MOUNT RAINIER, Wash. – It was cloudy and drizzling on other parts of Mount Rainier, but the world was all sunscreen and sunglasses from where I stood, on the east face of the mountain. Hikers were smearing sunscreen, some sporting shorts. I was squinting.
A minute after pulling into the parking lot at the White River Campground, I discovered the first of many high points of hiking the nearby Glacier Basin Trail. The weather doesn’t get any better around Mount Rainier than on the east side. Clouds come in from the west, break around the mountain and head north and south, which explains why visitors were getting clouds and fog at Paradise while campers here were dressed like they were vacationing in Cabo.
Things were off to a good start.
I was here to check out a trail that took about four summers to rebuild after the flood of 2006. After Paradise, the Glacier Basin Trail is the second-most popular starting point for Rainier climbers.
My goal was less ambitious. I had out-of-town guests with children to entertain. They wanted to see Mount Rainier up close and hike around the park. Glacier Basin Trail made sense. I checked the topography. It’s an easy hike. You won’t find another trail around Mount Rainier National Park that’s this long (7 miles round-trip) with only 1,280 feet of elevation gain.
It’s a good trail around which to build a family-friendly Mount Rainier itinerary. All within about a 25-minute drive, you can hit Sunrise, the park’s highest point reachable by car; check out scenic Chinook Pass, with memorable views of the iconic mountain to the west, or visit the Tolkien-like landscape of the Grove of the Patriarchs, filled with ancient hemlocks, western red cedars and Douglas firs. For an overnight, you can car-camp near the Glacier Basin trailhead in one of 112 campsites.
And the sunny weather. Have I mentioned the sunny weather? The wildflowers bloom and the snow melts here earlier than the other side of the mountain.
On my hike, my guide was Alan Mortimer, of Washington Trails Association, who helped lead an army of volunteers to work on this trail’s reconstruction.
The old trail paralleled the Inter Fork of the roaring White River, affording a close-up view of the water. But it was too close apparently, since part of the trail washed out.
We headed up the valley on the new trail. You can still see the water, through the hemlocks and cedars.
Tons of boulders were blasted and dozens of cedar were sawed to make way for this trail, a Herculean task for hundreds of volunteers and workers using pulleys and harnesses.
Bridges were built, and the blasted rocks were used to build walls and lay the foundation for the trail. “A 2,000-pound rock took us two days to remove,” said Mortimer, strolling along the dirt path.
The work was done in the first 1.5 miles, where the trail either needed to be rerouted out of the flood plain or just needed sprucing up.
“The (new) trail is easier for families to use. It’s a pretty steady-grade trail. Nice and wide, not a lot of obstacles … nice for families to walk side by side,” Mortimer said. On level of difficulty, several Mount Rainier hiking veterans rate this an “easy” hike, less rocky than the old trail.
A mile in, the trail gives hikers the option of steering left over two bridges to Emmons Moraine Trail, to view what park rangers bill as “the largest glacier in the 48 contiguous United States.”
We stuck to our route, and a couple hundred yards up, were rewarded with a better view: snowcapped Mount Ruth and Little Tahoma Peak rising over the Emmons Glacier on a clear, sunny day.
When we started, the dense evergreen forest sandwiched our walkway. But more than a mile in, short willows rimmed the path. The sun penetrated through, reminding us we were on the dry side of Mount Rainier. It was as if someone had turned on a light switch.
We continued hiking, zigzagging up. The temperature felt 10 degrees cooler as we climbed under a canopy of firs and cedars.
Hikers have more options. You can take the trail all the way to Glacier Basin and circle back for a good 7-mile hike. Those looking for a more strenuous workout can follow the Burroughs Mountain Trail sign and hike up to the south side of Sunrise.
You’ll see rusty scrap iron along the way, a remnant of this trail’s mining past. Around the start of the 20th century, investors were convinced copper and silver ore here would make them rich. Tunnels were dug. Power plants and aerial tramways were erected. Even a hotel was built. But the ore turned out to be worthless.
It explains how the park was blessed with such a family-friendly hiking trail. Miners needed a route wide enough for trucks but not too steep.