Saturday, August 29, 2015

Burroughs Mountain

The summit re-emerges, on the way back up Second Burroughs
9 miles round trip, 2500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Mount Rainier National Park Entrance Fee ($20 in 2015, $25 in 2016), paved road to the trailhead

Burroughs Mountain is the most outstanding hike in the Sunrise area of Mt. Rainier National Park. While the first summit is quite close to the visitor center and attempted by many visitors to the park, it is Third Burroughs, the final of the set of three flattopped summits, that delivers the most thrilling up-close view of the most prominent mountain of the contiguous United States. Along the hike, there are magnificent views of the meadows around Sunrise and of the Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers, the largest glaciers in the United States outside Alaska. The hike to the first peak is doable by most people in decent shape; the second peak can be climbed with just a slight bit more effort. Hiking to Third Burroughs requires following an unmaintained path up a steep, rocky slope and is more challenging.

I hiked this trail with a good friend who I had known in Virginia who came to visit at the end of August. The weather was unfortunately quite poor during the weekend of his visit; Saturday saw pouring rain in Seattle. Sunday was still quite cloudy but I wanted to take my friend to Mt. Rainier, so we set out from Seattle towards the mountain, taking I-5 south to its junction with Route 18, just north of Tacoma; we then took 18 east for a few miles and then hopped on Route 164 south at Auburn, turning left at the end of the exit ramp from Route 18 onto Route 164. We followed 164 for about twenty minutes past the Muckleshoot Reservation to Enumclaw, then took Route 410 east from Enumclaw for about an hour into Mount Rainier National Park. Less than 10 minutes after entering the park, we took the turn off to the right towards Sunrise and followed that road to its terminus at the meadows of Sunrise, over 6000 feet above sea level on Sourdough Ridge. While parts of the glaciers on the volcano were visible, we couldn't see the summit of Rainier itself on the drive in; Columbia Crest was still socked in the clouds.

At Sunrise, we hopped on the trail to Frozen Lake, which departs near the Sunrise Day Lodge. We followed the main trail towards Sourdough Ridge and headed left at the trail junction. We very quickly reached the top of Sourdough Ridge and its views of the far-reaching Cascades and of the rocky meadows below. At the top of the ridge, we took the trail to the left, which led us west in the direction of Mt. Rainier. We continued to follow the ridgeline, providing frequent wide views to the north and constant views of Mt. Rainier and the flat summit of our first objective, Burroughs Mountain. During sunnier visits, I've often enjoyed the jaw-dropping views of the Emmons Glacier flowing down the summit of Rainier from this perspective.

Burroughs Mountain on the trail to Frozen Lake
After crossing a rocky scree slope, the trail came to Frozen Lake, about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. Even at the end of August, there was a small patch of snow left on the north shore of what was essentially a large pond.

Frozen Lake
At the end of Frozen Lake, the trail came to a five-way junction. We took a slight left, heading up the only trail that went immediately uphill from the junction. From here, the trail started a direct ascent up the side of First Burroughs, going uphill at a decent incline. During the climb, we gained increasingly impressive views across a high alpine tundra valley to Mount Fremont.

Ascent up the first Burroughs
It wasn't as hard as expected to reach the first summit, which was initially a bit of a letdown. The top of First Burroughs is flatter than it looks from a distance. My friend, who had just flown in to Seattle from Iowa, quipped that it didn't look any different. Due to the clouds, the summit of Rainier was hidden from view.

The flat summit of the First Burroughs
The odd flatness of Burroughs Mountain results from its volcanic origins: it is composed of horizontally layered lava flows from neighboring Mt. Rainier.

The trail followed the northern rim of First Burroughs closely, providing spectacular views of the rocky, jagged outcrops on the slopes of Second Burroughs and of the lush, green meadows of Berkeley Park, which is nestled between the rocky peaks of Skyscraper Mountain and Mount Fremont.

Second Burroughs viewed from First Burroughs
Skyscraper Mountain and the meadows of Berkeley Park
After crossing the flat plateau of the first peak, the trail reached a junction for the Sunrise Rim Trail. We took the right fork, heading up Second Burroughs. This climb was also at a decent incline but was shorter in duration than the ascent up the First Burroughs. Hiking along the rocky south rim of this peak, we found a spot overlooking the massive Emmons Glacier and decided to stop for lunch, about 3 miles from the trailhead. The Emmons Glacier is the largest glacier in the United States outside Alaska and makes up a sizable portion of the one cubic mile of ice that crowns Rainier.

Emmons Glacier from Second Burroughs
We also met a chipmunk that was overly habituated to humans at our lunch spot. It approached us to beg for scraps; we made sure not to give any but took advantage of the situation to take close-up photos of the tiny resident. Many small animals in the park have become unfortuately accustomed to handouts from humans, which discourages them from seeking their native sources of food and can be ecologically disruptive.

Chipmunk on Second Burroughs
After lunch, we decided to continue on rather than heading back immediately. Continuing forward on the trail, we soon descended off the summit of Second Burroughs, dropping almost 400 feet very rapidly over the course of a switchback through the alpine tundra. At the saddle between Second and Third Burroughs, we turned right off the trail onto an unmaintained path marked by cairns that headed off towards the last of the three summits. Although an unofficial path, this trail was fairly easy to follow, having been well beaten out by other park hikers through the rocky terrain. After an initial gentle ascent, the path soon began a more aggressive climb and maintained that angle throughout the mile and a half to the final summit.

After a good two and a half hours of hiking and staring at clouds where the summit should have been, the skies finally opened up for a brief moment to reveal the glorious snow-capped summit of Mt. Rainier. The clouds just as quickly returned and stayed atop the mountain until after we had started our descent from Third Burroughs.

The summit appears on the way to Third Burroughs
After a final steep, rocky ascent the path brough us to the cold, wind-whipped summit of Third Burroughs. Even without seeing the summit of Rainier, the view from here was still outstanding. We stood high above the seracs and crevasses of the enormous Winthrop Glacier, which poured down the northeast flank of Mt. Rainier. Although we hoped to enjoy the view for longer, we decided to head back after a short period at the summit in the interests of time and to escape the bone-chilling wind.

Winthrop Glacier from Third Burroughs
The descent of Third Burroughs was uneventful until we returned to the maintained trail at the saddle between Second and Third. As we began to climb up Second Burroughs, the rapidly moving clouds began dissipating to unveil the summit. From this perspective, so close to the mountain itself, Rainier appeared unimaginably massive.

Rainier and Third Burroughs
After returning to First Burroughs, we came to the junction with the Sunrise Rim Trail. Deciding to add some spice to the hike, we took the right fork to return on the Sunrise Rim Trail (returning via Frozen Lake is just as doable and is roughly the same distance). The trail traversed the flat plain of First Burroughs before cutting straight into the steep south face of the mountain, at the rim of the 2000-foot deep valley of the White River. This section of trail was utterly spectacular. As we followed the rocky trail along the rim of Burroughs Mountain, we had could see not only Mt. Rainier but also the steep drop-offs from the summits of surrounding mountains down to the White River and the Emmons Glacier. At the bottom of the valley we spotted a small glacier fed lake below a glacial moraine in the area just recently abandoned by the Emmons Glacier. Those with a fear of heights would do best to avoid the Sunrise Rim and return to Sunrise via Frozen Lake.

Goat Island Mountain from Sunrise Rim Trail
Rainier and the Emmons Glacier from Sunrise Rim
At the conclusion of the Sunrise Rim Trail, we had a good view of the peaks of Sourdough Ridge and the meadows of Sunrise itself. The trail soon intersected the Wonderland Trail; we followed the Wonderland Trail east towards Sunrise, passing the tiny Shadow Lake along the way. After three-quarters of a mile on the Wonderland Trail, we continued back on the Sunrise Rim Trail back to Sunrise itself, returning to the car just slightly before sunset time.

Sourdough Ridge and White River
This hike spends almost no time in the forest and almost all its time in the open alpine tundra. The hiking is challenging but manageable to the fit and has unreal views throughout the entire hike; I recommend it highly.

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