Pilgrimage to see the Milky Way over Mt Rainier

The Milky Way is just east of Mt Rainier at 11:30PM. The lights on Mt Rainier are a base camp and the climbers beginning to start their final ascent.  They have a 4,000 foot climb from base camp and try to reach the summit by day break so they can start down before the warm temperatures open crevasses. A meteor glows through the east side of the Milky Way. (G. Thomas Bancroft)
The Milky Way was just east of Mt Rainier at 11:30PM. The lights on Mt Rainier were a base camp as the climbers began their final ascent. They have a 4,000 foot climb from base camp and try to reach the summit by day break so they can start down before the warm temperatures open crevasses. A meteor glowed through the east side of the Milky Way. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I hoped that the New Moon would allow the stars to pop in the night sky and that Sourdough Ridge might be the perfect place to watch the Milky Way rise from the east and drift over Mt. Rainier so I headed to Sunrise in Mt Rainier National Park. From Sourdough Ridge, I expected a good view of Mt Rainier to the southwest and should be able to see Emmons Glacier on the left and Winthrop Glacier on the right. Both glaciers have their massive rivers of ice pouring down from the summit.  Little Tahoma Peak rises to 11,138 feet east of the volcano’s summit, well short of 14,410-foot volcano summit. The Milky Way over Mt Rainier was my goal.

At 10:45PM, I hiked in the dark to find a great place to sit on the ridge top and watch the stars twinkle.  A number of 1 – 2 inch crickets crawled on the trail and I stepped carefully around them as I climbed. At the crest, I discovered other pilgrims of the night sky. Two young couples stood at the top chatting and watching the stars.

After we exchanged greetings, they asked, “Do you speak Russian?”

“Unfortunately, no” I replied and asked “are you visiting from Russia.”

They said “no, we are Ukrainian and live in Seattle now and had just come to watch the stars. We will drive back to Seattle later tonight. We don’t like to speak in Russian in front of someone that doesn’t understand Russian”

They stayed for an hour after I arrived and we continued to chat in English. Not 15 minutes after the Ukrainians left, I saw a light working up the trail from Sunrise. This time two young men and one woman climbed to share the ridge with me. Right after they arrived, a large meteor lit the western sky for a split second, the meteor exploded in a brief burst of light mid-way through its light trail. The people drifted to a bench down the way from me and began to chat in Arabic. They stayed until 1:30AM before heading down the trail. Watching the Milky Way and sharing a wilderness setting are an international joy, feeding the soul and stimulating thought.

Two meteor shows occur in late July and early August. The Delta Aquariids shower peaks in late July and can have as many as 20 meteors per hour. The Perseid meteor show just began this week and when it reaches its peak in early August can deliver as many as 100 per hour. It takes 20 minutes for ones eyes to adjust to the dark and become most sensitive to detecting meteors. I checked the back of my camera too often for my eyes to be at a peak for very long and yet I still saw many dart across the sky. My camera detected others that I missed including one shot with three in it.

When I arrived at the ridge at 11PM, the Milky Way rose vertically from a point east of Little Tahoma Peak. During the night it gradually drifted west across the sky passing over Little Tahoma Peak at 1AM and finally reaching the summit of Mt Rainier after 2AM. Mt Rainier covered the lower section of the Milky Way that was visible at 11AM when I first arrived. The dense cloud of gases in the middle of the Milky Way created the dark strip running up the middle of the Milky Way. These gasses absorb light from stars on the far side of the Milky Way so it acts like a dark curtain blocking our ability to see the stars beyond.

The Milky Way is a spiral barrel galaxy and our solar system resides in one of the outer spirals. A spiral barrel galaxy looks much like a pinwheel if we looked down from space onto it. Our galaxy has several billion stars in it and I wondered how many I could see in this night sky. Our solar system is 28,000 light years from the center of the Milky Way and we spin around that center at 600,000 miles an hour. It will take us 225 million years to go all the way around again. The last time our sun was in our current position in its rotation around the middle of the galaxy, the dinosaurs had just started their evolutionary radiation.

Just to the north of my perch, I could see the Big Dipper and I followed the back of the bowl to find the North Star. Seeing the Little Dipper proved more difficult because so many stars were visible in the moonless night. The North Star sits at the end of the handle for the Little Dipper. I tried to photograph the Big and Little Dipper but all the stars captured by my camera made it impossible to identify them.

As I stood there, climbers across the White River began their awesome pilgrimages. By 11:30PM, I could see lights at Camp Schuman at 9510 feet on Mt Rainier north slope. This is one of the base camps for mountaineers to begin their ascent to the summit and it sits where the Emmons and Winthrop glaciers divide. Climbers begin their ascent in the middle of the night with the goal of reaching the summit around daybreak because they want to descend the mountain before warm temperatures in the day begin to open crevasses. Just after midnight, I began to see lights leaving from Camp Muir (10,188 ft) on the east side of Mt Rainier between Little Tahoma Peak and the summit. As the night progressed, I watched at least three parties leave from Camp Schuman and maybe as many as 5 groups from Camp Muir. Over 10,000 people attempt to climb this volcano each year and the summer is a busy time. I could see the direction of their headlamps, discerning the back and forth motion as they inched upward. A few times the lights became brighter and I guessed that they had pointed their headlamp directly at me. I remained enthralled with their progress; the stamina and endurance it must take to climb over 4,000 feet on their final ascent to the top. I wonder what the view form the top must be like; I am sure it is inspiring.

I spent 4 hours sitting and shivering on the ridge watching the stars, meteors, and the climbers. I found it lovely, mesmerizing and truly inspirational. How lucky we are to be alive, to contemplate life, and to wonder about the universe, the Milky Way and our little planet.

By 2AM the Milky Way is right over the summit of Mt Rainier and looks as though it is coming out of the volcano. Three parties climb the north side of the volcano and at least three more are climbing the ridge along the east side. (G. Thomas Bancroft)
By 2AM the Milky Way was right over the summit of Mt Rainier and looked as though it was coming out of the volcano. Three parties climbed the north side of the volcano and at least three more were climbing the ridge along the east side. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

12 thoughts on “Pilgrimage to see the Milky Way over Mt Rainier”

    • Your very welcome. It is a wonderful place to watch the stars move across The Mountain. I hope to make it back this summer too.

    • Sure, I used a 16 mm lens on a nikon d810 camera. I had the ISO at 6400 and a 20 sec exposure. It was a great clear night for photography. thanks for the interest. Do you take star shots too. Would love to see some.

  1. Hi Thomas,
    great photo and great post. I am planning to go in the beginning of September, right after the full moon. Do you mind telling me where about was this location? Its a great angle, but I’ve never been there before.

    Andy Perez

    • Hi Andy, Sure, I am sure you will love it. I hiked up from Sunrise to Soughdough Ridge and took the picture from the ridge across Sunrise area to Mt Rainier. There is a nice graded and graveled path to the top and a bench at the top too. I just walked along the path on the ridge until I found a place with some nice vegetation for the shadow in the front. I have also photographed the Mountain from Reflection Lake but the Milky Way is not as good because you look north there. I might try to star trails sometimes from there because the north star is in the picture from the Reflection Lake Site. People drive by there during the night so you have some trouble with light pollution. No problem with light pollution from the sunrise location. Hope this helps. Thomas

  2. Hey Thomas, I just read through your post and I really loved it. It reminded me of my first time I unexpectedly saw the Galaxy, and was just, absolutely entranced. I was on a hiking 5 day hiking trip in China, and had not started taking photographs then. After I reached the peak and slept, I awoke middle of the night to use the restroom, and when I opened my tent, I was just stunned. I agree with your sentiments about the overwhelming feelings about everything in the World. Thanks so much for sharing, it was a great read!

    I’m actually going up to Mount Rainier this friday, which I’m so stoked about, and was wondering if you could share any tips with me! Ie. Since you were there from 10pm-after, was there a certain hour and angle you thought the milky way looked best?

    Thanks so much!

    • Hi Deric,
      Thanks so much for your kind comments. The milky way and the stars are so much fun to see. I hope you have a great time at Mt. Rainier. The best place I found to get the milky way over Mt. Rainier is at Sunrise on the east side of the Mountain. I don’t know if the road is open to Sunrise yet. They usually open it around late June so it might be. At 10 PM, the Milky Way should be east of the summit of Mt. Rainier and then gradually drift over the summit over the next few hours. I have also photographed the sky from reflection lake. Taking the shot north, you get the big dipper and little dipper above the mountain. I have not done star trails very much but think a great shot might be of the stars circling the north star above mt. rainier. The reflection of the stars on the lake can be good too. I got a nice shot of the milky way framed by some trees. The milky way is more intense to the south or southwest depending on the time of night. The cars along the road can be a problem in long photographs but I was able to get shots between cars when I was at Reflection Lake. At sunrise, I walked up the trail to sourdough ridge to take my pictures. This put be above the parking lot and any cars.
      Hope this helps. Good luck. Tom

  3. Hi Thomas,
    I loved and enjoyed reading the post. I am also planning to try my hands on astrophotography. But never done any night treck. Could you please help me understanding how safe its to treck on this trail and any saftely precautions need to consider? Any other useful tips for amateur photographer. My questions might sound bit silly but had never done any night treck and that too alone. Your response will be a great help me to start my first night photography adventure.

    • Sorry, I took so long to answer. I’ve been tied up most of the summer. The trail I hiked at Sunrise is wide and easy to hike in the dark. It is about a quarter mile up to the ridge and there is a nice bench up there to sit at. A good flashlight is needed. A one with a red light is helpful after you setup to take pictures to keep your eyes in good shape for seeing the stars. A tripod is needed for the long exposures. I have taken pictures at Reflection Lake and it there is a wide sidewalk to get away from any cars. Car lights can mess up the picture but it can also give a little light to lower vegetation. Michael Frye has some interesting ideas on night photography on his website. the best book I’ve found is “Milky Way Nightscapes” by Royce Bair.He shows how to use some online tools to help find could places for night shots. Hope you can get some nice ones. It took me a couple tries to work out the techniques. His book helped me.

  4. Love this picture! I am planning on making the trip out but I am trying tofigure out where to camp after, Did you just drive out super late at night or was there a campsite near by? Thanks for the help!

    • I camped at White River Campground. It is just below Sunrise and about a 20 or 30 minutes drive up to Sunrise. You can also camp at Cougar on the other side of Mt. Rainier if you want to photograph at Reflection Lake. Cougar is long ways though to Sunrise. Make sure the road to Sunrise is open before you go. I think it is still snowed in right now.


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