Backpacking: Lower Crystal Lake

Oregon Lookouts


Mount Rainier National Park


Crystal Lakes Trail

Estimated drive time from Portland, OR.

3-1/2 hours


July 6-7, 2019


6 miles RT

Elevation gain/loss.


Trip Report.

This trip was just shy of a year from our first backpacking trip and the small little trio that I started with had grown. Alex had met his partner, now fiancé, Emily the year before. While I had also started dating my partner by then too. Emily is an avid planner like me and put together this trip for us. She submitted for the permits through the system used back then, which was a mail-in form. You are now able to get these permits online through if you plan ahead. Otherwise, you are left to the mercy of walk-ups. One thing I like about the permit system of Mount Rainier NP is that they only release the amount of permits equal to the amount of camp spots at each back country location. I’ve come to find that not all National Parks treat their permit quotas the same. This trail was conveniently located in between Seattle and Portland which meant no one had to drive any farther than the other.

We all left relatively early in the morning to get to the park as early as possible. We had to pick up the permits from the White River Wilderness Information Center beforehand which is conveniently located just down the road from the needed trailhead. Emily, Alex, Garnet, and I all carpooled together from Portland while Anjelica drove down from Seattle to meet us. The trailhead is located off of HWY-410 just north of the White River park entrance. There is parking on both sides of the highway that can accommodate roughly 20 cars. The trail to Crystal Lakes leaves from the east side of the highway and starts by crossing Crystal Creek on a log bridge. Your hike will begin in a sub-alpine forest and switchbacks up to the lakes basin. The trail climbs 1,600′ of elevation in the first 1.3 miles, but don’t let the numbers deter you. Although you climb a decent amount of elevation in a short amount of time, the trail is a consistent gradual grade with no significantly steeper sections. You will pass a trail junction for Crystal Peak that can be added as a 5 mile RT side with an additional 1,800′ of elevation gain for the heartier adventurers. From that junction, it’s only another 1.7 miles to upper Crystal Lake. Our permits were for the Lower Crystal Lake which is smaller and only offers two back country camp spots. A wilderness ranger passed us on the way up and checked our permits. A friendly reminder that you need permits to camp in this area and they do indeed check. There are rumors of being able to see Mt Rainier from parts of the trail, but we had no such luck on our trip. We were socked in by a fog cloud. We were able to reach Lower Crystal Lake just before noon. There was no one else there and we had our pick of the spots. Upper Crystal Lake is the more popular destination for day hikers.

We set up camp after having lunch and explored the area around the lower lake. Besides the two camp spots there is also a back country privy and bear pole to hang your food. The shore of the lake is a bit marshy and the better water source is from an outlet stream near one of the camps. There is also a very overgrown user trail that circles the lake. You can tell it sees significantly less use than the rest of the area. We had hoped the fog would clear off for some better views before heading the remaining 0.7 miles to the upper lake, but it didn’t look promising. Eventually we all hiked up to explore around some more since it seemed too early for drinks and games. We had learned from our first backpacking trip that if you start drinking the wine early, it is also gone early. The upper Crystal Lake is much larger than the lower lake and is surrounded by towering peaks. On a clear day it’s worth it to continue the hike up to Sourdough Gap to get a great view overlooking the lake and part of Mt Rainier. This is also where the trail leaves the National Park and connects with the Pacific Crest Trail. We were still settled in a fog cloud and none of us felt it was worth the effort to continue past the lake. Similar to our backpacking trip to Green Point, I had a strong urge to jump in the crystal clear water while everything else was already damp. There were more people around this time and no campfire to warm myself afterwards. I had talked myself out of it, but debated it the remainder of the trip. After taking a sufficient amount of pictures at the foggy upper lake, we headed back to camp for drinks, dinner, and card games. Since there were more of us, we opted to plan our meals separately instead of relying on Alex to do all the work. Garnet and I had a backpacking staple of soy sauce ramen with tuna added. It was warm, salty, and delicious. The fog started to break up a little after playing a couple rounds of Pay Me, a long card game that my family plays often and I have since taught to my friends. We decided to pack up the wine and head to the upper Crystal Lake hopeful for some views. Although it was never truly clear of fog, we did get a better view of the surrounding peaks. We decided to enjoy our drinks on the rocky shore for a while soaking in the scenery. We all headed back to camp before it was dark and settled in for the night.

Everything was damp the next morning. It didn’t rain but there was a constant mist in the air that clung to our gear. Knowing we were only going for one night, Garnet and I had decided to be a bit fancier with our breakfast. We packed up fresh eggs and made a scramble with cheese and tomatoes. Our friends were skeptical of the non-refrigerated eggs but we had no issues with it. There were still no signs of the sun planning to come through to break up the mist and help dry us all out. We cleaned up our camp, filtered water, and packed up our wet gear. Always remember to Leave No Trace and pack out everything you pack in. No one ever ended up joining us at the other camp by the lake. The hike down was pretty uneventful and we passed another park wilderness ranger. I think they frequent this trail often due to it being off a main highway and the close proximity to the wilderness center. There were still no views of Mt Rainier on our way down, but we seemed to have finally hiked our way out of the fog cloud. The sun was even shining when we reached the car. We said our good-byes to Anjelica and headed back towards Portland. We made a quick pit stop at the Packwood Brewing Co for tacos and beer.

More Information.

Washington Trails Association

National Park Service


4 thoughts on “Backpacking: Lower Crystal Lake

  1. The world changes but “ramen, soy sauce, and tuna” remains a constant. I ate it on my first backpacking trips decades ago – loved it then, love it now. Sometimes – when the spirit of culinary innovation falters – it’s even dinner at home. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s nothing quite like it! I remember I was skeptical the first time I tried it. How could Tuna and Ramen mix?? Apparently, very well.


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