Sunrise Road Columnar Rock Formation

Grey rocks broken up into narrow horizontal columns.
Columnar rocks along the Sunrise Road were created by past volcanic lava flows.

NPS Photo

Quick Facts
2.3 miles up the Sunrise Road.

Historical/Interpretive Information/Exhibits, Parking - Auto, Scenic View/Photo Spot

Season: Summer Only (July - September)
Sunrise Road is open to vehicles during the summer only, typically from early July to mid-September. 

A large pullout along the road to Sunrise does not overlook a vista but offers a view of an exposed columnar rock formation. The dark grey rock columns embedded in the hillside are remnants of an old lava flow that helped form Sunrise Ridge. The pullout is located 2.3 miles up from the gate along the Sunrise Road. A wayside exhibit panel next to the pullout provides additional information about the rock formation. 

Sunrise Road Geology – Columnar Rock Formations
The lava that formed the columnar rock formations you see at this stop flowed here during an eruption approximately 496 thousand years ago, making it one of the oldest lava flows from Mount Rainier. Carolyn Driedger, a hydrologist from the United States Geologic Survey:

“We’re very high up here and you have to ask the question, how did the lava flow get here? Why did it perch up here so high? And the reason is because... when the eruption occurred, the valley of the White River was filled with a thousand feet or so of glacier ice at least to the surface that we are at today.”

These lava columns are evidence that the valley was once filled with glacial ice. As the lava cools it crystallizes into columns pointing in the direction of cooling. Normally, one would expect them to be vertical, assuming that the coldest direction would be the air above the lava flow. These columns however lay horizontally, indicating that the cooling surface was to the edge of the lava flow. Geologists think that this lava flow actually erupted while the White River valley was filled with a very thick Ice Age glacier. The lava flow skirted the edges of the glacier, cooling as it came into contact with the ice along its flank. When the glacier eventually melted away, it left behind the lava ridge Sunrise is built on.

While we encourage you to enjoy the impressive views while traveling up the Sunrise Road, please stay aware of the road and drive safely. The Sunrise Road is steep and winding. Watch out for bicyclists and other drivers on the road, as well as wildlife. Please do not stop your vehicle in the road and block traffic.

Mount Rainier National Park

Last updated: July 9, 2021