We got started a little late. But the Mountain waited for us to catch up, fluttering her fall frocks in all their rich autumnal glory.
Old Iron Knees and I hike Mount Rainier National Park whenever we can, year-round. But fall is by far our favorite season at the Mountain. See video below, which includes select photos from Summerland, Glacier View, Longmire, Paradise, Sunrise, Stevens Canyon Road, Reflection Lakes, the Eastside Trail and Cora Lake (just outside the park, off Skate Creek Road in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest).
Post-Labor Day, summer hordes and masses dissipate. Temperatures drop. Swarming insects have pretty much packed up and gone, or at least on their way to the nearest exit. Leaves light up like neon signs, firing every peak and valley with a riot of fall color as far as the eye can see.
We typically reserve the second or third week in September for our annual fall hiking trip to Mount Rainier National Park. But this year our favorite lodging, Mountain Meadows Inn, was booked solid through the end of the month. That’s how we wound up pushing our trip into the last week in September.
The Mountain didn’t mind. In fact, we had postcard-perfect weather during our entire trip. Temperatures skimmed the upper seventies. A perfect cyan sky poured out gallons of sunshine. Mornings and evenings were a bit nippy, especially at Sunrise, elev. 6,400. We drove up the Sunrise Road on the park’s eastern flank for a picnic dinner after our first hike of the week, which took us to the jaw-dropping pristine beauty of the world-famous Summerland.
We got started a little later than I wanted, again. One of us is allergic to “wee hours” awakenings. But we were packed and ready to head out by 0630. We arrived at the trailhead to Summerland, one of the park’s most spectacular subalpine meadows, about four hours later.
It wasn’t our first time on the trail to Summerland. We’ve hiked there before. But it was in May and the trail was buried under enough snow to give the abominable snowman cause for pause. So we figured we’d try it again in September, our favorite hiking season.
The trail starts with a mostly level stroll through thick forest along Frying Pan Creek. It’s a steady climb from there on up to picturesque Summerland Camp, one of the park’s most famous subalpine destinations.
At about 3.0 miles you cross a footslog of Fryingpan Creek. The trail climbs from there, gaining about 800 feet in the last switchbacky mile. When you tackle that last stretch of trail and come around a bend with the meadows spread out before you, you’ll know every step was worth the effort. Glorious!
Distance: 8.4 miles RT
Elevation gain: 2,140 feet
High point: 5,950 feet
Wow and wow! You can join us on the trail in the video below. It also includes snatches of subsequent hikes to Glacier View Summit, near Ashford on the east side of the Mountain. The big adventure on that hike is getting there. It includes a nine mile drive on what has to be The Worst Unpaved Road in the State, also known as Forest Road 59. Bonus point: It’s unmarked, off Highway 706. So good luck finding it.
Once you bounce and jounce your way to the trailhead, you climb follow it uphill to a junction signed “Glacier View” on the left and “Puyallup Trail” (to Goat Lake) on the right. Make a left on to Trail No. 267. 267 and climb onto the west side of a ridge. Climb some more through dense shade with occasional peek-a-boo views of the Mountain. The last and steepest section of the hike includes a .3 mile climb to the site of an old lookout. Prepare for 360 degrees of Awesome! You can also snag great views of Mount Saint Helens to the southwest and huge chunks of the Cascades.
Distance: 5.8 miles RT
Elevation gain: 1,000 feet
High point: 5,450 feet.
Following our trek to the aptly-named Glacier View Summit, we headed back to Highway 706, turned left and scooted on over to Longmire and National Park Inn for lemonade on the veranda.
And what’s a fall trip to the Mountain without a stop at Paradise?
The next day we hiked about twelve miles round-trip on the Eastside Trail. A lesser known hike starting off Highway 123 at the Deer Creek Trailhead (also unmarked, but it’s exactly six miles past the Stevens Canyon entrance), this trail doesn’t include big views of the Mountain. But it’s a quiet, scenic hike through a lush forest with lots of solitude. Since part of the trail parallels the Ohanapecosh River, you’re never far from the sounds of rushing water. Bonus points: the trail is cobwebbed with waterfalls.
From the upper trailhead, drop quickly 0.4 mil to Deer Creek Camp. Turn south (left) at the sign. Just keep walking. It’s mostly level or downhill. Note that if you hike this trail toward Stevens Canyon Road, then turn around and come back to Deer Creek like we did, you’ll encounter a pretty good uphill jaunt on the return. The last .4 mile (four-tenths) back up to Highway 123 are intense.
Distance: 7.25 miles one-way if you hike from the Deer Creek Trailhead all the way to Stevens Canyon Road
Elevation loss: 1,032 feet
High point: 3,232 feet
Our last hike this trip was to Cora Lake. Although it’s outside park boundaries, this lightly trafficked, out-and-back tail is within Gifford Pinchot National Forest off unpaved Forest Road 84, which is off Skate Creek Road near Packwood. On the southwest side, High Rock Peak towers some 1,800 feet above the lake. You can see the lookout from the lake. But you may have to squint.
We chose Cora lake as our final hike of the week because it’s short – just over two miles round trip. Sure, it includes a steep climb at the beginning. But it’s brief and you’ll live. You cross two beautiful waterfalls – upper and lower Cora Falls – and then the trail loops around the woods and opens into the prettiest mountain lake you ever saw. We had lunch at the lake, watching an otter couple play in the water. It’s about a 16 minute downhill glide back to the trailhead.
Distance: 2.2 miles RT
Elevation gain: 440 feet
High point: 3,800 feet
Can’t wait till next time!