Gray skies on the drive in gave way to fluffy white clouds and blue sky as I neared the mountain. I look forward to opening day at Sunrise, like a kid looks forward to a trip to Disneyland. This place is almost sacred to me. I have learned the subtle nuances of this side of the mountain, not by reading, but by walking. Step by step , boots on the trail.
Sunrise sits at 6400 feet. It’s the highest point on the mountain you can drive to. There are a dozen trails that begin from the parking lot at the visitor center and an early arrival is necessary if you’re looking for any solitude. I’m meeting a friend this morning and rather than hoping for an early opening of the gate we decide a conservative choice of 7am will have to do. MRNP will not commit to an opening time so we go on faith.
I imagine my frustrations of earlier in the week will be just a memory as I climb this road (Wednesday, the parking lots were all blocked at Owthigh Lakes and Summerland with NO PARKING signs and the gate at Sunrise Road locked up tight). Surely they will open it up early for hikers looking to escape the mobs of tourists).
But I am foiled again. Gate is still closed up at 7am with a ranger offering only “it will open sometime later today”. Good grief. What does that mean ? 8 am or 4 pm ? Sigh.
My friend arrives and we review our options. Summerland, Owyhigh Lakes or wait it out in our cars with the growing mob of people. We decide on Summerland, one of my favorite hikes in the park.
Trip reports indicate there are a few crossings of snow on the trail that are doable, but dicey. The snow is slippery and the slope down is steep. A misstep could be ugly. It sounds like the bridge across Frying Pan Creek is intact and so we head off.
(I note that the lot at Summerland is again blocked with No Parking signs, but the dates have changed. They now caution the lots will be closed 7/6-7/7, meaning the closure of these lots last week was unnecessary as they never did any of the planned work. Sigh.)
The hike begins flat and shaded in the old growth. The trail is wide and really well maintained. At the kiosk it describes this hike as 8.5 miles with a couple thousand feet of gain, though you’d never guess it from the leisurely shaded walk in the beginning. You connect with the Wonderland Trail just after beginning this hike. It’s a nice mix of folks day-hiking and those with heavy backpacks exploring the Wonderland Trail.
As you pass a nice viewpoint for Frying Pan Creek the trail begins to climb and the carpeted path gives way to rocks, dirt and a more exposed trail. The vegetation is overgrown and lush as the first views of the Cowlitz Chimneys come into view. The snow that remains makes for a dramatic picture-perfect view.
The crossing of Frying Pan Creek is exhilarating. The run off is cascading down and the milky glacier water is refreshing. The trail picks up on the other side and switchbacks as you climb parallel the creek. This is where it got interesting.
There are no less than eight sloped snow crossings along the trail. They are all manageable, but as the snow melts it gets slippery making them a bit challenging. Poles and good boots make easy work of them. We never needed traction on this hike. The big surprise was a large (really large) tree across the path. It is navigable but we had to experiment a bit. On the way up we tried going around, but this approach will erode the trail if this obstacle remains. On our return, we went over the top.
After these switchbacks, through slopes covered in avalanch lilies you arrive at Summerland Meadow and the views are other-worldly. Mount Rainier and Little Tahoma appear to be of equal height at this angle. It’s an illusion of course, but the views are stunning.
There are chipmunks and some surprisingly beefy marmots up here. Lots of places to sit and enjoy your lunch. It’s kind of an idyllic scene: a painter creating mountain-scapes from a boulder, people lunching beside the trail looking out at the meadow about to explode with paintbrush and lupine. I saw just one bird I was able to photograph: a chipping sparrow. Another lifer for my list.
Beautiful hike, and despite the obstacles, well worth the extra effort in these early weeks of summer. I’ll be back in a few weeks for the flower show. The trail ends as it begins, shaded and flat. A perfect finish.
We toyed with the idea of a drive up to Sunrise since the road was finally open, but the steady stream of cars that direction made the decision for us. Early is the only way to enjoy any solitude and the summer hiking season is just beginning in earnest.
Here are a few photos of flowers blooming now. There are a lot just beginning to pop and this trail will be a stunning display in a week or two.