This hike is a strenuous round-trip scramble that brings you to two high points overlooking some of the most dramatic terrain on Mt. Rainier, Ptarmigan Ridge, Mowich face, Liberty Ridge, and the Sunset Amphitheater. On a clear day, you can also see Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Baker, the high ridges of Snoqualmie Pass and the North Cascades, Mt. Stuart and the Enchantments, Glacier Peak, and, of course, Mt. Rainier.
Starting from Mowich Lake, just follow Spray Park
Trail. Of course, for an even more challenging start, you can start with a scramble of Fay Peak and then take Knapsack Pass to Spray Park
. From Spray Park
, route-find your way to the obvious col between Echo Rock and Observation Rock.
At the col, Echo Rock is the first objective. It is the more technical scramble of the two. Follow the gentle, but extremely loose southwest face up to some obvious climbers' trails winding around to the west and up to the summit. This whole peak is just a pile of loose, crumbly pumice, so if anyone is above you, a helmet is a must. If you are completely solo, a helmet is advised, but at your own risk it could be left behind. Follow the route back down.
The second objective is Observation Rock. This is a very, very easy scramble wrapping around the south, past an obvious campsite, and up the west/southwest face. It is mostly a walk-up. There are great views from the top.
Follow your same route back, or if you already did Fay Peak, just link back to Spray Park
Trail and follow that back to the Mowich Lake campground.
Bring an ice axe and know self-arrest. Stiff mountaineering boots are a must, and crampons are a very safe bet, as the snow and ice can be very hard on the final approach to the col.
Times range from 5-10 hours depending on fitness and snow conditions, so bring food. There are ample opportunities to refill water, so a small bottle will suffice if you have a steripen or other way to clean the water before drinking.
As far as markings go, once off trail, there is a sometimes-discernible boot-path; but snow often covers it up. Footprints or ski tracks in the snow are a good indicator of being on track. Despite the lack of markings, they aren’t necessary if the weather is good. From the departure from the Sprat Park Trail, both Echo and Observation are in sight the entire way there. In foggy or poor visibility, you'll have to fall back on map, compass, altimeter, and GPS skills to navigate.
On a scale of navigational difficulty from 1-10 with 1 being a marked and maintained trail, and 10 being bushwhacking trail-less through the epic north cascades approaches, this is about a 3 to 4. It’s a good introduction to getting off trail.
The best time to go is when Mowich Lake Road is open. You can do this in the winter as a really fun ski tour, but if the road is closed, it adds about 6 more miles and more elevation gain
Standard Mt. Rainier flora and fauna are all possibilities here.
The geology of how these two rocks formed is interesting. I'm not an expert, so if geology is your thing, I'd look it up—pretty cool!