Standing at 14,410 feet, Mt. Rainier’s snowcapped summit is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Pacific Northwest. The soaring stratovolcano is not only the most topographically prominent peak in the lower 48 states – with 13,211 feet of prominence – but also the most glaciated. Mt. Rainier’s 25 named glaciers cover a staggering 35 square miles. Although it hasn’t erupted in 500 years, Mt. Rainier is also considered one of the country’s most dangerous volcanoes. Because of its enormous glacial mass, it has the potential to generate catastrophic lahars.
American Indian communities have inhabited the area around the mountain for at least 9,000 years, including ancestors of the modern Cowlitz, Puyallup and Nisqually tribes. For millennia, these groups have known the peak as Tahoma or Tacoma, meaning ‘large snowy mountain.’ Today, nearly a quarter-million acres of land surrounding the iconic volcano are protected as part of Mt. Rainier National Park with nearly 260 miles of maintained trails traversing old-growth forests, subalpine meadows, and alpine glaciers.
During our summer in Snohomish, we’d made the 2.5-hour drive down to Mt. Rainier National Park just once to take my parents on a snowy hike along the Skyline Trail. Wanting one more chance to explore Tahoma’s striking slopes, we decided to make a return trip to check out Burroughs Mountain. Sitting along the northeast face of Rainier, Burroughs Mountain is a bleak and barren ridgeline that offers an incredible look at neighboring Winthrop Glacier.
It was our last weekend in Washington and, unfortunately, the weather looked like garbage everywhere in the western Cascades. That said, we refused to pass up one last hiking opportunity. With the forecast around Mt. Rainier looking the most promising of anywhere within a four-hour driving radius, we figured we’d give it a shot.
Beginning from the Sunrise parking lot, Burroughs Mountain can be hiked as an out-and-back via Sourdough Ridge or the Sunrise Rim Trail. Additionally, there’s an option to hike the Burroughs as lollipop route, which was what we ultimately chose. We decided to hike clockwise, following Sunrise Rim to the First Burrough, then heading out to the Third Burrough via a four-ish-mile return, and ultimately returning via Sourdough Ridge.
When we arrived at Sunrise, the weather was indeed looking pretty dismal. The temperature was hovering around 40°F and the clouds seemed to be sinking ever lower. We put on some additional layers and convinced ourselves that the sun would make a brief appearance at some point. About thirty minutes and 1.6 miles later, we reached Glacier Overlook. We squinted through some broken, low-hanging clouds toward Emmons Glacier and stopped for a few minutes, trying to will away the stubborn shroud.
Much to our amazement, the sun suddenly broke through, giving us a fleeting view of Emmons Glacier and Little Tahoma towering over the White River Valley. Interestingly, Emmons Glacier has the largest area of any glacier in the contiguous U.S. While it looks massive today, at the end of the last Ice Age the glacier stretched an astonishing forty miles and was nearly 1,000 feet thick at what’s now the White River Campground. We stared with wonder at the landscape’s ethereal glow with the iridescent waters of Emmons Moraine bursting from the valley floor. It was a gorgeous surprise.
From Glacier Overlook, it was just over a mile to the top of the First Burrough (7,100’ elevation). The clouds had begun to settle back in, quickly obscuring our view south over Glacier Basin. After continuing for another 0.7 miles, we reached the top of the Second Burroughs (7,300’ elevation). The clouds were largely staying put, though we were treated to brief glimpses of Rainier’s summit as well as the hillsides to the north out toward Skyscraper Mountain.
The steepest section of trail was between the Second and Third Burroughs. This portion of trail alone added about three miles and 1,300’ of gain roundtrip. From the Second Burroughs, the trail quickly descended around 400 vertical feet in about half a mile. From the valley, the path then climbed 900 vertical feet over the last mile to the top of the Third Burroughs.
Rising to an elevation of around 7,800 feet, the Third Burrough offers sweeping views of Winthrop Glacier. Resting on the northeast flank of Mt. Rainier, just west of Burroughs Mountain, Winthrop is the second largest glacier on the volcano. The finger-like projection covers roughly 3.5 square miles from the Columbia Crest (~14,300’) to the West Fork of the White River (~4,700’).
By the time we made it out to the Third Burrough, the sun had made a dogged return, intermittently illuminating the craggy ice sheet. The views were exceptional, and we couldn’t believe our luck to have a bit more blue sky to enjoy. Gazing up at Rainier’s vast summit is pretty incredible, and one of those humbling reminders of just how small you are. Frankly, I live for those moments where everything around you just melts away and you’re left standing overwhelmed at the enormity of it all.
After soaking in a few final views, we eventually made our return back across the Burroughs and then north along Sourdough Ridge. As we hit Sourdough Ridge, the weather took a definitive turn. The clouds were now impenetrable and spitting a very fine mist, and the winds had kicked up quite a bit. On a clear day, you can see out to Mt. Fremont and Skyscraper Mountain from Sourdough Ridge. However, we had zero view for the last couple miles as the shit weather finally took hold. We couldn’t even see Frozen Lake until we were virtually on top of it. Given how lucky we were for the majority of the hike, though, we couldn’t really complain. For a day that looked like a total washout, it was pretty awesome.
While the conditions may not have been perfect for the entire hike, getting a closeup look at Winthrop Glacier was incredible. Moreover, the transient clouds gave the mountain an especially dramatic feel. Although it could have been due to the weather, the foot traffic also wasn’t too heavy – with the exception of the last mile between Frozen Lake (near the Mount Fremont Lookout Trail) and the Sunrise parking area. That was easily the most crowded portion of trail and one we definitely could have done without. Last mile aside, though, it was a pretty exceptional hike and a great way to spend our last weekend in Washington.
Total distance: 10.5 miles
Elevation gain: 3,000 feet