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The mileage is minimal on this route—only about 8 clicks roundtrip—but they’re steep miles with huge vistas of Mt. Rainier to the north and neck-craning views of the Tatoosh Range’s jagged spires all around you. The best time to visit is from mid-August through September when the huckleberries are ripe and the weather is most stable. The best way to experience this country is to keep hiking past the designated campsites at Snow Lake (they’re beautiful, but lack Rainier views) and camp high in the backcountry zone below Unicorn Peak or The Castle.
These are two of the major summits in the eastern half of the Tatoosh Range, and their ridges and drainages offer plenty of exploring on faint climbers’ paths and through sparse forest pocked with wildflower meadows. With solid navigation and scrambling skills, you can also complete a full traverse of the Tatoosh Range; usually done east to west, it’s a high, spectacular, and very arduous hike that’s worthwhile (and safe) only with a good forecast. Note: Use caution when climbing the talus-filled gulley that leads from Snow Lake into the Unicorn Creek bowl; the footing is steep and loose, and it’s easy to dislodge rocks onto hikers below you.
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.
ROAD CONDITIONS Go to nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/road-status.htm, or call (360) 569-2211, then press 1.
CONTACT Mt. Rainier National Park, (360) 569-2211; nps.gov/mora
Multiday Gear List
Waterproof/breathable jacket and pants
Fleece and down jackets
Synthetic T-shirt (2)
Hat and gloves
Wool/synthetic socks (3)
32 oz. water bottle (2)
Headlamp and batteries
Down bag (15° to 40°F) and sleeping pad
Compass, map, GPS unit
Gas stove and fuel bottles
Lighter and matches
Cookset, bowl, insulated mug, eating utensils
Toilet paper and trowel
611 S. Meridian Ave.
203 Center St. E
54109 Mountain Hwy. E
30027 SR 706 E
BARNEY’S CORNER MINI MART
40512 Meridian Ave. E
-Mapped by Jonathan Dorn
TO TRAILHEAD: From the Longmire entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park near Ashford, Washington, follow signs to the Longmire Visitor Center. Follow signs to Paradise, but stay straight at the final left-hand turn to Paradise on Stevens Canyon Road. You’ll soon pass Reflection Lakes, a spot that rivals Rainier’s summit as the most-photographed scenic point in the park. Just beyond, turn right in the parking area for Bench and Snow Lakes.
- Distance: 12.9
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Begin hiking SE from Snow Lake trailhead
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Veer R @ Y. Going a few yards L leads to the first views of Rainier. Farther on, Snow Lake sits in a forested bowl below the trail.
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Stay R @ T where trail reaches Snow Lake. Trail leads to 2 designated campsites that must be reserved at Longmire, plus a toilet with a million-dollar view of the mountain. In about 100 yds., great views of Unicorn Peak and a series of immense talus bowls beneath it open up. In early summer, the bowl is filled with snow. By autumn, there’s just a stream trickling from a few remnant snow patches and a small hanging glacier. Route continues straight up toward first talus field beyond Snow Lake; a narrow climbers’ path picks up where official maintained trail ends. Follow it along L edge of talus until directly below obvious chute leading up to the second bowl.
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Climbers’ path ends. Use caution crossing the rocks to the bottom of the chute, as many are precariously balanced and big enough to do some damage to a fallen hiker.
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Bottom of chute. Stay R for the first half of the 200-ft. climb up, then pick side that looks most promising for the top half. The chute is only a 3rd class walk-up, but be careful not to climb directly below other hikers to avoid falling rocks.
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Top of chute. Be prepared for a blast of wind, which can either feel great (after a stiff ascent on a hot day) or chilling (any other time). This is a good photo, lunch, and water spot. From here, get the best views yet of Rainier’s snowy dome. Scout for the climbers’ path leading up steep switchbacks of L wall. After reaching the first plateau, continue either straight up toward Unicorn Peak and numerous campsites, or veer L and contour around the base of the small, steep hill.
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This location could well be one of the best campsites in the park. Ground may be wet early in the summer because of poor drainage, but there’s room for 2-3 tents and plenty of flat rocks for lounging. Best of all, there are unobstructed views of Rainier looming heavenly on the horizon. If camping here, keep a strict LNT camp. From this camp, there are several options for exploring the E part of the Tatoosh Range. If indecisive, try going W first.
Location: 46.74839, -121.706189
After climbing a few hundred feet above camp on the steep hillside behind it, turn R and traverse down the talus bowl through which Unicorn Creek flows. Then pick a route and tiptoe up and across boulders through the main draw.
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Saddle. There are a couple good tent spots here and in lower, sheltered spots off the ridge. All are scenic but waterless; remember to tote full bottles from below if camping here. From saddle, head due N on thin, dirt trail that follows the crest of a knife-edge ridge, enjoying vocabulary-defeating views of Rainier along the way.
Location: 46.755178, -121.712783
Summit of unnamed peak. From here, enjoy insane views of Rainier and the entire Tatoosh Range, plus Snow and Bench Lakes. Descend the peak’s W slope, carpeted with huckleberry bushes, to a broad saddle with a snowmelt pond that was dry in early September. More camping options here, too. Climb opposite slope, rising steeply through grass and rock toward The Castle.
Location: 46.757747, -121.728449
Reach obvious notch in The Castle’s crenellated summit ridge and exquisite views of the Pinnacle. A short 4th class scramble to the R around the backside of The Castle’s upper ridge leads to its airy summit. Return to WPT 12 the same way.
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Bear right at this point on the descent back to camp for an out-and-back toward Unicorn Peak. A climbers’ path appears now and again while threading through rock and huckleberry bushes, and past marmot holes.
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Continue following climber’s trail, heading straight up hill and avoiding band of talus to R.
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Reach a firmly packed trail through talus that lies above the hillside’s last vegetation. Turn R and follow path as it contours beneath the W face of Unicorn Peak toward the saddle.
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Farthest point to proceed safely without climbing gear.
L wall, although featuring easy 5th class climbing, could be a death fall and would be very difficult to downclimb. Retrace steps along Snow Lake Trail to car. Caution: Rockslide danger.
Location: 46.747977, -121.710835
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Nick and Susan talk trash at the trailhead. They were soon sucking wind into their sea-level lungs as the trail climbed sharply.
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Near the end of the official maintained trail, with Unicorn Peak in the distance.
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Climbing the talus field towards the chute. Notice how the trash-talkers are starting to fall behind.
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4th Class Climbing
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There’s a little bit of 4th class climbing in the chute, but the main challenge is not dislodging rocks onto your companions.
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Now that’s a campsite! This is the view we woke up to after a misty night.
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Some huckleberries with your oatmeal?
Climbing toward the saddle
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Climbing toward the saddle and ridge to the southwest of camp.
Nearing the saddle
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Nearing the saddle. The clouds will soon part.
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The route from the saddle threads along this undulating ridge to the unnamed peak in front of Rainier.
Views of Mt. Rainier
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The views just keep getting better.
Looking down onto camp
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Looking back at camp from the ridge.
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Bring lots of film – this is one of those places where you keep shooting and shooting as, astonishingly, the views get better and better.
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Unnamed summit. There’s enough room for three to sit comfortably, but just barely.
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One of several short gulleys along the ridge to The Castle.
Views near The Castle
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The view of where we came from.
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By mid-afternoon, a beautiful lenticular cap had formed over Rainier.
Looking down towards Reflection Lakes
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Looking down towards Reflection Lakes from a few steps below the summit of The Castle. Note the dark, craggy typical of the Tatoosh Range.
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The obligatory author self-portrait just below the summit. Note the slings on the right. Below was a beautiful 2 or 3-pitch face that made me wish I’d brought climbing gear.
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The Pinnacle. Note the two hikers on the summit.
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The Pinnacle. Note the two hikers on the summit.
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Susan descending briefly with The Castle behind.
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Climbing toward Unicorn Glacier
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Climbing toward the scree path that leads to the hanging glacier.
Below Unicorn Peak
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The end is near. In about 30 yards, we found we could go no further without climbing gear due to rockslide that obliterated the trail ahead. To the right of that spot was a nasty fall into a moat beneath the bottom lip of the glacier.
Location: 46.755431, -121.701436
Parting views of the mountain on our dawn walk out.
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