Mt. Rainier: Sunrise

Mt. Rainier: Sunrise

You've got to see the big volcano's east side! Visit Sunrise on the park's highest road.


Rainier National Park volcano glaciers geology travel field trip landscape photography adventure explore discover copyright RocDocTravel.com
The sun rises on Mt. Rainier.

This is part 2 of a geologic field trip to Mt. Rainier National Park. See part 1 here.


Why Visit Rainier?

Rainier National Park volcano glaciers geology travel field trip landscape photography adventure explore discover copyright RocDocTravel.com
If you're still asking this question after seeing a few pictures here, you really need to get out more!

Rainier (or Tahoma) is America's most dangerous volcano, and not for the obvious reason that "it's a freakin' active volcano!" It's particularly dangerous because it has billions of cubic meters of ice sitting on a highly unstable, corroding old prune-shaped mountain made of layers of different materials randomly stacked on top of eachother on steep slopes. Yes, I said prune-shaped. Without the ice and glaciers, Rainier would look like a wrinkly old prune covered in deep canyons. A pod of liquid-hot magma sits inside the mountain, steadily super-heating groundwater and corroding the rocks into soft junk that can't hold its own weight on the steep slopes. A few times in the past several centuries, major parts of the mountain have suddenly fallen off, creating lahars, which are cement-like flows that fill river valleys at 45 mph and destroy everything in their paths. Lahars don't need an eruption or even an earthquake to happen (although those make them more likely), they just need instability. And Rainier's bedrock is unstable.

And oh yeah, Rainier is one of the most beautiful and visually captivating mountains on Earth! It begs your eyes to run over the glacial crevasses, the eroded volcanic rock crags, the piles of gravel moved by ice, the waterfalls and rushing streams, and to search for the tilted rock layers from past eruptions. And it teases your imagination with visions of disasters yet to come.

Traveling to Rainier

Location: Rainier is a 2-hour drive southeast of Tacoma, Washington, or 2.5 hours from central Seattle, or 2 hours west of Yakima. Sunrise is on the northeast side of the mountain, a little farther from the western cities.

;

Vehicles:  Any. With RV's, keep in mind that these are serious mountain roads with steep grades, narrow sections, and are very winding. Follow the park's website road information, including construction here.
Lodging: Camping is the best way to stay close to Paradise and Sunrise, but for those who believe that "the West was won a long time ago" and want to stay in something with solid walls and plumbing, nearby options include the Paradise Inn, the rustic National Park Inn in Longmire, several options outside the Nisqually (west) entrance, and in nearby towns of Packwood (south) and Buckley (north). There is no lodging at Sunrise.
Seasons: Sunrise is only open June through September. It's wisely closed when the annual 25-foot-deep snow arrives.
Facilities: Sunrise has a visitor center and a "day lodge" with food and gift shop, open June through September. There is no overnight lodging at Sunrise (although I slept there in my car!).
Hiking: Oh boy, is this hiking Nirvana! The trails around Sunrise are not very difficult, and they connect to the big trail network that surrounds the mountain. See the park's website for maps and details.
Considerations: Sunrise is at elevation 6400 feet, so if you're from sea level and want to hike (some go as high as the 14,416 foot summit), you'll feel short of breath. That's because there is literally less air up there. The road up to Sunrise is narrow and has death-defying, sweaty-palm inducing drops right off the pavement, so wide vehicles should use caution. Death-defying, sweaty-palmed bicylists use the road, too, so everybody be careful.
Rainier National Park Website

Rainier's Geography

Rainier National Park volcano glaciers geology travel field trip landscape photography adventure explore discover copyright RocDocTravel.com

 This model in the Sunrise visitor center shows the biggest glaciers on the north and east sides of the mountain. Sunrise is near the bottom just left of center. Paradise, the other major visitor center, is on the south side of the mountain at about 5000 feet elevation.


Rainier National Park volcano glaciers geology travel field trip landscape photography adventure explore discover copyright RocDocTravel.com
Carbon glacier is in the center of this view of the model's north side. The north side of the mountain was the site of a giant avalanche that happened 5600 years ago, sending 2 to 3 cubic kilometers of mud (a lahar) rushing down the two forks of the White River all the way to the Puget Sound. The cities of Kent, Tacoma, Orting, Buckley, Sumner, Puyallup, Enumclaw, and Auburn are all built on Osceola lahar material. The scar above Carbon glacier was created by the giant landslide; the rest of the scar is covered by the tops of Winthrop and Emmons glaciers.

Rainier's Geologic History

Rainier's volcano started building about 500,000 years ago, but the main cone that reaches so high was created mostly between 40,000 and 15,000 years ago (during part of the last ice age). Not coincidentally, the mountain's characteristic glaciers have worked on reshaping the volcano ever since. No matter which direction you arrive at Rainier from, you'll be driving through or past glacially carved valleys. You can recognize them by what I call the NFL lineman test - wide bottoms and steep sides.


Rainier National Park volcano glaciers geology travel field trip landscape photography adventure explore discover copyright RocDocTravel.com
This map in the Sunrise visitor center shows the maximum extent of Ice Age ice cover. It was a pretty inhospitable place!


Rainier National Park volcano glaciers geology travel field trip landscape photography adventure explore discover copyright RocDocTravel.com
Rainier's glaciers are really phenomenal! A cubic mile is a LOT of ice that could melt and rush down the mountain in an eruption! Emmons is the glacier you face directly at Sunrise. To its right is Winthrop, and farther around the north side is Carbon.

The Mountain

Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain National Park glaciers copyright RocDocTravel.com
The road to Sunrise is a bit like the "Going to the Sun" road in Glacier National Park - narrow, winding, and with dizzying drop-offs just off the pavement. This photo shows the parking lot at the last hairpin turn.


Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain National Park glaciers copyright RocDocTravel.com

Keep your eyes on the road!


Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain National Park glaciers copyright RocDocTravel.com
The mountain views at Sunrise are unmatched! Like Paradise and the park's other popular spots, Sunrise can be quite crowded. I suggest going on a weekday if at all possible, and as early in the morning as you can get yourself up.


Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain National Park glaciers copyright RocDocTravel.com
That's big, long Emmons glacier dropping several thousand feet down Rainier, left of center. Crevasses form wherever the ice bends over an obstacle, like a bedrock ridge or buried cliffs. Glaciers carry the rocks and dirt that fall on them like a conveyor belt. Rocks under the ice get frozen in, and are dragged along, scraping and polishing the bedrock below. The ends of glaciers are masses of gravel, boulders, and lots of water.


Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain National Park copyright RocDocTravel.com
 Here, you can see Emmons glacier coming straight at you.

Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain National Park copyright RocDocTravel.com
 It's worth the extra effort to be at Sunrise at sunrise! Rainier catches the rising sun long before anything else in the region, giving you a real sense of just how high this mountain is.

Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain National Park copyright RocDocTravel.com
This view is from Highway 410 east of Sunrise. The mountain, and especially the glaciers, look quite different in different sun angles. Take the time to be at Sunrise very early and in mid-afternoon to let the sun highlight different features for you.


Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain National Park copyright RocDocTravel.com
In the early morning sun, glacial crevasses are lit up nicely. 

Sunrise Facilities

Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain National Park copyright RocDocTravel.com
This is one aisle of the Sunrise parking lot early on a weekday morning. On weekends, you may end up parking along the road! That's the Day Lodge on the left, where you can get food and gifts.


Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain National Park copyright RocDocTravel.com
The Sunrise visitor center was constructed in a classic, rustic style. It's basically a gift shop and information center inside, and is quite nice.


Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain National Park copyright RocDocTravel.com
There's a nice, extensive picnic area behind and uphill from the visitor center.


Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain copyright RocDocTravel.com
Maybe you don't want to see this, but I found this young black bear about 100 yards west of the picnic area! He was just munching on various things in the grass and wandering along. He paid no attention to me. I wouldn't have gotten this close to a grizzly.

Rainier Scenery

Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain copyright RocDocTravel.com
To me, the only disappointing thing about the beautiful roads in the Cascades in the Rainier region is the lack of volcano views. The highways are down in the deep valleys, so when you get a peek at one of the volcanoes, you take it! This is Mount Adams from a few miles west of Packwood on highway 12.

Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain copyright RocDocTravel.com
A sunrise view of the Cowlitz Chimneys from Sunrise. They're on the east sides of Rainier.


Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain copyright RocDocTravel.com
 Another view of the Cowlitz Chimneys from Sunrise. Couldn't you just sit and look at this view all day?

Rainier volcano Washington geology travel field trip landscape photography discover explore mountain National Park copyright RocDocTravel.com
Like all the rivers that come off Rainier, the White River heading north away from Sunrise is extremely rocky. That indicates an abundant source of loose rocks (the volcanic layers) and fast enough water to tumble big rocks downstream for miles. It also gives us an indication that lahars can (and do!) move at high speeds and travel long distances.

So there it is, America's most dangerous--and perhaps most beautiful--volcano.
Related Pages: Rainier Paradise, Volcano Primer
xx


Back to Top