Hiking and backpacking the stunning Summit Lake Trail in Washington

If you’re looking for a pretty easy hike with world-class views, the Summit Lake Trail must be at the top of your list! It’s absolutely fantastic for both a day hike and a single-night backpacking trip.

Rainier views in the background, and a bright blue lake in the foreground make for stunning photographs.

Below I highlight everything you need to know about hiking and backpacking the Summit Lake Trail outside Mount Rainier.

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Sunrise above summit lake with Mt Rainier in the background.

A Guide to the Summit Lake Trail Near Mount Rainier

Things to know before you do the Summit Lake Trail

How to get there

This is the only challenging part of the Summit Lake Trail hike.

You’ll want to head toward Mount Rainier’s Carbon River Entrance. You’ll drive the Mowich Road before exiting onto Carbon River Rd. Then, just before the Carbon River Entrance, turn left onto NF-7810. You’ll cross a bridge and then start driving on a logging road.

From here, you have six miles to the trailhead. But it’s a pretty terrible road, and it took us about 45 minutes to drive up and down.

Related: Top fall hikes in Washington

While there were standard cars, I would HIGHLY recommend higher clearance and AWD, as there are big rocks, potholes, ruts, and mounds to deal with.

Lastly, I wouldn’t say it’s a TERRIBLE road. It’s simply slow and monotonous, and you’ll have to concentrate. I had 8.5 inches of clearance on our SUV and never scraped anything. So, if you go with the right vehicle, you’ll be golden.

Our tent site in the fog.

What is the hike like to Summit Lake?

The hike is pretty straightforward and moderate. It’s a gentle incline for the first mile, and then you begin your uphill push to Summit Lake. But, don’t worry, it’s not bad hard. It’s 1,100 feet of gain to the lake in 2.5 miles.

Related: Easy hikes near Seattle

Furthermore, if you plan to reach the summit on the far side of the lake, it’s about 3.3 miles and 1,400 feet of gain. Thankfully, it’s not a strenuous incline.

At the .08 miles, you’ll come to a junction. Keep going left past Twin Lake (though there’s only one lake). You’ll have 1.7 miles left until you reach the gorgeous lake.

The view of Mt Rainier from the Summit Lake Trail
Stunning views of Mt Rainier via the Summit Lake Trail.

Best Views around the lake

As you ascend and wrap around the lake counterclockwise, you’ll find a rock just feet off the trail. This is the best photo spot, with Mount Rainier perfectly lined up with the lake. Then, once you make it to the summit, you’ll have amazing views too.

Here, if it is a clear day, you’ll see the Carbon Glacier, all of Rainier, and possibly downtown Seattle and the Olympic Mountains.

Rules and Regulations for the Summit Lake Trail

No Drones at Summit Lake

Summit Lake is in the Clearwater Wilderness, which is a no-drone zone. It’s a federal offense to fly drones here, and you’ll disrupt the peace everyone else is enjoying. Leave the drone at home!

No Campfires in Summit Lake Basin

Campfires are also not allowed in the Summit Lake Basin area. For most people, this applies to you.

Morning light and clouds on the Summit Lake Trail.

Camp on durable surfaces while hiking the Summit Lake Trail

As one of the Leave No Trace Principles, aim to sleep in areas that have already been slept on and does not have vegetation growing. This area doesn’t have a long growth season, and when you put a tent down in vulnerable areas, it can cause lifelong impacts on the area.

Bear Canisters

I did not see it noted on the sign to store your food in a bear canister. However, I would recommend it to ensure a furry friend doesn’t find their way into your bag.

Related: My top hikes in Washington

Weather Can Change Quickly

When we left Seattle, it was a sunny day. When we arrived at the trailhead, it looked like it might rain. (It didn’t.) However, fog moved in and out throughout the trip, which fluctuated temperatures. Come prepared with a rain jacket just in case because Rainier can create her own weather, and you don’t want to get soaked from a random shower.

Fog rollin gthrough the trees.

Backpacking Summit Lake Trail

This is an incredible area to backpack as it does not require permits and has some of the best views in all of Washington. (And for about as little effort as possible.)

There are camping spots throughout the Summit Lake Basin region, with many sites on the ridgeline across the lake. I went counterclockwise up and came down the same way, so I’m unsure if camp spots are on the left ridge towards the summit.

As you can imagine, this will fill up quickly on the weekends. Due to this, many people were setting up tents in the smallest of areas, so if you want a better location, come early or be okay camping at lake level.

Additionally, there is no water if you plan to sleep on the ridge. I would recommend filtering water at the lake before heading up. This will save you from coming down (about .25 miles both ways). If you can filter 3L, you’ll be suitable for the next 12 hours.

The morning glow looking north from the Summit Lake Trail.

What to bring on an overnight backpacking trip to Summit Lake

  • Lightweight tent
  • Lightweight Camping Chair
  • 55-65L backpacking bag
  • Hiking Shoes/Trail Runners
  • Pants for the evening
  • Headlamp
  • Hiking Poles
  • Water Filter (3L gravity filter)
  • Backpacking Meals, snacks, coffee
  • Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad, and Pillow
  • Down Jacket
  • Beanie
  • Toothbrush/Toothpaste
  • Camera, Tripod, Lenses, Phone
Heading down from Summit Lake.

FAQ: Summit Lake Trail

Are dogs allowed on the Summit Lake Trail?

Dogs are allowed on the Summit Lake Trail. Keep them leashed to prevent them from running off.

Can you swim in Summit Lake?

Yes, you can! I saw people swimming and using floaties to get out on the water. We would have, but fog rolled in and made it a bit chilly.

Is Summit Lake man-made?

No, Summit Lake is a natural lake, though it has no drainage out of it. In the fall, it will be considerably lower versus early season snow melt.

Clouds and mountain peaks from the Summit Lake Trail.

What Pass do I need for this hike?

All you need is an America the Beautiful (National Parks) Pass or the Northwest Forest Pass. Leave it on your dashboard, and you’re all set!

Do I need a permit to hike it?

You do not need a permit to hike or backpack to Summit Lake in Washington. It’s what makes this one of the better backpacking trails, as you don’t have to plan it out months in advance.

What is the starting elevation of the hike?

The Summit Lake Trail starts at 4,300 feet and will rise about 1,400 feet to the summit above the lake. This means the temperature of the hike will be between 12-16 degrees cooler than in Seattle.

Final Thoughts – Summit Lake Trail in Washington

This is a freaking amazing hike, and you’ll come away with gorgeous photos, fantastic memories, and hopefully not a beat-up car.

If you’re new to backpacking or trying to ease someone in, this is the place to do it. So enjoy the Summit Lake trail, and I’m sure you’ll want to return down the road!

Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.

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