Summerland on Mt. Rainier

On Monday we went back to Mt. Rainier. Not wanting to drive all the way to the distant visitor centers, we decided to park soon after passing the White River entrance and hike one of the first trails. That turned out to be the trail to Summerland, a high meadow that spills onto a field of rocks under a high ridge. This area is part of the approach to climbing Little Tahoma, a peak that looks like a spur on the side of Rainier and can be seen from Seattle. While Mt. Rainier looks like a round-shouldered, slumping mass of snow, many of the other Cascade peaks are sharp, jagged, bare rock, and Tahoma is probably the biggest one of those. It was an awesome presence on this hike.

The trail goes a couple of miles through big forest, with huge trees that are spaced apart enough to let a lot of sun come through. This makes it a very picturesque hike even in the woods, and to make it even better, lots of little streams cross the trail. I couldn’t resist soaking my feet in one of them, but the water was so cold that I could only stand a couple of seconds at a time.

The trail climbs alongside Frying Pan Creek, whose roar is always within earshot. The water is milky because of the glacial silt in it. Some of the mountain streams are glacial and white, and some are crystal-clear, I assume from regular snowmelt water. Eventually our trail met a view of a frothy waterfall. We saw a plump, dark-gray bird on a rock in the middle of it all. He repeatedly leaped into the churning water, submerged for a moment, bobbed up and surfed for a second, and effortlessly hopped back onto his rock. Later we found he was an American dipper (pictures—not ours), which is said to dive and walk on the bottom in search of food, and to be the world’s only aquatic songbird. Apparently, this milky whitewater was clear enough for the dipper to see his food of aquatic insects.

Later, the trail starts to emerge into meadows. This picture shows the summits of Tahoma and Rainier in the background. I don’t know which I love more, the woods, the creeks, the meadows, or the mountain views.


We continued the climb to Summerland, a bigger meadow, at treeline, with a sweeping view of Mt. Rainier, other peaks, and valleys below. We kept going across the meadow and crossed a stream a few times in the open, stepping on boulders or using log bridges. We were thrilled to have seen such beautiful woods, the creek and waterfall, and the Summerland meadow, but now we saw that the trail continued gradually up into a wide expanse of rocks and boulders. High above, we could see at least two large waterfalls pouring over the lip of the bowl-shaped ridge.


Streams flowed over the rocks where we walked. The terrain was uniformly nothing but pile after pile of rock, so it was hard to tell why one spot would be a stream bed while the rest was dry.

rocks and streams

There were now very few other hikers around. Once we followed the trail onto the boulder field, we only saw one pair of people. A couple dozen mountain goats browsed above us, below the sets of falls.

mountain goats

As we hiked, I had been feeling the water in every stream. I was surprised to find one of the highest ones to be a lot warmer than all the others. Tom said the water must be collecting and warming in a pool somewhere. We continued walking and soon saw that he was right. The ground leveled off and two shallow ponds collected water on its way down the mountain. It was early evening and while we still had bright daylight in general, the spreading shadows did not provide good photos of landscape details. We would have loved to continue following the trail. It looked like we could have hiked a lot higher and onto the ridge without much difficulty if we had had time. Next year we want to go back and camp a night or two in order to see how far we can hike there. On this trip, we reached about 6,300 feet according to Tom’s altimeter radio.

On the way back down, we saw that the sun had just set behind Mt. Rainier. The mountaintop cast a shadow on the almost invisible surrounding mist.