Mount Rainier National Park is one of the most beautiful places on earth to hike, camp, and explore. With Washington’s tallest peak, Mt. Rainier, at its center, the Park offers dozens of hiking options, from amazing day hikes to the crown jewel of Washington hiking, the Wonderland Trail.
A lesser-known, but equally beautiful and challenging trail is the Mount Rainier Northern Loop Trail. At approximately 31 miles long, and more than 9,000 feet of elevation gain, the Northern Loop Trail is a difficult hike and should not be attempted by first-time hikers. The trail is a case-study in hiking extremes, with steep descents and climbs almost every step of the way.
However, most well-prepared hikers will be able to finish the Northern Loop trail in 2 to 3 days, and still be able to enjoy some of the most stunning views in the country. This is a trail that will challenge you and leave you wanting more.
The Northern Loop trail actually tracks along a northern section of the Wonderland Trail before continuing farther north, offering views of other peaks in the Park besides the great Mount Rainier.
Required Passes and Permits
In order to enter Mount Rainier National Park, you will need a Mount Rainier Pass – either a 7-Day $30 Pass, or an $55 Annual Pass.
Overnight permits are required for the Mount Rainier Northern Loop. Due to COVID-19, permits are by advance reservation only. This means you may not go to a ranger station and request a walk-up permit. Requests must be made at least one week (7 days) in advance of the desired trip start date and no more than one month (31) days in advance of the desired trip start date.
For more information about your passes and permits, visit NPS.gov/mora
There is one main trailhead, or places where you can start the Mount Rainier Northern Loop Trail:
Your adventure begins at the Sunrise Visitor Center, where a stunning view of Mount Rainier to the south of the parking lot welcomes you and gives you a taste of what you are in for. Mount Rainier truly is a stunning beast of a mountain, unlike any other that I’ve seen.
Leaving Sunrise, you will hike west for about 1.2 miles to Frozen Lake, a small, picturesque lake fed by a small glacier that attracts casual park visitors and hiking enthusiasts alike. Continue on the Wonderland Trail for another mile until you reach your junction with the Northern Loop Trail. You can stay to the left and continue on the Wonderland, or you can go right and begin to travel north, on the Northern Loop Trail itself.
I took the Northern Loop Trail, which descends into a gorgeous mountain valley, featuring lush green meadows. Soon you will hit Berkeley Camp, around 4 miles from Sunrise, which is a great place to stop and rest and get water.
I had just come from finishing the Timberline Trail around Mt. Hood, and started this hike around 6 pm. As such, I spent my first night at Berkeley.
Leaving Berkeley Camp, you will have a short, simple climb over about 2 miles until you reach Grand Park, an amazing open meadow that stretches for several miles and causes you to forget you are at almost 6,000 feet of elevation.
At the 6-mile mark you will come to the Lake Eleanor Trail, which leads to Lake Eleanor after a 3-mile hike. I did not take this 6-mile detour, but it is an option for those looking to take in as many sites of the park as possible.
After Grand Park, you begin the first big descent of the trail, approximately 2500 feet over almost 4 miles. Awaiting you will be the West Fork of the White River, which was running fast in mid-August. However, the National Park Service has built a good bridge to cross the most difficult parts of the river, making the crossing relatively simple.
On the far side of the White River, several hundred feet off the trail, are the Upper Van Horn Falls. This is a perfect spot to replenish your water supply and take a moment to rest and enjoy the waterfall.
Your next landmark is peaceful, idyllic Lake James, approximately 11.3 miles from Sunrise and a good place to stop for the night. Camping is not allowed near the lake, but there is a good campground not far from the lake itself.
Lake James starts the first of your serious climbs, 2,700 feet over 2 miles, to the incredible Windy Gap. This is a true oasis at the top of the mountains, with beautiful flowered meadows, lakes, and jagged peaks that make you completely forget about fatigue and pain.
Along Windy Gap, you will come to a side trail that leads to a natural bridge, one of the highlights of the Northern Loop. I must admit that I was so enthralled by Windy Gap that I decided to forego the Natural Bridge trail, which would have added more than 2 miles to my trip.
After about 1 mile of descending switchbacks through the forest, you will come to Yellowstone Cliffs Camp, a popular stopping point for hikers who started at Sunrise and took the Northern Loop. Sitting along a mountain stream at the edge of green meadows, this was a perfect stopping point for me to have a well-deserved lunch.
Over the next 3 miles, you will descend about 2,500 feet through more thigh-burning switchbacks and then reach the lowest point of the trail, before meeting back up with the Wonderland Trail. About 1.3 miles from this junction you will come to perhaps the most memorable feature of the trail – the Carbon River Bridge.
This suspension bridge leads away from the Wonderland Trail to the Carbon River campground, but is a must-cross for anyone, even if they are continuing on the Wonderland/Northern Loop. It is recommended that one person cross the bridge at a time, and it’s not too hard to see why as it shakes and sways with each step you take.
As you continue on the trail past Carbon River, you will begin a 3,100-foot climb over 4 miles, which tested my mental and physical fortitude at the end of long day. Dick Creek Camp is a small campsite overlooking Carbon River, and a good spot to stop if you need a break in the middle of your climb.
Continuing past Dick Creek, you have about 2.5 miles of climbing alongside Carbon Glacier, the largest glacier emanating from Mount Rainier, before you reach 6,060 feet, where you are reintroduced to Mount Rainier to the south and Moraine Park.
Thus begins a gentle descent to Mystic Lake and Mystic Camp, another popular campsite for hikers on the Wonderland Trail. This was a great way to end my second day on the trail, one that ended up being about 19 miles in total. Here a Park Ranger visited the campground to make sure I had a wilderness permit.
Leaving Mystic Camp, you will descend through colorful meadows and cool forests for about 4 miles before you reach Winthrop Creek. Fed directly from the massive Winthrop Glacier, this creek runs swiftly, even in the morning, but a log bridge provides all the security you need to cross without too much problem.
Once you are past Winthrop Creek, you have some relatively gentle climbs left before you reach the last open pass, with Mount Rainier and Skyscraper Mountain dominating your views. There are no more forest trails at this point, and you will watch your trail unfurl before you for miles to come.
Soon you will see the Northern Loop Trail come back into view and you will see it turn north towards Berkeley Camp. Marmots will sit along the trail as you hike past, almost oblivious to your presence. Soon, you will join up with the trail that leads back to Sunrise, and you will come again to Frozen Lake, with your journey almost complete.
Soon, Sunrise Visitors Center comes back into view, and the dirt and gravel trail turns into a concrete parking lot. You will have literally experienced many ups and downs on the Northern Loop, but soon all you will remember is the beauty of Windy Gap, the peaceful setting of Mystic Lake, and the stunning majesty of Mount Rainier.
River Crossings (Going Counter -Clockwise From Sunrise Visitors Center)
- West Fork of White River
- Winthrop Creek
The river crossings on the Mount Rainier Northern Loop are quite manageable thanks to the work of the Mount Rainier National Park Rangers. While I struggled with the river crossings on the Timberline Trail around Mount Hood, I had very little problem on the Northern Loop Trail thanks to log bridges that were well-situated and well-built.
The Best Part Of The Hike
My favorite part of the Northern Loop trail was Windy Gap. A fitting reward at the end of a strenuous climb, Windy Gap epitomizes the beauty of Mount Rainier National Park. Strewn with color, a cool breeze, and crystal-clear lakes, Windy Gap is what hiking is all about.
The Most Difficult Part Of The Hike
The most difficult stretch of the Northern Loop Trail for me was the 3,000-foot climb from the Wonderland/Northern Loop junction to Moraine Park. This was my last climb of a 19-mile day and was a difficult one to conquer. While it did include views of Carbon River and the Glacier, much of this stretch was switchbacks through forest and ridge walks exposed to the sun. Reaching the top of this climb was a huge relief, as Mystic Camp was not too far away.
One Piece Of Gear I’m Glad I Brought
The one piece of gear that I am glad that I had with me was my C9 puffy coat. Earlier in the week, I chose not to take this with me on my hike of the Timberline Trail, because temperatures were supposed to get into the 90s during the day and only drop into the 50s at night.
On the Mount Rainier Northern Loop, I rightly anticipated that temperatures would be much cooler, especially at night. The first night at Berkeley Camp was especially cool, as I could see my breath both in the late evening and early morning. My puffy coat kept me warm as I set up and took down my hammock, and was especially helpful in my hammock as I slept.
One Piece Of Gear I Wish I Had Brought
While the trails on the Northern Loop Trail were not nearly as sandy as those on the Timberline Trail, I still did have issues with rocks getting into my shoes.
I wore Altra Lone Peak 4 Trail Runners on this trip, and perhaps it is just a design flaw(?) of these shoes that pebbles can get in rather easily. As such, I wish I had brought some ankle gaiters, which would have made a big difference in my overall comfort levels. If you are planning on hiking with Altra Trail Runners, I recommend some good ankle gaiters.
As with any hike, when you start the Mount Rainier Northern Loop Trail you will need a complete hiking gear setup; this is a multi-day experience that will require adequate gear, food, and water. As always, you should start with the “Ten Essentials” of Hiking.
For the Northern LoopTrail, you’ll want a tent that can protect you from bad weather or a reliable hammock system. There are several suitable campsites along the trail that allow for both types of shelter.
I brought my hammock system and a tarp as part of my shelter, and had two good nights of sleep, even in cooler temperatures. Each of the campsites I came across had trees suitable to hang hammocks, as well as good spots to set up a tent.
The Northern Loop Trail is a demanding physical challenge with steep descents and difficult climbs, so you will want to bring about 2 pounds of calorie-dense food for each day you expect to be out on the trail.
Here are some meal ideas I enjoyed:
- Power Oatmeal: Pack instant oatmeal (I like steel-cut oats), powdered milk, wheat germ, almond butter, raisins or other dried fruit, and some brown sugar in a Ziploc bag, and just add hot water on the trail.
- Carnation Instant Breakfast (Amazon Link)
Lunch and Dinner
- Tuna Creations Packets (Amazon Link) – LOTS of protein in a small, lightweight package
- Complete Cookie – Over 420 calories per cookie!
- Ramen Noodles with freeze-dried meat
- Knorr Rice (Amazon Link) Add meat if you can
- Pop Tarts – My go-to sweet treat on hiking trips. I try to avoid sugar, but I’ll always have some Pop Tarts in my pack.
- Protein Bars – RXBars are some of my favorites.
- Energy Chews – A little more sugar than I like, but you can suck on these during the hike and they just seem to help your morale.
If you want to skip preparing your meals, you can always take along freeze-dried meals that offer a good amount of calories and don’t take up much space or weight. I’d recommend Peak Refuel meals.
There are plenty of water sources on the Northern Loop Trail so long as you have a good water filter, along with some sort of water storage/carrying system. I used a single 1L Smart Water bottle with my Sawyer Squeeze water filter and had plenty to drink.
Weather conditions can change quickly hiking in the shadow of large mountains; having some level of protection against extreme weather is vital. I ended up taking a rain coat and a puffy coat to the Northern Loop Trail, and used the puffy coat to keep me warm in the evenings and early mornings.
However, it did rain lightly during my first night on the trail, despite a forecast of clear skies. You never know when you might need a little extra protection against the elements.
At the very minimum, here’s a list of clothing you should bring with you on the Timberline Trail:
- Warm Jacket – Puffy jackets can be very lightweight but provide warmth – day or night. Colombia’s Voodoo Falls 590 Jacket is a good option.
- Baselayer Top and Bottom – I like to wear synthetic, moisture-wicking baselayer when I go to sleep and early in the morning. Even though the evenings were pleasant on the Northern Loop Trail, I used my baselayer to stay warm as I slept.
- Long-sleeve shirt – One that can wick moisture, let you roll up your sleeves, and help repel sun is a good option. The ATG by Wrangler Long-Sleeved Shirt is what I wore, and it kept me cool and comfortable.
- Running Shorts – I took Souke Running Shorts on the Northern Loop Trail – they were comfortable, had an inner liner, and dried quickly when they got wet.
- Buff Neck Gaiter – A must-have for any hike. Works as a gaiter, a hat, and more. (Amazon Link)
- Merino Wool Socks – As always, I took Darn Tough low-cut socks. They were extremely helpful with my river crossings, as I was not as worried about them getting wet as I would other socks.
- Beanie – I love to wear a beanie at night to keep my bald head warm at night, and this trip was no different.
- Hiking Boots/Shoes – As mentioned above, I took my Altra Lone Peak 4 Trail Runners on the Northern Loop Trail, and they did a great job.
Campfires were not allowed on the Northern Loop and Wonderland Trails, and the weather was warm enough that I was not in any danger from cold or wet conditions. However, I did have my Bic lighter with me, as I usually do.
I used my Adventure Medical Kit .5 on the Northern Loop Trail. This small, lightweight kit has bandages, ibuprofen, tape, and other essential items for treating minor injuries.
For the Northern Loop Trail, I took a Swiss-Army knife with me, and it proved helpful to cut some tape. Otherwise, I didn’t have a great need for it, but it is an essential item nonetheless.
You should always, even in the winter, have protection from the sun available to you during your hikes. On the Northern Loop Trail, you will hike on exposed ridges for some portions of your trip. Sun protection is necessary. Don’t forget sunglasses, sunscreen, and clothing that can protect you from the sun.
My navigation tools for the Northern Loop Trail were a downloaded map and GPS on my Google Pixel 3 phone. While this trail is well-established and there are a large number of hikers on the trail, I was glad to have GPS capabilities with me.
Hiking at night is never fun, and most hikers try to avoid it as much as possible. However, if you are forced to do so, a headlamp is essential. Likewise, if your day runs long and you set up camp in the dark, having a headlamp that keeps your hands free to set up your tent or cook dinner is essential.
I would recommend the Black Diamond Storm Headlamp. (Amazon Link)
Insulated Butt Pad or Lightweight Chair
It’s a great feeling to sit down to eat lunch or at then end of a hike and just relax. What’s not so great, however, is sitting on a hard rock, or on the wet ground.
That’s why an insulated sitting pad or chair is such a good item to bring on a hike. I used my butt pad every time I stopped for lunch or a break, and when I set up camp at night. The butt pad I enjoy is the Therm-a-Rest Z Seat Cushion HERE.
Inflatable Camping Pillow
An inflatable pillow is not something that every hiker carries in his or her pack. Some choose to sleep without a pillow, or use a coat or shirt as a pillow. However, an inflatable pillow can greatly improve your hiking experience.
I actually used my pillow for my legs – I placed it under my knees as I slept in my hammock to prevent them from hyper extending. I’ve found that this is a great way to sleep more comfortably in a hammock. One of my favorites is the TREKOLOGY Ultralight Aluft 1.0, which you can find HERE.
So there you have it – my review of the Northern Loop Trail. Having completed this 31-mile trip directly after hiking the 41-mile Timberline Trail, I struggled with fatigue from some of the climbs, but nonetheless was blown away by the beauty of this trail.
Mount Rainier is the center of the entire park, and every glimpse you get of that mountain as you hike this trail is a stunning one. Hiking through an ecosystem basically created by that mountain is a humbling experience, as you feel Rainier is always looming, even if you can’t see it from where you stand. It provides great perspective to the trail.
If you enjoy spending a few days on the trail and feel good about completing a difficult hike, I would recommend the Mount Rainier Northern Loop Trail. It will make you fall in love with this part of the world, and perhaps even motivate you to tackle the entire Wonderland Trail in the future.