Location: NE corner of the park
Access: Early-July – Late-September
Sitting at an elevation of 6,400-feet in the parkland meadows of Yakima Park, Sunrise is Mount Rainier’s highest visitor center. With close-up views of the massive Emmons Glacier, and hundreds of acres of meadows bursting with wildflowers; Sunrise rivals the more popular Paradise when it comes to scenic splendor. And situated in the park’s drier northeastern corner thanks to Mount Rainier’s rain-shadow effect, Sunrise as the name suggests is also one of the first places in the park to capture morning’s early light.
However, owing to its lofty elevation, Sunrise is buried in snow for most of the year limiting its opening. Typically, park officials open the 16 mile paved road leading to Sunrise from SR 410, from late June until early October; with the visitor center open from early July to early September.
There is no lodging at Sunrise like at Paradise, but Mount Rainier Guest Services does run a snack bar serving hot meals at its day lodge at Sunrise. The national park service maintains an excellent visitor center here too, complete with exhibits on Rainier’s geology and the park’s natural and cultural history. The center also offers book sales and free ranger hosted programs and guided walks. And at the center you can also use one of several mounted telescopes to take in close-up views of Rainier’s impressive glaciers.
Like Paradise, Sunrise also has an interesting history. And remnants remain of past structures and facilities that once stood here. Over the years attitudes changed on what types of developments are compatible within the national park, forcing park officials to reassess their impacts on this fragile alpine environment.
To take visitor pressure off of Paradise, a road to Sunrise was opened in 1931 along with the Sunrise Lodge containing 215 cabins. And for three weekends that summer, Sunrise exceeded Paradise in visitation. But even with the completion of SR 410 over Chinook Pass that summer allowing visitors to now arrive at the park from the east, Sunrise never did overtake Paradise in competing for visitors.
The Sunrise cabin operation was managed as a Dude Ranch, where visitors could partake in horse trips. The Sunrise Lodge offered bathtubs, showers, and laundry facilities; as well as sold groceries and offered dining. In 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) developed a campground at Sunrise and one near Shadow Lake, cradled on a ridge overlooking the thundering glacial-fed White River 2,000 feet below. But by 1943, the park service removed the cabins and sold them for emergency World War II housing. They weren’t structurally fit for Sunrise’s harsh weather; weren’t popular; and weren’t compatible with the fragile high elevation environment. The campgrounds at Sunrise were eventually closed, too. The one near Shadow Lake was rehabilitated into a much smaller walk-in campground (perfect for first time backpackers and children) and the campground near the visitor center was converted to a picnic area (with some of the finest views within the park).
During the 1930s and 1940s the park service with help from the CCC developed an extensive network of hiking trails radiating from Sunrise. They continue to be among the most popular in the park allowing visitors easy access to alpine meadows and spectacular views of some of the massive glaciers on Mount Rainier’s north face. The trails range from short and easy to challenging and exhilarating. The half mile Sunrise Rim Trail and .8 mile nearly level Silver Forest Trail provide mouth-dropping views of the entire length of the Emmons Glacier from Mount Rainier’s 14,411-foot summit to its terminus at the White River Valley below.
Other popular family friendly trails include the trek along Sourdough Ridge with its horizon sweeping views beyond the park; Frozen Lake with its perpetual snow and ice; the Mount Fremont fire tower with its resident mountain goat herds; and Shadow Lake with its spectacular reflections and flower-lined shores. These trails are ideal too, for folks new to hiking, and they don’t get as crowded as Paradise’s trails.
Experienced hikers can set out on trails leading to the alpine tundra of Burroughs Mountain; the lofty heights of Skyscraper Mountain; the flower gardens of Berkeley Park; and the remote basin cradling Forest Lake. And Backpackers can access from Sunrise, the around-the-mountain Wonderland Trail and the spectacular and remote Northern Loop Trail.
The White River Wilderness Information Center located at the Sunrise Road park entrance booth offers wilderness camping and climbing permits. And car camping is available 12 miles from Sunrise at the White River Campground located on a forested bench above the roaring glacial-fed river.
But even park visitors not planning to hike or camp, should consider a trip to Sunrise, the highest point in the park you can drive to. The road leading to Sunrise ranks among the most beautiful drives in the country. En route be sure to pullover at Sunrise Point where you can feast on sweeping alpine views that include five volcanoes; Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, Mount Adams and Mount Hood in Oregon. And consider perhaps arriving at Sunrise Point in the wee hours of the morning for one of the finest sunrise showings to be seen anywhere in the nation!
– Craig Romano