8 mi roundtrip // 3100 ft elevation gain (including the extension to Sourdough Gap)
Dates hiked: July 25-26, 2021
Conditions: No snow or hazards, but lots of flies and mosquitos. Expect long lines at the park entrance for permit pickup. Bear pole for food storage and pit toilets are available at the lower lake.
Permit: Reserve your overnight permits at recreation.gov, pick up from the White River Ranger Station.
On the advice of a friend who used to be a ranger at Mt. Rainier, I along with some other seasoned backpackers took our friend for her first backpacking trip to Crystal Lakes at Mt. Rainier. With just a 2.3 mile trek to the lower lake where we dropped our packs and set up camp, only .7 from there to the upper lake and another mile from the upper lake to Sourdough Ridge where we watched sunset, this was a great low-mileage option for a first-time backpacker. However, be warned that it is steep!
Start at the Crystal Lake Trailhead on the side of Highway 410. After 1.3 miles and 1600 feet of elevation gain, you’ll reach your first junction, intersecting the Crystal Peak Trail. Continue on straight. Shortly after the junction, you’ll see the fullest view of Rainier you’ll get (the view from Sourdough Ridge will get you a glimpse of the summit) so this makes for a great snack break.
A mile past the Crystal Peak Trail junction (2.3 miles total), you’ll reach a signed T-junction. The left branch 0.7 miles Crystal Lake, and the right branch to Lower Crystal Lake. We camped at the lower lake, which had two very clearly designated campsites, a pit toilet and a bear pole for easily hanging food and scented items in our bear bag. While the lower lake made for a convenient campsite, the real attraction lies ahead at the upper lake.
After dropping our packs and setting up camp at the lower lake, we continued on to the upper lake. Soon after leaving the lower lake, the trees open up into a valley of wildflowers and foliage. Once you reach the upper lake, the designated campsites are off to the right. The water is much clearer here so we took the opportunity to pump fresh water and take in the scenery.
We extended our trip up to Sourdough Gap (about 1 mile and 500 feet of climbing from the upper lake). To do this extension, follow the shoreline trail around the north side of Crystal Lake about 0.1 mile. Come to an obvious Y where the right fork continues on around the lake shore. The left fork is the trail you want. It heads slightly uphill toward Three Way Peak, then climbs more steeply toward the northeast before bending back south and reaching the ridge top east of Crystal Lake. From the ridge top, the trail continues on 100 yards, dropping a few feet to meet the PCT at a switchback. Continue south on the PCT an additional 200 yards to reach Sourdough Gap. We enjoyed the sunset from the ridge with great views of the tip of Rainier, and layers of blue mountains behind and made it back to camp before dark.