Friday, October 5, 2018

Skyscraper Mountain

Mount Rainier from Skyscraper Mountain
8.5 miles round trip, 1500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, some minor scrambling necessary to reach summit
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Mount Rainier National Park entrance fee required

Skyscraper Mountain is one of the many day-hike destinations in the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier National Park; as it sees far fewer visits than more popular Summerland, Mount Fremont, and Burroughs Mountain, it is also one of my favorite hikes in the area. As one would expect of a peak named Skyscraper, the summit offers sweeping views of Mount Rainier and its environs, including peeks at both the largest (Emmons) and lowest elevation (Carbon) glaciers in the contiguous United States. The hike is entirely in the alpine, with constant views from the trailhead to the summit. Although this trail is less popular than its nearby peer destinations, it's still a good idea to visit Sunrise on a weekday or arriving very early on weekends, as entrance into this portion of the park may be restricted on busy summer weekends.

I hiked Skyscraper Mountain on a beautifully clear July day with a friend visiting from Virginia. We left Seattle early to avoid weekday traffic, taking I-5 south, then Highway 18 east to Auburn, then Route 164 south to Enumclaw and Highway 410 east through Greenwater to the entrance of Mount Rainier National Park. Once in the park, we continued on Route 410 until reaching the turnoff for Sunrise; here, we turned right, passing the entrance gate and the White River Campground before following the road up the winding switchbacks to the Sunrise Visitor Center, where we parked to start our hike.

From the day lodge at Sunrise, we followed the road towards the picnic area and then hopped onto the trail towards Sourdough Ridge. At the junction between the connector trails leading east and west towards Sourdough Ridge, we took the west (left) fork, ascending through the meadows with amazing views of Mount Rainier, Little Tahoma, and the Cowlitz Chimneys. In a third of a mile, the trail met up with the Sourdough Ridge Trail atop the meadow-crowned ridgeline with a view directly down into Huckleberry Basin to the north and out to the far off peaks of the Central and North Cascades.

We would've stopped to enjoy the view, but we were quickly surrounded by a mob of flying, biting insects. To avoid being the main course of a mosquito buffet, we took the left fork on the Sourdough Ridge Trail and began following the trail west towards Frozen Lake and Burroughs Mountain. The views of the massive Emmons Glacier spilling down from Columbia Crest and the unsettling levelness of Burroughs Mountain made the progressions of ups and downs along the ridge easy to handle.

Rainier and Burroughs from the Sourdough Ridge Trail
We passed a junction with the trail to Huckleberry Creek and then continued along the Sourdough Ridge Trail. The trail crossed a scree slope where some amazing trailwork had been done: here, a wide corridor had been cut through the talus, with an impressive stacked stone wall defining the north side of the trail. Past the talus slope, the trail made a short climb to arrive at Frozen Lake. In early July, the lake lived up to its name: a snowfield remained on the northern and western shores of the lake and a number of small icebergs had been calved into the lake itself. Skyscraper Mountain, Mount Fremont, and Burroughs Mountain rose to the three sides around the lake. As the lake is the principal water supply for Sunrise, the lakeshore was blocked off from public access.

Frozen Lake with Skyscraper Mountain visible in the distance
At the far end of the lake, we came to the junction with the Wonderland Trail, the Burroughs Mountain Trail, and the Mount Fremont Trail. The Mount Fremont Trail led off to the right towards the lookout on Fremont; the Burroughs Mountain Trail led off to the left, heading straight up the steep sides of the mesa-like mountain. The Wonderland Trail headed to the east in one direction to return to Sunrise and west in the other direction towards Berkeley Park; we chose to head west, following the path that led straight through the junction.

Rainier rises above the Burroughs Mountain Trail
The Wonderland Trail passed through the alpine saddle between Burroughs Mountain and Mount Fremont before it began to descend into upper Berkeley Park in the basin north of Burroughs Mountain. The steep sides of Burroughs hid most of the bulk of Mount Rainier, leaving only the glacier-covered cap of Columbia Crest and the rockier Liberty Cap visible as we descended slightly into a valley. The trail to Berkeley Park broke off to the right; we stayed on the Wonderland Trail, heading west.

The Wonderland Trail
Although the peak wildflower bloom had yet to commence, upper Berkeley Park was already beginning to put on a flower show, with white heather blooming widely across its meadows and a good number of vividly colored magenta paintbrush.

Paintbrush and heather
As the trail circled around the cirque at the head of Berkeley Park, we had good views of both nearby Skyscraper Mountain and Mount Fremont and out the valley to Glacier Peak and the Central Cascades. Hiking well above the treeline, we had constant views of Rainier's attendant peaks.

Skyscraper Mountain
Mount Fremont
Rainier itself poked in and out of view, sometimes emerging from a saddle or dip in the ridge above to complement the green meadowed slopes of the trail.

Wrapping around the back of the basin, the trail then began to traverse north along the western side of the valley towards Skyscraper Pass. We crossed a short section of snow to reach the pass on the ridgeline of Skyscraper Mountain. From the pass, Rainier was resplendent to the south: we had a clear view past Third Burroughs Mountain to the Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers, Liberty Cap, and Observation Rock.

Rainier from Skyscraper Pass
At the pass, an unmarked trail led to the right towards Skyscraper Mountain. We left the Wonderland Trail here, following this social path slightly down to a saddle before beginning a steady ascent through meadows towards the Skyscraper summit. This was the steepest portion of the hike, climbing 400 feet in a third of a mile to reach the 7077-foot summit. At points, the trail required what might qualify as minor scrambling as it followed the south ridge of the mountain towards the peak; there was a spot with some minor exposure just short of the summit. The climb was through completely open alpine slopes, allowing us to spot a group of mountain goats lounging about lower on the western slopes of the mountain.

Final ascent up Skyscraper Mountain
The rocky summit commanded a 360-degree view of Mount Rainier and the Cascades. The Fryingpan, Emmons, Inter, Winthrop, and Carbon Glaciers all made appearances on the great slopes of Rainier. Mount Fremont rose to the east above the meadow-filled valley of Berkeley Park, crowned with its oft-visited fire lookout on its north ridge. The sharp double spires of Sluiskin Mountain rose to the west. The remarkably flat, table-like Grand Park lay just to the north and beyond it rose the many peaks of the Central Cascades: Kaleetan, Chair, Glacier, Chikamin, Daniel, the Stuart Range. The relative lack of bugs at the summit made it a nice place for us to enjoy a long break before returning the way we came.

Skyscraper Mountain views
Mount Fremont and Berkeley Park
Glacier Peak and the Cascades rise over Grand Park

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