10 Facts About the Historic Glacier Basin Trail

This 3.5-mile track is the gateway to Mount Rainier.

Hiker walking on rocky trail with Mount Rainier in background

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The Glacier Basin Trail is a moderate out-and-back hiking path that leads to the base of Mount Rainier in Washington. It starts at the upper end of White River Campground, follows the White River through a deep glacial valley flanked by Mount Ruth and Burroughs Mountain—8,690 and 7,828 feet, respectively—then ends, after a few miles of gentle climbing, at the foot of Inter Glacier, located on the northeast face of Rainier.

Hikers are treated to views of Washington's tallest mountain, sprawling fields of wildflowers (in late spring and summer), waterfalls, and the largest glacier in the contiguous U.S., Emmons Glacier, if they follow a half-mile spur trail. This area has a fascinating history rooted in copper mining and, much earlier, conflict between Indigenous peoples and the U.S. military.

Here are 10 facts about the wildly popular Glacier Basin Trail.

1. The Glacier Basin Trail Is About 3.5 Miles Long

From the trailhead to the base of Inter Glacier is roughly 3.5 miles, making this hike seven miles round trip. The first half is a gentle and steady ascent, but around the 2.5-mile mark, where the Burroughs Mountain Trail connects, the climbing becomes steep and occasionally narrow. Still, the trail can be (and is regularly) hiked by families. It takes about four hours for the average hiker to complete it.

2. It's Located in Mount Rainier National Park

Grassy field and tarn with Mount Rainier in background

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The Glacier Basin Trail is one of more than 60 moderate trails within Mount Rainier National Park. It offers continuous views of the 14,410-foot, ice-covered stratovolcano, including an up-close look at the small, 0.3-square-mile Inter Glacier, whose meltwater makes up the White River, and glimpses of the much bigger Winthrop Glacier and Emmons Glacier, the latter of which is the biggest in the contiguous U.S.

3. It Follows an Abandoned Mining Road

The National Park Service says the Glacier Basin was subject to copper ore mining during the late 1800s, but "nothing of commercial value was extracted and mining efforts were eventually suspended." It's the abandoned road that once led prospective miners into the valley that this trail follows. 

According to Mt. Rainier Tourism, the Glacier Basin saw as many as 41 mining claims at one time, the largest being Starbo Mine, which had its own power plant and hotel. The Mount Rainier Mining Company continued operations until 1984, a whole century after the national park was established. Rustic relics from the mountain's mining days can be spotted along the Glacier Basin Trail.

4. It's Frequented by Rainier Climbers

This trail serves as a starting point for mountaineers attempting a full Rainier summit via Inter Glacier. The route ascends the glacier through the middle, 1,500 feet, to Camp Curtis at its ridge, then goes up the dramatic Emmons Glacier. The Inter Glacier also provides access to Mount Ruth, a feat of mountaineering less intense than summiting Rainier but still off limits for the inexperienced and unequipped. During the climbing season, May through September, hikers will often be able to spot climbers on the glaciers.

5. Mountain Goats Inhabit the Glacier Basin

White mountain goat in alpine meadow near Mount Rainier

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Climbers aren't the only things clinging to micro-holds on the slopes of Rainier and surrounding peaks. Mountain goats utilize their innate climbing abilities to traverse the steep cliffs of the Cascades, where they forage for moss and lichen. They can be seen any time of year, as their dense undercoats equip them for the cold, high-altitude winters. Marmots, deer, black bears, and American dippers can also be found in the White River area.

6. The Trail Traverses a Range of Ecosystems

The Glacier Basin Trail has been known to experience all four seasons in a single day due to its changing elevation. It begins amid a dense riparian woodland, leading hikers through shady and damp areas along the river before spitting them out into sprawling subalpine meadows that stretch over lush hillsides and erupt with colorful wildflowers in the spring and summer. Further ahead on the climber's track, ancient glaciers and volcanic rock create yet another much different ecosystem.

7. Portions Have Been Rebuilt to Avoid Flooding

Low-angle view of White River flowing from Mount Rainier

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For many years, the trail was ravaged by frequent flooding on account of its close proximity to the White River. A large chunk of it was completely washed out by a 2006 flood, which led volunteers of the Washington Trails Association to commence a 6,500-foot rebuilding project with the National Park Service. The new route, rising higher than the original, was completed in 2011.

8. It's Best Hiked June Through September

Mount Rainier National Park gets hundreds of inches of snow per year, which means trail conditions can be precarious. The road leading to White River Campground, the trailhead, is prone to closing over the winter, and the trail itself becomes icy and dangerous, its log footbridges getting washed out regularly. Most low-elevation hikes within the park remain virtually snow-free from mid-July through October, with the best (and safest) time to hike Glacier Basin being June through September. Hikers should always check the trail conditions on the National Park Service website beforehand.

9. The Highest Point of the Trail Is 5,950 Feet

View of Mount Rainier from an elevated point on trail

Jeff Hollett / Flickr / Public Domain

For the most part, the Glacier Basin Trail entails gradual uphill climbing—no scrambling or crawling on all fours up dangerously steep sections. However, the elevation gain—1,700 feet over seven miles total—is comparable to that of the legendary Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park, which is deemed "strenuous." The highest point on the Glacier Basin Trail is 5,950 feet, slightly less than the average height of the Appalachian Mountains.

10. It's Located on a Battleground

In 1854, before Washington was even a state, a treaty negotiated by the territory governor Isaac Stevens stripped the Nisqually people of some of their farmland. This led to armed conflict between local Indigenous tribes and the U.S. military. The subsequent Puget Sound War lasted until 1956 and took place partially in the White River Valley where Glacier Basin is located.

View Article Sources
  1. "Glacier Basin Trail." National Park Service.

  2. "Glacier Basin." Mt. Rainier Tourism.

  3. "Glacier Basin." Washington Trails Association.

  4. "Annual Snowfall Totals - Mount Rainier National Park." National Park Service.

  5. "Zion Canyon Trail Descriptions." National Park Service.