Hiking from Mount Rainier’s Popular Sunrise to White River Campground
High above Emmons Glacier, Sunrise offers some of the best views available from a roadway in the park. Quite appropriately, it is a tourist hot spot and is usually crawling with visitors. After a week on the trail, you might find it nice to shoot the breeze with foreign vacationers for a change, but if the crowds make you anxious for backcountry solitude, you will likely enjoy the sudden silence of slipping away from the visitor’s center on the least-trafficked trail in the area. The 3 mile path that descends to White River campground promptly leaves the views behind, and serves primarily as an expressway for southbound Wonderland Trail hikers. I have hiked this section on a summer’s afternoon and not seen anyone else on the trail.
Follow the signs for the Sunrise Rim trail to White River Campground from the south side of the Sunrise parking lot. Beginning on a service road, you will soon reach a junction where the trail to White River begins a steep descent of the ridge. Across the valley lies the jagged ridge-line of Goat Island Mountain. From here, the scenery slips past quickly as you descend nearly 2,200 feet in just a few miles. The forest density increases as you leave the alpine meadows behind. Two streams are crossed on the way down, and the woods become dark and shady as you approach the valley bottom. The smell of campfires waft up through the trees, and the trail arrives at the back corner of White River Campground. This is a great place to stay, and while it is a car campground with fees for sites, Wonderland Hikers get to stay here for free in the limited tent sites. There are bathrooms with potable water, a place to do your dishes, and garbage cans. If you’re charismatic enough, you might even be able to bribe some campers for a hotdog and a beer.
White River Campground to Fryingpan Creek
The Wonderland Trail leads from White River Camp towards the flood plain and crosses the river on a sturdy log bridge. Continuing southward, the mountain begins to vanish behind a forested ridge that ends abruptly where the White River has carved a path through it. Continuing into the forest, the trail rolls along the valley bottom for the next two miles before running a stone’s-throw from the road for the rest of the way to Fryingpan Creek. This is a popular trailhead for overnight trips to Summerland. From here, the path turns sharply away from civilization and heads straight for the mountain.
Fryingpan Creek Trailhead to Summerland
Gently climbing through the forest for the first couple of miles, the trail crosses several tranquil streams. To the south, glimpses of the cliffs below Tamanos Mountain can occasionally be seen through the trees. The trail begins a series of switchbacks, taking the hiker high above the rushing Fryingpan Creek. Rounding a bend in the trail, the east face of Rainier stands prominently steps into view above the tree tops. The forest thins to meadow opening up grander views of the mountain. If the season is right, this is a good place to collect blueberries.
When you cross Fryingpan Creek you are close to Summerland, however it’s nearly a thousand feet above and you have to ascend a flight of switchbacks to get there. Summerland is at the crest, an open meadow in the warm months overlooking an eye-popping view of Rainier and the surrounding landscape. There is no question of why this is such a popular destination. Great Island mountain, whose base you have been skirting all day, rises from the moraine to the north like a sea of green carpet. Beyond, the cliffs of Mount Ruth and Steamboat Prow jut from the far edge of Emmons glacier. Here, two popular base camps for climbers can be found. Camp Schurman is located in the notch above Steamboat Prow, and Camp Curtis is just above Mount Ruth. If you sleep under the stars at Summerland, you will likely see the lights of climbing parties ascending towards the summit in the early hours before dawn.
When the sun rises on a clear morning at Summerland, it is like a switch is flipped and the mountain suddenly turns on. The glacier-capped peak catches the sun’s first light which quickly falls to the slopes below, and long before you feel the sun’s warmth on your face, the glow from Mount Rainier grows to such intensity that you’ll be reaching for your sunglasses. Campers come stumbling out of their tents and go straight for their cameras.
Photography tip: bring a graduated neutral density filter to help compensate for the brightness of the mountain. Otherwise try shooting high dynamic range — the difference in exposure values can be enormous between the foreground and the mountain in the early dawn.
Copyright 2011 – Jonathan Greeley