So, you’ve driven all the way to Mount Rainier’s Paradise area, just to discover that there’s nowhere to park. What do you do?
Here’s my suggestion: drive a bit further, towards Stevens Canyon, then stop at Reflection Lakes. Across the street from the lakes, you’ll find the trailhead for Pinnacle Saddle Trail — a path that leads you to views of Rainier that are equally glorious to anything you would have found at Paradise.
I hiked the Pinnacle Saddle Trail on the final full day of my weeklong visit to Mount Rainier National Park. After three days of rain, and two days of crystal-clear skies, the final day was a mixed bag. I could see the mountain, but not the top — a pesky layer of clouds made the day partly sunny, and partly rainy. Ideally, this is a trail you should hike on a clear day, since the star attraction is the mountain.
The Pinnacle Saddle Trail is uphill, all the way — enough to be tiring but not completely exhausting. The trail is sometimes called Pinnacle Peak trail, but that’s not completely accurate. As you’ll see in a moment, it leads up to the saddle, in between Pinnacle and Plummer Peaks (6,562 feet/2,000 meters and 6,370 feet/1,942 meters, respectively). At the saddle, the official trail ends, and you can scramble up to the top of either peak. It’s about 1.75 miles (one way) to the saddle — but you’ll probably add on some more mileage once you get there.
As the trail heads into the Tatoosh Range (the rough-looking peaks, south of Rainier), you’ll get occasional peeks at the peaks up ahead. For the most part, the views aren’t spectacular during the first half of the hike.
I was thankful for this little creek that crossed the trail. It gave me a good excuse to stop hiking for a few minutes, pull out the camera, and take some pictures. This tiny waterfall is located next to the trail.
After some more hiking through trees, the path emerges…
… and suddenly you have a nice view of what’s ahead. On this final stretch towards the saddle, the trail cuts across a scree slope, where rock fragments are carefully balanced on the hillside, just waiting for an extra push to tumble downhill.
As I approached the area, it sprinkled rain, which must have been enough to loosen some rock. I heard a few chunks slide and tumble across the trail ahead of me. If they had caught me off guard, and hit me, they could have done a lot of damage.
As you close in on the saddle, you’ll notice a small cave, at the top of the slope. It’s not very deep, and I was out of energy at this point, so I didn’t find a way to scramble up there (although I’m sure you could).
This is the place where you begin to enjoy some extraordinary views of Mount Rainier, along with a nice perspective on the trail you just crossed.
At the saddle, there’s a small window, through which the trail passes.
A sign tells you that you’ve reached the end of the official trail, and you should use caution if you continue.
From the saddle, there’s a very satisfying view to the south. I think that’s Mount Adams in the distance. In between, the valley directly below carried Butler Creek towards Packwood. Under better conditions, I’m fairly certain you could see part of the town, and US 12.
Looking back towards Mount Rainier, you’ll have an excellent perspective on Paradise. It’s easy to make out the visitor center and parking lots, as well as the routes of the most popular trails in this area.
Since the scramble up to Pinnacle Peak is tougher than the climb to Plummer Peak, I decided to take the easier trail. I didn’t go all the way to the top of Plummer Peak, but just hiking towards it revealed several nice areas. Also, the trail towards Plummer Peak gave me a great view of Pinnacle Peak, to the northeast.
When I discovered this spot, above the saddle but below Plummer Peak, I started to have hope that the clouds were about to clear from the mountain. I had brought along my Drivelapse camera, so I set it up on the edge of the cliff (near those trees) and let it record, while I explored the rest of the area. Here’s what it captured, time-lapsed:
As you can see, those clouds never budged from the mountaintop, and in the 30 minutes that the camera was running, the sky started to cloud up again.
As the camera ran, I took a closer look at the fields of snow that still hadn’t completely melted from the previous winter. Since it was already late September, I’m willing to bet that this snow never completely went away, before winter arrived again.
I went part of the way up Plummer Peak, but I managed to convince myself that the view probably didn’t get much better up there. So, I went back and retrieved the video camera, then headed back towards the saddle…
… taking one more good look at Pinnacle Peak.
I’m not quite sure how the trail gets up there!
As I took a break at the saddle, before heading downhill, the weather worsened, and I found myself getting spritzed by a brief shower. As soon as it tapered off, and the sun came out, I realized that the rain wasn’t a bad thing, at all! A faint rainbow had formed in the valley, below Mount Rainier. I had just a moment to take a couple of pictures before it vanished.
The Pinnacle Saddle Trail is one of several places in Mount Rainier National Park where you’re certain to run into a few marmots. These interesting creatures are basically large squirrels, and they live in burrows in rocky areas. They’re friendly, and although they may scamper away from you if you get too close, they’ll allow you to take plenty of pictures.
I heard this guy before I saw him. In fact, I thought I was hearing some sort of screeching bird of prey, flying overhead. Marmots make a very loud whistling sound, that reminded me of a hawk.
After a while, he got tired of showing off, and disappeared into the trees.