Thursday, July 16, 2009

Crystal Peak, Mount Rainier, July 15, 2009


This is a steep trail but so rewarding you might not notice how steep until you descend 3,100 feet back to the trailhead. Be sure to get an early start to beat the heat.

The first 1.3-mile of the trail starts out as one with the Crystal Lakes trail; mercifully, it’s in the shade. After crossing Crystal Creek on a footbridge the trail climbs through old-growth forest. Note charred Douglas firs along the switchbacks. In a bit you’ll come to a spur (right) that leads to a spectacular view of Mount Rainier (viewed best in early morning light this time of year). The haze had not yet materialized.

A couple more spurs lead to overlooks of Crystal Creek tucked away in a gorge. At 1.3 miles or so is the junction – the Crystal Peak trail is to the left.

You’ll need to cross Crystal Creek again - the bridge that used to span Crystal Creek is gone but it’s not an issue. Someone has built a bridge out of deadfall to cross the stream; crossing is no problem. Soon after we crossed the creek the trail contoured across a boulder field exposed to the sun before the trail dipped back into the forest again.

Another dark, forested stretch provides an occasional peek of Mount Rainier. Soon open areas alternate with mixed terrain of evergreens, shrubbery and wildflowers. We saw lupine, tiger lilies, bear grass (lots!), mountain ash, and Indian paintbrush. Anywhere there is light there are flowers.

The trail climbs in long, easy switchbacks. The terrain gradually changes over to meadows with a few clumps of subalpine trees. Mount Rainier is in view most of the way, the trail bordered with flowers. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen as many flowers on this trail before. Cusick’s speedwell, Jacobs ladder, tiger lilies, lupine, bear grass and at higher elevations magenta paintbrush and pink heather.

White snags and deadfall are scattered across the grassy slopes; surrounded by flowers. I stopped not only to catch my breath but also for photographs. In addition to Mount Rainier and the sinuous curve of the White River there are views of Little Tahoma and Burroughs Mountain.

The trail continues climbing to the site of an old lookout at the end of the last switchback where the trail meets a rocky, ridge. Almost nothing remains of the lookout - all we saw were a few rusty nails and an ancient, weather-beaten board.

You’ll need to climb a little higher for views of Crystal Lakes below; we followed the path along the ridge to the high point (about 6,600 feet). Here there is a stunning view of Crystal Lakes below, the upper lake nestled within a craggy bowl. You can also see Mount Adams and on a clear day, Mount Saint Helens.

We took our time retracing our route; it was hard to leave. Back in the forest again on the main trail we spotted coralroot, Canadian dogwood, wild strawberry and a few wisps of lupine. The elevation gain for the hike is roughly 3,100 feet to the lookout site, 3,200 feet to the high point.

It’s worth it.

Getting to the trailhead: From Enumclaw drive State Route 410 and in about 4.5 miles past the turn-off to the National park boundary; find the trailhead (left). There is parking on both sides of the highway. No pets allowed. A Northwest Forest Pass is required.


Mad Monte said...

Great trip!! thanks for the wonderful info. BTW,, are you the gal in the late 70's TV cast put on by Exploration Northwest on the hike from Canadian Border To Harts Pass??. I did the PCT in 1977,, best to you

karen said...

Hi Mad Monte,

No, that wasn't me - I didn't start hiking until 1980.

Crystal Mountain is a great trip indeed. Apparently there is a "trail" that runs from Sheep Lake (PCT, Chinook Pass) and comes out at Crystal Lakes. It's one of those "unofficial" trails that sounds intriguing. Will check it out one of these days. Soon!

I never did the whole PCT - I was a working stiff in the 1980s/90s and could never put together enough time to do a fine trip like that. I envy you!