Mount Rainier National Park: Northern Loop Trail via Sunrise Park
Three days is all you need for this memorable, 33.2-mile circuit on the northern flanks of Rainier, which connects Natural Bridge, the Yellowstone Cliffs, and Grand Park, a string of must-see landmarks bypassed by the Wonderland Trail.
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Peer through a telescope outside the log fort-like Sunrise Visitor Center for magnified views of climbers on Emmons Glacier, then head north toward Sourdough Ridge Trail. Less than a mile in, turn left onto the Sourdough Mountains’ ridgetop. At the 4-way junction just past Frozen Lake, drop into Berkeley Park, a fir-dotted meadow perched in the cirque formed by the 7,078-foot Skyscraper Peak, Burroughs Mountain, and Mt. Fremont. Prepare for sensory overload: Lodi Creek gushes over boulders, the sweet scent of lupine permeates the air, and vibrantly red Indian paintbrush accentuate the landscape. At mile 2.3, turn left at the fork onto the Wonderland Trail and start a clockwise, 29.3-mile loop. At mile 3.6, crest Skyscraper Pass—at 6,700 feet, it’s one of the Northern Loop’s high points. Just past mile seven, cross a log bridge at the base of Garda Falls, which slaloms through a mossy, boulder-filled chute. In .1 mile, cross another log bridge over the raging Winthrop Creek. Listen for the muffled, rumbling sounds of boulders moving beneath the water’s surface. Nearly nine miles in, follow rock cairns and ribbons to find the best route across the West Fork White River. In .2 mile, cross a bridge over a second crossing of the West Fork White River, then begin a short, half-mile climb to Mystic Lake Camp. At mile 9.4, take your pick of seven campsites at Mystic Lake Camp. Eat your breakfast overlooking Mystic Lake’s glassy waters.
After wrapping around Old Desolate’s sparse, scree-covered slopes, the trail winds northwest, threading between Moraine Park and the Carbon Glacier. Pass Dick Creek Camp, then cross its namesake creek. Near mile 14, continue straight at the 3-way junction, passing the Carbon River suspension bridge. Follow signs for Windy Gap. Less than a mile later, stay right at the trail fork for a zigzagging climb to Windy Gap. In 2.4 miles, the lichen-covered Yellowstone Cliffs fill up the skyline. Beargrass, purple lupine, orange Columbia lilies, Indian paintbrush blanket the subalpine meadows at the base of the cliffs. After hiking east across Windy Gap, turn left at a 3-way junction for an out-and-back to Natural Bridge, which rises 200 feet and spans 150 feet. Stop near mile 22 at spend the night at Lake James Camp.
Tackle a quad-jarring, 1,220-foot descent from Lake James, then maneuver across the West Fork White River on fallen trees (the river wiped out existing bridges). At mile 26.8, the trail reaches an open knoll with big-screen views of the White River Valley, Mt. Rainier, and Natural Bridge. Less than half a mile later, continue straight (south) at the 3-way junction on the southern outskirts of Grand Park. Near mile 30, the trail climbs up Berkeley Park. Finish the loop 1.1 miles later, then stay left to return to the trailhead.
INFO For information on permits, current trail and camp conditions, and wilderness guidelines, go to nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/wilderness-camping-and-hiking.htm.
PERMIT A wilderness permit is required for all overnight camping in the backcountry. Reservations requests accepted by fax or mail, starting on March 15th of each year ($20/reservation). Download form at nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/wilderness-reservation-information.htm.
RIVER CROSSINGS Bridge washouts are common along this route. Check with a ranger before heading out on the trail to get up-to-date information on water levels and trail conditions.
CONTACT Mt. Rainier National Park, (360) 569-2211; nps.gov/mora
-Mapped by David Tate
TO TRAILHEAD: From Ashford, drive east on State Route 706. In roughly 7 miles, turn right onto Paradise Rd. E. In 14.2 miles, turn right onto Stevens Canyon Rd. In 19 miles, turn left onto WA 123 N. In 10.9 miles, left onto WA 410 W. In 3.5 miles, turn left onto Sunrise Park Rd./White River Rd. Go 15.4 miles to parking at the Sunrise Visitor Center.
- Distance: 53.4
Location: 46.91473, -121.64241
Peer through a telescope outside the log fort-like Sunrise Visitor Center for magnified views of climbers on Emmons Glacier, then head north toward Sourdough Ridge Trail.
Location: 46.91714, -121.643728
Bear left at the 3-way junction toward the Sourdough Ridge Trail.
Location: 46.918498, -121.646754
Turn left on Sourdough Ridge Trail, heading west toward Frozen Lake.
Location: 46.919111, -121.655171
Stop at the vantage point for views of 6,786-foot McNeeley Peak to the north-northeast and Huckleberry Basin below.
Location: 46.918298, -121.666447
Frozen Lake: This lake is used as the drinking water supply for Sunrise.
Location: 46.917574, -121.668487
At the 4-way junction just past Frozen Lake, drop into Berkeley Park, a fir-dotted meadow perched in the cirque formed by the 7,078-foot Skyscraper Peak, Burroughs Mountain, and Mt. Fremont. Prepare for sensory overload: Lodi Creek gushes over boulders, the sweet scent of lupine permeates the air, and vibrantly red Indian paintbrush accentuate the landscape.
Location: 46.917111, -121.680186
Stay left at the Y-junction in Berkeley Park to start a 29.3-mile clockwise loop. Continue to follow signage to Mystic Lake.
Location: 46.922642, -121.697508
Crest Skyscraper Pass. At 6,700 feet, it’s one of the Northern Loop’s high points. Turn right at the 3-way junction for a .4-mile (one-way) side trip up Skyscraper Mountain’s sloped rampart, the perfect vantage for peering into the northern reaches of the park.
Location: 46.927096, -121.69828
After a quick scramble to the top of Skyscraper Mountain, look northeast to see Grand Park’s broad, flat plateau rising between the foothills. Follow the White River north for distant views of the North Cascades. Next, backtrack to NLT008 and turn right; drop down the Granite Creek drainage to Garda Falls.
Location: 46.920258, -121.707915
Granite Creek Camp: This camp is located next to the crossing of its namesake creek.
Location: 46.92307, -121.726735
Cross a log bridge at the base of Garda Falls, which slaloms through a mossy, boulder-filled chute. In .1 mile, cross another log bridge over the raging Winthrop Creek. Listen for the muffled, rumbling sounds of boulders moving beneath the water’s surface.
Location: 46.924056, -121.72641
Cross powerful Winthrop Creek on a log bridge with a railing. Listen for the sound of boulders tumbling beneath the surface.
Location: 46.915095, -121.743748
West Fork White River crossing: The old crossing was wiped away with recent floods. Follow rock cairns and ribbons for the best way across.
Location: 46.913248, -121.746759
Cross a bridge over the next crossing of the West Fork White River. On the other side, it’s a short uphill to Mystic Lake Camp.
Location: 46.915447, -121.750345
Mystic Lake Camp: There are 7 campsites here (mile 9.4) with good water access and bear poles to hang your food.
Location: 46.913805, -121.752472
Mystic Lake: In the mornings, it’s usually calm and mirror-like.
Location: 46.920666, -121.766983
After wrapping around Old Desolate’s sparse, scree-covered slopes, the trail winds northwest, threading between Moraine Park and the Carbon Glacier. Look for families of marmots ahead.
Location: 46.936102, -121.777218
At the northern edge of Moraine Park, begin the descent to Dick Creek Camp; it’s relatively steep.
Location: 46.940443, -121.784346
Pass Dick Creek Camp, then cross its namesake creek.
Location: 46.949679, -121.794821
Continue straight at the 3-way junction, passing the Carbon River suspension bridge. Follow signs for Windy Gap.
Location: 46.960342, -121.792202
Cross Spukwush Creek.
Location: 46.963111, -121.793665
Stay right at the trail fork for a zigzagging climb to Windy Gap.
Location: 46.95966, -121.767862
The lichen-covered Yellowstone Cliffs fill up the skyline. Beargrass, purple lupine, orange tiger lilies, and Indian paintbrush speckle the subalpine meadows at the base of the cliffs. Yellowstone Cliff Camp: Turn off the trail to your right, and go about 200 yards, crossing two small streams, to Yellowstone Cliffs Camp. There are only 2 campsites here, and they are fairly small.
Location: 46.956495, -121.754857
Hike east across Windy Gap. Unmarked side trails lead right toward Crescent Lake.
Location: 46.955881, -121.749118
Turn left at this 3-way junction for a side trip to Natural Bridge, which overlooks James and Ethel Lakes.
Location: 46.962584, -121.74378
Natural Bridge: This rock arch rises roughly 200 feet and spans 150 feet.
Location: 46.961337, -121.732715
Stay left at the 3-way junction. The trail on the right leads to Lake James Patrol Cabin.
Location: 46.964351, -121.733365
Take a left here to visit Lake James.
Location: 46.964826, -121.734158
Lake James: This little lake sits below the Natural Bridge. Backtrack to NLT028 and turn left.
Location: 46.965372, -121.732252
Lake James Camp: Take a left here to reach campsites.
Location: 46.973173, -121.719985
After a quad-jarring, 1,220-foot descent from Lake James, maneuver across the West Fork White River on fallen trees (the river wiped out existing bridges); you can hear the pounding of boulders as they tumble downstream. Van Horn Falls is also visible from this spot.
Location: 46.966407, -121.697011
Continue straight at the 3-way junction. Campsite: Turn left, and go another .4 mile downhill to reach Fire Creek Camp.
Location: 46.968385, -121.693637
Fire Creek Camp: This seldom-used camp has four tent sites and is close to water. There are lots of downed trees in the camp area.
Location: 46.961883, -121.693091
After clearing the trees, the trail reaches an open knoll with breathtaking views of the White River Valley below, as well as Mt. Rainier and Natural Bridge.
Location: 46.95825, -121.687328
Continue straight at the 3-way junction. The trail on the left leads across Grand Park to Lake Eleanor.
Location: 46.947098, -121.686974
Hike through fields of beargrass on the east-facing slopes.
Location: 46.929444, -121.686912
Berkeley Park Camp
Location: 46.924505, -121.687692
The trail winds through Berkeley Park, tucked below Burroughs Mountain. In 1.1 miles, the trail reconnects with NLT007; stay right to return to the trailhead.
Location: 46.916533, -121.764135
Look back for views of Mt. Rainier and the meadows that you just traversed.
Ranger Station at Sunrise Park
Location: 46.914462, -121.643271
Mt. Rainier from Sunrise Meadows
Location: 46.917562, -121.645176
Many photo ops exist, as the mountain is easily viewed from the meadows surrounding Sunrise.
Mt. Rainier and Shadow Lake
Location: 46.919254, -121.658989
The views along the Sourdough Ridge Trail, looking down onto Shadow Lake and Sunrise backcountry camp.
Location: 46.918346, -121.665946
Location: 46.915275, -121.688349
Location: 46.922637, -121.697338
More up-close views of Mt. Rainier, as viewed from the trail’s highpoint at Skyscraper Pass.
Skyscraper Mountain Views
Location: 46.92715, -121.698196
Views across Berkeley Park
Location: 46.927107, -121.698153
Granite Creek Crossing
Location: 46.920285, -121.707444
Location: 46.923086, -121.726591
Winthrop Creek Crossing
Location: 46.924064, -121.726292
Snout of Winthrop Glacier
Location: 46.924173, -121.72646
Ice-melt forms the mighty Winthrop Creek.
White River Crossing
Location: 46.915125, -121.743279
Here you can see the tremendous energy of the White River during flood stage. Notice the scoured hillsides. You must follow the cairns, and ribbons to find the trail on the other side.
Location: 46.915507, -121.750016
The jagged spires and columns on the Mystic Lake side of Old Desolate.
Location: 46.91385, -121.752162
Mystic Lake Meadows
Location: 46.912619, -121.754222
The trail winds through pretty meadows alongside Mystic lake with great views of the surrounding mountains.
Location: 46.913161, -121.760015
The starkness of Willis Wall is evident on this side of the Mountain. Constant rockfall and dust plumes are always visible here.
Trail along Old Desolate
Location: 46.914744, -121.761775
The trail continues to climb through steep grassland before topping out and descending into Moraine Park.
Marmots at Moraine Park
Location: 46.92071, -121.766689
Marmots are a common sight within the park.
Location: 46.922835, -121.767912
Picture perfect Moraine Park with the mountain ever present.
Location: 46.938513, -121.779752
In this old-growth forest, you’ll pass a few waterfalls. Fill up your water bottles and admire their cooling spray.
Location: 46.939449, -121.783146
Continuing the descent to Dick Creek, you’ll feel dwarfed by the towering giants all around, which provide welcome shade on hot days.
Snout of Carbon Glacier
Location: 46.945809, -121.791601
These are the headwaters of the Carbon River, the lowest glacier in the Lower 48. The moraine on top of the ice helps insulate it. Here, it is in constant transformation, as the rock and ice tumble from its edges, especially on hot days.
Carbon River Suspension Bridge
Location: 46.949706, -121.794434
Since the road at the Carbon River entrance has washed out, the bridge stands testimony to a busier time. On busy weekends, it can take 20 minutes to get across.
Location: 46.963619, -121.788597
This particular stretch of switchbacks climbs through old-growth forest.
Location: 46.959573, -121.767312
Rising above a steep hillside of beargrass, these beautiful yellow- and orange-stained cliffs are unlike any other in the park.
Wildflowers at Yellowstone Cliff
Location: 46.959784, -121.764389
The wildflowers during the summer months are resplendent.
Location: 46.956443, -121.754608
A small tarn lies where Crescent and Sluiskin Mountains meet. Their constant snowfields feed the lake.
Location: 46.957293, -121.746111
From the trail that led to the Natural Bridge, you can see the peaks on Sluiskin Mountain and the valley below.
Location: 46.962592, -121.743701
Location: 46.964827, -121.733966
A pretty little lake that sits below Natural Bridge.
Van Horn Falls
Location: 46.973172, -121.719938
This view is close to the new crossing of the White River.
White River Crossing
Location: 46.973203, -121.719919
Fire Creek Camp
Location: 46.968393, -121.693486
This seldom-used camp has good access to water and a backcountry toilet. The surrounding trees provide shelter from the sun’s rays.
Location: 46.961833, -121.692724
After Fire Creek Camp, this is the first place to get a wide-open view of Rainier and the White River Valley.
Location: 46.958259, -121.687016
Take in the views from this well-named park. The prolific wildflowers form huge patches of color that can be seen from as far away as Skyscraper Mountain.
Location: 46.947157, -121.686502
Mt. Fremont rises behind slopes filled with beargrass.
Location: 46.928345, -121.686931
Berkeley Park and Lodi Creek.
Location: 46.925458, -121.688261
You’ll hike past perfectly sculpted falls on Lodi Creek in Berkeley Park.
Lodi Creek in Berkeley Park
Location: 46.923714, -121.687489
Small falls on Lodi Creek