Snow, Sun and Solstice Revelry on Rainier

Summerland/Panhandle Gap, Mount Rainier

  • Round trip: 12 miles
  • Elevation gain: 2,950 feet

I can’t overstate how cool it is to watch the sun set over Mount Rainier on the longest day of the year from Summerland Camp.

Having the place to myself made it even better.

Earlier in the day, I hiked up the snow fields to Panhandle Gap, which may be the most beautiful place on the entire Wonderland Trail. I watched as snow buffeted the top of Rainier and broken clouds gave way to blue skies along Ohanapecosh Park south to Mount Adams.

This is one of my favorite hikes on Mount Rainier. Hit it in June, while there’s still lots of snow, and you may find yourself alone with the marmots as I did.

The hike

For overnight trips, you’ll need a permit to camp at Summerland. This is one of the most popular campgrounds on the Wonderland Trail, so choose your day to visit carefully. Snow on the trail in the early season dissuades the hordes, so go now before high season kicks in.

You’ll start at the Fryingpan Creek trailhead at 3,900 feet. The trail gradually climbs through a lovely, old-growth forest before breaking out and crossing the creek about three miles in. You’ve got about a mile of climbing up steep switchbacks to Summerland from here.

Summerland is a great place to camp. I arrived thinking I’d need to camp on snow, but found one of the sites melted out. I quickly set up the tent and headed to Panhandle Gap, about 1.5 miles up.

Snow-free camping at Summerland.

Mushy snow covered the otherworldly high-mountain basin, making the slog to the gap surprisingly easy. The final push up a headwall was a little bit of a nail-biter, but I stayed near a rock wall and far from a heavy cornice on the west side of the pass.

Boot-glissading back to camp was fast and fun as clouds parted around Columbia Crest and Little Tahoma.

The view south of Ohanapecosh Park and Mount Adams from Panhandle Gap.
Evening sun on the slopes of Mount Rainier during summer solstice.

SkiZer suggests

Bring binoculars: The views from Summerland are exceptional. As the light changed, I made out the dramatic cobalt features of Emmons Glacier and the towering walls of Steamboat Prow. The wind and clouds swirling around the summit of Rainier danced in an ever-changing ballet.

Be strategic: This is an extremely popular trail, for good reason. It’s beautiful and not that difficult. Go early in the season and you’ll limit your exposure to a mob scene. If you do go during high season, choose a midweek day.

Blister rating: Two out of five stars. The forest hike is soft and forgiving. Once you get into the difficult hiking, you’ll have incredible views to push you upward.

SkiZer below Panhandle Gap on the Wonderland Trail.



This Climb to Icicle Ridge Comes at a Steep Price

The trail starts innocently enough in rolling forests before the serious climbing begins.

Fourth of July Creek, Leavenworth

  • Round trip: 13 miles
  • Elevation gain: 4,800 feet

It was 1980s. I was young and dumb.

I decided to climb the ridiculously steep Fourth of July Creek trail to the top of Icicle Ridge near Leavenworth, Wash., without food or water on a 90-degree day. Did I mention that I was young and dumb?

Hours went by as I sweated and puffed my way upward. At some point, I realized that I had made a huge mistake not bringing water, but I was too stubborn to give up. I had summit fever.

Once on top,  I was so delirious that I stayed maybe 10 minutes, turned around and nearly stepped on a timber rattlesnake on my way down. Stumbling to the car, I was on the verge of heat exhaustion. I was dehydrated and sick for days afterwards.

It was with some trepidation that I returned to the Fourth of July Creek on a recent June afternoon. I had ample food and water this time, and the temperatures were in the 50s. But I’m almost 60 now and this hike is a mother.

The hike

The trail starts from a small parking area off the Icicle Creek Road, at 2,260 feet, about 9.4 miles from the junction of U.S. Highway 2 in the town of Leavenworth.

The first third of a mile take place in rolling forest, then the climb gets serious. A relentless series of switchbacks lead you up an impossibly steep route above the Icicle Valley. Very shortly, you’ll see Cashmere Mountain and the impressive Stuart Range across the valley to the south, and the views only get better the higher you go.

It’s a grind, no doubt about it. About five miles in, at 6,000 feet, you’ll hit the end of the hard climbing and cross a fire-damaged slope and reach a rock outcropping. You can stop here, where the views are fantastic, or fulfill your summit dreams with another mile-plus of climbing to the ridge top and site of a former fire lookout at 7,000 feet.

The top of Icicle Ridge and site of a former fire lookout.

SkiZer suggests

Water: Don’t be dumb, like the young SkiZer. Carry at least two liters of water per person; there is no reliable water past a creek crossing at one-quarter of a mile from the trailhead.

Energy factor: Before starting this hike, ask yourself, “Do I really have the juice to do this entire hike?” The views of the valley and surrounding mountains certainly get better the higher you go, but once you reach about 4,000 feet, you’re into some great country. If you’re feeling gassed, you might consider grabbing a seat on a convenient rock, having lunch and then returning to the valley bottom for a dip in the welcoming waters of the Icicle.

Blister rating: Five out of five stars. Break out your preferred treatment before starting and carry it with you. It’s steep and your heels will take a beating on the way up, your toes on the way down.