backpack: Mount Rainier – Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake
On my first subalpine backpacking trip of the year, we lucked out and were able to get walk up permits for Upper Crystal Lake at Mount Rainier National Park.
- day 1 – hike in to Sheep Lake: 1.8 miles, 400 ft. gain
- day 2 – move camp to Upper Crystal Lake: 2.3 miles, 665 ft. gain & 615 ft. loss
- day 3 – hike out to trailhead: 4.1 miles, 615 ft. gain, 1,065 ft. loss
- best months: July – October (depending on snow levels)
- location: Chinook Pass
- land management: Mount Rainier National Park
- trail conditions: Mount Rainier Trails and Backcountry Camp Conditions
- hike description: Washington Trails Association: Sheep Lake to Sourdough Gap
- permits: required for Upper Crystal Lake, none for Sheep Lake
- passes: NW Forest Pass (trailhead), National Park Pass (required to pick up permits at the White River Ranger Station)
- water sources: outlets at Sheep Lake and Upper Crystal Lake, no other water along the trail
Day 1 – hike in to Sheep Lake
1.8 miles with 400 ft. gain
While we had permits for Upper Crystal Lake at Mount Rainier National Park, the permit wasn’t for our first night so we hiked in to Sheep Lake, which is outside of the park and doesn’t require permits. Since the lake is very easy to get to, it gets fairly crowded. While we were there, at least ten groups including families with quite a few kids (and dogs) were there having fun.
From the large parking lot at Chinook Pass, we hiked north on the Pacific Crest Trail with highway 410 visible below the trail for the first mile. The trail enters forest after turning away from the highway, and before long, we were at Sheep Lake.
There were already quite a few campers at the lake, but we found a nice spot away from the lake in the trees.
Sheep Lake (not shown are many other campers and kids, don’t expect solitude here!)
We collected water from the lake outlet for filtering.
After dinner, we explored around camp and found some nice viewpoints.
Sunset at Sheep Lake
Day 2 – move camp to Upper Crystal Lake
2.3 miles with 665 ft. gain and 615 ft. loss
The next day, we packed up and continued on the Pacific Crest Trail to our permitted camp at Upper Crystal Lake.
The scenery is amazing everywhere you look, with open meadows and views to nearby peaks.
We went up to Sourdough Gap, where we could see into another valley.
We continued on the trail across a second pass on the Crystal Lakes Trail to our first view of Rainier on our hike. Upper Crystal Lake is visible in the bottom right of the photo below.
The trail heads down about 600 feet before reaching Upper Crystal Lake.
We followed the trail to the end of the lake and crossed the outlet to the designated campsites. Both were empty when we arrived, so we chose campsite #2 with a view of the lake and closer access to the toilet and bear poles for food storage. While we were here, we met two different park rangers that checked to make sure we had permits and were setup within the designated areas for tents. They were also there to maintain the composting toilet (thank you, park rangers!).
It was so quiet and peaceful here. The hike in was short, so after setting up camp, we had a lot of time to explore around the lake.
Since this was early July, I was expecting to see mosquitoes. Several people we talked to on trail mentioned them, including a teenager near the pass who gave us a stern warning about how fierce they were going to be, but fortunately, we didn’t find them to be particularly bothersome. It helps that we were prepared with clothing treated with Permethrin and I used a Thermocell device to keep them at bay while I was sitting at camp.
Day 3 – hike out
4.1 miles with 615 ft. gain and 1,065 ft. loss
During this trip, the daytime highs were fairly hot and I experienced mild heat exhaustion. Instead of staying another night, we opted to hike out early in the morning. I’d love to go back here in the fall when the temps are mild and autumn colors fill the meadows and hillsides.