Standing at 14,410 feet, Mount Rainier is one of the most attention-grabbing landmarks in the Pacific Northwest. Not only is the soaring stratovolcano the most topographically prominent peak in the lower 48 states – with 13,211 feet of prominence – but it’s also the most glaciated. Mount Rainier’s 25 named glaciers cover a whopping 35 square miles. Additionally, although it hasn’t erupted in 500 years, Mount Rainier is also considered one of the country’s most dangerous volcanoes. Because of its enormous glacial mass, an eruption would have the potential to generate catastrophic lahar flows.
Native American communities have inhabited the area around this sacred 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 the ancestral lands surrounding Tahoma are protected as part of Mount Rainier National Park.
When Stephan and I stayed in Washington two years ago, we made a couple of visits to Mount Rainier. The first was an early season (late June) hike along the Skyline Trail where I unknowingly subjected my poor mother to the ultimate suffer fest – a memory that she can at least (sort of) fondly look back on today. The second was a mid-August trip to Burroughs Mountain, which is a stunning day hike for those looking for more of a challenge.
Two years later, we found ourselves back in Washington. And even better? With another mom daring to pay us a visit. You know what that meant. While the first mother may have seen her Rainier outing (and wildly offensive PB&J lunch) as an attempted murder plot, I saw it as an opportunity to push her comfort zone. To provide her with an experience she would never have otherwise had. And to prove to her that she could do it. It’s empowering to conquer a new challenge, and it’s even better when you have some of the most beautiful scenery in the country staring you in the face as you triumph. Determined to share this sense of accomplishment with yet another unsuspecting houseguest, Stephan’s mom was unwittingly up next…
Knowing I inadvertently pushed it to the edge with our snowy Paradise hike two years ago, I decided a trip up to Mount Fremont Lookout might be a more suitable option. It was much less steep than the Skyline Trail, and there was no snow to contend with this time around. Clocking in at 5.7 miles with 1,200 feet of elevation gain, the route is generally considered easy to moderate. What’s more, having previously hiked The Burroughs on this side of Rainier, we knew that Stephan’s mom would be gobsmacked by the incredible views.
Beginning from the Sunrise Visitor Center, the route begins by heading west along the Sourdough Ridge Trail. The views of Tahoma’s glaciated summit are breathtaking from the second you step foot on the trail, and only get better as you continue on. As Stephan’s mom stared at the volcano, we told her this would be the worst view of the day. She questioned how it could possibly get any better. In addition to Rainier’s colossal summit, you’re also treated to unobstructed views into Sunrise Valley. If you head out early in the morning, the light here is just spectacular. A small lenticular cloud had begun to form as we headed out, and continued clinging to the summit as we made our way west.
After about 1.4 miles, the trail reaches Frozen Lake. The approximate midpoint of the trail, this is a great spot to pause and listen for the whistles of marmots as they scamper around the meadows. As you meander around the southern tip of the lake, the trail comes to a signed, five-way junction of the Sourdough Ridge, Wonderland, Burroughs Mountain and Mount Fremont Trails. The trail to the right (north) heads for Mount Fremont. From here, it’s just 1.3 miles further to the lookout with an additional 500 vertical feet of gain.
As you make your way along the western shore of Frozen Lake, you get sweeping views of the expansive meadows known as Berkeley Park, with Tahoma’s northeast face ever-present. The views get better and better as the trail gains elevation along the high ridge, and it’s all but impossible to not stop every ten feet to admire the hulking mountain.
Just under three miles from the trailhead, the dirt path culminates at the end of a ridge on the northwest side of Fremont Mountain, crowned by Mount Fremont Lookout. Built in 1934, the historic fire lookout sits at an elevation of 7,181 feet, making it the highest of the national park’s four remaining lookout cabins. The two-storied structure has a balconied second level, which offers stunning views of the glaciers enveloping Tahoma and Little Tahoma. Here, the frozen, northeast side of Rainier is entombed by the mountain’s two largest glaciers: Emmons and Winthrop.
Interestingly, Emmons Glacier has the largest area of any glacier in the contiguous United States. 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. The second largest is the massively crevassed Winthrop Glacier. This ice mass covers an area of roughly 3.5 square miles, spilling down from the Columbia Crest (~14,300’) to the West Fork of the White River (~4,700’).
The view from Mount Fremont Lookout also offers a look at the barren, northerly face of Tahoma known as the Willis Wall. At its base, you can also make out the eastern edge of Carbon Glacier, the mountain’s largest by volume of ice. The mountain’s 4,000-foot-tall northern headwall is named in honor of Bailey Willis, a geological engineer who explored and mapped Mount Rainier’s northern slopes during the latter part of the 19th century. Perhaps even more important than his charting expeditions, Willis was also instrumental in driving the legislature that designated Mount Rainier as the country’s fourth national park back in 1899.
After yet one more round of Rainier PB&Js (this time pre-approved by Stephan’s mom), we headed back to the trailhead. Although we’d already seen this side of the mountain a couple years ago, what’s not to love here? Not only is the scenery just spectacular, but it’s always a special treat when we can share our passion for the trail with others. Most importantly, though, Stephan’s mom totally loved her outing. And for 78 years young when we took her out, she pretty much kicked ass and proved that age is just a number.
Total distance: 5.7 miles
Elevation gain: 1,254 feet
Know before you go
- Dogs are not allowed on the Mount Fremont Trail or any other trails within Mount Rainier National Park.
- Check the trail conditions before you head out. Snow can linger here into early to mid-summer.
- At 6,400’ in elevation, Sunrise is the highest point in the park that’s accessible by vehicle. Consequently, Sunrise Road is only open for a few months out of the year. The road typically opens in late June or early July, and closes again for winter in late September or early October. Be sure to check the road status on the national park’s website before you visit.
- Stay on all trails and do not trample the meadows. The vegetation around Mount Rainier is extremely fragile and can take decades to grow back once it’s been damaged by human impact. Earlier this summer, the delicate meadows around Sunrise and Paradise were devastated when throngs of stargazers came to the park to watch the Perseid meteor shower. Please respect the wilderness any time you recreate outdoors.