Mount Rainier’s Glaciers
If you are interested in glaciers, Mount Rainier is the place for you! Experience the grandeur of Rainier’s mighty glaciers and learn how the mountain has been shaped by powerful forces of ice and water.
Mount Rainier holds the largest glacier system in the lower 48 states. Its 25 named glaciers contain more ice than the rest of the rest of the Cascade glaciers combined. The Emmons Glacier has the largest surface area—one square mile. The thickest, Carbon Glacier, is 700 feet deep.
These glaciers form near the summit, where snow piles up and compresses until solid ice forms. Gravity pulls the ice down the mountain, forming rivers of ice that can travel as much as two feet a day in summer. As the glaciers move they form blue-green cracks (crevasses) and ice falls that can be easily seen by visitors around the park. Glacier movement also grinds rocks into a fine powder (“glacier flour”) that can turn glacier-fed rivers a milky white. Glaciers transport tons of rock and dirt downhill each year, tearing down the mountain over time.
Standing on or approaching glaciers is dangerous and requires climbing equipment and a permit. This Quest features places from which you can safely get close-up views of Mount Rainier’s glaciers and learn about their awesome force.
Discovery #1 Glacier Bridge
The road from the Longmire district to Paradise crosses the old bed of the Nisqually Glacier at Glacier Bridge. The glacier, which extended to the bridge in the early 1900s, has melted back over a mile. Park at the lot on the lower side of the bridge to access the bridge’s walkways and view the “U”-shaped valley carved by the glacier. The valley’s rock rubble is material transported down the mountain by the glacier.
Quest-ion: Is the river “milky” from ground rock powder today?
Discovery #2 Nisqually Vista Loop Trail
This moderate trail provides close-up viewing of the toe of the Nisqually Glacier (1.2 miles round-trip, 250 ft. elevation gain, average time 60 min.). It is also a premier trail for viewing wildflowers in July and August. In winter join a ranger-led snowshoe tour to see the glacier or rent snowshoes and go on your own. Stop by the visitor center to pick up a map and directions to the trailheads. At the glacier overlooks you can see the great cracks and jumbled ice fields of the glacier. Note how the ice becomes darker as it collects rocks and dirt on its way down the mountain. Across the valley is a tall ridge of loose rocks (the lateral moraine) left behind by the receding glacier. Look for the ice cave at the dark tip of the glacier, where the Nisqually River is being born.
Quest-ion: What does the river sound like today?
Discovery #3 Jackson Visitor Center
The visitor center at Paradise offers exhibits about the mountain’s glaciers (upstairs exhibit hall). Use the telescopes on the mezzanine to look into the great cracks (“crevasses”) of the Nisqually Glacier. You may even spot climbers on the Muir Snowfield! The relief map in the main lobby lets you see the location of Rainier’s many glaciers. You won’t want to miss the excellent 24-min.movie in the free theater.
Quest activity: Use the “passport” stamp at the information desk to stamp today’s date here:
Discovery #4 Guide House
Mount Rainier attracts over 10,000 climbers a year eager to meet the world-class challenge posed by its glaciers. Across from the Paradise Inn is the Guide House. In the summer you can enter from the Inn side to view displays about climbing the mountain. The black and white photos in the entry way give you breath-taking, close-up views of climbing routes through the glaciers.
Quest activity: Ask one of the people staffing the information desk what equipment is needed to climb on glaciers.
Discovery #5 Box Canyon
Along Stevens Canyon Road, stop at the parking lot next to the road bridge over Box Canyon to see evidence of past glacial action etched on the rocks. Between the restrooms and the canyon edge, look for parallel scratches (“glacial striations”) created by the grinding action of glacier ice as it moved down the mountain. You can see more of the glacier’s work if you take the short trail across the road from the parking lot.
Quest-ion: What is the distance from the road surface to the water in the canyon? (Hint: see the sign on the bridge railing.)
Discovery #6 Emmons Glacier
The largest of Mount Rainier’s glaciers can be seen as you drive to the Sunrise district of the park. The best view is from two spectacular overlooks on the short Emmons Vista Trail (ask for a map and directions at the visitor center). At the bottom of the glacier look for the ice cave from which a river flows. Notice how the ice becomes progressively darker and rock-covered as it picks up dirt and boulders on its way down the mountain. The jade green lake was formed as the glacier melted back. Extra credit: Hike the Emmons Moraine Trail from the White River Campground to see the glacier close-up and to walk on the debris dumped by the glacier as it receded (3 miles round-trip, 700 ft. elevation gain, moderately strenuous, 2 hours).
Quest-ion: What is the name of the river flowing from the ice cave at the toe of the glacier?
Discovery #7 Sunrise Visitor Center
Exhibits in the visitor center show how glaciers have shaped the mountain. You can get detailed views of glaciers from telescopes inside and outside the center. In summer you can take a ranger-led walking tour to learn more about glaciers. Ask a ranger to point out the climbing route up the glacier. Can you spot any climbers? Quest activity: Use the “passport” stamp at the information desk to stamp today’s date here:
Record Your Thoughts: Glaciers act as slow-release reservoirs of water for the surrounding area. What are some uses of this water? What might be some consequences if the glaciers disappear?