With nearly 240,000 acres of land in its borders there is so much to explore at Mount Rainier National Park and so many ways into the park lands that you could make a dozen visits and barely even cross the same road twice. Tucked in the far less frequented Northwest corner of the park, Tolmie Peak and its 84 yearold Fire Lookout is certainly a popular destination for nearby Seattle locals or visitors but on a scale many leagues short of Paradise or the other major visitor centers. In fact just getting to the trailhead at Mowich Lake is an adventure requiring nearly an hour of bumpy and dusty dirt road driving but for those willing to make the long trek in and complete the moderate hike, the views that await are truly worth it all.
Getting to the trailhead:
Located on the far outskirts of Puyallup, Mount Rainier’s Mowich Lake road is a seasonal access point (July – Early October) that offers direct entrance to some of the park’s more stunning lakes and trails with camping options too. With no ranger station or major staffed points anywhere on the road, the experience is lightyears apart from even the Carbon River access point just a few miles North and certainly not like the major sights of the Ashford road up. It’s no surprise that many people head out this way for a more remote, backcountry feel, even jumping onto the famous Wonderland Trail which also connects just a short way from the lake.
While the campground and park offers no facilities beyond vault toilets and self registration kiosk, a few small towns lie within a moderate distance of the dirt road for final provisions or a good meal. From there however there is no potable water and little cell signal or sign of modernization until the road ends at the campground and adjacent parking lot.
On the trail:
For as remote as it is, the Mowich Lake area is incredibly well marked and built up with a number of access points to the trail that surround it. Hikers can depart from the campground area directly, walking along the banks of the lake towards the left or simply park higher up on the road at a direct access point that is marked specifically for Tolmie Peak.
The terrain out of the gate is indicative of pretty much the entire trail as the hike remains on well packed dirt that’s easy to follow and quick going despite the frequent roots and occasional rocks that one does have to avoid on the way. For the first real stretch of the trail, the route follows the lake though it begins to weave up, far above any shore access point before finally pulling away and further into the forest. Wandering up, the forest for the first few miles is classic Mount Rainier scenery with large, lush trees underlined by constant plant life thanks to the heavy rain and snow the park gets in the off season.
After 1.5 miles of hiking and just a few hundred feet of elevation gain, the trail junctions with the Wonderland Trail / Ipsut Pass fork which continues on straight while Tolmie Peak is clearly marked to the left. Here the trail becomes a bit frustrating, not in views which now include occasional sightings of giant rock faces and even more dense forest scenes, but from the notable downhill that follows. It’s only a few hundred feet in reality but by the time the trail is done, an extra 500+ vertical feet or about a 50% increase in elevation gain will be added from the up and down which is certainly not reflected in the altitude change alone.
Still, with a number of good switchbacks and ridge traverses, the trail does a decent job of staying relatively tame all the way to Eunice Lake located at the base of the peak about 2 miles in. As the downhill section draws to an end at an elevation just below the Mowich Lake start of 4,929′, the uphill climb begins in earnest and the remaining 1/3rd or so mile to Eunice will certainly get your heart racing back up.
Emerging from the forest at 5,355′, several cut trails make their way down to the partially visible lake, obviously many people go to the shores and the impact to the surrounding meadows are notable so continue on for a much more direct view. For all of the lakeside walking, Tolmie Peak and the fire lookout are clearly visible on the ridgeline above which can seem miles higher though there’s really only about 600 more feet to go.
Turning the corner around the western end of the lake, the final ridge to reach the peak comes into clear view and it becomes obvious that while there’s a nice push to the top it’s nothing crazy. Straight dirt paths just like the ones from the lower trail form the route up for the summit the trail-builders did a wonderful job of avoiding any major rock areas with just a few switchbacks required to help alleviate steeper sections.
Stopping along the final section is often as impressive as standing on the top its self with progressively higher and higher views of the lake below and Mount Rainier’s western flanks directly ahead. For those that know the mountain, it’s a special vantage point offering a dead on view of some of the major icefall and glacial features as well as a look up to the summit ridge so bring a big lens for the camera!
Topping out on the peak, the fire lookout offers a great perspective for a photo and is fun to explore around (or hide under for a little shade) though it’s not accessible unless a ranger / volunteer lets you in when they’re staying up there. Views from the top are pretty remarkable and I can only imagine sunset or star gazing at night though there are no camps at the summit or the lake. When you’ve had your fill, return the same way you hiked up with the recommended option of dipping into Mowich Lake before returning to your car.
Quick facts about the trail:
- Official Rating: Moderate
- Start point: Mowich Lake Parking Lot
- Distance: 6.6 miles R/T
- Duration: 3-4 hours
- Climb: 1,010′ altitude changes with ~1,500 total gain
- Terrain: Packed dirt, some minor obstructions (small rock & roots)
- Crowds: Moderate to Busy
- Recommended time: Weekdays, sunrise / sunset
- Facilities: Vault restrooms at TH, no potable water!
- Parking: Large parking lot & overflow road parking
- Fees: Mount Rainier Park Pass ($25) or NPS Annual Pass
- Permits: Not required