Home Trip ReportsDayhike Glacier Basin & Emmons Moraine

Glacier Basin & Emmons Moraine

by Amanda Phillips

On Saturday we visited the sunrise region of Mount Rainier National Park.  I am still unable to hike any significant mileage with my shin splints, so Mt. Rainier was a great place to start. Glacier Basin promised beautiful views of Mt. Rainier, plus a side trip to Emmons Moraine allowed a lookout to a turquoise lake and view of a huge glacier.

We overslept the alarm and had a bit of a scramble to get out of the door in the morning. My enthusiasm started to wane as we drove towards the volcano through a persistent fog and overcast skies.  We have had rather poor luck in the past with visiting Mt. Rainier on days when the mountain was not visible, and despite my careful forecast watch, I feared I was driving with a wicked hangover just to hike in the mist.  Lo and behold, the moment we crossed into the national park, the clouds split, the fog lifted and we were treated to an in-your-face view of our Lady, Mt. Rainier.  More glorious than any cathedral I know. 

Visit glacier basin near the sunrise area of Mt Rainier National Park for a glacier-fed tarn, incredible views of Emmons Glacier and wildflowers

Despite sleeping through our alarm, we made it to the trailhead by 10:00 am.  The trailhead leaves from the White River camping area and is also one of the locations for summiting Rainier, and an entry-point for the Wonderland Trail, so the parking lot was completely full on a sunny Saturday during a holiday weekend.  We managed to find a parking spot on the side of the road and geared up.

Glacier Basin and Emmons Moraine

River near glacier basin
River near Emmons Glacier

We made our way to the trailhead on the last loop of the campground. The trail started out flat and easy, composed of compacted duff with minimal roots.  After about a mile we had a viewpoint of White River cutting through the broad riverbed and Mt. Rainier in the background.   From our viewpoint, we could see a tiny bridge crossing Inter-Fork of White River amidst the stones and I desperately wanted to cross it.  I love small bridges on a large riverbed, it makes the bridge look so feeble compared to the power of a raging river. A little bridge makes me feel infinitely small. Luckily, shortly after the viewpoint, there was a sign for Emmons Glacier that led to the bridge and climbed up the bank to traverse a ridge.

river near emmons glacier
Emmons glacier
Emmons glacier

After we reached the ridge we were able to see a broad valley with a bright turquoise lake among the green trees.  The lake looked quite inviting in the 80ºF heat, but we continued on the ridge for the viewpoint of the glacier.  Emmons Glacier is the largest glacier by area in the lower 48 and was quite the impressive sight. In addition, the moraine provided splendid views of Mt. Rainier, Goat Island Mountain and the White River. We soaked in the sights for a few minutes, then began our return to the Glacier Basin trail.  On our way back, we found a primitive side trail leading down to the lake.  Several rockslides cover where the trail used to be and I cannot recommend following our footsteps, though it is possible to make it to the lakeshore following a few cairns.

glacial tarn near Emmons glacier
glacial tarn near Emmons glacier
glacial tarn near Emmons glacier
woman swimming in glacial tarn near Emmons glacier


Once we reached the lake, it was impossible to not go for a swim.  The water was a delightful milky turquoise. Despite the glacial source, the water was not terribly cold.  After swimming for a bit, a giant cloud obscured the sun and we lay on the warm rocks to regain a little heat.  Shortly after, we put our clothes back on and wandered back to the main path.  After crossing the bridge again, we continued up the path to Glacier Basin.

The path afforded several more views of Mt. Rainier.  About a mile from Glacier Basin, snow began to cover the trail. The snow was soft and slushy, and easy to walk on. The path became steeper during the last half mile then flattened out to reveal several campsites.  The sites were all close to the path, and in honor of the Fourth of July, many were sporting festive American flags. The path opened up to a large meadow with wildflowers and a panoramic view of White River Valley.

Mt. Rainier poked her head above the wedge and we admired a view of Inter Glacier and Saint Elmo Pass.  Backcountry skiers and climbers attempting the summit via Camp Schurman make their way up the valley, looking like tiny black dots against the Inter Glacier.

Glacier basin at Mt Rainier National Park
Glacier basin at Mt Rainier National Park
Glacier basin at Mt Rainier National Park
Glacier basin at Mt Rainier National Park

We explored the area, ate lunch, then began our descent. We stepped off the trail to see a wide waterfall that could be a finale in a different hike, but with all the amazing views on this hike, it barely registered as a feature.  Walking through the fields that were recently under snow, it was easy to see effects of avalanches over the winter.  The return to the car was uneventful, though beautiful, and I was much preoccupied with my shins, waiting for any twinges to betray my relative comfort.

path to glacier basin at Mt Rainier National Park
creek in mt rainier national park
trees on path to Glacier basin at Mt Rainier National Park

The ongoing battle of shin splints has made hiking less fun when each moment is spent obsessing over phantom feelings.  There is a persistent fear that a day hike today decreases my chances for a backpack in August, and I am looking forward to a hike focused on the beautiful surroundings and not my physical issues.  Nonetheless, it was wonderful to get out in a National Park and revel in one of my favorite national parks.

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Laura Norsen July 10, 2017 - 10:46 pm

Funny, the same thing always seems to happen to me when I make the trek out to Mt Rainier! I’ve only had clear weather once over many visits in the past few years. Good thing you had such sunny weather this time – you captured some beautiful photos! Love the glacier lilies!

Amanda Phillips July 11, 2017 - 4:29 pm

I guess the misty days make the sunny, incredible-view days that much better. There is something amazing about the mountain peeking out behind the clouds and realizing how huge she really is.

Hickory Hiker March 29, 2018 - 8:11 pm

Nice photos and writing, love the yellow Dogtooth Violets. Was perusing a return trip to Emmons. Hiked it in ’89 when the trail was along the river, rocks and boulders tumbling down the river were banging around so loud that we had to shout to hear each other. Hiked up to the snout and cave, quite a rush as a few rocks fell off the top of the snout. Camped in the White river campground for days waiting for the mountain to clear. Seems like trying to follow the river would be a no go. Nice description, interested in Carbon glacier too. I’ll check your other posts, thanks.

Amanda Phillips March 30, 2018 - 9:33 am

Thank you! Hiking it in ’89 sounds incredible! Hope you get a chance to return.


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