Trail details last updated August 2018
Backpacker Magazine once called the ascent to Mount Rainier’s Camp Muir one of the top ten most dangerous hikes in America (more aptly in the USA.) What earned it that distinction was not the hike distance (a healthy but not crazy ~4,700′ in 4.5 miles) but rather the conditions along the way to the 10,180′ destination. With miles on a deep snowfield with no defined trail, the potential for ice, and steep drops, Camp Muir has all the makings of a seriously extreme day. Indeed, even in summer on a seemingly perfect day, the hike to Muir can turn into a full on freezing whiteout in mere minutes.
But I’m not here to tell not to climb — Camp Muir is one of my favorite places to visit and may become one of yours too, if you’re game for the challenges that lie along the way that is.
Warning: Alpine mountain climbing is inherently dangerous, even on so called “non-technical” routes. From avalanches to falls to unexpected storms, do not underestimate the mountain no matter what your friends may have told you about that time they did it (hint: the Muir snowfield has seen serious incidents, even deaths.) Be sure to bring appropriate climbing / snow gear, non-cotton layers, along with food, water and the rest of the essentials. Know the conditions, the route, and the hazards. Have fun but be prepared! See the NPS site.
Preparing for the Climb: Paradise & The Trailhead
The hike to Camp Muir starts out at Mount Rainier’s Paradise. Named more for the view than the weather I suspect, in summer Paradise is a tourist mecca drawing in thousands of visitors who mainly explore the lower slopes of the mountain. To insure you get a decent parking spot and avoid some of crowds found crowding the lower elevation trails be sure to arrive early in the morning.
As winter returns to the mountain, Paradise becomes much quieter as the snow piles up and resort and Visitor Center close up until well into Spring or even early Summer. By late winter it is common to find a decent crowd out in the Paradise parking lot headed to play in the snow on a nice weekend but more often than not, the mountain is engulfed by storms making a winter hike a whole other animal. Even as Spring rolls around it’s common to find the trail covered in snow from the first step out and the hike up is never more than about half dirt.
At Paradise you will find restrooms just adjacent to the ranger station / climbing building that are open 24×7. While this facility is not fancy, it gets the job done and is the last place to fill up on water as well as to sneak out of the elements and pack up your gear. The trailhead is located just a few feet away from the restrooms marked by a set of stone steps in summer or usually a well defined and flagged opening to the snow slopes earlier in the season.
The Paradise Inn (seasonal) has a small gift shop and cafe for basic treats after your hike and is also a great place to warm up and enjoy a ranger event on a weekend long outing. The Visitor Center (also seasonal and not open until mid-morning, far later than when you should be starting out on the trail) has a cafeteria as well as an additional set of restrooms and a staffed ranger station with updated condition reports for the mountain. That said there is very little in the way of real supplies to buy inside the park so be sure to stop for anything you really need (including gas) on the way through Ashford.
Also keep in mind that on a summer weekend, the park is full of visitors. Showing up by 7am will save you a lot of traffic and parking headaches.
Preparing for the Climb: What to Bring
Even on a perfect day, the Muir Snowfield is a serious undertaking so come prepared with proper clothing (extra layers, no cotton / jeans!), enough snacks for a long day out, 3-4+ liters water and all the other essentials for what is really a winter hike any time of year. Sturdy, insulated boots and good snow traction (microspikes, crampons or snowshoes), trekking poles and ice axes can all be required depending on the conditions of the season and even the day. Expect to bring along gear for an overnight emergency bivvy and a map & compass for route finding.
Warning: There is no water at Camp Muir! Bring all you need with your for the hike and down or a stove to melt water from the snowfield (treat anything you collect from the streams along the way.)
If you find yourself missing any climbing gear, Whitaker Base Camp in Ashford has a full mountain shop with everything from socks to ice axes and opens up pretty early in the morning too. Both they and IMG offer gear rentals below the mountain though you can also pick up snowshoes at the Longmire Store or the Visitor’s Center (winter – spring, check for operating hours).
The Hike: From the Trailhead to Pebble Creek
On a nice, mid-summer day the first half of the hike is really anything but extreme, provided that the snow has melted away (if not you may be climbing a 25-30+ degree slope over Panorama Point.)
To begin, follow the paved trail out of the parking lot and towards the Skyline trail where you’ll see scores of tourists wandering around on brief strolls. Oddly the initial paved trail feels like some steepest climbing on the entire route and can be a real killer for your toes on the way back. This paved section quickly takes you out of the Paradise area and into the lower slopes of the mountain before fading away to a more traditional dirt & gravel trail perhaps 15 minutes into the day.
Keep right at the first junction to continue on the Skyline Trail (both routes will get you to the same place but the left fork feels a little less direct so I usually take it on the way back if anything) where a nice stream divides up the trail. You’ll reach a flat opening with a few benches which you’ll also want to continue straight on through to reach the end of the pavement and the start of the well built, dirt trail which meanders up at an increasingly aggressive clip.
Depending on the snow level, the hike from this point up to the Muir Snowfield will either be a continuous snow slope or a maze of dirt path and stone steps. The dirt route is certainly more straight forward and a fair bit tamer as the snow slope over Panorama Point can be quite steep at points (if it’s still snow covered be sure to look for rocks and other hazards before glissading down on your return) though the giant steps are not fun on the knees or feet.
Along the way up to Panorama Point, be sure to turn around for a fantastic view of the Tatoosh Mountain Range, Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens which dominate the skyline on a nice day. Ahead should be a killer view of the mountain its self with the ice shelves from the Nisqually and other glaciers front and center.
Winding up the mountain, the dirt trail cuts sharply up a rocky slope which can be the trickest stretch to navigate while snow lingers as the photo above shows. Passing this switchback, you’ll reach another fork in the trail at a small stream and will want to keep to your left on the High Skyline trail (marked.) This trail will take you all the way up to Pebble Creek and the base of the Muir snowfield.
If you need a more private bathroom, you can continue on to Panorama Point straight ahead where there’s a vault toilet (summer only) though I’d skip the effort and blue bag it myself (blue bags are how we carry out human waste on snow, pick them up at the climbing station) before looping back up to the High Skyline trail.
From the junction to Pebble Creek is just a few more minutes of walking. Assuming everything is melted out, you’ll remain on dirt and stone until reaching the stream which is well marked and impossible to miss. Cross on over and take a good break on the rocks above the stream as you’ll likely be on snow for the rest of the ascent (if you need more water, fill here but be sure to treat it.)
Climbing the Muir Snowfield to Camp
Assuming the lower slopes of Rainier have melted out for the season, you can expect to end up on snow shortly after Pebble Creek as you transition to the Muir snowfield. At this point, it’s a good idea to switch into hiking / mountain boots if you started the day in a lighter shoe as you want to avoid getting your feet wet or cold as much as possible.
Later in the season as the snow softens up, I’ll often bring up a pair of waterproof trail runners along and push on with them for a bit but know that the snow will get more compact and icy as you continue up. Similarly, while crampons are generally not needed in late spring or summer, that can change quickly with just a few degree swing in temperatures on the mid-mountain (just because it’s nice at the parking lot does not mean it will be 5,000′ higher!) Microspikes on the other hand are helpful much of the year for gaining traction on both light ice and sloppy snow. If you’re considering an early season climb before the snow has had a chance to consolidate down, snowshoes or skis are often essential to avoid postholing up on the slopes.
Now you may think I’m crazy but I feel like snow is better to climb on than dirt and it’s certainly more fun even if it may slow you down a bit. If you’ve never hiked on snow for long distances before, remember to really use your boots by scuffing or kicking to make a platform for your feet as you head up. Coming down is pretty much the opposite principle as you heel step to plunge on in (or just glissade / butt slide if the snow is soft enough and free from hazards.)
The snowfield can feel endless a points but once you’ve crossed Pebble Creek, you’re actually just shy of half way up in elevation gain and a little further in distance. Camp Muir will be hidden for the most part until you get pretty close to it but if you continue on up towards the ridge well above in the distance, you’ll get there sooner or hopefully not too much later.
Depending on the snow level, there may be a fair amount of rock exposed through the snowfield and while it may be necessary to climb up a few stretches to get over some tricky snow, it’s suggested to stay on snow as much as possible to give the plant life a chance to grow (i.e. stay off the dirt!)
Climbing through the snowfield is a great place to practice your snow skills and work on efficiency moving at a steady pace with regular break intervals (rather than stopping every time you want to do something individually.) Be sure to drink loads of water, have a couple hundred calorie snack each hour, and reapply sunscreen like mad even on a cloudy day. By keeping ahead of your needs, you’ll avoid running out of steam before you reach Muir.
While the snowfield is usually pretty straight forward, that does not mean it’s free of hazards. The deep snow can compact into thick ice, melt out completely to drop into a stream or rock hazard, and at times, it does start to fracture if things melt down enough. As the photo above from a late August hike shows, there can be some serious hazards ahead so again, pay attention and have tools to navigate yourself back down too!
After many ups and downs and then what I swear is the biggest hill of the day (it’s not, but it feels like it), Camp Muir will finally come into view. From this point you have well under 1,000′ of vertical climbing to go so it’s one last break and a push to the top. Congrats, you’re half way done!
Welcome to Camp Muir!
If the name “Camp Muir” has you thinking of something like the Grand Canyon’s Phantom Ranch with a shop and like coffee, think again. In reality Muir is simply a collection of a couple buildings including a ranger hut (shown above and just to the left), the public shelter, a few restrooms and a few buildings operated by the guide companies. Still, that’s mighty impressive when you consider just how crazy the winter storms are 10,000′ up on the mountain and that everything at the place is either hand carried up or flown in by an occasional helicopter lift.
The camp is located on a large rock plateau that divides the Muir Snowfield and the Cowlitz Glacier, public buildings are on climber’s right while the guide and ranger facilities are to climber’s left. The shelter was rebuilt a few years ago and while it’s pretty basic, it’s a wonderful home for overnight visitors even if a bit loud. Basic restrooms are always handy though BYOTP and again, there is no water at Camp Muir!!
As a day hiker, you’ll most likely want to settle down just over to the right where there’s a large flat area and a great view across to the Cowlitz Glacier and the upper mountain. Below you will be the tent area for those camping out on the mountain (yes, people really do that and no, it’s not bad at all most of the time.) Looking down the mountain on a clear day will give a view of the Tatoosh Range, Mount Adams, Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens and possibly many more above the Muir snowfield (sunset is epic but climbing down in the dark is not.)
While it’s tempting to continue right on out the backside of Camp Muir and towards those amazing views you see, understand that behind you is a very real glacier complete with crevasses and rock fall and all sorts of hazards you need to know about before trying to tackle (you’ll also need a climbing permit to keep on going.)
If you started out early and kept a good pace as is certainly ideal, you should reach camp just in time for a late lunch which I strongly suggest doing right, you’ve earned it. There are usually a collection of climbers around, some of whom are happy to talk about the mountain and their plans or their recent climb though keep in mind that people may be sleeping in the shelter in mid day (you try getting up at 11pm and hiking for 8+ hours!) I like to head on down before the afternoon sun turns the snowfield completely to mush but before dark is really your big goal.
Spend the Night at Muir
For those who want an even more adventurous trip, consider staying the night at the public shelter. You’ll need to secure a Wilderness permit from the ranger station first. If you want to satay in the shelter its self that space is first come first served with a 99.99999% chance of someone snoring but whatever, it’s epic (there’s also a fair amount of space for 4-season tents.) Just be sure to bring a good sleeping bag, a couple pads for the wood bunks and a stove to make dinner and resupply your water stash with. Also know that climbers tend to go to bed early, like really early so please, be quiet for those who are continuing on up the mountain!
Making the Return to Paradise
Many people struggle going down in the snow as they try to walk like they would on dirt. If the snowpack is hard, crampons or microspikes will help immensely and if it’s soft, plunge stepping with your heels first will let you fly on down, the stiffer the boot, the easier it tends to be. Of course glissading (sliding) is always a popular way down, just be sure to remember to remove any spikes from your feet first so you don’t get caught on the descent and scope out shoots before sliding so you avoid rocks or heading off trail. The regular route really is not all that steep but it’s still a popular ski run in the early season and provides for a few nice slides for the hiking crowd as well.
Of course, conditions change on the way down as well so continue to watch where you’re headed and navigate safely. The photo above was taken just half an hour after a blue sky view from Camp Muir.
When you get down to the Paradise parking lot, you can head on over to the Visitor’s Center (if it’s open) for a celebratory snack at the usually busy cafeteria or the Inn though I personally tend to get out of dodge and grab a real meal at Copper Creek Inn or at RMI’s Grill. You won’t find much cell signal to share your adventures around until you get back to the big cities but you will find wifi at most of the local restaurants.
Quick Facts About the Trail
- Official Rating: Strenuous
- Start point: Paradise Parking Lot
- Distance: ~9 miles r/t
- Duration: 6-8 hours
- Climb: 4,680′
- Facilities: Restrooms at trailhead, vault toilets at Muir
- Water: At the TH only (treat anything along the trail)
- Crowds: Heavy on weekends, light off season
- Cost: $25 / week entrance fee or NPS pass
- Permits: None