For my birthday this year, I decided the only thing I wanted was to explore a new hiking trail on Mt. Rainier. This may seem like a silly gift if you’ve never been to Mt. Rainier before, but trust me, a day on that mountain is unforgettable.
Before hiking Summerland and Panhandle Gap, the last time I was at Mt. Rainier was the summer of 2016 - two whole years ago! Since then, I’ve been mentally reminding myself to get back out there and experience a new trail.
This summer, I finally got to check off Summerland and Panhandle Gap, and will hopefully get to help you check them off as well!
Summerland and Panhandle Gap are located on the NE side of Mt. Rainier National Park in the Sunrise/White River area. The first trail you start out on is Summerland, and last for about 4.5 miles one way. Summerland then turns into Panhandle Gap, which adds about 1.5 miles onto your hike one way.
If you hike both trails together, the total distance is approximately 12 miles round trip. However, if you decided that’s too long for you, it’s easy to turn around at the end of Summerland and skip Panhandle, or even hike part of Panhandle and turn back when you’ve seen enough.
Elevation wise, you’ll climb about 2,950 ft. in total if you hike both trails, and about 2000 ft. if you decide to stop after Summerland. As for how long the hike will take you, that’s really up to your hiking speed and how often you plan on stopping.
It took Yuting and I about 5.5 hours to complete our hike. We made it part way up Panhandle Gap, and stopped often to take photos and eat snacks.
Note: Since Mt. Rainier is a national park, you're required to pay an entrance fee. Learn more about the different passes available here.
Why you should hike Summerland - Panhandle Gap
Summerland - Panhandle Gap has a little bit of everything wrapped into one trail. You’ll get the classic forest scenery, a mountain stream, beautiful meadows, panoramic views, snowy slopes and even mountain goats if you’re lucky.
Different stages of the trail
The trail to Summerland starts out in a forest. Gradually, the trail takes you further up the mountain, occasionally opening up to a view of the rushing stream to your left. At a certain point though, you’ll notice the trees start to thin, and grassy patches begin to pop up.
Here, you’ll find a little, wooden bridge, and will actually get to cross the stream you kept seeing earlier. Once across, the grassy patches turn into miniature meadows, and the mountain comes into view far ahead of you.
You’re almost there!
The only thing between you and Summerland now is a series of switchbacks leading up the hillside (don’t worry though - they’re not the worst switchbacks in the world). Take your time and keep climbing till you reach the top.
After the last switchback, you round the corner and immediately find yourself in a gorgeous mountain meadow. The, ‘awesome mountain view,’ you photographed earlier now seems silly because this is where the real view lies.
Welcome to Summerland.
Explore the trail that runs through the meadow and stop for lunch. Just remember to stay on the path and pack out any food scraps or garbage you might have. Mountain ecosystems are incredibly fragile and don’t handle trespassers well.
PANHANDLE GAP SECTION
Once you reach the meadow at the end of the Summerland section, the trail seamlessly flows into what is known as the Panhandle Gap. Here, you’ll notice an almost instant change in scenery.
Grass is replaced by chunky rocks, and snow covers the steep slope. At this point forward, trees are nowhere to be found. Small bits of meager-looking grass poke up here and there, but that’s about it. Panhandle Gap is where the real mountain begins.
Up here, it’s not uncommon to run into 20+ mountain goats. Their sturdy feet and willingness to eat almost anything make them ideal inhabitants for this part of the mountain. Unfortunately for us, Yuting and I didn’t see any mountain goats while we were up there, but about half the hikers we asked said they did.
Even if you don’t see goats though, Panhandle Gap is worth the extra effort. What blew me away was the incredibly clear, glacier pools we found. The water in them was as cold as it could be without turning to ice, and had the faintest tint of turquoise blue.
Debating whether to include Panhandle or not?
Consider the following questions after you complete the Summerland portion of the trail:
Are you wearing appropriate hiking shoes?
Is there plenty of daylight left?
Do you have enough water?
Do you have enough energy to continue hiking?
Answering, ‘no,’ to any of those questions may mean it’s time to head back and save Panhandle Gap for next time. This part of the trail has a lot less foot traffic and could be a little dangerous for an inexperienced hiker.
If you notice from my pictures, I wore Nike’s for this hike. While they were perfect shoes for the Summerland section of the trail, it was a little scary climbing up and down the snowy slopes of Panhandle. I had almost zero traction, and felt like I was going to slip and fall the whole time.
What to pack
Besides your usual hiking essentials, make sure and bring:
A light jacket
Even if you're hiking in the middle of summer and the weather report says it's going to be hot outside, make sure and bring a jacket that packs into your backpack well. Up at Summerland and especially Panhandle, the wind is strong and awfully chilly.
Hiking shoes / hiking poles
If you simply plan on hiking to Summerland and skipping Panhandle Gap, a decent pair of running shoes will work fine. However, Panhandle gets a little tricky without proper equipment. Most of the people we saw on the snowy part of the trail had waterproof hiking shoes and hiking poles.
While we didn't have issues with bugs in the area, a lot of comments in forums I read mentioned terrible mosquitoes. Spray some bug repellent on your clothes and exposed skin before you leave or pack some with you just in case!
Plenty of snacks and water
Keep in mind Summerland alone is 8.5 miles round trip. You'll want to bring plenty of snacks or light lunch food, and enough water to last you the whole hike. If you're someone who forgets to drink water while they hike, think about bringing along a hydration pack.
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