NW Trails: Snowshoe Hike to Sun Top Mountain

December 29, 2015

Don′t miss these Jaw-dropping vistas of Mount Rainier when you snowshoe to Sun Top Mountain

Story and Photos by Craig Romano

Photo at right: Sun glistens over Sun Top′s
lookout with Mount Rainier in the background.

 

NW Trails is sponsored by Green Trails Maps

 

The historic fire lookout perched atop 5,271-foot Sun Top Mountain is easily reached via a well-graded gravel road in the warm summer and fall months. However, once winter drapes its white shroud upon this peak just north of Mount Rainier, near Enumclaw, Washington, the lookout makes for a challenging and invigorating snowshoeing destination.

Depending on how low the snow falls in the valley—the trip to Sun Top can be up to 11 miles roundtrip with over 3,000 vertical feet of climbing.

While it’s not an easy feat it is worth every calorie burned to stand atop this peak above the White River and bask in jaw-dropping views of deep emerald valleys, craggy frosty summits and of course, “The Mountain.”

On a clear crisp day, Mount Rainier steals the scenic show and you can practically feel its icy breath upon your frost-kissed cheeks. Sun Top’s fire lookout, built in 1933, will also captivate you as much as Washington’s iconic mountain.

Throughout the winter and spring months, Sun Top’s summit road is gated in the valley below and the road is closed to snowmobilers making it strictly the domain of intrepid skiers and snowshoers.

Getting Started

A snowshoer in Seahawks colors approaches Sun Top's open summit.

To start your trek, start from the Sun Top Sno-Park and after passing the gate you’ll come to a junction. The road straight ahead is a near level route through old-growth forests along Huckleberry Creek. This road makes for a much easier adventure and is a great place for kids and neophytes to practice snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

After warming up along this section, head up Forest Road 7315 and immediately start climbing, keeping in mind that the stellar views are worth the heart-pumping workout.

Note that Sun Top is a popular cross-country skiing destination, too, so be sure to keep snowshoes and dogs off the ski tracks. The pathway is wide enough to accommodate all.

Wind around a Forest Service tree nursery undulating between old cuts and patches of mature timber. The route steadily climbs, never too steep, but never letting up either. Pass a few good, but limited, views north and east over old clear-cuts with new growth.

Tempting Spur Roads

At just past 2 miles, you’ll come to a gate and a spur road leading right which may tempt you to explore. Unless the weather is less than ideal with no promise of views from above, save this spur for another day and save your energy and keep marching onward and upward.

After making a sharp turn, the route begins wrapping around the peak heading for a saddle on its southern ridge. Occasionally look back and catch a glimpse of the semi-open summit. At 5 miles, you’ll come to the 4,750-foot saddle.

Here the road dissects the Sun Top hiking trail (a great long distance route coveted by mountain bikers and trail runners when snow-free), and a spur road continues west to a broad shoulder.

If avalanche warnings are in place, do not continue toward the summit and instead consider snowshoeing on this spur road for more limited views.

If the snow is stable, continue a short distance on the Sun Top road to another gate. Do not continue straight on the road as it crosses a steep open slope prone to avalanches, making it dangerous to traverse.

Instead, locate the hiking trail leading left of the gate and follow its route, switch-backing up the southern slopes of the peak. Plod through open forest granting gorgeous views.

Jaw-dropping Vistas

The author soaks up some winter sunshine on Sun Top.

Reach the summit road at a sharp bend near a solar panel, then head right on this road for a short distance traveling across the broad open summit taking in spectacular far-reaching views.

At 5.5 miles your journey culminates at the historic fire lookout cabin (one of the few remaining in this region) perched atop the mile-high mountain.

Now, turn around and face south. Wow! Mount Rainier is right in your face. On a sunny day, its icy façade is nearly blinding. Look east across the deep White River Valley to Crystal Mountain, Castle Mountain, Norse Peak, Pyramid Peak and Kelly Butte.

Then face west, admiring the Huckleberry Creek Valley. Beyond its patchwork of logged hillsides are a series of mountains draped in virgin forests protected within the Clearwater Wilderness. Look northward now and sweep the horizon from left to right locating the Olympic Mountains, Mount Stuart and Mount Baker.

Finally, if the sun is out, savor it on this summit whose name is solar-inspired. There’s nothing like being kissed by the sun on a frozen summit surrounded by a winter wonderland.

Trip Details/Resources

Distance: 11miles roundtrip with 3,050 feet of vertical elevation

Trailhead Directions: From Enumclaw follow SR 410 for 24.6 miles turning right (just before The Dalles Campground) onto Forest Road 73. Continue for 1.4 miles to the Sno-Park.

Green Trails Maps: Green Trails Maps—Greenwater No. 238

Notes: Sno-Park Pass required. Dog-friendly. Route is non-groomed and shared with skiers. Beyond the upper gate, the road route crosses an avalanche area that should be avoided during moderate to extreme avalanche warnings and during and after heavy snowfall. Check avalanche conditions (Northwest Avalanche Center; www.nwac.us) before departing and know safe backcountry snow-travel techniques.

Contacts: Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest; www.fs.usda.gov/mbs

Craig Romano is Trails Editor of OutdoorsNW and is the author of nine Northwest hiking guidebooks including Winter Hikes of Western Washington card deck (The Mountaineers Books).

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