First sight of Mt. Rainier in the morning mist
It was 5.30am when I was driving at the mercy of my GPS along country road to hopefully lead me towards the correct entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park. Thankfully the Nisqually entrance appears in sight and after paying $15 for the park entry fee we continue up along the road towards Paradise.
Summer weekends usually means a tricky time finding lodging close to a place as popular as Mt. Rainier. After listening to a friend tell me about how amazing the hike up to Camp Muir was, I knew I needed to check it out for myself. The first problem to handle though was trying to find a place to stay on Saturday night for an early Sunday morning start. Everything close to Mt. Rainier seemed to be booked for the weekend. With the help of trusty google maps, I found Prairie Hotel in Yelm which was an hour away from Rainier and charged about $100 for the night which was decent. We stayed in a newer section that looked very swish and I thought the place was a great deal for only being an hour drive away from the park.
Mt. Rainier from the hotel room!
At 5.30am we made our way over to Mt. Rainier. The Mt. Rainier website was a little confusing for me in terms of trying to find what address I could plug into the GPS to get me to the trailhead for Camp Muir. I think the easiest would be since Paradise Inn uses the same parking lot area you can use the GPS address to the Nisqually entrance provided on their website. There is very good signage in the park, so you won’t get lost just follow the signage towards Paradise.
The alpine meadows here are the most green I’ve yet come across
We arrived at the Paradise parking lot at 7am. It took an hour from Yelm to get to the entrance of the park, and then another 30mins to get to the parking lot – I didn’t realize just how big Mt. Rainier park is! At the main entrance there are vending machines where you can pay the $15 park entrance fee that is valid for the week by cash or credit card.
Paved pathway for the first part of the trail
Going via the Skyline trail, the first part takes you through beautiful alpine meadows. We went in late July and everything was in bloom. The first hour takes you on paved pathways and looking back already being 1500m above sea level (ASL) at the parking lot already gives you amazing views.
What you can see early morning only one hour in the hike!
Mt. Rainier in full morning glory
After an hour you reach the regular dirt and gravel hiking path and you start to cross some minor snowfields. I was lucky enough to see a marmot up close but wasn’t fast enough to get a good shot before it scurried away atop a snowfield. Each passing minute it seemed we were climbing higher and higher as the views would wind through from facing Mt. Rainier to then facing the other mountains beyond peeking above the clouds.
Run marmot run!
My favourite part of the trail that is a nice switchbacks with varying views peeking through
Half an hour later we were at Pebble Creek which is the point before tackling the tough part of the journey up to Camp Muir. I read that the first part of the trail was deceiving – it was a very leisurely beautiful hike up to this point. If you don’t plan on hiking beyond, then the views up to here are already amazing enough to take it all in and return. This is also the point where looking at the weather you can decide if it’s safe to continue. Mt. Rainier is known for weather that can very quickly change from good to bad.
Signage showing Pebble Creek coming up
Crossing pebble creek
View looking back from Pebble Creek
At this point seeing the vast snowfield ahead that we needed to cross I thought it would be a good idea to put on our crampons. Since it was still about 9am the snow was a little icy and the crampons had good grip. I did see people hike the entire way to Camp Muir without crampons on, but I thought they made the hike up a lot easier than it would have been. Also definitely bring your trekking poles – hiking up snow takes up lots of extra energy that can be saved by using poles.
First part up, some snow chutes were already made for us
Beginning to cross Muir snowfield
It took another 3.5hrs to make it up the snowfield to Camp Muir. The first two hours were fine, the slow and steady wins the race type of pace. But with elevation gain up every step depending on how your body reacts to altitude it could make an already tough hike even harder. Anything above 2000m can cause altitude sickness but lucky for me I had no major problems other than being a little slower than usual.
Taking a break on exposed rocks halfway up Muir Snowfield – I think Mt. Adams is the big mountain in the middle
Two climbers make their way down with Nisqually Glacier and Wilson Glacier in the background
Finally I see Camp Muir up ahead but it takes another 45 minutes before I actually reach camp. After taking a breather (and eating more chocolate) I take out my GPS to tag another waypoint and to see how high up we are.
GPS shows 2940m but I think I was on a slightly lower part of camp as it later shows I went as high as 3092m
The camp is not very big but what is cool are the stone structures that were built back in 1916 and 1921. The larger one room cabin building was built in memory of John Muir in 1921 and is used as a shelter. Considering how small the shelter was I also saw tents set up around the camp that climbers used before attempting to summit in the morning,
Climbers getting ready to summit – the stone building far in the background was built in 1916 and still being used by guides today
Earlier just as we got to Camp Muir I heard what I thought was loud thunder but looking ahead there was a cloud of dust forming along the trail towards the summit. If you look at the photo of the group making their way towards the summit you can see where the rockfall occurred and how it looks like it’s far from the trail – but I would still be nervous!
A group making their way towards the summit – you can see the scattered rock from the rockfall earlier
We only stayed up at Camp to rest and look around for about 20 minutes because looking below I started to see clouds coming in. It took another 1.5hrs to make our way down the snowfield. Unfortunately the snow in the afternoon was too soft to effectively bum slide all the way down without getting consistently stuck. Going down as just as exhausting as going up. Finally we reach Pebble Creek and looking back I can barely see the snowfield under the cloud cover. Visibility was still good going down despite the clouds, but I can see how people can get into serious trouble if the weather was worse.
Cloud covers Muir snowfield
As we descend further the clouds lift and suddenly it’s sunny again. Now that we have all the time left in the day without rush I stop to smell and appreciate all the alpine flowers on display.
Clouds start to lift as we descend
Once we passed Pebble Creek and as we got closer to the parking lot I felt like the park was suddenly full of people compared to the peace and quiet of the trial when we started in the early morning. I think if you want to see Mt. Rainier at its best without the crowds definitely go early morning.
Paradise Visitor Centre
The Climbing Information Centre (if you wish to summit and need a permit)
If you’re not much of a hiker you can still enjoy amazing views and see parts of the alpine meadows right from the parking lot. There are also washrooms next to the Climbing Information Centre. We stopped by the visitor’s centre and listened to an interesting talk provided by one of the volunteers who was studying to be a geologist. Now I know how glaciers and valleys are formed!
View from the parking lot
Nisqually park entrance
- Food and water – bring plenty of water, snacks, and a tasty lunch. It took me about 8hrs from the parking lot up to Camp Muir and back, so I would say the 8-10hr mark is good. Be well watered and fed and the trip will stay enjoyable.
- Sunglasses – the sun in altitude can be unforgiving and the glare from the snowfield can cause snow blindness. Even with my Oakleys that are UV, polarized and very dark in normal conditions, up on Muir Snowfield I felt like I could have used some darker shades.
- Hat – if your hat has full neck and ear protection even better. I really don’t burn easily in the sun but hiking up to Camp Muir I did put sunscreen on and for the parts that I missed like my shoulders and neck got it got buuurned.
- Trekking poles – on the snowfield going uphill these will definitely help you up and not tire out as quickly.
- Gaiters – I wore my gaiters with shorts which unfortunately gave me suntanned knee caps so you might want to wear pants with gaiters. If you don’t like snow going in your shoes especially on the way down and getting your feet wet, they help a lot.
- Crampons – I did see some people climb all the way up to Camp Muir without any crampons on, but mine helped me uphill so much easier that I would bring them if you have them (or buy some, yay gear).
I finally learned how to sort of use my GPS (the Garmin etrex 30) and downloaded the track onto google maps using GPS visualizer. The straight lines is me going up and switching my GPS on/off to mark important waypoints if we got lost and save battery. On the way down I left it on the whole time so you can see a more accurate depiction of the route that we took.
At the end of the day we retired to our shelter for the evening which was an inn that was built back in 1912! Alexander’s Country Inn was a perfect place to stay at the end of a long tiring hike as it’s located close by to the Nisqually entrance and their food is amazing. We had the organic chicken dinner served with homemade bread and raspberry sundae to top it off. Since we were leaving really early in the morning to head back to Vancouver and would miss breakfast, they even gave us a bag filled with breakfast goodies for the trip. I’d drop by again for a visit or stay when I’m in the area – you don’t have to be an overnight guest to enjoy their restaurant.
Alexander’s Country Inn
Mt. Rainier National park has so much to offer and I would love to go back to see other parts of the park and try different trails. For more information on visiting Mt. Rainier National park visit their website.