Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous due to distance; really just a long moderate hike
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Mount Rainier National Park entrance fee required.
The barren alpine landscape of Panhandle Gap and the luxuriously green meadows of Summerland combine to make this hike one of the most enjoyable in Mount Rainier National Park, a park with no dearth of jaw-dropping hike options. Hikers can choose to travel either four miles to the flower gardens at Summerland or continue an additional two miles to the extraordinary view of Rainier and the southern Cascades at rocky, oft-icebound Panhandle Gap. The trail through Summerland is straightforward, with the elevation gain sufficiently spread out such that the trail is never very steep; the final climb to Panhandle Gap involves slightly steeper areas on loose rock and snow that may be slightly more difficult to handle.
I hiked to Panhandle Gap on a beautiful summer weekend day with three friends. The skies in Seattle were overcast when we headed out, but the clouds cleared out by the time we passed Greenwater on Route 410. Although we tried to leave early to beat the inevitable Saturday traffic at Mount Rainier, we still encountered a 20-minute wait at the Sunrise entrance station and packed parking at the Summerland trailhead, which was just 5 miles down the White River/Sunrise Road from the entrance station. The limited number of actual parking spots were all taken when we arrived, so we parked on the narrow shoulder along the road.
The trail departed from the south side of the road and immediately plunged into an old-growth forest. A few hundred feet from the trailhead, the trail joined up with the Wonderland Trail; we went straight through the junction, which took us towards Summerland on the Wonderland. In the first two miles of hiking, the grades were constant but fairly gentle as we followed the wide, dirt-packed trail within earshot of the tumbling waters of Fryingpan Creek. Along the way, we found a remarkably bent tree just off the trail and wondered how it could've grown into the shape that it assumed.
|Curved tree in the forest on the trail to Summerland|
|Rainier and Little Tahoma from meadows along Fryingpan Creek|
|Heather in the meadows|
|Lupine in the meadows|
|Marmot in Summerland meadows|
|Rainier at Summerland|
|Waterfall below Panhandle Gap|
|Meltwater pond below Panhandle Gap|
|Rainier from Panhandle Gap|
|Adams and the Goat Rocks from Panhandle Gap|