One of the many things that makes Mount Rainier National Park special is it’s one of the few places in the lower 48 states where you can view glaciers: 11 of them to be exact. Glaciers are constantly moving and changing. Crevasses revealing crystal blue ice in their depths, flowing water, loud cracking, and rock and ice falling — some of the natural wonders you can witness while watching a glacier.
The Carbon Glacier is only 3,500 feet above sea level, the lowest glacier in the contiguous United States. In addition, it has a distinctive black color — caused by dark rock debris — that covers its surface. It can be accessed by hiking or biking approximately 5 miles up the Carbon River Road, which is closed to vehicles at the Ipsuit Campground. You can spend the night and use the area as a base camp for many park adventures and also to hike approximately 3.5 miles up the Carbon River Trail to the glacier’s terminus. You can continue up the trail to Moraine Park for a different vantage point of it.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Winthrop Glacier, which starts at about 14,300 feet. The second-largest glacier in the park, it covers 3.5 miles and can be viewed from the Sunrise area of the park by hiking along the Wonderland Trail.
The Emmons Glacier is more easily visible. From the Sunrise parking area, you can hike less than a quarter of a mile to the Emmons Vista. This is a well-maintained, gentle trail that small children and those with mobility issues can navigate.
The Paradise-Stevens, Cowlitz, Ingraham, and Nisqually glacier viewing areas can be accessed year-round from the Paradise parking lot via the Nisqually Vista and Skyline Trails. In the winter, you can do this via snowshoe, but will want to check in at the ranger station to learn about the current avalanche danger.
A lesser-known glacier, the Flett Glacier, is actually two glaciers, the runoff from which begins to form the Puyallup River. This glacier is accessible from Spray Park and is best for experienced hikers. Expert backcountry skiers can sometimes be seen skiing down the glacier. If you decide to set foot on this glacier, you would need to wear crampons to dig into the ice. You can also view the North Mowich Glacier from Spray Park.
Many wayside exhibits in the park explain the history of these glaciers and the science behind their movement and retreat. To learn more about these and other glaciers in Mount Rainier National Park, visit nps.gov/mora.