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.

ITINERARY

  • 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

TRIP PLANNING

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.

Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip

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 & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip

Sheep Lake (not shown are many other campers and kids, don’t expect solitude here!)

Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip

We collected water from the lake outlet for filtering.

Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip

After dinner, we explored around camp and found some nice viewpoints.

Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip

Sunset at Sheep Lake

Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip

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.

Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip

The scenery is amazing everywhere you look, with open meadows and views to nearby peaks.

Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip

We went up to Sourdough Gap, where we could see into another valley.

Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip

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.

Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip

The trail heads down about 600 feet before reaching Upper Crystal Lake.

Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip

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!).

Sheep Lake & Upper Crystal Lake backpacking tripUpper Crystal Lake Upper Crystal Lake

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.

Upper Crystal Lake Upper Crystal Lake Upper Crystal Lake Upper Crystal Lake Upper Crystal 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.

Upper Crystal Lake backpacking trip