Planning a trek up the Big One – Mount Rainier – gets my adrenaline pumping the minute I start packing my backpack.
My husband and I hit the road before sunset last weekend and headed to Ashford, WA, a quaint town just outside of the Nisqually Entrance into Mount Rainier National Park. We were excited to do one of our favorite mountaineering day treks, Camp Muir. Nothing is more exhilarating than taking on this glaciated peak in one day on a 8.4 mile out-and-back that climbs 4,660 to a high-altitude camp above the Muir Snowfield situated on Mount Rainier’s south side at 10,080 ft. (Just about two miles from the mountain’s crown.) Camp Muir is a popular base camp for climbers and day hiking destination with an alpine mountaineering experience.
We arrived at Paradise at 8:00 am – early enough before the parking lot became packed. Paradise attracts more visitors than any other place in the park, so it’s important to get there as early as possible.
All geared up, we walked towards the Grande John Muir Steps, hitting the trailhead around 8:30am. We took the Skyline Trail and had incredible views of wildflower meadows, rumbling creeks and, of course, Mount Rainier. We even saw resident marmots and deer enjoying nature and were able to get some great photos of them. The initial part of the Skyline Trail is wide and paved, then it changes to rocky paths with narrow areas. The Skyline Trail traverses a small ridge, offering terrific views of Nisqually Glacier on one side and a large alpine meadow on the other. You will reach signs pointing to Pebble Creek and Camp Muir, then pass through Pebble Creek at about 2 miles where you’ll see the knob of McClure Rock on your right.
Upon reaching Pebble Creek and carefully traversing the hopscotch rocks that divide the trail from the edge of the snowfield, you get a glimpse of the vastness and matchlessness of the Camp Muir hike. Typically, this is where the snowfields begin; however, with the ongoing heat we’ve had this summer, it has caused the snow line to be much higher than normal. We didn’t use crampons or poles and were just fine in our mountaineering boots, but they may be something you consider bringing, being there is more rock hiking than usual.
The official ‘visible’ NPS trail ends near 7,300 feet and is then marked with thin poles and pieces of colored duct tape when the snowfields start. Most people choose to make their own way up, staying near the poles, as you will find with footprints. Depending on the day you go, the snowfield will be dotted with dozens of figures, including those planning on summiting to the top with guides. It’s very important to wear eye protection and keep sunscreen and lip protectant handy, as the sun can be fierce. Even if it’s cloudy you can get burned.
When we were about halfway through the snowfield, we heard several apocalyptic cracks and rumbles from the nearby glaciers. As the sun and the rising temperatures reach the glaciers, the crevasses open wider and create those uncertain tremors through the air. At about 9,000 feet, Camp Muir comes into view and looks close, yet is still a ways away –- the last 250 feet, marked by a rocky ridge to your right, will feel never-ending!
Approaching Base Camp
When you approach Camp Muir, you will head up some stone steps and join many others. This is an accomplishment in itself! Base camp has the feeling of a small village with lots of friendly hikers and mountaineers who just came down from summiting. We spent 45 minutes sitting high alongside Mount Rainier’s glaciers, while enjoying our lunch. We packed extra layers because it’s usually cooler, however, this time, t-shirts and shorts were comfortable. Enjoy the breathtaking views of hanging glaciers, massive seracs, wide crevasses and thundering rock fall. Be sure to take photos! It was so clear that we were able to see Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson.
On the way down – glissade!
We packed up our bags and put on our rain gear, eager for the addicting thrill of sliding 2.2 miles down Rainier back to Pebble Creek. It makes you feel like a kid again and cuts the descent time in half! However, this trip, there were only a few chutes where we were in a comfortable sitting glissade. If you plan to slide, be sure to bring a plastic bag, or at least a change of pants. We use roll up sleds that work great. Be mindful of the direction, as you don’t want to veer off to the right. As you descend, you will notice the wind gradually drops, and you will most likely be removing layers by the time you get back to Pebble Creek. I couldn’t take enough pictures of the sun angles hitting longer rays, making the view of Mount Rainer even more beautiful.
Overall, our mountaineering trek was fantastic, as always, and the warmer temps changing the snow line added some pizzazz to our trip.