Trail Running in Mount Rainier National Park
December 22, 2010 by Leor Pantilat · 6 Comments
Iconic Mount Rainier is immediately recognizable in photos. Its volcanic shape and 26 major glaciers give it an unmistakable distinctness. Standing 14,411 feet, it is the most prominent mountain in the contiguous United States. Rainier towers above the surrounding land making it visible on the horizon in virtually all of the Puget Sound lowlands and Seattle metropolitan area. On a clear day, the mountain is visible from points south of Portland, Oregon and north of Vancouver, British Columbia. Established March 2, 1899, Mount Rainier National Park is the nation’s fifth national park and features a network of over 260 miles of trails surrounding the mountain making it a true trail runner’s playground. Obviously, Mount Rainier National Park is best known for its jaw-dropping views of Rainier, but the park also contains lovely wildflower meadows, gushing waterfalls, alpine lakes, and gorgeous forest.
There are three primary regions of trail running interest at Mount Rainier National Park – the southwest area (Paradise/Longmire), the northeast area (Sunrise), and the northwest area (Mowich and Carbon River). Within these regions, we’ll provide you with examples of easy and moderate trail runs. The advanced trail run is the 93-mile Wonderland Trail that encircles Rainier and the Pacific Crest Trail that runs near the eastern boundary of the park (more below). An important aspect of trail running in Mount Rainier National Park is that it is essentially snowbound for 8 months of the year. Many of the described trails typically become snow-free in June and remain accessible until early October. It’s a short season so make Mount Rainier part of you summer or early fall plans if you’re looking for dirt!
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Southwest Region (Paradise):
Aptly named, the Paradise area is the most popular and touristy area of the park. On sunny summer weekends, cars line up down the road and finding parking might be the your greatest challenge. You won’t find a wilderness trail running experience near Paradise on these days, but the awe-inspiring views and brilliant display of summer wildflowers more than compensate.
Insider’s Scoop: If you must visit Paradise on a weekend and wish to avoid the worst of the crowds, come after Labor Day. While the weather can be more finicky in September, Mount Rainier is always subject to a white-out. Moreover, September historically features many pleasant days in the Pacific Northwest.
The 1.2 mile Nisqually Vista Trail Loop departs right from the Jackson Visitor Center (west end of the lower parking lot) and affords great views of Mount Rainier and the Nisqually Glacier. This short loop, along with the many nature trails immediately surrounding the Paradise Visitor Center, are a good warm-up. A great map of the Paradise area trails can be found here.
Just down the road from Paradise are the Reflection Lakes, which are a magnet for photographers, especially at sunrise. Here, there is a relatively easy 3 mile loop with great views of the Reflection Lakes and the adjacent Louise Lake. Another great easy trail is the 2.5 mile roundtrip to Bench and Snow Lakes. Along the trail you’ll find wildflowers, views of Rainier, and two lovely subalpine lakes. The trailhead is along the Stevens Canyon Road, 1.5 miles east of the Reflection Lakes. Bench Lake is reached after 0.75 miles of gradual ups and downs and Snow Lake is 0.5 miles further.
The 5 mile long Skyline Trail Loop departing from Paradise is perhaps the most popular trail in Mount Rainier National Park. Along the way, you’ll have spectacular views of the mountain, dazzling wildflower meadows, and numerous waterfalls, including Sluiskin Falls and Myrtle Falls. On a busy summer weekend, the trail will include everybody from busloads international tourists to mountain climbers beginning their ascent up to Camp Muir. The starting elevation at Paradise is 5,400 ft and the high point is Panorama Falls at 6,800 ft. There are a myriad of variations and a great map of the Skyline Trail can be found here.
The Pinnacle Peak Trail, departing from the Reflection Lakes, is only 1.3 miles each way, but gains over 1,000 feet ascending up to a 5,920 foot saddle with perfectly framed views of Mount Rainier on one side and Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens on the other. The adventurous can continue beyond the saddle on an unmaintained trail and sections of third class rock to the summit of 6,565 foot Pinnacle Peak, the highest point in the Tatoosh Range. Another great moderate trail is the Comet Falls and Van Trump Park. The trailhead for this run is located 4 miles east of Longmire on the way up to Paradise and features the 320 foot Comet Falls, one of the highest drops in the park, and great views of the Van Trump and Kautz Glaciers as well as verdant meadows. It is 3.8 miles roundtrip to Comet Falls with 900 feet of elevation gain and 5.8 miles roundtrip to Van Trump Park with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Potentially many additional miles can be achieved by running along Rampart Ridge with more alpine meadowland trending toward subalpine forest as you run down the ridge.
Insider’s scoop: The Park plows the road up to Paradise throughout the winter and spring making it the only accessible spot on the mountain during the snowy months (sometimes lasting through June!). Visiting Paradise in the winter for a snowshoe is one of the most rewarding experiences – you’ll enjoy less crowds and a real feeling of solitude. You can join a guided snowshoe and borrow snowshoes from the park or rent snowshoes at the National Park Inn at Longmire or Whittacker Mountaineering in Ashford.
Insider’s Scoop: All the amenities of a big time national park tourist destination can be found at Paradise and Longmire, including campgrounds, lodging, snack bars, and restaurants. Ample lodging and camping options can also be found immediately outside of the park in Ashford.
Northeast Region (Sunrise):
At 6,400 feet, Sunrise is the highest point that can be reached by vehicle in Mount Rainier National Park. Excellent views of the Mount Rainier and nearby volcanoes make Sunrise the second most visited area of the park. The dominant feature from this perspective is the behemoth Emmons Glacier, the largest glacier in the contiguous United States.
Insider’s Scoop: The road to Sunrise often opens late in the season (sometimes not until July!) and usually closes sometime in October so it’s a short season. Sunrise does not have any lodging, but the day use lodge offers food and a gift shop. Camping can be found 12 miles down the road at the White River Campground. While it should be obvious with a name like Sunrise, the best light on this side of the mountain is in the morning hours!
The Shadow Lake Trail Loop is a relatively easy 3 mile run to Shadow Lake with great views of Mount Rainier and the White River Valley. You can return to Sunrise via the steeper trail to Frozen Lake. One can also do a relatively easy run by ascending Sourdough Ridge behind the Day Lodge at Sunrise and running either west or east along the ridge, or both, for mileage between 3-5 miles.
The Burroughs Mountain is one of the most popular destinations at Sunrise. After running to Frozen Lake along Sourdough Ridge, begin the ascent up the Burroughs. There are three Burroughs, each progressively higher and closer to Mount Rainier. The third Burrough is literally on the steep glacial moraine separating the immense Winthrop Glacier from the Inter Glacier. The terrain here is rocky tundra with giant rivers of ice on both sides of the ridge. A round trip to the second Burroughs Mountain is 7 miles with 900 feet of elevation gain and the Third Burroughs is 9 miles and 1,500 feet of gain. One can return via Frozen Lake or Shadow Lake providing some variety.
On the other side of Frozen Lake, another trail departs 1.3 miles up to the Mt. Fremont Lookout at 7,181 feet. Along the trail you’ll find suburb views of Mount Rainier, the Cascade Mountains, and surrounding meadowland. The total roundtrip from Sunrise to the Mt. Fremont lookout is 5.5 miles.
You can also continue past Frozen Lake along the Wonderland Trail. A logical turn around point is Mystic Lake which produces a 21 mile roundtrip, but amazing scenery can be found along the entire route so turn around at the location to fit your time and mileage goals. The Wonderland Trail through this section is spectacular as you traverse through the meadows of Berkeley Park, ascend up to Skyscraper pass, and travel past the snout of the Winthrop Glacier.
A couple other great trail runs begin below Sunrise along the White River Road. The Glacier Basin Trail, starting at the White River Campground, heads up 3.5 miles (7 miles RT) to the foot of the Inter Glacier in Glacier Basin. At the end of the trail, look up at the Inter Glacier to pick out mountain climbers and the surrounding alp slopes to spot mountain goats.
The Summerland Trail to Panhandle Gap is a classic trail that is almost entirely on the Wonderland Trail. The trailhead is located along the White River Road three miles past the White River entrance just after the Fryingpan Creek Bridge. It’s about 12 miles roundtrip to 6,800 foot Panhandle Gap with a bit over 3,000 feet of elevation gain. Along the way you’ll find panoramic vistas, alpine wildflowers, and great single track through the forest. Wildflowers are also abundant in Summerland with frequent sightings of elk herds and mountain goat.
Northwest Region (Mowich & Carbon River):
There are two main trailheads on the northwest side of Mt. Rainier, Mowich Lake and the Carbon River. A 2006 flood along the Carbon River Road has closed this road and trail runs now begin at the Carbon River Road entrance, adding 5 miles each way (either run or bike). Mowich Lake is reached via a long gravel road.
Insider’s Scoop: To avoid the crowds, head to the Northwest side of Mount Rainier. The scenery is spectacular, the meadows are great, and you’ll see a side of the mountain most visitors do not see. You’ll find even more solitude along the Carbon River now that the road is closed and you have to run or bike 5 miles each way just to get to the old trailhead!
Insider’s Scoop: There are no concessions in this remote area of the park and no services immediately outside the park either. That means no restaurants, no grocery stores, and no lodging. Come prepared with everything you need! Car camping is available at Mowich Lake.
Eunice Lake is a lovely alpine lake 2.25 miles from the Mowich Lake Trailhead, elevation 4,929 feet. Continue onwards for another mile past Eunice Lake to the summit of Tolmie Peak, elevation 5,939 feet. While the last mile up to Tolmie is steeper, it is well worth the effort with a classic view of Eunice Lake and Mount Rainier from the summit, particularly nice in evening light. Rountrip to Eunice Lake is 4.5 miles and roundtrip to Tolmie Peak is 6.5 miles.
Spray Park is the classic trail run out of Mowich Lake. It’s 6 miles roundtrip to the start of the Park, but continue upwards through Spray Park for more meadows, streams, and expansive views. The wildflower display in Spray Park is arguably the most beautiful of anywhere in the Mount Rainier National Park. The roundtrip to the 6,400 foot ridge above Spray Park is around 8 miles. Make sure to take the short spur trail to Spray Falls along the way!
The Carbon Glacier is the longest glacier in the lower 48. It also has the lowest terminus of any glacier in the contiguous United States. It is fascinating to see and hear the rubble and ice tumbling off the snout of the glacier, which stands several stories tall. Due to the road closure, it’s now a 17 mile roundtrip just to the snout of the Carbon Glacier. The good news is that the elevation profile is extremely easy with a very gradual ascent and you can bike the 5 mile road stretch. Beyond the snout of the Carbon Glacier, the trail ascends (steeply at times) to glorious Moraine Park, including amazing views of the Carbon Glacier and Willis Wall on Mount Rainier towering high above wildflower meadows and subalpine tarns.
Advanced Trail Runs at Mount Rainier:
Pacific Crest Trail:
Several miles of the Pacific Crest Trail pass within Mount Rainier National Park or near its Eastern Boundary. Once can most easily access the PCT from Chinook Pass. For 10.5 miles heading south, the trail follows the crest of the Cascade Mountains between 5,500 and 5,800 feet meandering through subalpine forest, open meadows, lakes, and waterfalls with spectacular views of Mount Rainier and other Cascade peaks. One can make this an out-and-back tailoring the distance to your desire, or a point-to-point trail run with a car shuttle. At the junction 10.5 miles south of Chinook Pass, take the trail to Three Lakes and then down to the Laughingwater Creek trailhead. It is about 8 miles from the PCT junction to the Laughwater Creek trailhead making this an 18.5 mile point-to-point run.
The Wonderland Trail:
The 93-mile long Wonderland Trail encircles Mount Rainier in one giant and extremely aesthetic loop. Nothing can give you the complete Mount Rainier experience like the Wonderland Trail. In fact, it is one of the greatest long loops anywhere. The trail is arduous with many ups and downs as the trail oscillates between lowland forest and high alpine passes. Total elevation gain is approximately 22,000 feet. Some may aspire to run the entire Wonderland Trail in one single push, but almost every portion of the loop makes for a delightful trail run. I have already described several moderate out-and-backs utilizing the Wonderland Trail, including Summerland/Panhandle Gap off White River Road, Mystic Lake via Sunrise, and the Carbon Glacier Trail/Moraine Park. These runs are described in further detail above.
Insider’s Scoop: In general, the preferred direction for the Wonderland Trail is clockwise starting from Longmire since the greatest elevation gains are found on the west side of the mountain. There is also a relatively small window during which to attempt a complete Wonderland Trail run that stretches from mid-Summer to early fall. Otherwise, snowy trails and poor weather are precluding factors. If you must pre-schedule a Wonderland attempt far in advance, prepare for the possibility of inclement weather – rain, wind, and whiteouts are possible at any time during the summer and the weather on Mount Rainier is extremely volatile.
- Park Website: http://www.nps.gov/mora/index.htm
- Park Map: http://www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/upload/MORAmap5_07reduced.pdf
- Visit Rainier: http://www.visitrainier.com/