Mount Rainier National Park is a hiker’s paradise, boasting 300 miles of hiking trails and the tallest mountain in the continental US. And late summer is the perfect time to visit, offering both the most sunny days and the least rainfall all year. Almost all of the snow on the trails will have melted by the end of July, allowing a brief window of access to the higher elevations. By October, the snow will begin falling again.
Here are some perfect routes for those looking to explore Mount Rainier in August and September.
Tolmie Peak Lookout: 6.5 mi
The best job in the United States is a summer spent staffing the Tolmie Peak Lookout. The job description includes: a 3-mile commute through pristine subalpine forest, picturesque Eunice Lake surrounded in parkland meadows, and panoramic views from the office, encompassing The Mountain and miles of national forest. Ready to sign up?
Tolmie Peak Trailbegins at Mowich Lake, a spectacular setting itself. The trail leaves the large, forested lake and rises gently to Ipsut Pass (1.5 miles), a junction with Carbon River Trail. Stay to the left and continue climbing to Eunice Lake (2.3 miles), where meadows reach to the lake’s edges. The trail then climbs steeply 1 more mile to Tolmie Lookout (elevation 5,939 feet) atop the windswept peak. Mount Rainier is the obvious attraction, but Mount St. Helens and the North Cascades make appearances as well. Talk about your prime picnic spots. If the final steep climb to the lookout sounds unappealing, stopping short at Eunice Lake is a good hike as well. In late July, wildflowers fill the meadows bordering Eunice, and views of Mount Rainier are still to be had.
Find this hike in Moon Washington Hiking: Chapter 5, Mount Rainier and the Southern Cascades, pages 263–264.
Spray Park: 8.8 mi
Spray Park is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places on Mount Rainier. Meadows measured by the square mile cover the upper reaches of this trail, dominated by the imposing stature of The Mountain. Wildflowers erupt and blanket the high country in late July, while black bears in search of huckleberries roam in late August. The trail is one of the greats in the
national park and receives heavy use.
Spray Park Trail leaves from Mowich Lake. The trail meanders through the forest to Eagle Cliff (1.5 miles), where the trail follows the precipitous slope. A side trail wanders over to Spray Falls (1.9 miles) before making a steep ascent on switchbacks. The reward for the effort is a breakout from forest into open meadow. Spray Park Trail wanders through this open country, past tarns and rock fields to a saddle (elevation 6,400 feet) with views of even more meadows. The saddle is a good turnaround point, as the trail drops beyond it to Carbon River. Be sure to bring ample water, a rarity beyond Spray Falls. And remember, the meadows here are very fragile; please stay on established trails.
Find this hike in Moon Washington Hiking: Chapter 5, Mount Rainier and the Southern Cascades, pages 264-265.
Burroughs Mountain Loop: 5.5 mi
One of Mount Rainier’s best day hikes, Burroughs Mountain is also one of its most challenging. Many hikers set out on this hike only to be turned back by snowfields that linger well into August. It’s best to check in with the ranger at Sunrise and get a trail report. Snow or not, there’s definitely lots to see along the way. You’ll find meadows of flowers and marmots before reaching the tundralike expanses atop Burroughs Mountain. Add to it a lake for a lunch break and views of glaciers, and Burroughs Loop seems to have it all.
Burroughs Mountain Trail makes a 5-mile loop up to the high, rocky plateau of Burroughs Mountain. A clockwise direction is best, especially if the north side is still snowy. From the visitors center, the trail crosses over crystal streams and colorful meadows to Shadow Lake and an overlook of Emmons Glacier and the White River (1.4 miles). Hikers start dropping off as the trail climbs 900 feet to First Burroughs Mountain (2.8 miles). Guaranteed: Mount Rainier has never looked so big in your life.
Burroughs Mountain Trail wanders the wide, flat plateau and drops to Frozen Lake (3.6 miles). Snowfields like to linger along this northern half of the loop. These steep slopes can be crossed when snowy, but an ice ax is highly, highly recommended. The well-signed trail heads back to the visitors center.
Find this hike in Moon Washington Hiking: Chapter 5, Mount Rainier and the Southern Cascades, pages 267–268.
Glacier Basin: 3.8–7.0 mi
Mount Rainier may be known best for the immense glaciers covering its slopes. More than two dozen massive ice sheets radiate from the mountain’s summit, sculpting entire valleys and ridges. Glacier Basin Trail provides a close look at two of Mount Rainier’s glaciers, Emmons Glacier and Inter Glacier, hard at work. If you find glaciers boring, then shift your attention to the hillsides and look for mountain goats among the meadows. Here’s a little geology lesson first. Glaciers are massive sheets of ice produced over thousands of years. Snowfall slowly accumulates through the years and becomes compacted into a sheet of ice. Enter gravity, which slowly pulls the glacier down the valley, scraping and sculpting the terrain as it moves. It may take a while (millennia), but glaciers are heavy-duty landscapers. When glaciers retreat (melt faster than they form, as happens now), they leave a denuded valley filled with moraine (piles of rock and dirt), which you’ll see here. Got it? You’re ready for Glacier Basin Trail.
The trail has two forks: Glacier Basin Trail (7 miles round-trip) and Emmons Glacier Trail (3.8 miles). The trail departs White River Campground and gently climbs to the junction (0.9 mile): Head left for Emmons Glacier (the largest in the lower 48 states), right for Inter Glacier. Both trails provide great views of the glaciers. Being a glacier is dirty work, apparent from the enormous piles of rock and mud covering the ice. Glacier Basin is most popular with mountaineers seeking a summit of The Mountain.
Find this hike in Moon Washington Hiking: Chapter 5, Mount Rainier and the Southern Cascades, pages 270–271.
Laughingwater Creek: 11.4 mi
A rarity in this national park, Laughingwater Creek Trail forsakes mountain meadows and views of Mount Rainier. Instead, this lightly used trail makes a grand trip through oldgrowth forest to Three Lakes, set among open subalpine forest. The trail provides a quiet reintroduction to the Cascade Mountains after the crowds of Mount Rainier’s visitors centers. The only sounds around these parts are the noisy rumbling of Laughingwater Creek and the bellows of elk.
Laughingwater Creek Trail gains more than 2,500 feet between the trailhead and Three Lakes. Most of the climb is spread moderately along the route, easy enough for hikers young and old. The trail sticks close to the creek and passes within view of a waterfall at 2.5 miles. Western hemlocks give way to mountain hemlocks and subalpine fir replaces Douglas fir as the trail nears the crest of the hike.
Three Lakes lie in a small basin atop the ridge. A wonderful backcountry camp is situated here with an aged shelter. This is an out of-the-way section of the national park (if any remain these days), with few visitors spending the night at Three Lakes Camp. If you have an itch to see The Mountain, continue on the trail past Three Lakes toward the PCT and meadow vistas.
Find this hike in Moon Washington Hiking: Chapter 5, Mount Rainier and the Southern Cascades, page 284.
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Washington Hiking.