Trail Name: Summit Lake
Location: Mt. Rainier Area
Date Hiked: July 29, 2021
Start Time: 8:14 AM
End Time: 12:08 PM
Total Hiking Time: 3 hours & 25 minutes
Elevation Gain: 1,332 ft
Total distance: 6.55 miles
Min. Elevation: 4,211 FT
Max. Elevation: 5,605 FT
Weather: In the high 60’s(F) when we arrived at the trailhead but rose to the low 80’s (F)
Choosing to Hike Summit Lake
While exploring trails on the Washington Trails Association website, looking for a dog-friendly and pregnant-lady-friendly hike, I found the Summit Lake trail. Katie and I tend to stick to hiking in the Olympics and were looking for something new to us and closer to Mt. Rainier. This hike looked moderately easy and looked like we would get paid out in some beautiful views.
The trip reports shared that this is an extremely popular hike on the weekends and to get there early if you want a parking spot in the parking lot. And you DO want a parking spot in the lot! Reports shared that people will park along the mountain road when the lot fills up, and after driving that road, I can’t imagine parking my car on it. The trip reports also repeatedly shared how poor the road conditions were getting up to the trailhead. Despite reading the countless warnings from others, we still wanted to check this hike out.
Katie and I met up in Belfair where we could carpool from there for the 2+ hour drive. The drive getting to the trailhead wasn’t our favorite, just because it was a lot of freeway driving. We like to drive out in the middle of nowhere (like when driving to the Olympics) but we were willing to sacrifice our beautiful forest drives for the freeway to try something new. A fun surprise we came across was the very old and very small town of Wilkeson that we drove through on our way out to the forest road that would get us to the trailhead, but more on that later. We nervously crossed Fairfax Bridge, a steel-lattice arch bridge that crosses you over the Carbon River. The bridge was built in 1921 and sits 250 feet above the flowing river. After crossing over another bridge, the forest road began.
The forest road was the last 6.5-mile stretch to get to the trailhead. Our GPS directions said this would take us about 20 minutes…after a treacherous amount of time later, we arrived at the parking lot. The forest road was completely uneven terrain with sharp rocks jetting up in every direction and large dips in the road. High-centering your car was a very likely possibility if you didn’t pick the best of the worst paths to continue climbing the mountain. Within the last year, logging has begun along this road and destroyed the road in the process. We were gritting our teeth and praying the tires would carry us through the whole way to the top. As gorgeous as this hike was, the road was a massive deterrent and we would not choose to return unless in a vehicle meant for off-roading in rough conditions. We were driving my sister’s VW Jetta Wagon.
We finally pulled into the parking lot a couple of minutes past 8 AM. The lot already had about 12ish cars in it, but we easily got a spot since we were there fairly early. We put on our boots and packs and leashed Katie’s dog, Bindi, before making our way to the trail. We both only brought daypacks loaded with the bare essentials: water, food, bear spray, first aid, and the only non-essential, our Jet Boil to cook our lunch. We were ready to go!
The trail started in a very slow climb which was great for warming up, especially since I haven’t done a real hike since January and am 4 months pregnant. At one point, Katie checked our elevation gain and we had only gained about 250ft over the course of the first half-mile. The trail started with some pretty young growth, so while it was wooded, a lot of sunshine was coming through and it was not very dense growth.
About one mile in, we came across a small lake called Twin Lake (how appropriate for us!). This lake was pretty and small, but nothing compared to our destination of Summit Lake. Bindi enjoyed a dip in the water and we moved on to the steeper section of the hike. This section had some switchbacks and lasted about 2 miles before hitting the lake. The terrain was fairly easy to walk on with small sections of very rooted up areas and some small sections of rocks.
The wildflowers along the hike started to show up after the first mile. There were large patches of flowers that lined the trails at times and when we later reached the meadows surrounding Summit Lake, the flowers were exploding.
When the trail started to ascend a little bit, we figured we should be seeing Summit Lake soon. We entered a beautiful meadow that opened up to a gorgeous lake. The water was so blue and clear. The meadow is currently marked and roped off for restoration, but is still a beautiful sight. You can camp down by the lake, but there are some great camping spots just a few hundred meters up from it, where there is a bit of tree coverage.
Some people stop at the lake as their destination, however, the trail does wrap around the lake and this is where you will get views of Mt. Rainier. So while we stopped to admire the lake for a few minutes, we eagerly climbed on. You can hike either way around the lake, but we chose what looked to be the more clearly marked path going counterclockwise.
We quickly started gaining elevation as we made our way up a more narrow and rocky path. Washington Trails Association described this section as rough, steep and narrow, but it seemed fairly easy for us to navigate and I feel like ‘rough’ is a stretch. This pathway was a bit more narrow than the trail we had been on previously to get to the lake though.
There were a handful of nice camping spots as we climbed up, and pretty quickly we started to see the views we came for. We were high above the lake and just beyond that was a picture-perfect view of Mt. Rainier. It is pretty unbelievable to live so close to all the beauty of the PNW. We were amazed by the views, especially for what felt like such a mild hike.
After oohing and awing and taking some pictures, we walked back to a little area we had spotted earlier to have our lunch. We found a small shaded spot with a perfect log that acted as a bench. We still had views of the mountain and lake but were also tucked out of the way from other hikers coming in.
While it was totally not necessary to bring our JetBoil for a hot lunch, especially on such a nice summer day, it does bring us a bit more joy to cook our lunch rather than eat a cold lunch. There is something fun about cooking outdoors, even it only means boiling some water for instant ramen. We enjoyed our Trader Joe’s Spicy Miso Ramen, some beef jerky, and more water while Bindi took a rest under a tree.
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After lunch, we loaded up and started our way back to the car. We chose to not loop around the lake, based on some trip reports we read and came back the way we came. Our hike back down went smoothly and quickly. Nearly every hiker we passed on our way down had a dog. We came back down to a full parking lot, but not overflowing like described on the weekends. And for the first time on all of our hikes, a forest service worker was checking that cars had their Northwest Forest Pass. Luckily, we had ours!
Unfortunately, this trail to Summit Lake had the most amount of dog poop left, bagged or unbagged, on the trail that we had ever seen on a trail. And I easily spotted toilet paper left behind on the sides of the trails at least five separate times. It is always sad to see when people do not respect the ‘leave no trace’ rule.
All in all, this hike was stunning, fun, full of flowers, and had incredible views of Mt. Rainier and Summit Lake was a good trail for people of all ages. The 1,300ft elevation gain was steady and never felt too steep or hard in any one particular area. This would be an excellent camping destination, especially in the hot summer heat, with the crystal clear Summit Lake there to cool you off. If you choose to go on this hike, do not drive a car that you care about, and make sure you have good clearance under your car, I would highly recommend driving a vehicle meant for off-roading. The forest road was a huge deterrent to us, but luckily the hike itself did not disappoint! I happily jotted down the details of our latest adventure in My Hiking Log, which you should own a copy of if you don’t already! Buy your copy here: https://amzn.to/379sro7
PS. Oh and on the way back home, we stopped in the cute town of Wilkeson, that I mentioned in the beginning, for a killer cup of handcrafted coffee. Downtown is a whopping 2 blocks covered with old-west-looking buildings. We looked up the town when we got home and it was a city founded on sandstone and coal mining and is 140 years old. We had to stop and get out of the car, because of how charming this tiny town was and luckily for us, there was a coffee shop on the main drag, Nomad PNW. Turns out that we lucked out, because the coffee shop is only open Thurs-Sun from 7am-3pm, and were there at about 1pm on a Thursday. If you choose to hike Summit Lake or any of the surrounding areas, make sure to go during the coffee shop’s business hours, the shop was stunning and the coffee was just as good. They sell fresh empanadas and pastries as well! Check out their website here if you are planning a trip: https://nomadpnw.com/