to snow closures, especially between late October and early May. If planning a visit early or late in the season, call ahead (360-569-2211) to check access, snow levels, and trail conditions.

There are five summer entrance points. Most visitors—birders included—go in either via the Nisqually Entrance (on the southwest side) to Longmire and Paradise, or via the White River Entrance (on the northeast side) to Sunrise. A loop trip connecting these two entrances around the southeast side of the park is possible, too, but time-consuming. Birders with only a day to spend should consider focusing their efforts at Sunrise, especially if pursuing the higher-elevation species. The Sunrise Visitor Center is about 75 road miles from Tacoma, 90 from Yakima, or 95 from Seattle, mostly on two-lane roads that can be slow going, so count on a long day. Better still, take a couple of days and camp at one of the many campgrounds (reservations essential at the height of the season). In addition to Sunrise, there are visitor centers at Paradise, Longmire, and Ohanapecosh, offering interpretive displays, books, maps, and snacks. Basic maps and information can also be obtained at kiosks where entrance fees are paid. Gasoline is not available inside the park, so gas up before you go in.

Large portions of the park are covered by dense, wet conifer forest. Forests at lower elevations around the park’s perimeter are in the Western Hemlock zone. Douglas-fir, Western Hemlock, Western Redcedar, and Grand Fir are the primary large tree species. Several stands of old growth have massive trees over 200 feet tall, and a complex, multi-storied structure. The interiors of these stands are dark, have variable understory vegetation, and are typically covered with downed logs and mosses. Pacific Wren is the most conspicuous member of the bird community here, and possibly the only one you will actually see. Other species spend most of their time up in the canopy, where you can best find them from overlooks. Forests become more open above 5,500 feet, transitioning into subalpine parklands and alpine meadows. Bird-viewing is much easier in these habitats.

While some of the bird species change with the forest type, many remain the same. Characteristic species of lower-elevation forests include Ruffed Grouse, Northern Pygmy-Owl (uncommon), Red-breasted Sapsucker (fairly common), Hairy Woodpecker, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Pacific Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, and Western Tanager. Species that may be found in both lower- and higher-elevation forest zones include Sooty Grouse, Olive-sided Flycatcher (fairly common), Gray and Steller’s Jays, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Varied Thrush, Townsend’s and Wilson’s Warblers, Dark-eyed Junco, Red Crossbill, and Evening Grosbeak. Pine Grosbeak, a much sought-after and uncommon species, is occasionally reported from higher-elevation forests and trails above Paradise, near Sunrise, on the trails around Reflection Lakes, and at Chinook Pass. Vaux’s Swifts nest and roost in the larger tree stands and can often be seen flying above the canopy or river valleys. American Dippers are fairly common throughout the park from forest zones up to the edge of the snowfields, along clear-running rivers, lakes, and alpine streams.


The Nisqually Entrance (elevation 2,003 feet) is 14 miles east of Elbe on SR-706. The 23-mile road from there to Paradise (elevation 5,560 feet) offers an excellent elevational transect of the park’s forest types and their associated birdlife. Especially impressive old-growth stands can be found about five miles inside the entrance, as one approaches Longmire. Across the road from the National Park Inn (6.4 miles), the Trail of the Shadows offers birds of open, lowland habitats—meadows, Beaver pond, cattail marsh, alder thickets— along a three-quarter-mile loop rimmed by forest. At Paradise, trailheads provide easy access into open subalpine parkland and meadows, with fine wildflower displays, plenty of Hoary Marmots, and nesting Horned Larks and American Pipits. White-tailed Ptarmigans are sometimes seen above Paradise Park at elevations ranging from 6,300 to 7,000 feet, but Sunrise is usually a better bet for this species. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches also occur in the area, but during the summer they often haunt crags and cliffs high on the mountain, for example at Camp Muir (elevation 10,188 feet)—definitely within the realm of alpine wilderness travel and not for the inexperienced or unprepared. Weather on the mountain changes suddenly and can be fierce.


If you are tempted by subalpine meadows on a par with Paradise but without the crowds, head for the Mowich Lake Entrance on Mount Rainier’s remote northwest side. Depending on snowpack, the road may not open until late July. Facilities are minimal, and reaching the alpine zone requires an invigorating hike. From SR-410 at the south edge of Buckley, turn south onto SR-165. Keep left at the fork in 1.7 miles, and continue 2.9 miles to Wilkeson. In 5.9 miles, take the right branch at another fork and go 11.2 miles through managed forests to the park boundary and self-pay fee station. It is another 5.6 miles to the end of the road at Mowich Lake (elevation 4,929 feet). American Dippers are sometimes seen at the lake’s outlet. Hike the trail three miles to Spray Park, where the meadows begin. At the high point in the trail, roughly a mile later, an unmarked trail goes south and uphill, traversing extensive alpine habitats. In this landscape of heather and fell field, look for White-tailed Ptarmigan, American Pipit, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, the latter especially higher on the trail near the permanent snowfields and cliffs.


The White River Entrance (elevation 3,500 feet) is reached by turning west from SR-410 onto a side road 4.6 miles inside the park’s north boundary and 3.6 miles north of the SR-123 intersection at Cayuse Pass. The ranger station and entrance kiosk are 1.4 miles ahead. This is big-conifer habitat of the Western Hemlock zone, with birds characteristic of wet lowland forests. Varied Thrush is often found in these lower-elevation areas. The road to the White River Campground (elevation 4,000 feet) branches off to the left in 3.9 miles, just after the White River bridge. Just beyond is the gate for winter closure. Nightly closures can occur anytime after early September—call ahead for status. From the gate the road climbs steeply, and Alaska Yellowcedar, Silver Fir, and Mountain Hemlock become increasing components of the forest stands. Bird species characteristic of these upper-elevation forests include Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. In 7.8 miles, a large pullout at Sunrise Point (elevation 6,100 feet) provides a fabulous viewpoint, and trailheads to some interesting areas away from roads and crowds. In late summer and fall, Elk bugle from the forest edges.

For the next three miles the road traverses large meadows with dense clusters of subalpine tree species. Sooty Grouse, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Clark’s Nutcracker, Common Raven, and Mountain Bluebird are seen along this stretch. The road ends at the Sunrise Visitor Center (elevation 6,400 feet), perhaps the single best birding area in the park for species of open subalpine forests and alpine meadows. Trees and edges right around the visitor center have Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, both kinglet species, Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and Pine Siskin; Gray Jay and Clark’s Nutcracker should be nearby, as should Cascade Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, Yellow-pine Chipmunk, and Hoary Marmot. In September, look for mixed-species flocks including flycatchers, vireos, warblers, and sparrows.

There is a noticeable passage of raptors in the fall; the Sunrise Area and Chinook Pass to the east are some of the best places in the park to search. Golden Eagle and Prairie Falcon are fairly regular while Northern Goshawk is occasionally sighted. Boreal Owls have been found in September and October in subalpine stands extending west from Sunrise Point to the walk-in Sunrise Camp beyond the visitor center (between about 5,800 and 6,400 feet elevation). Please do not torment them with excessive tape-playing.

To get the most out of Sunrise birding, obtain a map and hike some of the trails beginning at the visitor center. The high trail to Frozen Lake is the best bet for Townsend’s Solitaire and Cassin’s Finch, whereas the trail west toward Sunrise Camp and Shadow Lake is better for Sooty Grouse (also try the adjacent trails) and Gray Jay. Mountain Chickadees are found throughout the area. Frozen Lake (elevation 6,750 feet), reached in about a mile, is the minimum distance one must go to find some of the true alpine species. Horned Lark and American Pipit are often here, while Baird’s Sandpiper and other shorebirds have been seen along the margins of the lake during fall migration. From this point and above is the summer range of the White-tailed Ptarmigan. The most reliable location in the park over the last few years has been along the 1.8-mile trail from Frozen Lake to the Mount Fremont Lookout. The birds have been found around scree and loose, rocky slopes, and within heather clumps and other low alpine vegetation—especially on the ridge right by the lookout (elevation 7,181 feet). Another traditional though less reliable location for ptarmigan is Burroughs Mountain (in similar habitat, elevation 7,100 to 7,400 feet) west of Frozen Lake. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches nest higher on Rainier, well above the areas that hikers and birders usually visit, but they are given to substantial up-and-down movements each day. In summer, you may detect them about late-lingering snowfields near areas of rocks, cliffs, or seeps. They are more conspicuous in fall when they gather in post-breeding flocks.

South of the road to Sunrise, SR-410 has a few places to pull off and look out over the forest and valley below. These can be good for Vaux’s Swift (often foraging at eye level) and birds of the canopy. From the intersection at Cayuse Pass, you may continue eastward on SR-410 to bird Chinook Pass (page 318) and sites in South Central Washington. SR-123 runs south to the Stevens Canyon Entrance (11 miles), where you may turn west on the road to Paradise (21 miles). SR-123 continues south past the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center to the park boundary in three miles and joins US-12 in another 2.5 miles. A left (east) turn here will take you in about 13 miles to White Pass—another South Central access point. Westbound, US-12 goes to Packwood and southwestern Washington birding sites, including the “back door” route to Mount Saint Helens (page 236).