Comment from Al: I've never done this hike myself, but would like to. We've borrowed this story and the pictures from CutLunchAdventures.com with their blessing and we thank them for it. They did this hike last summer during the fire season. Check out their site - they have adventures from all over the world.
Mt. Rainier guides were booked
Planning on visiting Seattle, we wanted to climb Mt. Rainier (4,392m/14,410 ft). As all bookings with established climbing guides were booked out well in advance, the next best thing was to try and see it up close and personal. So, with a limited amount of time, the advice was to hike up to Tolmie Peak to an old fire lookout, where the views of Mt. Rainier are literally ‘in your face’. That’s of course provided there is no smoke from wildfires – more on that later.
Most people set off from the parking area at Mowich Lake campground, heading round the west side of Mowich Lake. But you can also park at the trailhead before on the left side of the road, near Mowich Lake – saves you around 1.6km (1 mile).
Ipsut Pass, Wonderland Trail
Follow the trail through open lowland forest along the west side of the lake, gaining elevation gradually, and then on increasingly steep grade as you move away from the lake up to tiny Ipsut Pass approximately 3.2km (2 miles) from the trailhead. This pass is part of the Wonderland Trail – look down the other side of it to get an idea of how steep sections of this iconic trail are.
If you want views of Mt. Rainier, continue past the lake for the final uphill grind. It’s a steep 1.6km (1 mile) to Tolmie Peak and the lookout.
Eunice Lake and Tolmie Peak
Looking south, Mt. Rainier is huge from this vantage point, and Eunice Lake glittering at the bottom of Tolmie Peak makes for a fantastic photo from here. We were also lucky on the day to bump into a ranger who let us into the fire lookout – a lot of history here and nice spot to stop, contemplate life and have a snack.
This photo taken on a clear day by "Skibum"
Oh, yes – I nearly forgot. The wildfires, emanating both from British Columbia and now Oregon blew in quite a lot of smoke which limited our views of Mt Rainier, but was still a great hike up to Tolmie Peak.
Note from Al: It got worse - this was before the terrible Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge
Onwards and upwards.
If driving from Seattle, it’s around 2 hours one way to the Tolmie Peak trail head at Mowich Lake. Take Mowich Lake Road, which is beyond the Carbon River Gorge bridge, right outside of the town of Carbonado. Turn right onto Mowich Lake Road and follow it for about 27km (17 miles) to its end. Note that this road is loose gravel, and can be rough in places with lots of pot holes. You could consider driving an SUV, though we drove a normal sedan – just take it slowly. The trailhead is on the left side of the road, near Mowich Lake.
The trail is listed as 12km (7.5 miles) roundtrip. There is no reason to drive all the way to Mowich Lake Campground – unless you want to of course. Parking at the Tolmie Peak trailhead, on the west side of Mowich Lake will save you about 1.6km (1 mile) each way. All up around 3.5 hours return.
The trail itself is well sign posted. Follow the signs towards Ipsut Pass, turning left and descend 30-60m (100-200 ft) just before you reach the pass. From here it is mostly uphill, but the grade isn’t too bad. From here you will catch your first views of the lookout tower. Continue West along the lake’s edge and ascend the ridgeline Northwest of Eunice Lake until you reach the lookout tower.
Elevation gain is around 455m (1,492 ft).
A National Park Pass is required to access hiking trails in the park – cash only.
We undertook this hike towards the end of summer in August, but in late autumn/early winter I imagine it would be difficult because of snow.