The Glacier Basin Trail takes you from the White River Campground in Mount Rainier National Park to the backcountry Glacier Basin Camp. You’ll hike up a moderately steep, forested trail with stunning views of Mount Rainier and the Emmons Glacier–the largest in the Lower 48–as well as enjoy some alpine meadows and wetlands along the way.
The hike begins at the far western edge of the White River Campground. If you’re staying in the camp, it’s an easy, short walk to the end of D Loop, past the restroom and campfire amphitheater. If you’re just here for the hike, there’s a separate parking lot between loops C and D where you should park and display your federal lands pass or admission. Just follow the road or the footpath through the circle of Loop D and you’ll eventually reach the trailhead.
The trail is fairly easy here at the start. There is a mild incline but the trail is nice and level and fairly wide enough that the gain is not very noticeable.
Keep your eye out as you hike for some old mining equipment left by the sides of the trail. This entire area was once home to claims by the Mount Rainier Mining Company, which staked claims inside the national park after it was founded because the archaic Mining Law of 1872 was still on the books and this land was not excluded (that old law is still causing unnecessary conflict on public lands throughout the country, by the way).
The Mount Rainier Mining Company had a small operation where the White River Campground sits today, with dozens of other individuals and companies with claims nearby. By 1906, the company’s founder Peter T. Storbo had built a cabin nearby, tunneled into the hillsides, and extracted a few promising carts of ore.
In just a few years, though, the superintendent of the park was frustrated with the Mining Law, which basically allowed anyone to stake claims inside the park and the surrounding national forests without really doing anything. Congress updated the law for this area in 1908, requiring annual fees and improvements to maintain the claims, which effectively kicked out most of the squatters, but the Mount Rainier Mining Company stuck around even after relinquishing most of its claims. It continued to build infrastructure and expand its camp at Glacier Basin.
Unfortunately, business was not as good as the Company wanted it to be, and it got in trouble for refusing to pay the Park Service its annual operating permit fees. In 1927, the Company hired a pair of consultants who sent out a letter to their shareholders saying a famous mining engineer had visited its claims and promised the price of the stock was about to double–so smart investors should buy themselves some more stock ASAP.
If this sounds like fraud to you, it is! The U.S. Post Office launched an investigation into the scheme and the Park Service supported. The consultants and Storbo were found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Their mining company disincorporated in 1932, and the park spent the next few decades trying to buy the land back from private parties until 1984.
And hey, if you’re not as into fraudulent mining history as I am, this hike is also exceptionally beautiful, too! Because you’re right next to a very steep slope leading north to the Sunrise region of the park, there are a lot of small waterfalls and creeks coming down off the side.
The trail levels out a bit and at 1.4 miles, there is a spur trail that leads across the the Inter Fork on a footbridge to a ridge that overlooks the Emmons Glacier, the largest in the Lower 48. This spur trail does continue for about a half mile, but you can get nice views of the glacier much earlier than that and you can turn around whenever you’d like.
When you return back to the Glacier Basin Trail and continue heading west … and stretch those legs out because it’s about to get steep.
There’s nothing technical here and if you keep your eye on the tree roots on the ground you shouldn’t have any trouble getting tripped up on things, either, but the incline is more steep than it’s been so far and you don’t really get that many breaks until you reach Glacier Basin Camp. So if you’re feeling tired or zonked, take a rest whenever you need one and recharge those batteries!
At 3.7 miles, stay on the Glacier Basin Trail to continue toward the campground. There are some climbers’ trails that head toward Peak 6735 and Mount Ruth–stay on the higher path and in another half mile you’ll reach the rather peaceful site of Glacier Basin Camp. There is an outhouse here if you need it.
Be sure to keep hiking a bit past the campground for what is truly one of the highlights of the hike–a view of alpine meadows toward Saint Elmo’s Pass:
This is the end of the established, maintained trail, but a rough route does continue a bit further to the Inter Glacier and a technical route crosses the glacier to Steamboat Prow (this is not a hiking route–it’s a mountaineering route. Don’t go there unless you have the gear and know what you’re doing!).
When I hiked here, I had a nice lunch on a log taking in this beautiful scene, and watched a marmot rummaging in the meadow nearby. Honestly, a really great way to spend an afternoon.
When you’re done, head back the way you came in.