Sun Top — snowshoe to a historic lookout in the shadows of Mount Rainier

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Sun Top on a bluebird winter day.

Quick Facts:

Location: White River Valley

Land Agency: Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

Roundtrip: 11.0 miles

Elevation gain: 3,050 feet

Contact: Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

Green Trails Map: Green Trails Maps – Greenwater no. 238

Notes: Sno-park Pass required. Route is non-groomed and shared with skiers (do not snowshoe on groomed ski trail). Beyond the upper gate the road route crosses an avalanche area that should be avoided during moderate to extreme avalanche warnings and during and after heavy snowfall.

Check avalanche conditions (Northwest Avalanche Center) before departing and know safe backcountry snow travel techniques.

Access: From Enumclaw follow SR 410 for 24.6 miles turning right (just before The Dalles Campground) onto Forest Road 73. Continue for 1.4 miles to Sno-Park.

Good to Know: dog-friendly; exceptional views; historic fire lookout

In summer and fall, the historic fire lookout perched atop 5271-foot Sun Top Mountain is easily reached via a well-graded dsc09523gravel road. But once winter drapes its frosty white shroud upon this peak just north of Mount Rainier, the lookout makes for a challenging and invigorating snowshoeing destination. Depending on how low in the valley the snow falls—and this year it is low—the trip to Sun Top can be up to 11 miles roundtrip with more than 3000 vertical feet of climbing.

Not an easy feat. But it’s worth every frosty pant and calorie burned to stand atop this peak above the White River and bask in sweeping jaw-dropping views of deep emerald valleys, craggy frosty summits, and of course “The Mountain.” On a clear crisp day, Rainier steals the scenic show here. You can practically feel its icy breath upon your Jack Frost kissed cheeks. And Sun Top’s 1933-built fire lookout will captivate you as much as Washington’s iconic mountain.

Throughout the winter and spring months, Sun Top’s summit road is gated in the valley below. And the road is closed to snowmobilers making it strictly the domain of intrepid skiers and snowshoers. Starting from the Sun Top Sno-Park, strap on your snowshoes, pass the gate and come to a junction. The road straight ahead is a near level route through old-growth forests along Huckleberry Creek. It makes for a much easier dsc09575adventure and a great place for kids and neophytes to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. But, the stellar views and heart-pumping workout is left—so head up Forest Road 7315 and immediately commence to climb. Note that Sun Top is a popular skiing destination, too. Be sure not to snowshoe on ski tracks. And keep your dog from mucking up the tracks too. The way is wide enough to accommodate all.

Wind around a Forest Service nursery undulating between old cuts and patches of mature timber. The route steadily climbs, never too steeply, but never letting up either. At just past two miles, you’ll come to a gate and a spur road leading right which may tempt you to explore. But unless the weather is less than ideal with no promise of views from above—save this spur for another day and save your energy and keep marching forward and upward.

After making a sharp turn the route begins wrapping around the peak heading for a saddle on its southern ridge. Occasionally look back and catch a glimpse of the semi-open summit. At 5.0 miles, come to the 4,750-foot saddle. Here the road dissects the Sun Top hiking trail (a great long distance route coveted by mountain bikers and trail runners when snow free) and a spur road continues west to a broad shoulder. If avalanche warnings are in place, do not continue toward the summit and consider instead snowshoeing on the spur for limited views.

If the snow is stable, continue a short distance on the Sun Top road soon coming to yet another gate. Do not continue straight on the road as it crosses a steep open slope prone to avalanches making it very dangerous to traverse. Instead, locate the hiking trail leading left and follow its route switch-backing up the southern slopes of the peak. Plod through open forest granting gorgeous views. Reach the summit road at a sharp bend near a solar panel. Then head right on it for a short distance traveling across the broad open summit taking in spectacular far-reaching views.

At 5.5 miles your journey culminates at the historic fire lookout cabin (one of the few remaining in this region) perched atop the mile high mountain. Now, turn around and face south. Wow! Mount Rainier is right in your face. On a sunny day, its icy façade is nearly blinding. Look east across the deep White River Valley to Crystal Mountain, Castle Mountain, Norse Peak, Pyramid Peak and Kelly Butte. Then face the west admiring the Huckleberry Creek Valley. Beyond its patchwork of logged hillsides are a series of mountains draped in virgin forests protected within the Clearwater Wilderness. Look northward now and sweep the horizon from left to right locating the Olympic Mountains, Mount Stuart and Mount Baker. Finally, if the sun is out, savor it on this summit whose name is solar inspired. There’s nothing like being kissed by the sun on a frozen summit surrounded by a winter wonderland.

For snow free hiking in Western Washington, pick up a copy of my Winter Hikes of Western Washington Card Deck (Mountaineers Books)! It features 50 of the finest snow free trails from the Columbia River Gorge to the British Columbia border.

Get your copy today!

Get your copy today!

For information on where to stay and on other things to do near Sun Top, check out Northwest TripFinderNWTFmasthead_layers15

 

 

 

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