Mount Rainier's best sunset hike: The Tolmie Peak Trail

Mount Rainier is blessed with so many amazing viewpoints, but none are quite like Tolmie Peak. On a clear day, the view from the top is incredible in all directions, especially if you time it so you’re there for sunset.

In one direction you’ll see Mount Rainier towering over the surrounding forest, and in the opposite direction you can see one of Washington’s most beautiful lakes. It’s a truly beautiful place that is worth the steep climb to get there.

Here’s everything you need to know if you’re thinking about hiking up to the Tolmie Peak Lookout.

The views of Mount Rainer from Tolmie Peak Lookout


Tolmie Peak Trail

Difficulty: Very steep, but not too long

Distance: 3 miles (approx 5km) each way as measured by our AppleWatch

Elevation: 1260 ft (384 metres)

Time Taken: 1 hour 40 up, 1 hour down

Start & end point: Mowich Lake


The road to Tolmie Peak

Unlike the other main entrances to Mount Rainier, the road to Tolmie Peak is primarily dirt road. Starting near Buckley, you soon leave the paved road and hit 15 miles of dirt track.

The good news is that the road is about as good as it gets for a non-sealed road. There are a couple of potholes to navigate, but on the whole it is a really smooth road and won’t require high clearance, you should be ok in a two-wheel drive car unless there has been severe weather damage.


The start

The trail to Tolmie Peak starts just outside Mowich Lake campground, a place that can get really crowded. We recommend visiting in the early morning or late afternoon as we’ve heard about people having to park miles away from the start of the trail and the additional distance will be all uphill!

We arrived at 6pm on a Saturday (summer evenings mean late hikes for sunset!) and were able to park one metre from the start of the trail!

Classic PNW forest at Tolmie Peak Lookout Track

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Starting in the forest, the path initially goes downhill, flattens and then starts to go gently uphill. After around a mile you’ll hit a signpost indicating the turn off to Tolmie Peak and it’s in a direction you never want to see when you know you have a big climb ahead, downhill! Luckily it actually felt longer going downhill than it did on the return up so don’t despair : )

The forest is beautiful here, but there are patches which can get quite muddy, especially if there has been recent rain. These are few and far between luckily and on the whole the track is in great condition. Try to stay on the main track to avoid erosion. There are a few openings where you can peep beyond the pine forest for those quintessential Pacific Northwest views but it’s a little while before the true grandeur of the area is exposed.

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After the downhill section, the path will soon begin to go uphill pretty steeply along a series of switchbacks. It’s rocky in places and has quite a few tree roots but it’s not slippery (unless wet).

You can choose to detour to a small waterfall, but we chose to keep ploughing on, knowing there was so much to see ahead.

The forest at Tolmie Peak Lookout


Eunice Lake & wildflowers

So here’s the first major stop on the track: the beautiful Eunice Lake. This lake is a deep blue and fringed by huge cliffs, pine trees and - in the summer - fields of wildflowers.

It is a spectacular place to stop, catch your breath and take in how beautiful this part of the world is. It’s actually hard to see in our photos how blue it truly was as the light was low, it’s somewhere you really need to see with your own eyes!

Eunice Lake - Tolmie Peak Lookout Trail
Eunice Lake in Mount Rainier

This lake on its own is beautiful, but when you see the surrounding wildflowers you really have to pinch yourself that it’s real. It’s one of those trail moments where you feel lucky to be alive.

Bear Grass in Mount Rainier

But of course nowhere is perfect and the drawback here is the mosquitoes. There are thousands of them and they are relentless. The next day we saw we were covered in bites (they even bit through our clothes!). Ugh.

Bring bug spray or be prepared for a vicious attack!

After the lake, the track curves round for the final hike up to the fire lookout. The track is steep and made up of switchbacks, but the views will alleviate any pain and the great trail condition makes for easier walking.

Here’s where you start to get those unreal views!

Mount Rainier from the Tolmie Peak Lookout Trail

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The views from the top

After 1 hour 40 of primarily uphill walking, we made it to the top and the picturesque fire lookout. It’s hard to imagine a better place in Mount Rainier to be at sunset - there are 360 panoramic views of the mountain and surrounding forest.

For a hiker and alpine lover, this is paradise.

Tolmie Peak Fire Lookout

You can no longer sleep at the lookout itself (even though you’ll still see beds inside) but you are allowed to hang out there until after sunset. It’s about a perfect a spot as we’ve ever been to. Even on a busy Saturday night with the first perfect conditions in days there were only a few people to share it with.

You can actually hike a little further to Tolmie Peak itself but the trail gets quite precarious and we only saw a couple of people attempt it. If you make it there you will likely have it entirely to yourself.

Fire station lookout on Tolmie Peak Trail
Mount Rainier



Getting back

Luckily the hike back is a lot quicker than the trail to the top. We took an hour to get down and no doubt you could go quicker in the daylight. If you are hiking down in the dark watch out for all the tree roots and rocks! Bring a headlamp if you can or at least a torch, we did it with phones but they don’t really penetrate far enough in the dark forest so we wouldn’t recommend it!

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Why we love this hike

Overall, the Tolmie Peak trail is the kind which will get your pulse up, give you a good workout, but won’t leave you feeling sore as the gradient is not too harsh. We were able to go up to the top and down within four hours, and that was including lengthy stops to appreciate the views and over an hour at the top.

Even on a summer Saturday evening with great weather and clear views to Mount Rainier (not common) it wasn’t too busy and there is plenty of space up there to accommodate people. On a weekday you would probably have it virtually to yourself.


Be bear aware

There are black bears in the forest on the route up to Tolmie Peak and we actually spotted one from the lookout. As bear attack survivors this was quite unwelcome but we’re told just making a lot of noise tends to make sure the bears won’t come near you.

When we hit the stretch of track we’d seen the bear we walked through talking loudly and banging our hiking poles. You might want to carry bear spray (we do) but we’ve found most North Americans are very blasé about black bears and that has alleviated a lot of our fears!


Best time to go

The best time to hike up Tolmie Peak is early in the morning or late in the afternoon as the main crowds choose to visit in the middle of the day.

We also recommend avoiding the weekends or public holidays as the parking lot can overflow down the dirt track (and you don’t want to add even more distance and elevation!).

We chose to go at 6pm (sunset was 9pm) and were able to park really close to the trail head.

Getting to Tolmie Peak

The start of the Tolmie Peak trail is in the northwest of the park and isn’t easily accessed from other parts of Mount Rainier. There’s a long road there with a 15 mile section which is dirt. It took us about 40 minutes to drive to the trail from Buckley (the nearest town to Tolmie Peak), but would take considerably more from Paradise or Sunrise in the park.

The trail starts a few hundred metres away from the car park at Mowich Lake campground.

 

Entrance Fees

Mount Rainier National Park has an entrance fee of $30 per vehicle for 7 days. If you plan on visiting three or more parks we recommend buying the Annual Pass for $80 which allows you unlimited access to all national parks in the US for a whole year.


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