I hiked to Camp Muir on Mount Rainier (Tahoma, the original Puyallup name of the mountain) during my West Coast road trip. Camp Muir (elevation 10,188) is as far as hikers are allowed to traverse up Mount Rainier. To say the least, this 9-mile hike with an elevation gain of 4,788 feet is not an easy stroll but most hikers can complete the hike, albeit with preparation, awareness, and breathing a little heavier than normal.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
When I have daunting hikes ahead of me, I always get to the trailhead early in the morning to ensure I have enough daylight to complete the hike. I started the hike at 7 AM under heavy fog, rain mist, and cold temperatures. I warmed up quickly and even shed layers within 15 minutes given the amount of elevation I gained within a short distance. I researched the hike enough to know that weather can change quickly and drastically on Mount Rainier, so I debated whether I should turn around once I reached the snowfield. A mile into the hike, I ran into a ranger who assured me the weather would clear up and that my trail runners without microspikes were more than sufficient to get me to Camp Muir. Buoyed by this reassurance, the sun coming out in full force, and the fog lifting to reveal spectacular views of the most iconic mountains (Mount Adams, Mount Hood, and Mount St. Helens), I started my trek on the Muir Snowfield with confidence and excitement.
Soon after I stepped onto the snowfield, I realized trudging in the snow while gaining a large amount of elevation was definitely harder than I anticipated. The air was thinning. Each step required more energy. I was moving extremely slow. I’d also forgotten my sunglasses in the car and the sun brightly reflecting off the snow started to strain my eyes (this is why it’s always important to check the 10 essentials are in the pack before starting any hike!).
After an hour of hiking through the snow, I took a break on a rock island and realized that I had only progressed about a quarter mile. Also, my hiking partner, who moved much faster than me, was so far ahead that he was completely out of sight. As all this set in, I felt defeated and started to seriously doubt my ability to complete the hike. Just as I contemplated turning around, another hiker stopped to chat with me. He was kind and reassuring which in that moment felt like he was breathing into me the confidence I needed to finish the hike. I started my way up again – one small goal post at a time. Finally, I reached the 8,000 feet elevation mark. The reward was the sight of Camp Muir and a less steep section which helped me climb the next 1,000 feet of elevation more steadily. At this point, I was sure I would be at my destination in mere minutes.
An hour later, I was still moving towards Camp Muir but it didn’t seem any closer. At over 9,000 feet, the air thinned significantly and each step required ever more energy and effort. I had to tap into a deeply hidden reservoir of strength to keep moving forward and I made it to the last 250 feet. The only thing that separated me from Camp Muir at this point was a steep, nearly vertical climb at which point I threw my trekking poles down and screamed. That seemed to unlock the last burst of energy I needed to make it to Camp Muir.
As I stepped up to the old structures, I turned around and saw the most majestic views ahead of me – crevasses, seracs, glaciers, – things I had never seen in person. The full beauty surrounding me sitting literally above the clouds (Camp Muir was originally called Cloud Camp for a reason!) and the realization that my body was strong enough to get me to this point hit me and I was overcome with emotion.
After a good long while of taking it all in, I started making my way down thinking this would be the easy part. The sun and the line of people moving up and down the mountain had melted the snow down to slippery slush. If going up zapped my energy, the treacherous solo hike down snatched my balance and amped up my fear. Glissading is a popular option to come down Mount Rainier. Because I didn’t have a trash bag, I found glissading not much easier because I slid way off the main path, which is extremely dangerous because the Camp Muir route is buttressed by several crevasse-filled glaciers (Paradise, Nisqually, and Cowlitz Glaciers). Most hiker fatalities on Mount Rainier happen as a result of navigation mistakes that lead them off the main route. I slipped and fell more times than I can remember and hit my head on more than one rock island (which also was scary because holes open around rocks as the snow melts). I eventually made it down from the mountain, soaking wet and cold. After changing into dry clothes, I rewarded my accomplishment with two cups of the most delicious hot chocolate I’d tasted in my life and a hot meal at Paradise Inn.
Most hiking guides estimate the round trip to Camp Muir to take about 7.5 hours on a good weather day. It took me 13 hours including 20 minutes of taking in the view at Camp Muir. The misadventures of the hike and my ability to push myself well beyond my physical and mental comfort zones not only made the hike memorable but made me a stronger hiker. I’m not encouraging anyone to traverse unsafely, but I’m a big believer in learning from mistakes because it is the only way to build the mental fortitude to take on scary hikes, especially as a solo hiker!
The trek to Camp Muir starts on the paved Skyline trail (5,400 feet) located immediately behind the Paradise Visitor Center. Half mile into the hike is the first glimpse of Mount Rainier at Glacier Vista (6,200 feet). Another half mile later is Panorama Point (6,700 feet) and Panorama camping area a short bit away from the viewpoint. At this point the paved section of the Skyline Trail has ended and the next 1.2 miles of the trail alternates between wooden stairs and rocky areas but the climbing continues to Pebble Creek (7,200 feet). There are several ominous signs warning hikers that sudden and drastic weather changes occur routinely on Mount Rainier including whiteout conditions, even in the summer (yes, this is true and should be taken seriously!). The Skyline trail ends at Pebble Creek and the strongly flowing creek is a good place to refill water and rest before tackling the next part of the hike, the Muir Snowfield.
Located To the left of the creek is the unmarked Camp Muir Route, which is the start of the travel on the Muir Snowfield. The next 2.2 miles (and 3,000 feet of elevation gain) is entirely through the snowfield, albeit on softer snow in the summer and early fall. Because the trek to Camp Muir is unmarked, the best way to stay on route is to follow the path created by other hikers. Camp Muir comes into view to the left and Anvil Rock to the right when you reach the 8,000 feet elevation mark. There’s nothing to mark this other than the views of Camp Muir and the trail flattening slightly. The air grows much thinner at this altitude, so despite the many arduous steps the camp won’t seem to get any closer. Just short of the two-mile mark will be Anvil Rock (9,584 feet). The final marker is Camp Muir at striking distance, only 250 feet away but with a nearly vertical hike.
There are two stone huts at Camp Muir, which hikers have been gazing at for hours. The public shelter is open for hikers to use, but the other is a guide hut. Unless the weather is bad, hikers opt to take a seat above the clouds and enjoy the view no words or picture can truly capture. Among the sights is an array of climbers’ tents on Cowlitz Glacier which is in touching distance of Camp Muir, Gibraltar Rock and Cathedral Wall, both of which climbers traverse on their way to the summit of Mount Rainier, and Little Tahoma which only seems small from this vantage point.
This is an out and back hike, so follow the Camp Muir Route back to the Skyline Trail. Use caution on the return trip – snow is much softer especially on sunny days and easy to slip on. There are several glaciers on either side of this route with many crevasses and other potentially life-threatening hazards.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
- Plan for a long day on the mountain regardless of fitness level. With nearly 4,800 feet of elevation gain including some hiking above 8,000 feet where the air is noticeably thinner, this hike is both physically and mentally demanding.
- Come fully prepared with the 10 essentials including sun protection, compass and topographic map (and know how to use them), and shelter in case of an emergency as a result of weather or injury. Be sure to check that all items are safely stored in your pack before heading out on the trail.
- Be aware of your surroundings because the Camp Muir route is surrounded by several glaciers that contain deep crevasses and other life-threatening hazards.
- If storms are approaching, especially winter weather, turn around. White out conditions limit visibility and the natural tendency of following the slope of the hill can lead to serious dangers as glaciers and crevasses surround the Camp Muir route. A wrong turn, especially in bad weather, can become a fatal error.
- Snow can easily obscure the steep cliffs near Camp Muir, Anvil Rock, and McClure Rock. Panorama Point is an avalanche prone area. Be aware of your surroundings and take caution, especially when traveling in early spring or late fall.
- It might be tempting to traverse across rock islands rather than trudge through the snow, but use this option with extreme care. Holes can open around rocks as the snow melts and crevasses can open in the snowfield itself in late summer.
- Camp Muir is as far as hikers are allowed to traverse up Mount Rainier. Any travel beyond this point requires climbing skills, equipment, and a permit. This is also the primary basecamp for climbers making the push to summit Mount Rainier.
- Mount Rainier National Park charges an entrance fee ($30 for a car and good for seven consecutive days, $60 for an annual pass to RMNP, or $80 for an annual interagency pass that gives you access to all areas managed by the National Park Service).
GEAR FOR THE HIKE
- Clothing – Moisture-wicking base layer and mid layer; rain and down jackets (even in the summer).
- Footwear – Sturdy and comfortable hiking boots (avoid trail runners or hiking shoes). Merino wool (or some other moisture-wicking and quick-drying) socks (and an extra pair in your pack). Gaiters to prevent snow from slipping into the boot.
- Day Pack – Large enough to pack the 10 essential items, including shelter, hydration, and food.
- Other Essential Items – Microspikes (not required but helpful). Trekking poles are handy for traveling through the snowfield. Sun protection (sunglasses, sunscreen, and sun protection layers of clothing). Trash bag for glissading on the return trip.
The Skyline trailhead (coordinates: 46.7861660, -121.735990) starts behind the Paradise Visitor Center.
This is a popular location in peak season, so be sure to arrive at the trailhead early in the morning to secure a parking spot.
The visitor center and Paradise Inn have amenities but they are only accessible during hours of operation.
Check out the video of the hike to Camp Muir