|Adams and St. Helens from the camp, with the Muir Snowfield below|
9 miles round trip, 4600 feet elevation gainDifficulty: Strenuous
Access: Mount Rainier National Park Entrance Fee, paved road to trailhead
No other nontechnical hike (with the possible exception of the summit of Mt. Adams) reaches as lofty a viewpoint as the one that leads to Camp Muir. Perched at over 10000 feet on the shoulder of Mt. Rainier and hosting many of the climbers about to attempt the summit of the mightiest of the Cascade volcanoes, Camp Muir features the dramatic rocky spires and dynamic jagged glaciers of Rainier as well as a sweeping view of the Cascades as far as Mt. Hood (and on a clear day, I'm told, Mt. Jefferson). The trail starts in the wildflower-filled meadows of Paradise and ascends ever further into the alpine, reaching the stark landscape of ice and rock high on the mountain. This is a hike with no equal in the Pacific Northwest, or in the entire country. This is also not a hike for everyone: it is extraordinarily tiring, requires a hefty uphill climb and features a poorly marked route across a permanent snowfield that can be dangerous at certain times of year and in poor weather conditions.
It is extremely important to be prepared for this hike: Camp Muir isn't your standard walk in the park. The hike requires 4600 feet of elevation gain; for comparison to Virginia standards, Hawksbill, the tallest peak in Shenandoah National Park, is just a tad over 4000 feet above sea level. The final destination sits at over 10000 feet, an elevation at which many people begin to experience symptoms of altitude sickness. Reaching Camp Muir also requires crossing the Muir Snowfield, a permanent snowfield that is more akin to a glacier, with small crevasses that open late in the summer. On clear days, the sun exposure can be overwhelming: a friend who hiked to Camp Muir before I did described sunburns all over his body, while others have gotten sunburnt in their inner ear or mouth despite copious application of sunscreen on all other reasonable parts of their body. Sunglasses or glacier glasses are a must to prevent permanent eye damage from the bright ice. Cloudy days can be even more dangerous: whiteout conditions can quickly set in on the Muir Snowfield, making route-finding difficult and raising the likelihood of accidentally wandering onto the treacherous crevasses of the Nisqually Glacier. While crampons and ice axes are generally not required for this hike, some form of additional traction such as microspikes or Yaktraks are recommended. Hiking poles are also highly recommended to aid in ascent up the snowfield. As this hike is quite long and difficult, budget plenty of time: plan on at least 8 to 10 hours and make sure to bring a headlamp in case it takes longer than expected. You should try to be on the trail no later than 8 or 9 AM.
The hike begins from the Henry Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise; arrive early on nice summer weekends or you won't find parking. From Seattle, take 167 and then 512 south to Puyallup; then follow Route 161 south past Eatonville, then 7 south and finally 706 east to reach the Longmire Entrance of Mount Rainier National Park. Paradise is another half hour up the road from the entrance.
My friends and I arrived at Paradise around 9 AM on an early September day and found the place bustling with climbers preparing to summit the volcano. We headed up the steps across the visitor center and up the Skyline trail. The paved early portion of the trail led past the last remnants of that summer's wildflower bloom and a number of whistling marmots; the mountain itself popped in and out of view in front of us.
|Marmot in the meadows|
|Meadows on the Skyline Trail with the Tatoosh Range|
|Nisqually Glacier flowing down Mt. Rainier, viewed from the Skyline Trail|
The trail soon brought us across Pebble Creek to the edge of the moraine of the Nisqually Glacier. The views from this rocky perch were fantastic: looking ahead, we could see the snowy route that we would take towards Anvil Rock and Camp Muir, while looking downhill, there was a clear view down the moraine of the Nisqually to the greenery of the other peaks in the park. At this point, we had climbed higher than the Tatoosh Range, allowing us to glimpse the never-ending layers of ridges behind and the great massifs of Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens rising in the distance. Mt. St. Helens was particularly beautiful from here in the morning light: we could see straight into the blast crater produced by the 1980 eruption to the newly formed Crater Glacier, which flowed down the right (west) side of the lava dome protruding in the middle of the crater.
|View up towards Anvil Rock and the upcoming hike|
|View down the valley of the Nisqually Glacier|
|Mt. St. Helens from the top of the Skyline Trail|
|The long trudge through the snow to Camp Muir|
After passing Anvil Rock, a distinct outcrop that bordered the snowfield to the west, we entered the last, steepest part of the snowfield. Although called the Muir Snowfield, at this point it was really the Muir Glacier: it was clear that we were not just walking on permanent snow but on mineralized ice that moved enough to form small crevasses. None of the crevasses along the snowfield were too wide to simply hop over, but a few had hairy sports where it was clear that falling in would have unpleasant consequences. The ice itself was hard too; in fact, one of my friends mistook the ice for simply slippery rock due to its dense, solid appearance.What on Rainier qualifies as simply as a snowfield would have been named a glacier in any other state, save Alaska. As we went along, we also heard avalanches emanating from the Nisqually Icefall, though we failed to actually see any.
|Crevasses on the upper Muir Snowfield|
But the true highlight was not the rock sleeping structures or the Ice Bucket Challenge participants; it was the view of the raw, rugged alpine landscape over two-thirds the way up Mt. Rainier. The rocks and ridges that seemed to adorn the side of the mountain when viewed from afar here took prominence. Gibraltar Rock could have Gibraltar itself; the rocky spine of Disappointment Cleaver here appeared to be a towering, jagged wall. The summit itself seemed surprisingly muted, appearing simply as a snow dome behind Gibraltar Rock.
|View of Gibraltar Rock, Disappointment Cleaver, and the summit from Camp Muir|
|Crevasses on the Cowlitz Glacier, Little Tahoma in the background|
|Mount Adams from Camp Muir|
After enjoying the never-ending views well into the afternoon, we began our descent back to Paradise. This was the most enjoyable portion of the hike for me: instead of walking down, we glissaded, sitting on our butts on the Muir Snowfield and sliding down in chutes that others had taken before us. On the steep and solid ice, we were able to descend at quite a clip, achieving speeds of up to 10 miles an hour. It was exhilarating. While sliding, I could look up at any point to enjoy the expansive view of the Goat Rocks, Mount Adams, and St. Helens. When necessary, we used our hiking poles to brake; otherwise, we just allowed gravity to carry us down the mountain. While there were a few bumps and roller coaster drops on the chutes, for the most part the slide was smooth and a good break from using my legs. In less than half an hour, we had dropped over 2500 feet and travelled nearly 2 miles.
|Glissade chute on the Muir Snowfield, Goat Rocks and Mt. Adams in the background|
|Glissade chute down the Muir Snowfield|