Mt. Rainier may be the most iconic peak in the Lower 48 states of the U.S. Soaring to a height of 14,410 feet despite being located near the Pacific Ocean, this heavily-glaciated volcano is a stunner to view.
Mt. Rainier National Park is an exciting and diverse park in of itself with lowland old growth forests giving way to spectacular alpine terrain.
I’ve always been drawn to the Pacific Northwest and was fortunate enough to hike the Summerland Trail to Panhandle Gap with a side trip to Banshee Peak on a quick visit to the area. I’ve hiked all over the Western U.S., and this is still one of the most spectacular places I’ve been.
This hike encompasses a section of the Wonderland Trail — a 93-mile trail that circumnavigates Mt. Rainier — and offers excellent views of the Fryingpan Glacier as well as the big mountain itself.
Take the side trip from Panhandle Gap up to Banshee Peak and you’ll have even better views in all directions, while also leaving the crowds behind!
Distance and Elevation Gain
Difficulty: This is a challenging hike when accounting for the distance and total elevation gain.
Distance: 6.0 miles one-way (12.0 miles roundtrip) to Panhandle Gap, and 7.5 miles one-way (15.0 miles roundtrip) to the top of Banshee Peak. This hike is an out-and-back.
Elevation Gain: The total elevation gain to Panhandle Gap is 2,950 feet and the elevation gain to the summit of Banshee Peak is 3,554 feet.
Estimated Time: Most reasonably fit hikers can expect an 8-10 hour day if hiking to the top of Banshee Peak. If you only hike to Panhandle Gap and leave out Banshee Peak, then it’s a 6-8 hour hike.
The trail map I used for this hike is the Trails Illustrated Mount Rainier National Park Map and I found this to be an excellent resource.
Multi-Day Backpacking Option
While this hike is very do-able as a day hike, there is a good option for backpackers as well. The Summerland backcountry campsite affords you the opportunity to wake up to the sunrise over Mt. Rainier — an incredible experience as I’ve heard from other hikers.
There is also an open adirondack style shelter located at this camping area as well if you wish to sleep under a roof.
To secure a backcountry permit, you must reserve online at the Mt. Rainier Wilderness Permit Page. Walk-in permits are NOT available.
There is an advance reservation period that opens in the spring, from roughly mid-March through mid or late May. After this initial reservation period, the remaining campsites will be offered online on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Since this camping zone is located on the popular Wonderland Trail, you probably don’t want to wait until the last minute to try to book a site here.
How to Get to the Trailhead
The trailhead for the Summerland Trail is located on the Sunrise Road in the northeast section of Mt. Rainier National Park about 4 miles past the White River Entrance. From Enumclaw, it is about a 1 hour drive.
The trailhead is really just a small parking area just past a bridge that passes over Fryinpgan Creek and parking is limited, so be sure to arrive early. If this parking lot fills up, there is another trail access point farther down the road on the left that would add an additional mile or so.
I don’t recall how much room there is for parking at this alternative location, but it most likely is limited.
Trail Breakdown and Highlights
Summerland Trail to Panhandle Gap
The trail begins with a gradual ascent through beautiful old growth forest in the Fryingpan Creek valley. After a little over a mile, the trail will get steeper and climb at a steady clip for the remainder of the way.
As you continue to hike up, you’ll pop in and out of the forest alongside glacier-fed Fryingpan Creek.
After hiking for about 4 miles, you’ll reach Summerland, a gorgeous setting filled with open meadows and views of Rainier. This is also where the backcountry camping area is located.
From Summerland, it’s about another 2 miles to Panhandle Gap. This section of trail gets even more spectacular as you climb, crossing glacial streams and wildflower-filled meadows as you rise above treelike.
If you are hiking here late in the summer, you’ll even pass a couple of snowmelt-filled alpine “tarns” (i.e. small ponds with turquoise water).
The trail will steepen toward the top of Panhandle Gap as you switchback up the rocky slopes. During early summer (through late July of most years), you may need microspikes or crampons along with hiking poles to safely ascend this section.
When I hiked in late August, snow wasn’t an issue, but be sure to check on current conditions before starting your hike.
From the top of Panhandle Gap at 6,800 feet, you’ll have close-up views of Mt. Rainier and the Fryingpan Glacier…
And to the south, there are distant views of Mt. Adams and even Mt. Hood on a clear day!
Panhandle Gap to Banshee Peak
From Panhandle Gap, it is an off-trail hike to Banshee Peak that covers roughly an additional 2 miles to the summit. The elevation gain is gradual and the route-finding is easy as far as off-trail travel goes.
While many parties decide to turn around at Panhandle Gap, which is a challenging enough hike by itself, the additional trip up to Banshee Peak is well worth the trek. From Panhandle Gap, turn left (east).
The views of Rainier continue to get better and better the higher up you ascend, and you’ll have excellent views in all other directions as well.
There is a faint climber’s path that comes in and out, but the route to the top is pretty obvious.
Please be sure to trek responsibly through this section, stay on trails and rocks as much as possible, and do your best to avoid walking on sensitive vegetation. Leave no trace!
The path up through the grassy meadows is benign, but as you hike near the edge of the ridge, you’ll see steep drop-offs to the north onto the Sarvent Glaciers below you.
In addition to Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood off in the distance, Mt. Saint Helens will also come into view. Four volcanoes seen on one hike — not bad!
The summit of Banshee Peak itself is rather flat and unassuming, but the surroundings are amazing. Directly in front of you to the northeast are views of the three Cowitz Chimneys.
And of course, Mt. Rainier dominates the view to the northwest.
Best Time of Year to Hike the Summerland Trail
June through October is the standard season to hike this trail, and late July through September is the best time. Deep snow and swift stream crossings are likely beyond Summerland through all of June and even most of July in many years, so plan accordingly.
The two driest months of the year in Mt. Rainier National Park and the Washington Cascades are July and August, so you are most likely to encounter a good weather window in one of these two months, though rainy days can happen in mid-summer as well.
Wildflowers tend to peak from around late July through mid-August, depending on the previous winter’s snowpack.
September is somewhat of an in-between season with cool/wet systems arriving on occasion, while nice and sunny stretches of weather occur as well. Rain and snow are more frequent in October as the the transition to the wet season unfolds, yet nice stretches of weather can sometimes happen this late into the year as well.
The hiking season for Summerland typically shuts down by late October or November as the wet season truly gets going and heavy snow starts to accumulate across the higher elevations of this hike.
It should be noted that thunderstorms are less common in the Cascades compared to most other mountain ranges, but in the right patterns, they do occasionally occur during the summer months.
When the ingredients are in place for storms, they tend to develop over the higher peaks and ranges, including Mt. Rainier, and can produce abundant cloud to ground lightning, so be sure to check the forecast. The upper portion of this hike beyond Summerland would not be a good place to get caught in a thunderstorm due to its exposure.
Wildlife, Bugs, and Water
Mountain goats are commonly spotted on the higher portions of this hike above Summerland, as are marmots. Deer, elk, black bears and foxes are other mammals that inhabit this area. Mountain lions are certainly found in this region as well, though your chances of seeing one are very low.
Past reports indicate that mosquitoes and black flies can sometimes be a nuisance on the lower portion of this trail in July and early/mid August, but overall they don’t seem to be a huge issue here.
Oddly enough, the only time I’ve ever been stung by a bee in the past decade of hiking occurred on this trail. I would say it was a fluke incident as I never even saw the bee, only felt it!
There are several stream crossings that are easy in late summer, but early in the season I would imagine the water would be moving rather swiftly and you might get your feet wet, especially between Summerland and Panhandle Gap. This section of trail is known for being quite wet during the snowmelt runoff season in July.
Pre or Post-Hike Camping Options
The closest car campground to this trail is the White River Campground, located just a couple of miles beyond the trailhead when driving toward the Sunrise Visitor Center.
Camping here costs $20 per night and campsites are available by reservation or on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Outside of the national park, the closest established campground is the Lodgepole Campground, located off of Highway 410 east of Chinook Pass. Dispersed camping is also available in the adjacent national forests (Wenatchee National Forest and Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest).
Here are a few items I consider to be essential for this hike:
- Extra layers
- Ski hat and lightweight gloves
- 2-3 liters of water
- Personal locater device, such as a SPOT or DeLorme beacon
- First aid kit
Here are a few items I might bring depending on current conditions:
- Down jacket
- Trekking poles
- Crampons or microspikes (if hiking outside of August-September)
- Ice axe
- Rain jacket and rain gear (if anything but a dry forecast)
- Bug spray (if hiking in July or August)
- Bear spray (there are no grizzlies here, so while it’s still not a bad idea to hike with bear spray, it’s not mandatory here like it would be in grizzly country)
Where to Find Weather Forecasts
Here are links to National Weather Service point weather forecasts near the start of the hike and across the upper portions of the hike that take elevation and terrain into account.
Keep in mind that there is a greater margin of error in mountain forecasts for remote areas, but the NWS point forecasts are one of the more reliable sources.
The National Weather Service in Seattle is the local office for this area, and although somewhat technical, you can read the NWS Forecast Discussions to gain some insight into the weather patterns for this area.
Post-Hike Food and Drink
The closest place to grab a bite to eat after your hike is at the Sunrise Day Lodge at the Sunrise Visitor Center, which serves sandwiches, burgers, chili and those sort of things.
Alternatively, you could head to Crystal Mountain Ski Resort just outside of the northeast corner of the park, where a few restaurants are open during the summer.