Crystal Lakes: Back Country Bonanza

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Rating: Strenuous

Distance: 6.2 miles, round trip

Elevation gain: 2,300 ft. over three miles


The Crystal Lakes trail probably isn’t a great choice if you have a heart condition. This is a tough, steep climb. For the stout-hearted and strong-kneed, however, this hike offers a back country bonanza of Renoir-petalled wildflowers, mountain meadows cross-stitched with birdsong, skipping creeks, and two pristine mountain lakes.

The first 1.5 miles or so is a tough climb switchbacking through a thick forest. Crystal Creek canters along the trail to your right for about half a mile. Later, you’ll cross a wooden boardwalk over a bog. The trail then junctions with Crystal Peak at about 1.5 miles. The junction is well marked, noting that the peak is 2.5 miles to the east and Crystal Lakes is another 1.5 miles up.

Keep climbing and switch-backing. Cross another boardwalk and creek, which you’ll hear before you see. Pause a moment to stuff your lungs back into your chest. You’re almost to the lower lake. Shimmering and acquamarine, the lower lake is fine. But access to the shore is limited and there’s almost no where to sit. (There’s also an outdoor toilet – sort of – near the camp sites. It’s well-marked.)

Continue climbing another half mile to the upper lake. You can catch a break on this stretch of trail between lakes. The trail is mostly uphill, but the grade isn’t as demanding as the initial portion of the hike. It also levels out in places so you can take a breather and meander through superb alpine meadows marinaded in scarlet paintbrush, purple lupine, and snowy bear grass. Crystal Creek sings on your right as it rushes downhill. Buck up for the final climb up and over a series of log steps to the upper lake.

The larger upper lake is spectacular, with plenty of boulders for a great lunch break. Trekking poles highly recommended, especially for the descent. Unless you’re 23. With titanium knees.

Getting there

Take 410E from Enumclaw and drive under the Mount Rainier National Park arch/boundary. Look for pullouts on both sides of the road after about four miles, post-arch.  The trail head sign features a “hiker” icon on the east side of the road. About 36.5 miles from Enumclaw, between mile markers 61 and 62. If you hit the sign for White River and Sunrise, you’ve gone too far.