Saturday, October 24, 2015

See lower 48’s largest glacier on Mt. Rainier

Emmons Glacier flows off Mount Rainier, as seen from Sunrise.
Photo courtesy of Mount Rainier NPS.
Map for seeing Emmons Glacier, courtesy Mt. Ranier NPS.

Retreating ice can be spotted from famous mountain trail

Families can get a good view of the largest glacier in the 48 contiguous United States on a segment of the Wonderland Trail at Mount Rainier National Park.

The 93-mile trail encircles Mount Rainier, the Washington national park’s centerpiece. A few access points, however, allow small portions of it to be day hiked; among them is a 3.3-mile round trip in the Sunrise area.

About 650 inches of snow annually falls on Mount Rainier. Given this, August marks the best weather to visit the Sunrise area, which boasts a visitor center and day lodge. With such a narrow window for hiking the area, a lot of other backpackers will be at Sunrise as well.

Two retreats
To reach the trailhead, from Yakima take U.S. Hwy. 12 north, and turn north on Wash. Hwy. 410. Come into the park at the Nisqually Entrance and go left/east onto White River/Sunrise Park Road. Follow the road up the mountainside to Sunrise, parking at the visitor center. You’re at 6400 feet elevation, more than a mile above sea level.

From the southside of the parking lot where Sunrise Park Road ends, take the Sunrise Rim Trail south. Emmons Glacier – the largest in the lower 48 – is visible from the trail the entire way. It is the lowest sweep of snow and ice approaching Sunrise on Mount Rainier’s northeast flank. To the glacier’s left is Little Tahoma Peak; to its right is Steamboat Prow.

In about 0.1 miles, at the junction with the Emmons Vista Nature Trail, the Sunrise Rim Trail veers right/west. Follow the Sunrise Rim for 0.5 miles to the Wonderland Trail. At the Wonderland Trail, go right/east toward Sunrise Camp.

The Emmons Glacier at least twice was much larger than currently. During the 1930s, scientists determined that the glacier was retreating. A rockslide in 1963, however, covered the ice, slowing the melting, which led to the glacier’s actual advance in the early 1980s. Two decades later, though, Emmons began retreating again.

Glacier Overlook
From the Sunrise Rim Trail to the Sunrise Camp, the Wonderland Trail runs about 0.8 miles Along the way, the trail passes Shadow Lake. With its bottom dug out by a glacier, the remaining meltwater formed a lake. Surrounded by a meadow, it’s a popular spot for deer and mountain goats.

Once past Sunrise Camp, go left/south and walk alongside the looping Sunrise Park Road. On the opposite side of the loop, pick up the Burroughs Mountain Trail.

Follow the Burroughs Mountain Trail about 0.25 miles to Glacier Overlook. The overlook gives day hikers perhaps the best view of the Emmons Glacier. The glacier starts flowing from a height of 13,880 feet above sea level, just below Mount Rainier’s peak. Emmons covers 4.3 square miles.

From the overlook, retrace your steps back to the parking lot.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.