Elevational Zones of Mount Rainier

The extent of Mount Rainier exceeds that of Mount Rainier National Park. The park boundaries encompass about 400 square miles but the geographic scope of the mountain is thought to be some 1,600 square miles (ref. Spring/Manning). The areas surrounding the park are highly influenced by the climate shaping presence of the mountain.

It is often said "the mountain creates its own weather." True, it can, but its sheer massiveness also dictates the climatic conditions around it in ways unlike any other Cascade mountain. Laird Blackwell in his excellent guidebook, "Wildflowers of Mount Rainier", presents a concise discussion of this phenomenon.

We normally think of the north side of mountains as the cold side with greater snowfall and harsher conditions. With Mount Rainier the opposite is true. It is so massive that its rain (and snow) shadow results in significantly less precipitation on the north and east sides of the mountain particularly since the prevailing winter storms in the Pacific Northwest flow in from the southwest. The average annual snowfall at Sunrise on the northeast side is about 300 inches while at Paradise on the south side it is over 600 inches. Paradise at 5,400 feet in elevation is also a full 1,000 feet lower than Sunrise. This difference in snowfall has a fairly significant influence on the elevational ranges of the forest, subalpine and alpine zones. The derivation is approximately 500 feet with forest lines and tree limits lowered 500 feet on the west and south sides due to greater snow depths and longer melt times.

 
South and West Slopes
North and East Slopes
Forest Line
4,800'
5,300'
Subalpine Zone
4,800' - 6,500'
5,300' - 7,000'
Tree Limit
6,500'
7,000'
Alpine Zone
above 6,500'
above 7,000'

 

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