Summerland Trail measures 8.6 miles and is considered strenuous on the Difficulty Scale. It takes 5-7 hours to complete the trail all around. It is a well-maintained trail, surrounded by trees in the first 3 miles. Hikers get to hear the sound of rivers and waterfalls. The last 1.3 miles is an encounter with switchbacks and occasional views of Mount Rainier.
There is wildlife close by, from herds of goats to Buck Deer and Doe Deer. It starts at Fryingpan Creek, which has 4,000 feet of elevation and ends at Panhandle Gap, at 6,800 feet elevation. Hence total elevation gain stands at 3,150 feet.
The Summerland trail covers part of the more popular Wonderland Trail, which is a 93-mile trail encircling Mount Rainier. It would take you over 13 days to complete the Wonderland Trail. For hikers short of time to complete the Wonderland Trail, the convenient way out is to hike the Summerland – Panhandle Gap trail. It is a one-day trip, but it gives you the taste of the Wonderland Trail.
To see a further breakdown of the Summerland Trail, please visit the official page for the Washington Trails Association. Link to the relevant page on wta.org for the hike.
Summerland Trail History
The history of Summerland Trail is in the chapters of the history of Mount Rainier National Park. It is not clear when precisely the Summerland Trail started or gained popularity. Indeed, it is not always easy to pinpoint when a trail or a path was first traveled. Mount Rainier National Park, where it is located, was established in 1899. The trail might have been in existence by then, or not.
It is recorded that Summerland Trail Shelter was built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The shelter is made of stones and logs. It measures around 15 feet by 16 feet. Whatever the case, the trail has gained popularity over the years. It may be challenging, not a walk in the park, but then many hikers love it for that very reason.
Getting to the Trail
Summerland Trail is in White River Road, also known as Sunrise Park Road. It is 11.2 miles from the Sunrise Visitor Centre. It is not far from Mather Memorial Parkway.
Take the Sunrise Road and drive until you get to the White River Campground. The trailhead is right past the bridge over Fryingpan Creek.
If coming from Enumclaw, switch to Highway 410 east, and drive 43 miles to the White River Entrance to Mount Rainier National Park. Turn right on Sunrise Road and drive for 4 miles. The drive ends at the trailhead near Fryingpan Creek.
Park Facilities and Regulations
The best time to join the hike of Summerland Trail is mid-July to mid September because most parts of the trail are free of snow. There is a small parking lot when you get to the trailhead. There are about 25 spaces available, which runs out fast on weekends. If you can’t get a space at the parking, drive up Sunrise Park Road and find a place on the turnouts.
The advantage of parking on the turnouts is that you only walk a short distance to the trailhead. At Summerland, there is a bathroom close to the campgrounds. It is the only toilet you come across on the road trail. Bikes are not allowed on the trail, as well as dogs and horses. In fact, don’t come with an animal.
Again, remain on the trail so that you do not step on the fragile subalpine meadows. Do not depend on your cell phone to call for help; cellular service is weak, although you can send a message when you are at some spots.
Navigating the Summerland Trail
1 To Summerland
Navigating the Summerland Trail involves a steady gain in elevation. It’s not too challenging if you are up to it. The first half section of the hike is relatively easy because the trail is generally level. You walk through old-growth vegetation made up of evergreen trees. It is all beautiful and peaceful.
After a quarter-mile, the trail becomes part of the southward Wonderland Trail that comes from Sunrise. You are likely to share the trail with other hikers circling Mount Rainier on the Wonderland Trail. They are out there for nights. The sunlight hardly penetrates to reach the forest floor, so it’s chilly when you walk through the thick woods.
Occasionally, the woods briefly give way to wildflowers. You can see wildflowers like coralroot, queen’s cup, and sidebells pyrola. Coming out of the chilly forest also makes the warm sunshine wholesome even in the summer months, especially if you started early in the morning. After you emerge from the woods again, the first half is done.
But it does not mean you need another equal amount of energy to get done with the last half. What is left is more challenging but fun. It is also more beautiful, perhaps to compensate for the sweat. Mount Rainier is right in front of you as you journey through wildflower fields.
You get to see small alpine firs and lots of white rhododendron shrubs. These shrubs are cousins of the town Rhodies you must be familiar with. The Rhodies bloom in June. The forest seems to change remarkably because the trees are now smaller; they are species different from those you had been seeing earlier.
The trail crosses the occasional small stream here and there as it gets steeper. You may be able to see Cowlitz Chimneys through the occasional openings on the left. Snows that remain on the Cowlitz Chimneys until late summer now feed the water to the small cascades that drop down precipitously to form part of Fryingpan Creek.
You will come across a log bridge with a flat top. Its railing leans towards the stream. If you don’t mind, you can stop over the bridge to have a good look at the glacial water that resembles milk. If you stretch your vision upstream, you would see part of the mountain.
After crossing the bridge, you will be hiking parallel to the creek for some time. There are shrubs and wildflowers on the far end. Valerian is especially prominent among the wildflowers. The most tiring part of the hike comes when you reenter the forest and steadily gain elevation while hiking up a series of switchbacks. Fortunately, it’s not too long before you are done with the switchbacks.
Soon, you are at the top of switchbacks, which happens 4.5 miles into the hike. Well, you are also in Summerland. You will see campgrounds off the trail. There is also a bathroom, which is the only one on the trail. You have gained 2,000 feet to get to Summerland after hiking a trail of 4.5 miles. The trail continues for another 1.5 miles to Panhandle Gap with an elevation gain of 900 feet. If you have the time and the energy to continue, go ahead.
2 From Summerland to Panhandle Gap
From Summerland, the trail levels out, meandering through more wildflower fields. It’s another world altogether. You get to see gravel and boulders and more streams covered by ice. Soon, you cross a small creek. You might see a black bear or marmot here if you are lucky.
After crossing the creek, the trail starts to gain elevation again as the hike to Panhandle Gap (1.5 miles away) kicks off. By the end of the 1.5 miles, you will have gained 1000 feet elevation. That’s why it’s the most challenging part of the second half. You might see goats on the steep slopes (in summer) lying on the remaining patches of snow to cool off. You may meet a bear traveling to the other side of the mountain.
This part of the trail is edged with small stones or marked with orange paintings. Although the trail may be covered in snow in some parts, it is walkable Finally, you are onto the top of the Panhandle Gap, and you can enjoy viewing the beautiful scenery towards the south. If the clouds permit, you would see Mount Adams and Goat Rocks on the southern horizon.
You can also be able to see the summit of Mount Hood in Oregon. The Wonderland trail still continues from the Panhandle Gap. It crosses Ohanapecosh Park and heads towards Indian Bar and still far beyond it. If you had only a day to spend on the trail, the Panhandle Gap is your turnaround point. You can sit for a while to enjoy some of your snacks or water while taking pictures. Goats may turn up there.
There is a good chance you will walk through the snow when you hike the Summerland Trail. You should also get hiking poles so that you do not pile excess pressure on your feet. Hiking poles will also keep you balanced while crossing the snow. The Summerland Trail is long and strenuous, and you will be exposed to the sun for more than half the journey. Therefore, come with at least three liters of water. You may also consider sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat.
The weather may also change abruptly or at short notice. It’s not unusual for a sunny day to give in to showers, so have a rain jacket. Also, wear warm clothes because it gets really chilly when you get to the Panhandle Gap.