There are more classic hikes around Washington State than can be listed, though many authors try. It seems like early every road, from the gravel ones in the forest service to the paved ones in the National Parks, leads to a trail that is incredibly, jaw-dropping and beautiful. Around every bend, and in every corner of the state, the classic hikes in the Pacific Northwest are timeless. Many hikes lead to incredible views, and the hike to Summit Lake Trail above the Carbon River by Mount Rainier is one of the greatest.
Located in the Clearwater Wilderness, one of thirty one wilderness areas in Washington State, Summit Lake is also in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, and offers some of the greatest views of Mount Rainier in the Pacific Northwest. The trail is easy to follow, well-maintained and even dog-friendly, making it the ideal getaway for most everyone. If you add the trek to the top of the summit above Summit Lake, the trail is around 7 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 1,370 feet. This is a kid-friendly trail in good weather, and can be hiked by anyone until the first heavy snow fall. From then on, the road might be impassible, and the trail will be snowy. The weather around Summit Lake is some of the wettest in the Cascade Range, and snowfall can be quite heavy. Always check weather conditions before you head out.
To get to the trailhead, be ready for a bumpy road. Climbing nearly 3,000 feet over 6 miles, the road is rocky, full of washboard, potholes and any number of rock deposits. You can take a small car to the trailhead, but remember to drive slow and focus on the road at all times. I took a small 2-door Hyundai up to the trailhead with relative ease, but I am used to driving Forest Service Roads. If you are unsure about your car, shoot me a message and I will try to give you the most up to date road conditions. Also, be aware that in early and late seasons, the road can be covered in snow, as the trailhead sits at 4,400 feet. Directions to the trailhead can be found here.
Starting at 4,400 feet, the trail is immaculate compared to the road. Weaving up switchback, passing creeks and a small lake, the trail is simple to follow and usually free of downfall. About one mile in, you will enter the Clearwater Wilderness, a 14,652 acre wilderness set aside in 1984. Full of huge hemlock and fir trees, the forest is a perfect warm up for the beauty that awaits you. After nearly two miles, the trail reaches a meadow and Twin Lake. Here, the trail splits, letting hikers decide whether they want to head to Summit Lake on the left or head up to the summit of Bearhead Mountain to the right. Stick to the left, and within another mile, you catch your first glimpse of Summit Lake. Summit Lake is a deep, high-alpine lake with crystal clear waters and incredible reflections from every angle. At 5,400 feet in elevation, the lake makes for a great place to relax and take in the wilderness, but the true amazingness is located just above the lake on the closest ridge. Climbing up this ridge, a steep 300 foot incline on the left of the lake, or a more gentle slope on the right, hikers are rewarded with one of the best views in the Pacific Northwest.
Offering a panorama worthy of soliloquies, the views at Summit Lake are incredible. What makes Summit Lake an amazing destination isn’t just the trail, or the lake, or the access to mountain ridges. What makes Summit Lake so special is the view. Standing on the 5,770 foot peak 300 feet above the lake, the entire Pacific Northwest opens up, giving those who make the hike to the lake and above a majestic view of the land we love so much. To the west, the horizon shows off the Puget Sound, Olympic Mountains and on a clear enough day, you’d swear you can see the ocean. Looking back to the lake, Mount Rainier just high above the other foothills and mountains in the region, showing off the Carbon Glacier and the adorably climbable (in warm seasons and good weather) Bearhead Mountain.
There are approximately seven campsites all around Summit Lake, but there are NO campfires aloud. You might see evidence of fires near campsites, but the people who used them are dumb. The majority of campsites are on the right side of the main trail once you reach the lake. Here, there is a toilet on site, and plenty of space to set up a tent, hammock or any other camping set-up that you may have. While scores flock to these campsites, there is one that is hands down the best site around, giving amazing sunrises and sunsets while looking at Mount Rainier. The best one site is located on the side of the summit ridge, directly across from the first view of the lake you have from your trail. Located away from a water source, this site gives incredible views and gets you away from the majority of campers in the area.
THE BONUS HIKE
For those looking for an awesome side trip, head back down the trail and climb to the summit of Bearhead Mountain. What was once the location of a fire lookout for 26 years, Bearhead Mountain now offers sweeping views of the Carbon River/Clearwater Wilderness, as well as what feels like an uncles and personal view of Mount Rainier. Standing at 6,089 feet above sea level, Bearhead Mountain, this is a great peak to enjoy a meal at during good weather.
QUICK FACTS TO HIKE SUMMIT LAKE
Distance: 7 Miles Round Trip
Elevation Gain: 1,370 feet