There are some adventures you plan for and others that lend themselves to short notice opportunity. A hike to Mt. Rainier’s famed Camp Muir can certainly be the latter. In July, summer in Seattle is in full swing and when every forecaster in the Pacific Northwest racks up points with predictions of a week of uninterrupted sun, it means the snow-covered slopes of the Puget Sound’s mountain guard are hosting 14,410 feet of expansive vistas.
Camp Muir, named in 1888 for John Muir, the legendary advocate for wilderness and founder of the Sierra Club, lies on the southeast side of Mt. Rainier between the Muir Snowfield and Ingraham Glacier. Originally named “Cloud Camp”, the site sits at 10,100 feet and, on a clear day, boasts stop-and-stare views of the lower Cascade mountain range including Mount St. Helens, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood. About 4,600 feet higher than Paradise, the starting point and parking lot for many of Rainier’s adventures, the area serves as base camp for those seeking the longer trek to summit Rainier. Out of 12 approaches to the summit, Camp Muir provides seven including the route up Disappointment Cleaver, affectionately referred to as The Yellow Brick Road.
Rainier’s blanket of glacier ice exceeds that of any other mountain in the conterminous U.S. and once covered most of the area now within Mount Rainier National Park boundaries, extending to the very shores of the present Puget Sound Basin. The wear and tear of Mount Rainier’s glaciers make it appear deceptively older than it really is: The first eruptions that formed the mountain came just more than half a million years ago (pre-glaciers) and the most recent occurred in 1840. But the largest and most dramatic eruptions occurred from about 25,000 to 15,000 years ago.
Waking up to another day of sun on the horizon puts an escape from city and sea to summit in short order, even though the short notice planning put myself and a friend in the the parking lot a bit after 1 p.m. on a Saturday. We took note of the number of hikers wrapping up their day, stowing gear and wringing out socks. Most who set out to do Rainier’s higher day hikes get an early start. For snowboarders and skiers in particular, it’s the means to traversing the snowfields before the afternoon sun takes its toll. The round trip hike between Paradise and Camp Muir is estimated at 7 to 9 hours – plenty of time on a summer day to get a late start and still make the full trip in daylight. For the two of us it means fewer people on the trail as we return.
Leaving Paradise we followed the Skyline Trail 2.3 miles upward to Pebble Creek. For this first half of the climb the remains of Rainier’s sordid volcanic past, nutrient rich layers of ash and pumice, support stands of subalpine trees and fields of mountain flowers: Avalanche Lilies, Pink Heather, Rosy Spirea, lupine and Yellow Cinquefoil. The summer bouquet and a lone, chubby marmot soon give way to fields of crumbled andesitic rock left by traveling glaciers. The first fingers of the Muir Snowfield appear, the cars on the road to Paradise become silent, winking only in the afternoon sun and the jagged peaks of the Tatoosh Range rise to meet the southern horizon.
Leaving Skyline Trail and arriving at Pebble Creek one gets the impression of an ad hoc transfer station. The terrain makes the gritty switch to rushing water, mud and melting snow and the intersecting trails release a variety of hikers, climbers and seekers. At around 7,000 feet early risers mark the final miles of their descent; Skyline hikers interested in a detour take in the mystery of the terrain beyond the blue guide sheet and skiers and snowboarders collect gear, casting discerning last glances at their final runs. Just past the creek crossing, crowds begin to thin along with the air and a sense of camaraderie becomes subtly perceptible between the hikers navigating descent.
From Pebble Creek, the next 2.2 miles yawn before hikers with an ascent of 2,800 ft. up the Muir Snowfield. When recounting what an ascent of Rainier (and numerous other summits) entailed a colleague of mine narrowed it down to one singular focus: placing one foot in front of the other and, with every step, developing a “cadence that helps you get through the scaleless pushes”. Here the seduction of northwest greenery gives way to the grit and grey of a travel-weary snowmass, pocked by suncups and the last snowfall a distant memory. At 8,000 feet, the landscape barren, we stopped oggling the distant views and each settled quietly, deeply into a one-two, left-foot, right-foot march. Until this point the weather of the day remained gorgeously clear. The exertion of the hike and high altitude sun kept outer layers stored in our packs but at 8,500 feet the small pillow cloud we’d kept a half-hearted eye on made a beeline for our locale. Famous for its lenticular clouds, Rainier dispatched a ring of fog across our elevation that turned our world of glittering snowmass into 20-foot visibility. Being familiar with the mountain from a distance, and having been warned of this effect by the Guide House staff, we kept stepping, entranced somewhat by the chatter and echos of fellow climbers descending. Twenty feet stretched to 30 and soon we stood distinctly above the sea of fog, three hikers alone on shore of snow with our mountain cap.
There is a strange point of limbo with each adventure in a barren space when you’re certain your destination is close at hand but unsure of just how close. Or how far. Now familiar with what the return terrain entails, annoyance grows in the repeated expectation that your destination is just around the next turn. Our limbo began shortly after 9,500 feet and I’m certain a number of steps went by before I realized the brown, oddly shaped rock I’d been staring at was actually a hut and the hut was connected to a brown, curved wall with smaller, similar structures. In such unbroken terrain it’s difficult to measure the distance remaining against pace. Maintaining my cadence turned out to be a better bet, we had another half hour to go.
Camp Muir offers intimate views of Rainier’s upper icefalls and rugged ridges along with a hungry glimpse of what the next 4,410 feet of ascent entail. Nestled just above Anvil Rock are stone and wood huts that house climbers and hikers. It’s also home to a small group of climbing rangers in a small stone hut first erected in 1916. After our four and a half hour hike in which we gradually became the lone ascenders, the stone guide buildings and sheltering wall seemed like a thriving mecca complete with gay tents and a wise populace of the initiated. Our day’s end arrival was unusual but not unheard of. We photographed our achievement and the surrounding views, ate dinner and scouted our route down as the camp’s temporary residents prepared for tomorrow’s climb to summit or hike to home.
If reaching Camp Muir could be compared to the fun but tedious task of holiday shopping, the descent would be the euphoric rush of ripping open present after present the morning of. The beauty of the Muir Snowfield descent is the eradication of every hard-earned step by the simple thrill of glissading – sliding down the snowfield with 10,000 feet of mountain beneath the soles of your shoes. Laughter and elevation mixed to leave us enamored, gasping for breath, tripping over our own hands and knees, eyes watering in a rush to get to the next slide. The serious intention of each foot in our ascent was abandoned in short order, replaced in complete with a simple, child’s-eye propulsion to sit down, heels up, lean back and go!
We ended the snowfield near Pebble Creek as the light turned from full to fading. Reaching the paved trail we abandoned getting home with intention to choosing whatever speed suited our individual taste. Deep pinks and violets washed Glacier Vista and the walls along Skyline Trail, reflecting in small pools ringed with sleeping lupine and complacent snow. We choose moonlight over headlamps and at twilight, crowds absent, watched the path return to its rightful owners. For a few steps two black foxes joined our path, intent on keeping their direction but carrying a wary eye. And, as we crossed the parking lot, the lights of Paradise quiet and festive, we stepped between two doe content to stand their ground as we passed in search of our ride home.
Things to Note:
When hiking to Muir or any other snow or glacier route, waterproof or highly water resistant footwear is recommended. And pack layers, avoiding cotton, so you can quickly add and remove as the weather changes. Winds at Camp Muir can be intense and chilly on even the warmest days. Bring a light down jacket to pull over your other layers and retain your body’s heat while you rest at camp. Maps of the Paradise Area Trails can be found at the visitor’s center or the Guide House. They stop at Pebble Creek but the trail to Camp Muir is fairly well marked. Bring a compass at the very least. Once the clouds move in its easy to wander off the path without noticing. The official NPS trail is marked with thin poles with pieces of colored duct tape. Once into the snowfield and glacier areas, stay in the snow. Though moving to the rocks seems drier and quicker, they’re loose, slippery and each step creates a landslide below you or directly beneath. Crevasses do open on the snowfield below Camp Muir between 9,200 and 10,000 feet. Although some are wanded – marked with poles by NPS - others are not and they change in size. Use extreme caution. Bathrooms do exist at Camp Muir, sans toilet paper so pack it with you. Bring plenty of water, there is none at Muir.
Final note – glissading. Though the pipelines for glissading are smooth and clean, they still contain an errant rock or two – keep an eye out and try to steer around. Bring a plastic bag or two for sliding on. Or choose pants wisely – you need something with little friction but strong enough to withstand the wear. An old pair of light rain pants is ideal.
Recommend calling ahead for road status. In winter months the road can be closed daily between Longmire and Paradise. Take I-5 to SR 512 (exit 127), then travel east on SR 512 to SR 7. Travel south on SR 7 to SR 706 in Elbe and continue east through Ashford to the Nisqually entrance of Mt. Rainier State Park. Follow the road to Paradise and Paradise Inn. The trail head is located to the left of the ranger station, just past the lodge. Pick up a trail map at either the visitor’s center or the Guide House. The paved Skyline Trail is just over the embankment and either direction will take you to Panorama Point. Head north from Panorama Point to Pebble Creek and McClure Rock. From there use the path other hikers have taken and your compass to stay on course.
Round trip: 9 miles / 7 hours