This is Washington’s mother of all backpacking trips. This ~92-96 mile trail circumnavigates the iconic 14,409 ft Mt. Rainier. We took this trip early August 2014 (pre-blog) so forgive my rusty memory.
No two days are alike on this trip. You will be graced by towering waterfalls, deep canyons, pristine lakes, rushing rivers, wildlife–all with one of the worlds most beautiful mountains nearly always in the background.
There is no “one-way” to do this hike. We met people running it in two days and other taking two weeks. In this post, I will just break down how we chose to do it in 10 days.
Here is a video I made from our trip:
How to plan for this trip:
The biggest obstacle of tackling this trip is applying and receiving a permit. It is a highly competitive system and you will need to be vigilant to receive one. To apply contact one of the Mount Rainier National Park ranger stations. They should become open around March of each year. A few lucky folks can score walk-up permits, a good solution if you missed the permit application period, but it is a gamble.
When you apply for your permit you will aim to get well distributed campsites. Our permits worked out really well and we hike 8-12 miles a day and we were able to complete in 10 days.
You can start the trip at several different points: Sunrise, White River, Box Canyon, Longmire, or Mowich Lake. We chose to start at Sunrise and move clockwise around the mountain, but this is very dependent on how your permit pans out. I really enjoyed the way we did it, but I think going countercheck wise would also be nice. I think the best part of the hike is Sunrise- Nickel Creek, so it would be nice to end with that. Below shows the campsites we chose to stop at each night.
HOW TO CARRY FOOD: We were fortunate enough to have people join us for parts of the hike and restock us. But if that is not a possibility you can cache food at various places by mailing or dropping it off. We were only carrying 3-4 days worth of food at a time.
Sunrise to Summerland: BREATHTAKING! If you can’t do this entire hike, I’d recommend doing this as a day hike. You can start at White River campground to shorten it by a bit. Starting from Sunrise it goes downhill quite a bit until you reach a drive-in campground at White River. After a quick stop for a snack, you’ll be moving onto some killer views of the mountain. The trail is very well maintained but you will be cursing in the name of switchbacks. Once you have arrived you will think you are in a fairytale, where animals are wandering freely and you’ll have an epic mountain view. You are so close to the glacier you will actually feel the cold from it. It feels like someone left the freezer door wide open. We woke up to a baby bear in the campground.
Also, if you get up in the middle of the night (~2AM), you should be able to see the headlamps of the climbers heading toward the summit!
Summerland to Nickel Creek:
In my opinion, most visually appealing day of the trek. Moments before arriving at Indian Bar (a campsite option) you will a pretty epic valley of waterfalls. None of our photography skills (or lack-there-of) could do it justice. We stopped and just stared with our jaws on the ground for a long while.
This day begins by crossing the Panhandle Gap. A snowy section of the hike that is made much easier with some Yaktrax. The Panhandle can be frightening for some as it is steep and snowy, but it is really very doable and safe. After getting across the Panhandle we left the warm sun and entered a dense fog. After getting through the snow, you will descend on impressive steps until you get to Indian Bar. Indian Bar has a shelter that acts as the group site. These steps graced us with views of wildflowers, sheep, and what seems like thousand foot waterfalls. You can’t not enjoy this part of the hike. Getting down from Indian Bar to Nickel Creek is a downhill trek through the woods. We were getting devoured by mosquitos, and this stretch felt very very long. Nickel Creek is a charming creek in the woods.
Nickel Creek to Paradise River:
This section takes you to one of the large visitor’s centers around Mt. Rainier, Paradise. The hike is straight forward and gets more exciting as you go. Paradise homes one of the largest and most beautiful waterfalls, Narada Falls. You will also see quite a few other waterfalls and the very impressive Box Canyon!
Paradise River to Devils Dream:
This day begins flat and easy. Once you get to Longmire you can treat yourself to a burger and beer, which tastes damn good after freeze dried food and GORP for 3 days. This is where you can cache some food and pick it up for the next section. This is where my Aunt and Uncle joined us for 3 days. After you rest up, prepare to gain some elevation. The hike up to Devils Dream switches back through the woods for miles, and once you get there you will want to lock yourself in your tent due to the insane amount of mosquitos. I invested in a full bug jacket, which helped.
Devils Dream to Klapatche:
The hike up to Devils Dream is worth it because it gets you closer to Klapatche. I think Klapatche and Summerland are the most beautiful campsites of the trip. You will enjoy a moderate hike through wildflowers and scenic backdrops and lakes the entire way. Depending on how the bridges are doing the year you go, you may find yourself getting your feet wet crossing some rivers. You will also go over the first suspension bridge! Make sure you get there before sunset, because that is an event you DO NOT want to miss. From our campsite we joined our fellow campers to watch. You can see parts of the Puget Sound and all the way to they Olympic Mountain Range.
Klapatche to Golden Lakes:
Wave goodbye to Klapatche and hope you meet again one day. Today is a fun change of scenery. You will be seeing Rainier from an angle you probably haven’t seen very often. One of my favorite parts of this hike was walking through the burned down forest. Blueberries take over the ground and with all the burned down trees it makes for good bear spotting. There are a few lakes at “Golden Lakes,” which are beautiful but nothing compared to where you have just come from. In the summer months the lakes get stagnant so respect the lakes and refrain from bathing in them/putting in hygienic products. But they are nice for a quick swim!
Golden Lakes to Mowich Lake Camp
My memory doesn’t serve me well on the details of the hike. I do remember the last stretch being uphill through the woods. Mowich is another place where you can cache food. Mowich is a beautiful clear lake. It is the largest in the park. The campsite is a drive in campsite with tent pads.
Mowich Lake to Carbon River:
For this section you can take a more scenic-alternate route off the Wonderland and go through Spray Park. Spary Park has beautiful wildflowers and beautiful views of the mountain. The highest point of the hike is in Spray. You can also do a side hike that is less than a half mile to the BEAUTIFUL and unmissable Spray Falls. This was the first day we experienced rain, and it started to really come down. We were sure happy for the first time to be lugging around all the rain gear.
Carbon River to Granite Creek Campground
Another rainy day, where I actually don’t have any photos. A beautiful walk through the woods. Luckily Granite Creek is nestled in under the trees and we able to stay somewhat dry.
Granite Creek Campground to Sunrise
What a fun day this is! It is a shorter day, 5-6 miles through Sound of Music landscapes. You will be integrating into with all the day hikers from Sunrise which is fun because they like to interrogate you about your trip.
Check back in with the visitors center at Sunrise and you are on your way! We picked up two lovely fellas (Richard and Stuart whom are pictured at Summerland) who we met earlier on the trip and gave them a ride back up to Seattle and they treated us to some of the best tasting food at the tavern near Sunrise.
All in all, an amazing backpacking trip (with ever-changing scenery) that every PNW backpacker must grace themselves with. Please PM me with ANY questions!