The Northern Loop Trail is 15.5 miles in length. It starts near Sunrise and ends in the Carbon River Valley where it meets the Wonderland Trail. Hiking back to Sunrise along the Wonderland Trail from here forms an approximately 32.6 mile loop that can be comfortably hiked in 3-4 days.
The Northern Loop Trail can also be extended to Mowich Lake to include the Ipsut Pass/Spray Park loop, adding 15.7 miles of some of the finest scenery the park has to offer. This brings the total trip mileage to about 48 miles, which most people hike in 5 to 7 days.
While there is no place to cache food when hiking the Northern Loop from Sunrise, if you extend the trip to Mowich Lake, the Mowich Lake ranger station makes a convenient place for leaving a food cache. (You can also leave a food cache at Sunrise if you start at Mowich Lake.)
Accessing the Northern Loop Trail
On the east side of the park, the Northern Loop Trail is most conveniently accessed from a 2.4 mile hike along the Wonderland Trail from the Sunrise Visitor center.
If you are extending the trip to include the Ipsut Pass/Spray Park loop, you can also start and end your trip at Mowich Lake.
The last option is to hike five miles from the Carbon River entrance to Ipsut Creek Campground. From here, the west end of the Northern Loop Trail begins about 2.3 miles up and across the valley.
The Northern Loop Trail is well known for being a strenuous route with challenging elevation changes. The conditioned hiker will likely find it manageable, but those with knee problems or who aren’t in shape may not agree that the scenery is worth the effort. Hiking poles will decrease joint strain on the steep grades and are advisable.
Camps along the Northern Loop Trail and distance from east trailhead
- Berkeley Park, 1.5 mi
- Fire Creek, 5.3 mi
- Lake James, 9.1 mi
- Yellowstone Cliffs, 12.4 mi
Sections potentially without water
Lodi Creek to the valley of the West Fork of the White River, about 5 miles.
Notable river crossings
West Fork of the White River (temporary bridge, prone to washouts)
The Northern Loop trail begins 2.4 miles from the Sunrise Visitor Center on the Wonderland Trail in the expansive meadows of Berkeley Park. The trail descends into the valley basin between Skyscraper Mountain and Mount Fremont, where lush meadows line the headwaters of Lodi Creek.
Berkeley Park (1.5 mi, 5,375 ft)
The meadows of Berkeley Park and of Cold Valley offer dazzling bouquets of wildflowers and beautiful, clear-flowing streams.
Berkeley Park Camp is reached after 1.5 miles and is an excellent place to stay your first night if you are starting out your trip in the afternoon following a drive to Sunrise.
Berkeley Park, Lodi Creek water source
It is important to stock-up on filtered water before leaving the basin of Berkeley Park. After the trail begins climbing from Lodi Creek toward Grand Park, there is no reliable source of water for nearly five miles, unless you make the 0.8 mile (round-trip) detour to Fire Creek.
Continuing in the shadows of Skyscraper Peak and Mount Fremont, the trail makes a gradual climb above Cold Basin and toward Grand Park. Looking back to the south, the fire lookout at the summit of Mount Fremont is visible on a clear day.
Grand Park & Lake Eleanor Trail Junction (3.6 mi, 5,640 ft)
Passing into the wide meadows of Grand Park, the Northern Loop trail reaches a junction with the Lake Eleanor Trail at the 3.6 mile mark. If you have the time, it is well worth it to take an easy stroll through Grand Park and soak in the views.
Grand Park was formed from thick lava flows back in one of the volcano’s noisier seasons approximately 500,000 years ago. It is one of the flattest meadows in the national park and wildlife (and wildflowers) are abundant.
There is no camping or water in Grand Park, however there is at Lake Eleanor, 3.3 miles from the junction with the Northern Loop Trail.
Note that Lake Eleanor is easily reached via a short hike from Forest Service Road 73, so if your time is limited, know that Grand Park can be easily visited again and makes an excellent day-hiking destination.
Leaving Grand Park, the Northern Loop Trail passes an overlook with a panoramic view of the Winthrop Glacier and the valley of the west fork of the White River. Skyscraper Mountain and Mount Fremont are visible to the east and Redstone Peak and Sluiskin Mountain to the west.
Across the valley you can see a large burn area left scarred from a wildfire in the 1960’s. Aided by binoculars, you may be able to see the Northern Loop Trail as it ascends Windy Gap just above and to the south (left) of the burn area. At the right time of the day (and perhaps with the help of a compass and map), you may also be able to pick out the shadow of Mount Rainier’s Natural Bridge, visible about a mile north of Windy Gap, and roughly 600 feet below the ridge.
The trail then begins a steep 3.4 mile descent to the valley floor over 2,700 feet below. Leaving the subalpine splendor of Grand Park, the forest transitions to moss draped young evergreens.
Fire Creek Camp (4.85 mi, 4,860 ft)
A way-trail to Fire Creek Camp is reached after about 0.5 miles from the viewpoint. Water is available at the camp, but this is 0.4 miles from the Northern Loop Trail, so it is an inconvenient source if you’re not staying the night here.
West Fork Trail Junction (7.3 mi, 3,190 ft)
Continuing down the hillside, the trail switchbacks steeply through the thickening forest before reaching a junction with the West Fork Trail on the moist valley floor.
The West Fork of the White River (7.4 mi, 3,160 ft)
The West Fork of the White River has the potential to be a difficult river crossing, but most years the Park Service has log bridges with rails installed at the start of the summer hiking season. The White River, like all the glacier-fed streams in the park, has murky water that is not fit for filtering. Just a short distance beyond the river crossing, however, a clear-flowing creek tumbles over Van Horn Falls and makes for a good water source.
Van Horn Falls (7.6 mi)
The delicate Van Horn Falls can be reached via a short, unmarked way-trail before starting the climb away from the valley bottom, about 0.2 miles from the river crossing. If you catch a faint whiff of lacustrine fishiness when filtering water, you won’t be surprised to find that this creek is fed by runoff from the lakes in the hanging valley of Mosquito Flat 1,300 feet above — Lake James, Lake Ethel, Lake Marjorie, and Adelaide Lake.
Leaving Van Horn Falls, the trail climbs steeply toward Lake James through the thick forest. Though Lake James is only 1.8 miles ahead, the climb is arduous and will be slow-going for all but the most athletic of hikers. As it nears Mosquito Flat, the trail skirts the edge of the burned forest area.
James Camp (9.1 mi, 4,620 ft)
The campsites at Lake James are spread out and set far back from the lake on a small hillside. Past the lake 0.4 miles, a way-trail leads to a ranger patrol cabin in the forests below Redstone Peak. From here, the trail continues grinding steeply toward Windy Gap.
Ascent to Windy Gap (begins at 9.4 mi)
Nearing Windy Gap, the forest begins opening up to marmot inhabited talus slopes and sub-alpine forests. Following a seasonal stream bed dotted with enormous boulders, the views become more rewarding with each step — both of the jagged peaks of Sluiskin Mountain, and of the distant Cascade foothills behind to the northeast. Nearing Windy Gap, the opportunity for spotting mountain goats, deer and black bears improves in the expansive meadows, and the white crown of Mount Rainier becomes visible above the ridge line.
Junction with Independence Ridge - Natural Bridge way-trail (10.8 mi, 5,740 ft)
Not to be missed, the real gem of the Northern Loop is Natural Bridge, a 200 foot andesite arch perched on the hillside behind Lake Ethel and Lake James. It is reached by a 0.7 mile way-trail from Windy Gap. For the first 0.4 miles, this route follows the Independence Ridge Trail. A sign marks a junction where the 0.3 mi Natural Bridge trail descends from the ridge to the arch.
If you want to explore Independence Ridge Trail further, you can follow the faint remains of the Independence Ridge Trail an additional 0.6 mi from this junction before it peters out along the hillside.
Windy Gap (11 mi, 5,830 ft)
Windy Gap is a broad saddle at an elevation of 5,800 feet. While only the upper slopes of Mount Rainier are visible here, the views of the northeastern section of the park are lovely, and the subalpine splendor couldn’t be finer.
Descent from Windy Gap
The trail passes over the saddle and through rolling meadows, gradually descending to Yellowstone Cliffs, below Tyee Peak.
Yellowstone Cliffs (12.4 mi, 5,180 ft)
Here the impressive cliffs of Tyee Peak tower hundreds of feet above the meadow, and two pleasant campsites are available along Spukwush Creek.
Leaving Yellowstone Cliffs, the Northern Loop Trail plummets into the Carbon River Valley, dropping over 3,000 feet in the next four miles. Along this path, the views are minimal except of the ever-thickening forest. The moss-draped trees grow larger, the air thickens, and the roar of the Carbon River gets louder with each switchback.
Junction with the Wonderland Trail near Carbon River (15.5 mi, 2,960 ft)
The Northern Loop Trail ends at the Wonderland Trail at the valley bottom. Carbon River Camp (1.2 miles clockwise on the Wonderland Trail) makes a good stopping point for the night if you are headed back to Sunrise, and Ipsut Creek Camp (2.4 miles counterclockwise on the Wonderland Trail) is a convenient place to stay if you are headed onward to Mowich Lake.