backpack: Upper Palisades Lake – Mount Rainier
On this three day backpacking trip to Upper Palisades Lake in Mount Rainier National Park, we hiked through subalpine beauty filled with lakes and meadows to a scenic lake below peaks of The Palisades.
- day 1 – hike in to Upper Palisades Lake: 3.7 miles, 610 ft. gain, 880 ft. loss
- day 2 – rest/explore day
- day 3 – hike out to trailhead: 3.7 miles, 880 ft. gain, 610 ft. loss
- best months: July – October (depending on snow levels)
- trailhead: Sunrise Point
- land management: Mount Rainier National Park
- trail conditions: Mount Rainier Trails and Backcountry Camp Conditions
- hike description: Washington Trails Association: Palisades Lakes
- permits: required (we obtained walk-up permits the day of the trip)
- passes: National Park Pass (required to enter the park)
- water sources: streams near the camp area
- campfires and pets are not allowed
Day 1 – hike in to Upper Palisades Lake
3.7 miles with 610 ft. gain, 880 ft. loss
This trip was a substitute for our original planned destination in Eastern Oregon due to weather. Since we were starting on a Monday morning, I was hopeful that we’d be able to obtain walk-up permits at the White River Ranger Station. I had several destinations in mind, with my first pick being the Palisades Lakes area. Luckily, there were no lines to enter the park and we scored the permits I hoped for.
The Palisades Lakes area includes six lakes: Sunrise Lake, Clover Lake, Dick’s Lake, Hidden Lake, Upper Palisades and Lower Palisades. Camping is only allowed with permits at designated sites at Upper Palisades and Dick’s Lake, with two campsites at each. Due to the limited number of campsites available and the lack of views of Rainier, this area tends to be less crowded than the trails in the Sunrise area.
From the trailhead at Sunrise Point, the first of six lakes, Sunrise Lake, is visible from above. The trail descends just over 500 feet at the start of the hike, with a side trail to Sunrise Lake. We bypassed this and continued on the main trail through forest and meadows.
At about 1 mile in, the trail heads uphill steeply just before reaching Clover Lake. Camping is not allowed here, but there is a side trail that leads around this pretty lake.
After Clover Lake, the trail heads up to a pass, then descends at a steep grade before crossing through several more meadows. The trail on this trek is a bit like a roller coaster, with steep ups and downs along the way, but very do-able.
On the hike in, we saw several signs of black bears, including several trees with the bark removed and deep scratches on the tree trunks. There were also a couple of piles of fresh bear scat in the lower meadow section. However, we never did see any bears on this trip.
Wildflowers were at peak in all of the meadows we passed through. Lupines and bistort dominated, but there were many other types of wildflowers, including paintbrush, lousewort, hellebore, arnica, and pasqueflower in the “hippie on a stick” phase as we neared our destination.
The trail climbed at a steep grade to Dick’s Lake where we passed the side trail to campsites there and continued heading up.
The Palisades are a series peaks and ridges that tower above the meadows and lakes within the Sourdough Mountain Range. Most of this area is full of large, open meadows with views of the nearby peaks.
We passed a small tarn filled with tadpoles that was drying out and noticed bear prints in the mud… so we were on the look out for bears once again.
The trail levels out at a plateau before descending to Upper Palisades Lake. At just over 3.5 miles in from the trailhead, we reached the lake and took a side trail to the camp area.
Two designated campsites are located on the southwest side of the lake. When we arrived, the first site was already taken so we setup in the second campsite. The camps are located in a scenic area and have a shared bear pole for food storage, and a backcountry toilet hidden in the trees on the hillside above the camps.
In between the campsites, this stream and granite-filled hillside became our hang out spot and place to gather water for filtering.
Getting to see wildlife in their native habitat was a treat on this trip. There were tons of pikas “meeping” and running around in the granite, and a marmot spent the afternoon munching on wildflowers in the meadows beside our campsite. Later in the evening, two deer walked through the area, and while we were exploring around the lake, we surprised a family of grouse on the trail.
Wildflowers were more abundant and diverse at Upper Palisades Lake than on the hike in, with lupines, false hellebore, magenta paintbrush, arnica, valerian, lousewort, and more in bloom.
On the second day of our trip, we took it easy and explored the area. The main trail continues past the lake to a brushy viewpoint. The horizon was filled with peaks, including Mount Baker, and Lower Palisades Lake was visible far below.
The water level in Upper Palisades Lake was extremely low, probably due to this year’s drier than normal conditions at Mount Rainier.
On the third day of our trip, we packed up for the hike out. Sad to be leaving this special place, we vowed to return again next year.
In spite of dogs not being allowed on the trails at Mount Rainier National Park, we saw two different people with dogs on this trip. It’s a shame since one of the highlights of this trip was being able to see wildlife and the presence of dogs definitely can have an impact on that for others.