Wolverines are back in Mount Rainier National Park! A small number of these rarely-seen, fierce predators have been living in the park for a few years now.
Where can you see wolverines in Mount Rainier National Park? Well, it’s not that easy. Thousands of people visit the Washington state park each year, yet the number of reported annual sightings can be counted on one hand. So don’t get your hopes up.
The National Park Service doesn’t report where wolverines are seen, for their protection. But scattered reports show up in hiking trail reviews and online message boards. Enough to get a pretty good idea of where they like to hang out.
I’ve had a lot of amazing wildlife encounters over the years, but the wolverine has always eluded me. Could that possibly change in the near future?
Here’s an explanation of what wolverines look like, why so few of them exist in Washington state, and where in Rainier NP they have been spotted.
The short answer: Wolverines have been spotted in recent months around Summerland Camp, Glacier Basin, and Panhandle Gap. Recently, I hiked to Panhandle Gap and saw apparent wolverine scat near the trail. Read on for more specific details!
What Are Wolverines, and Why Are They So Rare?
Wolverines are actually members of the weasel family. Estimates are that there are somewhere between 300-1000 wolverines currently living in the lower 48 states. And fewer than 100 in the state of Washington. That’s it!
Wolverines are so rare that many people don’t even realize they are actual animals! They may only know the word from the Marvel films, or from the nickname of the University of Michigan.
These animals live in high-elevation places, typically snowy areas away from people. There aren’t a lot of suitable habitats for them in the continental U.S. That’s why their numbers are so low.
North American male wolverines can weigh around 40 pounds, while females usually top out around 25 pounds. They have long, bushy tails and brown fur, sometimes with stripes or colored markings on their chests.
Wolverines have extremely sharp claws and strong jaws, and are ferocious for their size. They have even been known to take on black bears at times, although they are still below bears, wolves, and mountain lions on the food chain.
Wolverines eat everything from berries to small animals to carcasses of elk and deer. They can eat marmots and squirrels, which makes them ideal for Rainier, since the park has so many of those small critters.
Park rangers stress that wolverines are usually afraid of people and flee upon seeing a human, so hikers should not fear them.
Wolverines are rarely seen, since they prefer remote areas with a lot of snow. Occasionally, they have been filmed in Montana’s Glacier National Park, usually running on or near snowy patches of land on the sides of mountains.
Don’t confuse wolverines with fishers, a housecat-sized member of the weasel family that was reintroduced to the park a few years ago.
Why Are We Reporting Where Wolverines Have Been Spotted?
As previously noted, the NPS does not tell the public where wolverines can be found. There are so few of these creatures in the park, they don’t want to bring these animals any extra attention.
We’re posting the information here for a few reasons. First, everything in this article is already available on the internet. Anyone who is really obsessed with wolverines will find the info anyway. It’s always better to be open and honest with the public than to try to hide information.
The number of people doing a Google search for “wolverines at Mount Rainier” is very small. (Believe me, I’ve done the keyword research!) I’d be surprised if more than a few hundred folks ever read this article. Far fewer than that will actively make plans to hike specific park trails with the intent of looking for wolverines.
And finally, the hikes to the areas where wolverines have been spotted are mostly classified as “difficult” or “strenuous.” There’s not suddenly going to be an influx of thousands of additional tourists hiking all the way to Panhandle Gap on the off-chance they might catch a fleeting glimpse of a wolverine.
This post is being written for the small group of avid Rainier hikers who are just curious to know where these animals are living, so they can be sure to keep an eye out when they’re exploring the park trails.
So let’s get to the list of the spots where wolverines have been seen in and around Mt. Rainier!
Where to See Wolverines in Mount Rainier National Park: List of Recent Hiker Sightings
For decades, no wolverines were believed to be living in Rainier National Park. But things quickly changed in the past few years.
-In 2018, after some confirmed wolverine sightings close to the park, the NPS realized that wolverines could soon move into the park, so they set up cameras in remote areas of the park. Since each wolverine has a unique fur pattern on its chests, the camera footage could be used to individually identify each animal.
-In 2019, a wolverine mother denned just outside the pork border.
-In May 2020, a female wolverine was spotted way outside its normal range, on Long Beach Peninsula not far from the Oregon state line. It was captured on video running on a logging road, then spotted a few days later right on the Pacific Ocean shoreline feasting on a marine mammal carcass.
This sighting was far away from Rainier, but was exciting nonetheless, as it proved just how far these animals can travel in a short amount of time.
-Finally, in summer 2020, a wolverine family (mother and two juveniles) was confirmed to be living inside the Rainier National Park. This was the first confirmed sighting of a wolverine family in the park in more than 100 years. Exciting news!
The NPS did not reveal the specific location of the family. The park’s official Twitter account posted a short clip showing the three critters running near a snow field:
Wolverines Return to Mount Rainier National Park After More Than 100 Years, News Release: https://t.co/qmCkTDsFAU— MountRainierNPS (@MountRainierNPS) August 20, 2020
Video of three wolverines at the end of a snowfield then running through a meadow into a forest. Credit: Travis Harris -kl pic.twitter.com/ALwJoAOmTG
-In fall 2020, a blog post detailed an encounter of a wolverine with two juveniles (kits). It was reported that the sighting took place before 8:30 am “above Panhandle Gap en route to Ohanapecosh Park.” They were seen scampering down a snow patch. The blog article was posted on October 1, and the sighting appears to have taken place at some point in late September.
-In July 2021, a Reddit commenter mentioned seeing a wolverine on the Wonderland Trail near a campsite at Summerland Camp. No further details were added, and no photograph was posted.
-In September 2021, a second wolverine family was confirmed to be living in Mount Rainier National Park. Again, it was a mother with two kits. Some sources have reported that this is not a totally new family, but rather the same mother from last summer, this time with a new set of kids.
Greg Dudgeon, superintendent of the park, said, “It’s great news to learn that we have our second documented wolverine litter in the park. It helps us confirm that the park’s wilderness is excellent habitat for wolverines, and that protection of these wild areas is important to the success of many species of wildlife.”
-A reader of this site reports seeing a wolverine running through the subalpine meadows in September 2021 on the Skyline Trail. This is significant because it was among the first reported sightings on the Paradise side of the park. It also occurred late in the afternoon, which breaks the pattern of mostly morning sightings.
-In October 2021, a hiker reported seeing a wolverine “making its way up the ridge across the valley” while she was sitting at the group camp site at Camp Summerland.
-In June 2022, a hiker on the Glacier Basin Trail reported seeing a wolverine in the basin near the Glacier Basin Campground area before 8 am. This was in late June, when snow still covered almost the entire trail and very few people were around. The hiker said the animal approached very close to him (within 25 feet) and he had to scare it away, which if true would be unusual wolverine behavior. Glacier Basin is in the general vicinity of Summerland Camp – both are located on the Sunrise Visitor Center side of the park.
-In early July 2022, a hiker captured video of a wolverine running around on the snow and rocks near the Pebble Creek Trail. This was only the second report of a sighting I could find on the Paradise side of the park.
Hey @MountRainierNPS: Whoever assembles your marmots up at Paradise is clearly disregarding the instruction manual. Take a look at this off-brand model I saw this morning up by Pebble Creek! pic.twitter.com/cXqMQTafT4— MattHagen (@MattHagen) July 9, 2022
-In early August 2022, a hiker saw two wolverines running across a snow patch and into a meadow on the Skyline Trail. This hiker was able to capture great footage:
What conclusions can we draw from these sightings? Most occurred in June/early July (before the snow on the trails had melted), or in October (after peak tourist season.) Fewer sightings occurred in the middle of summer.
That makes sense, since late July, August, and September are the months with the hottest temperatures, least amount of snow, and largest number of trail hikers. Wolverine prefer solitude and snowy areas, and would be expected to avoid popular trails during summer.
Nearly all of the hiker sightings prior to 2022 occurred around the Summerland Trail area. So keep an eye out if you go on any hikes in that area! The Summerland Trail is 8.4 miles with about 2100 feet of elevation gain. Going to the lake makes it a 10 mile trek with 2600 feet of elevation gain. Going all the way to Panhandle Gap makes it an 11-mile trek with 3150 feet of elevation gain.
Most sightings also occurred early in the morning, which is when animals tend to be most active. The hike to Panhandle takes 3-4 hours, so if you start at 9 am, by the time you reach the Gap, it will be after 12 pm, and chances are you won’t see much wildlife of any kind.
There have been more wolverine sightings near the Skyline Trail in recent months as well, so keep your eyes open on that side of the park too!
My Visit to Panhandle Gap: Wolverine Scat Sighting!
In late July of this year, I personally hiked to Panhandle Gap via Summerland Camp. I found it to be one of the best hikes I’ve ever done in Rainier NP, with jaw-dropping views of mountains, meadows, snowfields, forests, waterfalls, and streams. Many times I caught myself saying “Wow!” out loud as I took in the views, which is not something I do often as an experienced hiker.
Even in the last week of July, there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground at this time, since last winter was an especially snowy one, and because the elevation here is 7000 feet. I certainly wasn’t expecting to see a wolverine, but I kept my eyes open just in case.
About halfway between Summerland Camp and Panhandle Gap, I saw this pile of scat. Half-jokingly, I said, “I wonder if it’s wolverine?” Then I got home and did the research, and found that’s almost certainly wolverine poop. How incredible!
What does wolverine poop look like? It’s been described as looking like a sausage that tapers on either end. Their scat has also been described as “long, twisted and tapered ropes, filled with bone and fur,” which are typically left on elevated surfaces within their territories.
The scat I saw checks all these boxes. It was left on a high snowfield, just above the lakes on the way to Panhandle Gap. It looks like sausages with tapered ends. And if you zoom in close, you can clearly see the ropey texture and the fur and bone fragments inside the poo:
The scat was several inches long. It could only have come from a sizable animal. Mountain goat scat doesn’t look like this. Neither does black bear scat or mountain lion scat.
I’ll probably never see a wolverine in my lifetime, but finding actual evidence of wolverine presence on this trail is the next best thing! I could not tell how long the scat had been there, and I did not see any wolverine tracks in the snow nearby. My guess is that hikers walked over any wolverine tracks that would’ve been nearby, since the scat was found right next to the human trail in the snow.
Viewing wildlife is only one of the best activities at Mt. Rainier. You can also hike, camp, view wildflowers, photograph waterfalls, and much more.
Have you ever had a wolverine experience?