An often-bypassed road in Mount Rainier National Park leads to a magical place alongside a rushing river. You can feel the mist of small waterfalls next to the peaceful trail. As you climb closer to the glacier-covered flank of the mountain, you pass through stunning meadows where eagles gracefully soar above near jagged cliffs. In the meadows you may see marmots among wildflowers on the sunny side of the mountain.
The Glacier Basin trail begins in the cool and shady White River campground nestled among towering fir and cedar trees. Situated on the Eastern slopes of the mountain, the White River and Sunrise areas of the park often provide warmer and sunnier weather than other areas in the park that receive more rain and clouds due to the influence from the Pacific Ocean.
The trail follows a gentle grade up an old mining road along the White River. At approximately the 1-mile mark, you’ll come to a short half-mile trail that leads up Emmons Moraine, created by the Emmons Glacier, the largest glacier in the contiguous 48 states. The bridge for this trail may be washed out. If this is the case, signs will advise, and you can just stay on the main trail. There will be many more amazing views along the way.
The trail begins to ascend up a series of gentle switchbacks as it climbs higher above the river where the trail was rerouted after being washed out in 2006. Once you get back along the river, the views will begin to open up, giving you a taste of what is to come. It only gets better from here.
At mile 3, you’ll pass a junction with the Sunrise and Burroughs Mountain trails. This signals you are almost there. It’s an excellent place to take a water break and enjoy a snack because the trail becomes steeper as you make the short, final ascent to the wilderness camp that’s tucked away in the trees. This is where climbers camp overnight in preparation for ascents of the mountain via the Emmons Glacier route, the second-most popular route to the top of the mountain in the park. A wilderness permit is required to camp here.
A few steps past the camp is what you came for: Glacier Basin. The view is stunning, with mountain peaks and the river channel carved by glacial runoff. Once you’re finally able to take your eyes away from this 360-degree panorama you’ll be treated to expansive meadows filled with wildflowers in the summer, and juicy huckleberries in the fall, when you may also see black bears feeding.
While you have come to the end of the maintained trail, the adventure isn’t over. A well-worn path leads another half-mile up the canyon, providing even more stunning views for those willing to scramble over a few rocks. Keep an eye out for mountain goats traversing the rocky slopes above, and for climbers ascending or descending from the glacier itself. One can follow climbers’ paths to the base of the glacier (but not beyond without ropes, proper gear, and permits). Please keep in mind that like the meadows, this is an extremely fragile ecosystem. Take care to stay on the path, rocks, or snow and to not trample on fragile vegetation or disturb soil.
This hike can be turned into an 11-mile loop by proceeding up the Burroughs Mountain Trail to the Sunrise Rim junction and then hiking down the Wonderland Trail back to the campground.
Be it a casual stroll along the river, a hike to the meadows, or a mountain loop adventure, the sunny side of the mountain will provide an amazing variety of scenery and experiences for all who take the drive down the White River Road.
Good to know
The White River Road is closed in winter. Opening dates vary based on the amount of snowpack. It’s often accessible by late May/early June, but call before you go.
Round-trip: 7 miles
Elevation gain: 1,600 feet
Round-trip for loop: 11½ miles
Elevation gain for loop: 3,100 feet
Map: Green Trails Mount Rainier, East No. 270
Road Information: Call 360.569.2211 or follow @MountRainierNPS on Twitter for the latest road conditions and closures.
How to get there
From Enumclaw, head east on Highway 410 for 43 miles to the White River entrance of the park. Turn right onto Sunrise Road and follow it for five miles. Cross the White River, and turn left onto White River Road. Follow the road to its end at the White River Campground. The trailhead is at the upper end of the loop in the campground.