Your Hiking Guide to the Scenic Crystal Mountain Loop Trail in Washington
We had originally planned on hiking up in the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier National Park. But after getting a bit of a later start than we had originally planned, we found the parking lot was unfortunately full and closed for the day.
Well, time for Plan B. Luckily, we were very close to the Crystal Mountain Ski Resort — a place we had already set our sights on (though of course more for skiing purposes than for hiking). So we turned around and headed up to check out the ski area a little bit earlier in the season than we had originally planned.
Now, if you have never explored a ski resort in the summer, let us tell you it is kind of a trip. For starters, they are usually much, much quieter to the point of almost being eerie. It also doesn’t help that the ski lifts are all just sitting there, empty, swaying in the summer wind, usually creaking and groaning. The ski runs are still visible but it feels more like a logging operation than an outdoor adventure paradise. Altogether, it is kind of a funky experience.
Luckily though, ski resorts usually have some pretty awesome trails to explore once summer rolls around. In fact, some ski resorts stay open year-round and just switch from offering epic downhill ski runs to offering equally adrenaline-pumping downhill runs for mountain bikers.
But in the case of Crystal Mountain, we believe the best way to explore the area is via hiking. And one of the best hikes in the area is the Crystal Mountain Loop Trail.
This 9ish mile loop can be done in either direction (clockwise or counterclockwise). Or, if you don’t feel like doing the full loop, you can also cut it in half and either walk up to the top and ride the resort's scenic gondola down or do the opposite and ride the gondola up and hike down (see below for pricing). Whichever way you choose to go, definitely make sure to make your way to the Summit House, which sits at the top of the resort.
The Summit House is not only the tallest restaurant in all of Washington, but it also might just have one of the best views of nearby Mount Rainier. Once you make your way to the top, you can sit in some comfortable chairs and just be spellbound by the sheer size of the monolithic mountain. Seriously, the Crystal Mountain Loop Trail might just be one of the best ways to see Mount Rainier in all of its glory.
So if you are looking to explore this area of Washington and get an awesome view of Mount Rainier (without worrying about crowds of people and full parking lots), then we cannot recommend this scenic hiking loop enough.
Below you will find our full hiking guide on the Crystal Mountain Loop, as well as important information on how to actually reach the trailhead and what to bring with you along the hike.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: if you don’t feel like hiking the full Crystal Mountain Loop then you also have the option to either ride the scenic gondola up to the top and hike down OR hike up and ride down. If you want to ride up, then you will need to purchase a ticket either online (here) or at the base.
| COST TO RIDE THE GONDOLA: it costs $44 per adult, $39 for a young adult (18–22) and $20 for a child (under 18) to ride the scenic gondola up to the Summit House. Learn more about this adventure here.
WHERE: at the Crystal Mountain Ski Resort in Washington (right outside of Mount Rainier National Park)
WHAT: a hiking trail, loop
DISTANCE: ~9 miles total; with the option to go shorter or longer
HIGHEST POINT: 6,824 feet / 2,080 meters, at the Summit House (the tallest restaurant in Washington)
GEAR NEEDED: sturdy hiking shoes, a decently-sized day bag, bug spray and sunscreen, plenty of snacks
TRAIL CONDITIONS: mix of dirt road and singletrack trail, forested for half of it, a few rocky sections awesome mountain views
DOGS ALLOWED: yes, there are areas pets can be off-leash (as long as they are under voice control)
PARKING DIFFICULTY: a very well-sized parking lot that is free, has a bathroom nearby
➳ You can explore the full hiking guide (and map) for the Crystal Mountain Loop Trail at this link.
\\ How to Get to the Crystal Mountain Loop Trailhead
The closest sizeable town to the Crystal Mountain Ski Resort is going to be Enumclaw. You will likely pass near or through this town if heading to the ski resort from the greater Seattle area. Enumclaw has all of the necessary goods; including, multiple grocery stores, an outdoor gear store, gas stations and restaurants.
A bit closer to Crystal you also have the small town of Greenwater, which has a couple of outdoor gear shops and outfitters, a gas station and a small general store.
FROM ENUMCLAW, WASHINGTON
It takes about an hour to reach the base area of the Crystal Mountain Ski Resort (where the hike starts) from Enumclaw. Most of the drive will be on the scenic Highway 410 (the same road that leads to Mount Rainier National Park). Right before you enter the national park, you will see a sign for Crystal Mountain and a turn on the LEFT side of the road. Turn there and drive for another 7 miles until you reach the main base area and the large parking lot. In total, it is 40 miles from Enumclaw to Crystal Mountain.
FROM SEATTLE, WASHINGTON
It takes approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes (without traffic) to reach the Crystal Mountain Ski Area and the Crystal Mountain Loop trailhead from downtown Seattle, Washington. The drive is mostly on Interstate 5 until you reach the Tacoma/Auburn area. Then you will drive on Highways 164 and 410 until the turn-off for Crystal Mountain. In total, it is around 83 miles from Seattle to Crystal Mountain.
FROM PORTLAND, OREGON
Crystal Mountain Ski Resort is around 3.5 hours from downtown Portland, Oregon. The drive between the two destinations is mostly done on Interstate 5 and Highways 12 and 123. To reach the ski resort this way you will have to pass through Mount Rainier National Park. In total, it is 180 miles from Portland to Crystal Mountain.
We don’t believe there is an option to reach the Crystal Mountain Ski Area via public transportation. While it looks like there is a free weekend bus from the nearby town of Enumclaw, we don’t know if it runs during the summer season or just when the ski resort is open for winter adventures.
\\ The Best Time to Hike the Crystal Mountain Loop
The best time to hike the entire Crystal Mountain Loop, and just in the Crystal Mountain area in general, is going to be mid to late summer. During this time of year, you will have a higher chance of hiking without encountering snow, and also have a very good chance of spotting various wildflowers (including some beautiful pink ones).
We hiked the loop at the end of July and found the trails to be very clear and surrounded by different colors of wildflowers. Plus, during the summer, you have a higher chance of a clear day — aka a great opportunity to see Mount Rainier in all of its glory.
\\ What to Bring With You to Hike the Crystal Mountain Loop
Besides the obvious hiking gear of comfortable clothes and sturdy hiking boots (see our recommendations below), you should also make sure to pack bug spray (the mosquitos can be brutal), plenty of sunscreen — especially if you want to hike up to the top of Crystal Mountain itself, a sun hat and sunglasses, a water bottle or water bladder, and some snacks.
If you go all the way up to the Summit House — around the halfway point of the hike — you can refill your water bottle or bladder and also purchase some food (we didn’t look at prices). Either way, we would recommend bringing some snacks or a full picnic lunch to the top and eating it while staring out at mighty Mount Rainier.
You will want to wear a pair of sturdy boots that can handle all kinds of terrain: from rocky scree fields to somewhat slick river crossings to just miles of trail pounding. These hiking boots by Vasque seem to be a jack of all trades and therefore should be able to handle whatever the trail throws at you. Recommended hiking boot.
These socks can easily go from hitting the trails to hanging out at camp due to their moisture-wicking properties and slightly elastic stretch. Plus, they are made partially of recycled materials — meaning they are good for you and the planet. Recommended hiking socks from Smartwool.
MOISTURE-WICKING SUN SHIRT
No matter the month (or weather) you are planning to hike in, you will likely want to wear a nice lightweight long-sleeved shirt on the trail. This one by Backcountry works perfectly as your base layer for it is lightweight and breathable enough for hot sunny days, but also insulated enough to still be great when the temperature starts to cool down. Recommended long-sleeve shirt.
This lightweight fleece jacket works great as both a mid-layer for winter hiking adventures or as a solo jacket once the season starts to warm up. Plus, the raglan-style sleeves provide seam-free comfort when you are carrying a heavy backpack. Finally, the fleece jacket is made of recycled fabrics and is Bluesign approved (its sewing is also Fair Trade Certified). Recommended hiking jacket.
While a nice cozy jacket will help keep you nice and warm on those chilly mornings or late-season days, usually the best jacket to have with you while hiking — especially in the PNW — is an easy-to-pack rain jacket. This one by Patagonia checks all of the boxes: it is super lightweight and can pack down into its own little pouch, it has underarm zips that let you vent air even when hiking (and sweating), it has an adjustable elastic drawcord hem that allows fine-tuning for the perfect fit, and finally, it is also Bluesign approved and its sewing is Fair Trade Certified. Recommended rain jacket.
Depending on the time of year, you will likely choose to gravitate towards wearing either full-length hiking pants or a set of lightweight active shorts. We tend to veer more towards wearing pants while hiking unless it is absolutely scorching out — just for the sun protection and less likelihood of getting scratches and cuts from plants. These pants by Black Diamond, are durable enough for all kinds of trails. Recommended hiking pants here.
HIKING DAY PACK
By far one of the most important items in your hiking repertoire is going to be your backpack. Because you will be carrying this bag all day on the trail you will want to make sure it is really comfortable. This bag by Osprey holds 24 liters of gear, while still having plenty of straps to allow it to fit perfectly to your body. Plus, it is made of a nice Durable nylon construction that can withstand tons of trail abuse. It also has a specific place to attach your trekking poles or ice ax if needed. Recommended day pack.
HIKING FIRST AID KIT
This is one of those items that you don’t realize you need until it is too late. Luckily, this lightweight pack comes with (almost) everything you could need if an accident does unfortunately occur on the trail. Recommended hiking first aid kit.
Hiking first aid kit for your dog: because you want to make sure your best friend stays safe on the trail as well. This pack is also very lightweight and doesn’t take up that much space. The perfect doggy first aid kit.
We personally have never been the type of hikers to use trekking poles but we have friends who absolutely swear by them. This set by Black Diamond can handle all kinds of terrain, are super lightweight and pack down small enough to be stored easily on the side of your backpack. Recommended trekking poles.
Once you make it back to your basecamp (your car, your tent, your house) make sure to take off those boots, stretch out your arches and let your feet breathe. Seriously, this might be one of the best feelings ever. After you do that, slip on a pair of these comfortable Teva sandals (we won’t judge if you add socks too). Recommended post-hike sandals.
POST-HIKE COZY SHIRT
Similarly, there are few things nicer than taking off your sweaty shirt and putting on a nice cozy, clean one after a long day on the trail. This one by Parks Project is made of a nice durable, soft cotton fabric and cut into a very vintage-y style. Recommend post-hike shirt.
HIKING THE CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN LOOP | THE ADVENTURE BREAKDOWN
TOTAL DISTANCE: ~9 miles, though there is the option to go longer or shorter (by riding the gondola up or down)
ELEVATION PROFILE: 2,693 feet of elevation gain
TIME NEEDED: 4–6 hours, this depends on how much time you spend at the top
TRAIL CONDITIONS: mix of forest road and singletrack trail, mostly in the forest/shaded, multiple streams along the way.
The first thing you have to decide with this loop trail is whether to go CLOCKWISE or COUNTERCLOCKWISE. Either way you choose, because it is a loop, you will get to see the whole trail eventually. The main difference is whether you want to do a longer, more gradual climb up to the top (if so go clockwise) or a shorter, steeper hike up to the summit (counterclockwise).
No matter which way you choose to go first, you will need to park at the main parking lot at the base of the Crystal Mountain Ski Resort (parking is free). From there you can start hiking in either direction.
We decided to go counterclockwise just because we parked slightly closer to that starting point. Therefore the below hiking guide will be from that direction.
1 | Start by walking towards the Alpine Inn, which sits near the parking lot (you will have to cross a large wooden bridge to reach it). To the LEFT of the restaurant, you will see a dirt forest road that starts immediately climbing up the mountain. This is the trail you need to take.
💬 INSIDER TIP: you will stay to the RIGHT of the main gondola the whole hike up. If you cross under the gondola (the big one with red cars) you are not on the right trail.
2 | The dirt road switchbacks up through the forest for a bit, going in and out of shade and sun. It is relatively steep but nicely graded and not very rocky.
3 | Eventually, you will get to a more open section near a large rock field. You will have some pretty great views of the mountains nearby as well as the Crystal valley as a whole. There is a small stream that runs through this section so the trail may be a tad muddy. This is also where the road begins to get rockier. While it is still very easy to walk along, be prepared for some rougher surfaces.
4 | After the open rocky section, keep walking uphill past a couple of other small waterfalls and streams. In this next section, you have a good chance of spotting different types of wildflowers — including some vibrant pink and yellow ones (if hiking in later summer).
5 | The dirt road eventually ends at the Green Valley ski lift (it doesn’t run during the summer months). You will see a clear singletrack trail heading off to the RIGHT (there should also be a sign). Take this trail through a small pine tree forest and up a nice lush mountain valley until you get to another set of switchbacks. This is around the 3-mile point.
6 | The last set of uphill switchbacks are quite a bit shorter than the first. The trail is easily followed and from this part of the hike you can get an awesome view of the surrounding valley and nearby mountain peaks (including Mount Baker to the north on a clear day).
7 | Once you finish the last couple of switchbacks, you will make a gradual right-hand turn around a ski lift that you have been hiking near for the last mile or so. From this turn, you will clearly be able to see the Summit House and the end of the scenic gondola. AND best of all, once you finally turn the corner, you will get one EPIC view of Mount Rainier right in front of you (weather permitting of course).
8 | The Summit House sits right at the end of the scenic gondola. The restaurant inside offers food and beverages. There are also a couple of tables and a nice row of chairs with one amazing view of nearby Mount Rainier to lounge in. If you can, try to snag one of these chairs and eat your lunch there.
The restaurant and viewpoint are approximately 4 miles from the bottom if going counterclockwise and 5 miles from the bottom if going clockwise.
💬 INSIDER TIP: you can also easily refill any water bottles or water bladders at the Summit House. There are some nice bathrooms and a water fountain down a short set of stairs near the base of the gondola.
If you don’t feel like hiking back down the rest of the loop, then you can simply ride the gondola back down to the parking lot. We heard that it is free to ride the gondola down — though we don’t have explicit confirmation of this. Similarly, if you don’t want to hike up the mountain to the Summit House, you can just ride the gondola up and hike back down (we saw many people doing this).
9 | Once you get your fill of the Summit House, start making your way back down along another forest/service road. To reach the trail from the restaurant, retrace your steps down the hill until you see a large map of the ski resort. Turn LEFT and start walking downhill.
10 | At the bottom of this steeper hill, you can either keep going or make a detour and head up to the top of Crystal Mountain itself. If you choose to do the latter, be prepared for a steep climb up AND some route-finding. This adventure should only be done if you are confident in your hiking and orienteering/route-finding skills. Also, because it is not an established trail — PLEASE follow all Leave No Trace Principles.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: if you choose to hike to the top of Crystal Mountain, expect to add an extra hour to your hike and about 200 more feet of elevation gain. In our opinion though, the views are worth it.
11 | Whichever way you choose to go, you will eventually find yourself at the base of the hill that leads up to the Summit House. From there, take the slightly narrower trail down one large switchback, past a small mountain lake and back into the forest. This is around the 5.5 mile mark if going counterclockwise.
12 | From the point where the trail re-enters the forest, you will be hiking on nicely shaded singletrack for the rest of the hike. This section is another great spot to see wildflowers, including if you are lucky, some vibrant blue and purple lupine flowers.
13 | Keep hiking downhill through the forest for another couple of miles. You will pass a few small mountain lakes and bubbling streams along this nice, gradual part of the trail.
14 | The last lake you come to — Henskin — is somewhat bigger than the others. You will see a sign for the Crystal Mountain Loop Trail, as well as a diversion to the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). If you are looking to go on a longer hike, you can head out towards the PCT and take it north or south.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: if you take the PCT north, you can eventually meet back up with the Crystal Mountain Loop Trail towards the very end of the hike. This would likely add another 2 miles to the overall distance (as well as a fair amount of elevation gain).
15 | Keep following the dirt trail back down the mountain. Towards the end of the hike, you will see a large river and waterfall and an abandoned mine entrance (it has a nice secure gate on it). From there, it is roughly ¾ of a mile back to the main parking lot.
16 | The last bit of trail passes under another chair lift before becoming a dirt road once again. You will come to a clear intersection with signs pointing in all directions. From there, you can take either Gold Hill East down (the fastest route) or take the Bluebell Loop down (just slightly longer). Both will eventually lead you back to the large, main parking lot.
Once back down, you can stop in at the main ski lodge/parking area which has a restaurant, coffee shop and outdoor seating available.
➳ You can explore the full hiking trail map on Alltrails here.
The Crystal Mountain Loop Trail is a wonderful option if you are looking to get a great view of nearby Mount Rainier and explore a lush mountain environment without the crowds and mayhem that are usually found in the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier National Park.
We highly recommend checking this trail out — especially if you are looking to avoid hoards of people and/or not pay to enter the national park (heck sometimes the Sunrise area is even closed because it is too busy).
Hopefully, this hiking guide helps you plan the perfect outdoor adventure, but if you have any questions about hiking the Crystal Mountain Loop or hiking in Washington in general then please leave a comment or question below or reach out to us at www.backroadpackers.com