As they begin a trek across a small stretch of open meadow, no longer in the cooling shelter of the forested canopy, the hikers wipe the sweat from their brows and stop to catch their breath in the heat of the summer sun.
Suddenly it comes into view only a few hundred feet from them — a pristine mountain lake surrounded by peaks and spectacular rock formations. Stunned into silence they turn to each other and grin as their pace quickens in anticipation of a delightful and well-earned swim.
The trail takes less than 90 minutes to access from Tacoma and starts out on an easy-to-miss trailhead off of Highway 410, just before the turnoff to White River and Sunrise. You’ll notice a small parking area on the right side of the road; you’ll find the trailhead just across the highway. Crystal Creek meanders through the cool, dark forest that provides relief on a hot summer day.
The trail soon begins to climb steadily, then steeply up a series of switchbacks before it reaches the junction with the Crystal Lakes Lookout trail 1.5 miles into the journey. You can take a steep, rugged and extremely hot and exposed side trip to Crystal Peak from here, but that journey is best saved for cooler fall weather. Stay to the left on the main trail to get to the lakes.
You will catch glimpses of Mount Rainier from the switchbacks. The trail leads you across an avalanche slope before you begin to climb another series of shorter switchbacks. At mile 2.5, you will reach the Lower Crystal Lakes wilderness camp. This lesser-used camp is situated near a small and nice, but less -spectacular, lake. You can continue on to the much larger and stunning Upper Crystal Lake, which is only about a half mile up the trail from there.
The trail opens into a lovely meadow filled with wildflowers in the early to late summer and where you may find ripe huckleberries in fall. Don’t forget the sunscreen and the bug spray. When the flowers are blooming in these lovely alpine meadows, the insects are at their most active and voracious.
As you step over a small rise in the trail, Upper Crystal Lake comes into view, and all of the hard work to get there is worth it. You will likely have one thing on your mind as you gaze longingly at the jewel-toned water — a refreshing swim.
But if you walk just a little more, there is a perfect swimming spot. A trail meanders along the lake. To the right, you’ll come across the Upper Lakes wilderness camp.
Continuing straight on to the left of the lake will take you across marsh and meadow. A rock outcropping on the far side of the lake is the perfect place to sunbathe and swim. The lake is shallow here and the sunny alcove helps warm the water — also the bottom of the lake is much firmer and sandy and less muddy than other areas of the lake. There are several large boulders in the shade of evergreen trees under which to enjoy a picnic lunch.
On weekends during the summer, you will be sharing your swimming and picnic spots with plenty of other people as this is a very popular trail for good reason — it’s beautiful. Midweek and fall trips will provide more solitude if that’s what you seek. The effort of a 2,300-foot elevation gain over three miles does tend to weed out those who don’t respect nature, so you should feel more of a kinship here than you would at lakes that don’t require such effort to access.
For those looking for a longer adventure or possibly an overnight backpacking trip, continue on to Sourdough Gap, which boasts stunning views of Mount Rainier and of Upper Crystal Lakes. From the Gap, which will drop down on the Pacific Crest Trail on the other side, you can hike down to Sheep Lake. From there, it is only 1.5 miles to a large trailhead at the top of Chinook Pass. Many people prefer to drop a car off at the Crystal Lakes trailhead and hike from the top of the pass down. The one-way mileage for that trip is 7 miles.
Good to know
- Roundtrip mileage six miles, elevation gain 2,300 feet.
- Map: Green Trails Mount Rainier East No. 270.
- A National Park or Interagency pass is required to be displayed in your vehicle.
- Dogs are not allowed on trails in Mount Rainier National Park.
- A backcountry permit is required for overnight stays.
- Go to NPS or call 360.569.2211 for more park information.
How to get there
From Enumclaw, drive east 42 miles on State Route 410 to the trailhead parking lot on the right, just 4½ miles after passing through the park’s entryway arch.