|Distance:||8.4 miles, RT|
|Hiking Time:||5 hrs|
|Elevation Gain:||3,041 ft|
|High Point:||5,741 ft|
|Snow Free:||July - October|
|Trailhead Pass:||National Park Pass Required|
Trailhead: N 46° 44.890', W 121° 48.470'
Looking for a more adventurous hike that offers tremendous views, a work out to get to them and a good chance of solitude? Then put Eagle Peak Saddle on your list. It's a great alternative to the crowded trails at Paradise and if your timing is right, you could snare the perfect trifecta - views, fields of wildflowers and encounters with wildlife.
To access the trailhead, park at Longmire and hike through the park residential area to cross the Nisqually River on a sturdy bridge. The trailhead is just past the bridge on the left-hand side of the service road.
The hike starts off in emerald-green forest with old growth trees, deer ferns and salal at lower elevations; the trail is in good condition with only one downed tree to get over or around.
Spurs at the end of switchbacks lead to views of a stream and small waterfalls that flow into the Nisqually River. Check out these spurs at your own risk; some are more challenging than others.
As we gained elevation the forest became more expansive. At times we were fooled by "false" viewpoints ahead; these are akin to "sucker holes". When we saw sky through the trees we anticipated a view but the view kept moving further up the trail.
The climb is relentless and offers only a few level stretches to weary hikers but it's a small price to pay for the rewards ahead; besides, the secluded, forested trail has a quiet beauty all its own and simply being there is a reprieve from a too-busy world.
At about 4,430 feet the stream is crossed on a footbridge (N 46° 44.820', W 121° 47.380') and the trail levels out for a bit before it resumes its climb. Gradually the trees thin out and a rocky peak comes into view above meadows that sprout wildflowers in mid-summer and then turn from gold to bronze as winter approaches. The trail now contours below a broad talus slope then switchbacks upward into another forested stretch.
As the trail emerged from the last stand of evergreens a series of short, steep switchbacks made quick work of the climb to Eagle Peak Saddle where a sign warns hikers they have gone far enough. En route to the saddle we enjoyed far views of Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens rising above waves of blue, forested ridges and valleys.
The last stretch of the trail across the steep meadow was free of snow; we felt fortunate to have reached the saddle without having to cross the steep slope in snow. If you hike this trail too early, or too late, then encountering snow is a real possibility.
In winter, the first 3-1/2 miles of the trail offer a lovely and safe snowshoe trip for those days when sketchy snow conditions make a Paradise outing dicey. If you snowshoe, turn around when you get to the meadow below the saddle unless you are an experienced hiker with avalanche awareness and winter-travel skills. With snow the summer route becomes hazardous; experienced hikers snowshoe through the forest below the talus slope and meadows; then climb a short and direct route to the saddle to minimize their risk.
As you approach the saddle, Eagle Peak is to the left. A climber's path leads to the summit; I tried it once but turned around a few feet from the summit. The route felt too exposed and beyond my comfort level; the summit is best left to climbers. Besides the view of Mount Rainier from the saddle is impressive enough; bring the map to identify other peaks in the region.
After admiring the views all around we turned around and retraced our route back to Longmire. While we did not see any wildlife on our hike as we approached Longmire we spotted a raccoon near the administration buildings. The raccoon posed for us briefly before he scuttled away.
The window of opportunity to hike to Eagle Peak Saddle and get views, flowers and a snow-free trail is short. The upper stretch of trail is snowed in until mid to late June at best and the flowers are found on the last one-half mile of the trail (on the meadow below the saddle). However, Eagle Peak is a great fall outing and can be hiked up until the first snow flies. And it doesn't hurt that upon returning to the trailhead, the National Park Inn is right there to satisfy your post-hike beverage or food cravings.
- Karen Sykes, Visit Rainier Hiking Expert