Hiking Mount Rainier’s Burroughs Mountain Loop

Writer and journalist Kim Brown Seely recounts her experience hiking Washington State's most iconic peak.

On the trail way above the trees on Mount Rainier’s Burroughs Mountain loop, something amazing is happening: Hikers from around the world keep asking my husband and me for directions. We are moving briskly across a slope during our annual pilgrimage to “climb” Mount Rainier, which we do by cheating and driving to the Sunrise parking lot (at 6,400 feet, it’s the peak’s highest parking option), lacing up our boots, and walking 7 miles—every step homage to the vast white bulk of the mountain.

The trail here is all rock, searing blue sky and intensity of light that you can’t quite put into words. Snow and ice on the Emmons Glacier gleam in the sun. It’s the kind of hike that clears your mind. The air is colder than you expect it to be, and the wind blows straight off the glaciers, brushing your face like a prayer.

“Maybe I look like a park ranger in these khaki shorts and orange jacket,” my husband says wryly, after four Japanese hikers, who were preceded minutes before by two Spanish trekkers, inquire which way they should go. I turn to look back at him, give him the skeptical eyebrows and keep on walking.

Where the trail splits atop a high bench of alpine tundra, we fork right and continue on to our favorite lookout—the one with the Rainier-in-your-face view. Often, there are mountain goats along this stretch; always marmots and pikas. We stop for a PB&J picnic, feeling exhilarated by the bright, clean light and the mountain’s magnetic pull over us—and clearly others, who travel from around the globe to be here.

While Rainier is perhaps the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic place to hike, Washington has more than 9,000 miles of trails, many of them amazingly accessible. From Seattle, hikers of all abilities regularly motor out on I-90 to explore the Central Cascades’ forests, streams, and alpine lakes; ferry up to Whidbey Island for an amble along the windswept cliffs of Ebey’s Landing; or even walk a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, a long-distance hiking trail that spans roughly 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada.

Indeed, few places in the nation offer anywhere close to the number of trails Washington has just within driving distance of Puget Sound, not to mention the myriad number of places to put foot to trail throughout the rest of the state.

“There is a hiking trail for everyone in Washington,” says Susan Elderkin, of the Washington Trails Association (WTA). That includes trails for those looking for an easy stroll as well as for those in search of a long backpacking trip. The state’s national parks are a popular option, and the lesser-known national forests also have beautiful places to hike—sometimes with far fewer people.

Volunteers for the WTA have put in around 100,000 hours of volunteer trail maintenance throughout the state each year for the past three years. In 2012, an army of nearly 2,700 volunteers worked on 170 different trails, and this past summer, WTA crews logged 5,524 hours on Washington’s section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Washington Pacific Crest Trail starts at the Columbia River, ends on the Canadian border, and rivals the Sierra Nevada in terms of dramatic mountainous scenery. You can easily hike part of it by driving 66 miles from downtown Seattle and stepping on where it runs through the Central Cascades. The state’s most popular stretch, in fact, is the trail running from I-90’s Snoqualmie Pass to Kendall Katwalk. Check conditions before you go, since the trail is close to unhikable when snow is present.

Still, I’m partial to Washington’s three national parks, each with hundreds of miles of trails to explore: well-known Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks, plus the more remote North Cascades National Park, where you can always find solitude.

Up on Mount Rainier, my husband and I bid adieu to our foreign friends and begin our descent, reveling in the dry mountain air, the bright sun and the crunch of boots on the trail. We edge a meadow where the soil and vegetation are so fragile they can be compared to Arctic tundra. Two miles later we reach the parking lot, shed our boots and drive back to Seattle, elated by our day.

Miraculously, we pull into our driveway by 3:45 p.m. Our dirty dishes from this morning’s breakfast are still in the sink, but no matter—it feels like we’ve been to the moon and back.

-Kim Brown Seely