|Distance:||7.25 mile loop|
|Hiking Time:||5-6 hrs|
|Elevation Gain:||2,715 ft|
|High Point:||6,750 ft|
|Snow Free:||June - October|
|Trailhead Pass:||Northwest Forest Pass Required|
|GPS Waypoints:||Trailhead, Forest Service Road No 410:|
N 46° 56' 14", W 121° 28' 10"
Henskin Lake: N 46° 55' 03", W 121° 29' 02"
Summit House, Gondola:
N 46° 56' 10", W 121° 30' 03"
When hiked: September 14, 2012
It's not every day you can lose 2,200 feet of elevation in 10 minutes. It's also not every day you encounter horseback riders, mountain-bikers and hikers on the elaborate trail system at Crystal Mountain. A look at the map will present many delightful possibilities for hikers that like to make a loop rather than hike back the way they came, including catching a ride on the Mount Rainier Gondola down to the trailhead where our loop begins.
On our previous hike to Crystal Mountain we'd hiked a loop via Bullion Basin and the Pacific Crest Trail. One of the many delights of that hike was discovering Henskin Lake. We thought the lake pretty enough to concoct another loop so we could see it again. We planned to end the loop with a bang - by treating ourselves to a ride on Crystal Mountain's Mount Rainier Gondola.
We parked at the trailhead along Road No. 410 and started up the signed trail, following the Bullion Basin trail system toward Henskin Lake. We were surprised to find an adit (mine tunnel, N 46° 55' 51", W 121° 28' 13") just off the trail before crossing a seasonal creek on a sturdy bridge. Do not enter the mine as mine tunnels can be unsafe and subject to collapse.
Since that last hike a couple weeks ago on Crystal Mountain, we saw a change in the vegetation. Most of the flowers have gone to seed and the green grassy meadows we'd seen are turning gold. Here and there, the blueberry shrubs are either in the process or have already turned crimson (and yes, we saw ripe berries!).
At the upper end of Henskin Lake we turned right onto the Crystal Mountain trail which is unsigned - a left turn would have taken us to the Pacific Crest Trail. We continued on the trail as it skirted snippets of meadows and forest with occasional glimpses of the high country. We then came to the signed junction for Lake Elizabeth (which was new to us) and took the side trip to see the lake (N 46° 55' 15", W 121° 29' 46") per the advice of hikers we'd met who exclaimed the lake was beautiful.
Indeed it was - you can walk around the lake in either direction but we went clockwise as the light appeared better for photography. We'd never heard of this lake (it does show on the map) so the lake was a bonus, bordered with yellowing grasses, bunches of gentians and stands of shady evergreens. We passed a tiny rocky island not far from shore as we headed to the upper end of the lake. The lake is surrounded on three sides by steep hillsides and we felt the need to explore. Indeed there are possibilities with game trails (or old trails) that appear to climb to the ridge above the lake. We took the "best" path, passing day-beds where deer, elk and bear rest during the day. About half-way between the lake and ridge we encountered a lot of ash from the Mount Saint Helens Eruption; it was almost like walking on a sandy beach in spots. Here, we enjoyed looking down on the lake and the miniature shapes of hikers and equestrians who were also enjoying the lake and the beautiful weather. A few gentians were still blooming in the meadows; and the golden hillsides were interspersed with fall color arrangements.
We dropped back down to the lake and continued our circumnavigation; stopping to chat with a friendly group of equestrians who had been out for several days. Back on the gravel road that skirts the edge of the lake we agreed we'd rather hike the Crystal Mountain Trail (unsigned at that point but hard to miss) rather than the service road.
The trail aims itself toward Crystal Mountain and we enjoyed the trail's circuitous route between cliffs, vistas and slanting meadows dappled with fall color. It is an airy trail; in places narrow enough you might need to stand aside for a hiker walking faster than you. The trail makes long switchbacks across tawny meadows and when we were there the light was such that Western Pasqueflower (in seed-head mode) was backlit and glowed like torches against the deep shadows cast by stands of trees and rock formations above the trail. False hellebore was a mad-artist kaleidoscope of swirled leaves ranging in color from gold to green; some tattered where insects had nibbled. Mountain Ash was at its best with clusters of orange-red berries and leaves in shades ranging between pale green, orange, gold and magenta. Our progress was slow - there was so much to see.
We began to meet hikers coming down from above and when we came to a junction where there is a choice of trail or service road, we asked a hiker which way was the most scenic. His answer: a toss-up, it's beautiful either way. We opted to stay on the trail because it was less crowded.
The summit of Crystal Mountain was thronged with cheerful hikers and tourists who had ridden the gondola up from the lodge. We peeked into the Gift Shop at Summit House before catching a ride on the Gondola which we shared with two friendly ladies; we all enjoyed the ride. By the way, the attendant suggests if you are nervous about the exposure it's best to sit in the gondola facing uphill. As for us we wished the ride could have lasted longer - we will definitely ride the gondola again.
Getting there: From Enumclaw drive east on State Highway 410 about 33 miles to Crystal Mountain Road (No. 7190), continue 4.4 miles and turn left onto Road No. 410 (not signed). Continue about two miles to a wide space across from a trail sign for Bullion Basin/Silver Creek Trail. Parking is limited; the road is passable for passenger cars though it is narrow with few pull-outs. You might prefer to drive to the parking area near the main lodge. To find the trail from the lodge parking lot the trail begins to the left of the lodge and is signed Bullion Basin (the trail is a steep, wide path covered with bark chips).
Additional information: The maps are Green Trails No. 271 Bumping Lake and 270 Mount Rainier East. A Northwest Forest Pass is required.
- Karen Sykes, Visit Rainier Hiking Expert