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.
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.
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.
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.