Summit Lake & Mt Rainier

Sunrise at Mt Rainier: hiking & camping at Summit Lake

An indisputable Seattle icon and Washington’s best-known peak, the snowy summit of Mt Rainier (originally called Tacoma by native Americans, meaning “the source of nourishment from the many streams coming from the slopes”) provides a dramatic backdrop for countless local adventures, international flights, and even the state licence plate.

I grew up in the shadows of Rainier, and yet I’m still wildly impressed every time I catch a glimpse of its ragged top and powder-white face (the most glaciated in the contiguous US) across Lake Washington or downtown Seattle. And as part of a renewed interest in rediscovering the PNW now that I’m here visiting family for a few months, Mt Rainier was at the very top of my list— COVID may have cancelled my true summit plans, but Summit Lake provides a stellar view to at least satiate me until climbing season rolls back around.

With my dad and stepmum as eager adventure buddies, I set out on a sunrise mission this week to capture Mt Rainier in all her glory, and I have to say that my many expectations were well exceeded. As far as short and relatively undemanding hikes go, you’d struggle to find a more magnificent view of The Mountain!

All the details: Summit Lake

Getting there

Summit Lake is about 2hrs out of Seattle (just past Carbonado and Mowich Lake), but be warned that the dirt access road leading up to the trailhead is in terrible repair— I’d highly recommend a 4WD or at least an SUV

Starting point

Summit Lake trailhead

Total distance

11.2km return

Walking time

2.5hrs + additional time for watching the sunrise

Difficulty

This is a fairly easy walk that could be completed in trail shoes or runners and without any hiking experience (just a general level of fitness)

Water

You can easily filter water for drinking right out of Summit Lake

Variations

There are a number of quiet, well-positioned campsites around the lake and approaching the summit; no permits required. Although this is easily (and most often) completed as a day hike, I highly recommend staying overnight about 3/4ths of the way to the highpoint and then waking up at 6am (or ~1hr before sunrise, depending on the time of year) to walk the final distance. There is no conceivable way you could drive along the awful dirt access road in the dark, so if you want to be here for sunrise OR sunset, you need to camp.

Mt Rainier Summit Lake sunrise hike
Mt Rainier

After the 1.5hr drive along one of the worst access roads I’ve ever seen, we arrive at the Summit Lake trailhead just after 5pm, barely an hour before sunset. We have to hustle to make it as far along the trail as we can tonight, positioning ourselves close to the summit for our sunrise mission tomorrow, but we’re also feeling a little tired from the 6hr day-hike we just finished across the NP at Spray Park.

We are quite slow gathering and repacking our things from the boot, but finally we set off up the trail in the dimming evening light. Thankfully, it’s a very gradual ascent along a wide, well-maintained trail (in stark contrast to the condition of the road we drove in on), so we motor along with relative ease.

About 1.5km into our hike, we pass Twin Lake, mysteriously with no actual twin in sight, and continue a further 2km onwards to reach the proximal shore of Summit Lake. There’s one group camped in a flat site near the water, but we decide to continue on towards the summit in hopes of a more scenic spot to pitch our tent.

Not long after, we come around the opposite side of the lake and are greeted by incredible views of Mt Rainier peaking through the trees, all the more magical for the long, suspenseful reveal. The day’s clouds have faded and the chance of clear skies tomorrow seems ever more likely.

We follow a small offshoot from the trail down to a little sandy beach lining this side of the lake, but end up backtracking slightly to a flatter, more sheltered spot in the trees that will better protect us from the chilly wind blowing through.

By this time, it’s completely dark out and I’m hiking by the light of my phone, having forgotten my headlamp in the dash to get out of the car and onto the trail. After setting up in the dark and enjoying a delicious dinner of pasta and wine by lantern-light, we pass out in our tent, alarm set for a surprisingly reasonable 5.50am.

Summit Lake Mt Rainier sunrise hike
Mt Rainier from the highpoint

The following morning, dressed already in my daytime clothes for maximum efficiency, I roll easily out of the tent when the alarm sounds and we all set off from camp at 6am, feeling fairly alert. Only 10min later, we’ve climbed around the right side of the lake and we begin to catch frequent glimpses of Mt Rainier behind Summit Lake that are simply too beautiful to pass up. 

Exploring a half-dozen of the small paths splintering off the main trail, we attempt the find The View, an absolutely perfect spot to watch the sunrise. We end up changing our mind about 4 times as each subsequent outcrop appears better than the last, but finally settle on a rock perch that looks out perfectly over the lake and also offers views of the vibrant yellow and orange autumn foliage lining the perimeter. 

Summit Lake Mt Rainier sunrise hike
Sunrise at Summit Lake

We’re still 30min off sunrise, so dad and I set off briskly up the trail a further 10min to see what the view’s like from the actual summit. Our path actually winds beyond Summit Lake, bringing us closer to the snowy face of Mt Rainier.

From this windy highpoint, there is a phenomenal view of the mountain and little Coplay Lake beneath its massive face— but it’s still no match for the dramatic, dark reflection of Summit Lake from our lower rock perch among the trees, now confirmed to be the best view available from the trail.

We agree to return to the summit with Eileen after the light is up, and then quickly zip back to our chosen sunrise spot, just in time to see the first light rising in the east over ripples of purple mountains and evergreens.

Summit Lake & Mt Rainier
Summit Lake Mt Rainier sunrise hike
Sunrise over Mt Rainier

We spend the next hour just watching the sun come up across the valley, illuminating Mt Rainier in a pink haze before transitioning to a warm yellow light that also sets the autumn foliage just below us alight in a perfect golden glow. Exactly as we’d hoped in choosing this spot!

Every minute brings new light and colours, and by the time the sun is truly up, I’ve taken several hundred photos of more or less the exactly same view—and yet each is subtly different, my favourites when the low early morning sun shines straight across onto our rocky outcrop.

Summit Lake Mt Rainier sunrise hike
Mt Rainier from Summit Lake trail

For a quick and easy hike, this is one of the most impressive views I’ve ever seen, as well as one of Mt Rainier’s most spectacular angles. The combination of the evergreens in every shade of emerald, the dark blue of Summit Lake, and the fresh snow on Mt Rainier is truly spectacular, even more impressive for all our fruitless anticipation the previous day (waiting for clear views that never really materialised around Mt Pleasant in Mt Rainier National Park).

Our patience is rewarded 50-times over this morning and I can’t wipe the ear-splitting grin off my face at our good fortune.

GPS MAP: Summit Lake

This is a super easy trail to follow, but here’s the GPS recording of the hike in (double the distance for the hike out, which is almost entirely downhill):

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