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The Official Moosefish Guide to the East Side of Mount Rainier National Park (more or less)
posted by John : April 20, 2015

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Every year the snow of winter gives way. Some years earlier (like this year) and some years later. When the snow retreats from our view in the lowlands and even from the Cascade passes I start thinking about how I'm going to spend my time in Mount Rainier National Park.

We are amazingly lucky to live only two hours from the northeast entrance to the Park. Even the drive there is a scenic one. The kids know when we enter the Park because we pass under an archway and all electronics get turned off. This is where the gates close in Winter and where the choices begin as soon as they open in the Spring.

In fact, there are so many choices it's hard to know where to go. We've been visiting this part of the Park for the last seven years and although there are still trails we haven't explored I thought it only fair to share some of what we have learned. So BEHOLD:

The Official Moosefish Guide to the East Side of Mount Rainier National Park

(more or less)

I've divided the trips into categories so pick yours and get going.

  • If you're not much into the outdoors start with the trips for casual visitors. Be warned, though. The beauty of the Park has way of making you want to see more than you can from the trailhead.

  • Families that are ready to hit the trail can choose from 11 hikes on the east side that are all great for hiking kids.

  • Backpackers will find amazing destinations along the Wonderland Trail including one of the best in the entire Park.

  • The Mountain stands alone in the sky over all of Washington and many will look to climb it. If that's you, check out the hard core trips.

  • Whether you're from nearby or visiting from afar, look to the campgrounds and lodging options for a place to stay so you can experience the Park from morning to night.

Remember that there's an entrance fee so consider getting an annual pass. If you're going to visit more than three National Parks in the year look into the America the Beautiful Pass. (In the Northwest it has a bonus value because it also satisfies the Northwest Forest Pass requirement at National Forest trailheads.) Alternatively, you can look for the fee-free days that are scattered throughout the year, but if you're like me those won't be enough to satisfy you.

For the casual visitor

The casual visitor is someone that wants to see the Mountain, but isn't a hiker or an adventure-seeker. You can't really come to Washington and not see Mount Rainier, though, so here's where to go on the east side of the Mountain.

Start with the obvious and drive to the Sunrise Visitor Center, located at 6,400 feet. The road up from the White River Entrance is twisty and turny, but the views make up for it. The Mountain is front and center, parking is ample, there's bathrooms, food, a museum, a gift shop, and short walks. After marveling at the view go into the museum and learn about the Park. Take advantage of a guided ranger walk to the Emmons Vista where you'll learn all about the mountain including how it used to be 2,000 feet taller! The walk is perfect for kids who are trying to get their Junior Ranger Badges, too.

In Spring, which usually comes in late June or July, the flowers bloom throughout Yakima Park on the flanks for Sourdough Ridge to the north of parking lot. Follow the trail that climbs up the ridge stopping at each number to read about the meadow from the pamphlet you can get in the Visitor Center/museum. Remember to stay on the trail, the meadows are fragile and take decades to recover from damage.

14 miles south of the White River entrance is the Stevens Canyon Entrance and just inside is the Grove of the Patriarchs. This is a short walk that includes a suspension bridge across the Ohanapecosh River to an isolated grove of trees that have survived for thousands of years to be the largest in the Park. It's not often that kids are awed by a tree, but they will be here. This is a great spot regardless of the weather. It's cool in the heat of summer and other-worldly in the rain.

The next two spots are outside the Park, but warrant mention because of their easy access and stunning views.

The first is Suntop. In Summer, you can drive all the way to the top on a decent gravel road. There's a lookout that you can rent along with an outhouse and a 360 degree view that makes it obvious why the lookout is there. Go toward the end of July and find the beargrass blooming.

The second is the Crystal Mountain Gondola. Crystal Mountain is a ski resort that borders the Park on the east side. Several years ago they installed a state-of-the-art gondola. It's not the cheapest option, but if you want a high-class way to see the Mountain (and a spot to eat a tasty lunch) there are few better options. Plus, it's open even when the rest of the east side of the mountain is shut down by winter snows. Bring or rent some Tubbs Snowshoes for an easy walk along the ridge for bonus views.

For the hiking family

Ready to get your boots dirty? These hikes are all short enough for families with young kids (you'll see mine in the linked trip reports) and get you away from the trailheads.

Again, start at the Sunrise Visitor Center, but don't stop there. Instead, you're headed for Frozen Lake. Get used to this section of trail because it's the gateway to many of the other trails. Climb up through Yakima Park to Sourdough Ridge and hang a left to head west. The trail doesn't climb much more, but does rise and fall over the next mile or so with great views to both the north and south. Frozen Lake is the water source for the visitor center so you can't get too close, but you can marvel at the blue of the water and the snow that will stick around late into the summer. Look for marmots in the grass and goats on the hills.

From Frozen Lake there are plenty of ways to extend your trip because you're at a junction with the Wonderland Trail. (The Wonderland circles the Mountain. We haven't done it yet, but you can bet we want to. Badly.)

Turn right (north) past Frozen Lake and climb steadily to the Mount Fremont Lookout at 7,181 feet above sea level. As high as you'll feel, you're still only half way to the summit, but what a rush!

Back at Frozen Lake you could have turned left (south) and climbed onto Burroughs Mountain. Burroughs is a big mountain with several summits usually referred to as "First Burroughs," "Second Burroughs," and so on. Burroughs is a long day hike for little legs, but the views are unparalleled for the effort. Neither summit is particularly impressive, but standing on Second Burroughs you're face to face with the Mountain.

When you're this close to the Mountain it's hard to recommend looking away until you've exhausted the trails all around Sunrise. There are a collection of second-tier hikes that would be stunners if they were outside the Park. The Sourdough Ridge trail runs the length of the ridge from the visitor center to Sunrise Point. The big draw is Dege Peak, but you can also just run the ridge from one end to the other with great views off each side.

Shadow Lake (we stopped on the way back from Second Burroughs) is a nice, shallow lake you can see from the Frozen Lake trail. There are no big views of the Mountain, but you get to wander a twisting and turning trail through the woods to the lake and can continue up Burroughs.

Also without views of Rainier, but with bigger lakes, are Sunrise and Clover Lakes. These don't start from the Sunrise Visitor Center, but from Sunrise Point a few miles before the big parking lot. Warning: The trail drops to Sunrise Lake from the trailhead. That means tired legs have to climb back to the car at the very end of the hike. Otherwise, it's a wonderful walk through blueberry bushes. Save this one for September, bring your appetite, and take your bear bells.

All these trips have started high, either at or near the Sunrise Visitor Center. The next few don't. Two don't even start in the Park at all.

Highway 410 crosses the eastern Park boundary at Chinook Pass. This pass is usually closed from November through April (if not longer) due to heavy snow and avalanche danger. Just inside the boundary is little Tipsoo Lake, which has an amazing view of the Mountain. It's also a great place to jump on the Naches Peak Loop for a straight-forward snowshoe trip that exemplifies what snowshoeing is all about. Deep powder, rugged peaks, open meadows, and a mile-long return face-to-face with Rainier. (Rumor has it this three mile, 600-foot gain loop is amazing without snow, too.)

The Crystal Lakes trail starts on Highway 410 and doesn't require an entry fee. The climb is almost entirely in the trees with a few peekaboo views of the Mountain across the White River valley. It only opens up when you get to the lake basin below Crystal Mountain. When the roads into the Park have closed, but the highway is still open, this is one of the few trails that's still accessible.

Outside the Park to the northeast is Noble Knob. Getting outside the Park gives a perspective on the immensity of the Mountain that you can't get when you're up close and personal. It also lets you bring dogs. Dogs are an important part of our family so it's a sacrifice when we hike in the Park because dogs aren't allowed off pavement. Noble Knob lets them come, too. Go in the Fall for great colors.

Another almost-in-the-Park trip is Sheep Lake. The lake is on the Pacific Crest Trail and has a ton of great camp sites perfect for first backpacking trips. You can even build fires (outside the lake basin, conditions permitting) and if the weather's right (or you're four) you can swim. Just past the lake on the PCT the trail climbs steeply to a short spur that overlooks the Crystal Lakes and provides gorgeous views of Rainier.

The final family-friendly trip is Glacier Basin. This is a hike from the White River Campground along the Inter Fork of the White River to the base of the Inter Glacier. Along the way you'll see the power of the river that destroyed the old trail and the amazing work of Washington Trails Association that built a new trail. This is how climbers get to the glaciers, but just getting to the basin is worth the effort. You might see marmots, goats, or even a bear.

For the backpackers

Beyond day hikes are overnight trips. These are some of the most rewarding trips we've had in the Park because they've granted us the opportunity to slow down and live in the Park, even if only for a few days.

Perhaps we made a mistake by starting our Mount Rainier backpacking with Summerland. From everything I've read and everyone I've talked to (including backcountry rangers and lifelong hikers) there is no better place in the Park. For us, it was pure bliss for three days. Between the blue skies, the white snow, the marmots, the excursion to Panhandle Gap, and the ever-present Mountain it couldn't have been any better. (On second thought, save this one for later so you don't spoil yourself.)

It's not fair to compare our Berkeley Park trip to the time we spent in Summerland the year before. Had we not just been in heaven with perfect weather we'd have raved about Berkely Park. The biggest difference between the two is while Summerland is up high, Berkeley is down low. However, we hiked to Grand Park on our middle day, which has amazing views when the weather is good.

For the hard core

For those who really want to push the boundaries and are willing to take on some risk, these trips offer the biggest rewards. They're long, hard, or dangerous. Or all three. (My kids haven't done any of these trips.)

Camp Schurman is the main climber's camp on the Emmons route on the northeastern side of the Mountain. At almost 10,000 feet it's a decent climb of 5,000 feet from the White River Campground and involves crossing the Inter Glacier and a small section of the Emmons Glacier. Crossing glaciers requires specialized gear and the training to use it properly! From Camp Schurman (and Camp Curtis, on the way) you get a view of the Mountain like no other. It ceases to be a distant peak and becomes a wall of white, torn with crevasses, and whipped by winds. If you're considering a climb to the summit, plan a day trip to Camp Schurman first.

Not quite as demanding as Camp Schurman, but still requiring acceptance of risk is Mt. Ruth. You'll climb the Inter Glacier again, but instead of descending to the Emmons Glacier you turn to the west to Mt. Ruth. There's only one class three move on the way to the summit, which is only a half mile detour from the route to Camp Schurman. Combine Mt. Ruth with that trip.

Of course, no hard core list would be complete without a summit of the Mountain itself. I've been up to Camp Muir on the south side of the Mountain, but I prefer the Emmons route because it feels more remote and more like wilderness. If you go, plan an extra day for the way down. We had to descend from the summit to the car and it was hard.

Leaving the Park, Sun Top is a great destination for a long snowshoe or an overnight in the snow. The road is plowed to a Sno-Park (requiring a Washington State Parks permit) and then the road that I mentioned for casual visitors is an easy-to-follow snowshoe track. There is a slope near the top that is avalanche-prone so check conditions with the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) before you go and be sure to take fuel that won't freeze.

Finally, when simple day hikes and short backpacks won't due there are two world-class, long-distance options to you.

The Pacific Crest Trail runs just east of the Park, past Sheep Lake. There are literally miles and miles of trail to explore if you've got the time. Depending on where you start and stop you can see the Mountain and feel her presence.

Inside the Park is the Wonderland Trail. There's no link for this one because it's still on our list of must-do hikes. At 93 miles long with 22,000 feet of elevation gain it's a trip of a lifetime and one I'm looking forward to when my kids are a little older. Already, we've used the Wonderland for portions of trips, but the goal is to circle the Mountain in one two week period.

Campgrounds and lodging

Unless you're lucky like us and live within easy driving distance you probably want to stay in or close to the Park.

Backcountry camping requires a wilderness reservation for a permit. Applications for permits are accepted beginning March 15 each year and processed in random order on April 1. Prime spots, especially those on the Wonderland Trail are reserved in the initial wave. However, some permits (approximately 30%) are reserved for day-of issuance on a first-come, first-served basis. Make sure you have a backup plan if you choose this option.

Both White River and Ohanapecosh have campgrounds with 112 and 188 sites respectively. White River sites can't be reserved, but Ohanapecosh can. Both have trails nearby, water, and toilet facilities. Ohanapecosh usually opens before White River.

Outside the Park there are a large number of campgrounds heading east on Highway 410. The farther you go, the less you feel a part of the Mountain ecosystem, but they're also drier than their westside counterparts. The Little Naches campground has access to the river, is close to a short hike through a "cave," and is conveniently close to a restaurant and store in case roughing it gets too rough.

If you prefer your roughing it to be even less rough there are plenty of places to rent a room, cabin, condo, or a house in Greenwater (north on Highway 410), Packwood (south on Highway 12), or at Crystal Mountain.

Regardless of what you do when you're in the Park or nearby there's one place you must visit on every trip. Since we found it we make a point of stopping at Wapati Woolies on the way home whether it's been a short day hike or a three day backpacking trip. They have gear you might have forgotten on the way to the Park and the best ice cream on the way home. Nothing motivates my kids like the promise of eating an ice cream cone while sitting on the old ski lift chair outside Wapati Woolies.

Needless to say, there are many more trips waiting for us in the Park even just on the east side. As my kids get stronger we'll keep pushing the boundaries to explore more of the Mountain's special places. I'll be sure to update this guide when we find more great trips. Until then, see you in the Park!

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