Favorited on July 12, 2020

200710 Panhandle Gap via Summer-land trail, Mt.Rainier

11.4 mi 

Your route begins in old-growth forest at 3,900 feet, on a trail that is almost level. In a quarter mile it joins the south-bound Wonderland Trail that arrives here from Sunrise. So, in addition to encountering other day hikers, you might meet a few Wonderland Trail backpackers who are out for one or several nights.

Not much sun reaches the forest floor along the first part of your trail, but a few shade-tolerant wildflowers do manage to thrive here. Look particularly for sidebells pyrola, queen's cup and coral root.

The way crosses an occasional small stream and gradually becomes steeper. You will come to a rocky switchback where Fryingpan Creek rushes down a narrow cleft in the rock some fifty feet below the trail. You can take a careful look, but it's difficult to get a good photo there. Farther along, at another switchback, there is a good view down on a section of rapids along the creek.

The trail continues on, still in the forest. Occasional openings on your left offer brief glimpses up to the cliffy north face of the Cowlitz Chimneys, where snow banks often remain until late summer, feeding meltwater to small cascades that drop precipitously down to become part of Fryingpan Creek.

As you continue on, the forest around you changes gradually, the trees become smaller and the species different. Soon you are out on more open slopes, with small alpine firs and a lot of white rhododendron shrubs (distantly related to the rhodies you see in town) that often display their small white blooms in June.

Your trail approaches Fryingpan Creek again, and soon you'll come to a crossing on a sturdy log with a flattened top. There's a railing too, although it often seems to lean over a bit too far toward the downstream side. Pause on the bridge, if you are comfortable. Get a good look at the milky, gritty glacial water, and take in the view upstream where part of the mountain is visible.

Beyond the crossing, the trail parallels the creek for a while, in a section edged with shrubs and with a mix of wildflowers, particularly valerian. It can get warm here on a summer afternoon. Soon the route begins to switchback up the slope to the left. There is some shade there, so it may be cooler. The wildflowers on this north-facing slope peak later than those up in the meadow, so you may see a few species here long after those in the meadow are gone for the season. Soon, the switchbacks end and you take the final steps into the wildflower meadows at Summerland. When the snow first melts, avalanche lilies appear here, to be followed later by lupine, Indian paintbrush, white pedicularis and many others. On a warm afternoon the perfume can be very intense.

Summerland offers designated camp sites and a group shelter, along the east side of the meadow. Camp sites here, as everywhere in the park, must be reserved in advance.

Look beyond the flower meadows and take in the views up to Little Tahoma, and to the summit dome of Mount Rainier. Summerland is a great place just to sit and relax for a while. Then continue on the trail just a short way, surrounded by meadows and occasional small streams. You likely will see marmots here, and black bear sightings are not unusual. While you explore, please stay on the trails to help preserve the very fragile alpine vegetation.

Summerland is itself a worthy hiking destination. You have come up 2,000 feet in about 4.5 miles, and it's fine to make it your goal for the day. But the trail does go on. Panhandle Gap beckons, another 1.5 miles along and 900 feet higher. If your time and energy permit, you really shouldn't miss it.

Once you step out of the grassy meadows and start up onto the rocky moraine it's a passage into a different world. A world of boulders and gravel, of rushing melt water streams, and shallow tarns that may be ice-covered, or may sport snow bergs, well into the summer. There are wildflowers up here too, but they are hardy varieties that can survive rooted in narrow clefts that are buried in snow for much of the year.

Goats find forage on the steep slopes, at least in summer, and your odds of seeing them near the gap are good. Sometimes, on hot afternoons, they bed down on remaining snow banks to keep cool. For the bears, Panhandle Gap offers little in the way of forage. But bears, like hikers, do travel this stony route, on their way to the other side of the mountain.

The ongoing trail sometimes is edged with small stones or may be marked with cairns, some of them painted a deep orange. Until late summer, parts of the route may remain snow covered, but the footing generally is good most of the way. On the final approach to the gap there is a short section of trail that crosses a steep slope with boulders at the bottom. When snow lingers there late in the season the traverse may require some care. Look it over carefully before proceeding, particularly if it is frozen hard. Trekking poles may be advisable here. Check recent trip reports for advice on current conditions

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