Full Moon Hike: Mount Rainier National Park

 

Grace and I were driving back from Chelan on the Fourth of July, cruising over Steven's Pass on a traffic-free evening, when we had the kind of exchange good hiking friends have while deciding on their next adventure. Someone said "Tolmie Peak" and someone wondered aloud when the next full moon was. Grace looked it up: "Huh, it's this Saturday." Done! We had found our next hiking fix: a full moon hike to Tolmie Peak Lookout in Mount Rainier National Park.

Here are the highlights from our hike, plus tips for planning your own full moon hike!

Mount Rainier beneath the full moon from Tolmie Peak Lookout.

Mount Rainier beneath the full moon from Tolmie Peak Lookout.

Backstory:

Tolmie Peak Lookout is a spectacular summer hike known for it's dead-on view of Mount Rainier, meadows of beargrass and wildflowers, and shallow, translucent shorelines of Eunice Lake. Throw in a fire lookout at the summit (which you can go inside and check out when a park service employee is there) and it's truly spell-binding. 

We opted to do the "shortcut" version of Tolmie Peak, starting at the sign "Tolmie Peak," located 0.3 miles before the end of the road and Mowich Lake Campground. The "shortcut" trail is 6.0 miles roundtrip with a 1500 feet elevation gain, while the "full-length" trail is 7.0 miles roundtrip, starting from Mowich Lake Campground.

Grace suggested getting to the trailhead at sunset, around 9:00ish, and the strategy worked out well. We met our friend Margaret, her boyfriend Rod, and Rod's daughter, Madison, at the Econo Lodge in Buckley and headed southeast a little after 8:00 p.m. The final drive up the dusty, washboard-like Mowich Lake Road was a slow 25 mph over 16 miles to the trailhead. 

We liked that we had enough daylight to see the road, gear up, and get our bearings before heading out. In total the hike took us just over 3.5 hours, roundtrip. We started at 9:25 p.m., reached the summit at 11:10 p.m., and were back at the trailhead at 1:05 a.m. The trail conditions on July 8th were good: no snow on the trail, but uneven sections with scattered rocks and roots. Trekking poles helped with the rough tread.

Highlights: 

Here are a few of my favorite moments from our hike:

  • Pausing to enjoy warm twilight colors as we started hiking.
Photo courtesy Margaret Schwertner

Photo courtesy Margaret Schwertner

  • Seeing city lights twinkle as we looked northwest towards Puget Sound
  • Enjoying the meadows of bear grass...at least, when we shined our headlamps on them :)
  • Seeing Eunice Lake, the stars, and Mount Rainier glowing under a bright, full moon

Tips:

Here are some ideas and tips for your next full moon hike. 

  • Try a meadow hike. Although we had a blast at Tolmie Peak, we had quite a bit of forest hiking, and it would have been nice to hike a trail with open meadows (like Sourdough Ridge or Fremont Lookout in the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier National Park) so that we could see the trail more clearly in the moonlight. 
  • Check the full moonroad status, and trail conditions. We double checked the date of the full moon, that Mowich Lake Road was open, and read recent trip reports on WTA. I also left an itinerary for my emergency contacts so they knew our plan and when they could expect us back home, and used my SPOT device throughout so that my emergency contacts could track us (and in case of an emergency)
  • Expect a slightly slower pace. With daylight hiking, you can get away with continuously moving while glancing to your left and right, admiring flowers or a distant view. But during our nighttime hike, we realized had to concentrate harder on the trail directly in front of us--like a lifeguard constantly scanning swimmers in a pool. We also had to come to a full stop if we wanted to actually look at flowers or enjoy a viewpoint and not risk tripping or falling. 
  • Bring a trail map and/or GPS. Trail junctions, clearings, and switchbacks became slightly more disorienting in the dark. We easily misinterpreted where to turn and which direction to go, even on a relatively straight-forward trail like Tolmie Peak Lookout. I was glad we had all brought maps, and that I had booted up my handheld gps to navigate. 
  • Pack a flashlight or headlamp. Although the moon was bright, we all needed headlamps and flashlights to see the trail in front of our feet and step carefully around obstacles. 
  • Stash a summit layer. We worked up a sweat heading to the lookout, and all needed to put on an extra layer to ward off the chill once we got there. 
  • Bring plenty of food and water. Mentally, it felt like we wouldn't need much food for a night hike. When we arrived at the summit, however, we were hungry, and glad we had snacks and plenty of water. Margaret brought bison jerky (yum!) and I had a small thermos of sweetened coffee stashed in the Subie for when we returned from the hike.
  • Have a late night back-up plan. The drive home from Mount Rainier National Park in the wee hours of the morning was brutal. We left the trailhead at about 1:15 a.m. and arrived home at 3:00 a.m. We all made it home safely, but next time I would consider camping at a National Forest campground, like Evans Creek Campground. Mowich Lake Campground, at the end of Mowich Lake Road, does have self-issue permits for a small number of tent sites, but space is limited and not guaranteed. (Note: Per the rangers at Mount Rainier National Park, you are not permitted to sleep in your car along the roads or in the parking lots in Mount Rainier National Park.)