USGS Logo Geological Survey Bulletin 1292
The Geologic Story of Mount Rainier


While hiking, you soon become aware that there is a large amount of pumice along the trails in Mount Rainier National Park Pumice is a lightweight volcanic rock so full of air spaces that it will float on water. The air spaces, or bubbles, originated when fragments of gas-rich lava were explosively thrown into the air above the volcano, and the molten rock hardened before the gas could escape. If you examine pumice deposits in a trail cut, in a streambank, or in the roots of blown-over trees, you may also note that there is more than one layer (fig. 6). If you circle the volcano on the Wonderland Trail, you may notice that the greatest number of pumice layers is on the east side of the park, but the thickest single layer is on the west side. The explanation lies partly in the source of the pumice deposits, because some pumice was erupted not by Mount Rainier but by other volcanoes in the Cascade Range of Washington and Oregon and brought to the park by strong southerly or southwesterly winds. The layers of pumice thrown out by Mount Rainier within the last 10,000 years lie mostly on the east side of the volcano. Strong winds evidently swept eruption clouds to the east during the outbursts and prevented the pumice from falling west of the volcano. This pattern of distribution, coupled with the coarsening and thickening of the pumice toward the volcano, reveals that the layers were erupted by Mount Rainier.

pumice layers
LAYERS OF PUMICE on the floor of a cirque near Paradise Park. The yellow bed at the bottom is layer O, which was erupted by Mount Mazama volcano at the site of Crater Lake, Oregon, about 6,600 years ago. The yellowish-brown layera few inches above layer O is layer D, a pumice that was erupted by Mount Rainier between 5,800 and 6,600 years ago. The light-yellowish-brown pumice bed at the top of the outcrop is layer Y, which originated at Mount St. Helens volcano between 3,250 and 4,000 years ago. Photography by D. R. Mullineaux, U.S. Geological Survey. (Fig. 6)

Dr. R. Mullineaux of the U.S. Geological Survey has studied in detail the pumice deposits of Mount Rainier National Park. One of his first and most important discoveries was that even though some pumice layers are spread widely over the park, they were erupted from other volcanoes. Strangely enough, one layer is thicker and more widespread than any recent pumice erupted by Mount Rainier. We can clearly see that these foreign pumice layers did not come from Mount Rainier, for they thicken and coarsen southward, away from the park. The oldest was erupted by Mount Mazama volcano at the site of Crater Lake, Oregon, about 6,600 years ago; this pumice forms a yellowish-orange layer about 2 inches thick nearly everywhere in the park. The pumice has a texture like that of sandy flour, and it feels grainy when rubbed between the fingers. It is so fine grained because of the great distance to its source, 250 miles due south of Mount Rainier. Near Crater Lake this same pumice consists of large chunks and is many feet thick.

Two other foreign pumice deposits in the park were erupted by Mount St. Helens, about 50 miles southwest of Mount Rainier. The older of the two is between 3,250 and 4,000 years old; it forms a blanket of yellow sand-sized pumice that is as much as 20 inches thick in the western part of the park. The younger pumice layer is most conspicuous at the ground surface in the eastern part of the park, where it is as much as 4 inches thick and resembles a fine white sand. A recent study of tree rings at Mount St. Helens by David K. Yamaguchi, University of Washington, indicates that this pumice was erupted in A.D. 1480.

Mount St. Helens
Mount St. Helens as it appears from Mount Rainier.

An inconspicuous bed of pumice records the first eruption of Mount Rainier that occurred after Ice Age glaciers melted back to the slopes of the volcano. It can be found on the east side of the mountain from Grand Park south to Ohanapecosh campground (fig. 8). In roadcuts near the east end of Yakima Park (Sunrise) the pumice forms a rusty-brown bed about 4inches thick which contains fragments as much as 2 inches across. Wood from a thin layer of peat just above the pumice was dated by its content of radioactive carbon as about 8,750 years old; thus, the pumice is even older. We call this pumice layer R for convenience; other letter symbols have been assigned to the younger layers (table 1; see p. 15).

Table 1. — Characteristics, sources, and ages of pumice layers, Mount Rainier National Park. [Based on studies by D. R. Mullineaux]
Common range of
thickness in park
range in
of pumice
Color Source Approximate age
in 1968, or
limiting dates
(years ago)
XAbsent1 1/4—2Light olive grayMount Rainier 100—150
W0—11—3 Medium
WhiteMount St. Helens 2450
CAbsent1—8 1/4—8BrownMount Rainier 2,150—2,500
Y5—201—5 Coarse
YellowMount St. Helens 3,250—4,000
DAbsent0—6 1/4—6BrownMount Rainier 5,800—6,600
LAbsent0—8 1/4—2BrownMount Rainier 5,800—6,600
O1—31—3 Flourlike to
fine sand
Yellowish orange Mount MazamaAbout 6,600
RAbsent0—5 1/8—1Reddish brownMount Rainier 8,750—11,000?
1The X pumice occurs as scattered fragments and does not form a continuous layer.

2Ages of more than 159 and less than 6,000 years cited in this report are based on radiocarbon determinations which have heen corrected by the use of a C14 half life of 5,730 years and for variations in atmospheric C14 (H. E. Suess, written communication to Meyer Ruhin, 1968).

The next two eruptions of Mount Rainier occurred between 5,800 and 6,000 years ago. Again, pumice spread over the area east of the volcano. The older pumice, which we call layer L, covers a band only a few miles wide that extends to the southeast from the volcano (fig. 8). The younger pumice, layer D, covers an area at least 10 miles wide directly east of the volcano. The distribution of both deposits shows that there were strong directional winds during the eruptions. The long, narrow pattern of layer L probably was caused by strong northwesterly winds during a short-lived eruption. The pattern of layer D was caused by winds from the west.

Some time during these eruptions, hot volcanic bombs and rock fragments were thrown out of Mount Rainier's crater and fell onto surrounding areas of snow and ice. Wholesale melting resulted, and floods descended the east flank of the volcano carrying millions of tons of ash, newly erupted rock debris, and breadcrust bombs. Breadcrust bombs seem to be solid rock, but if you would break one open, you would find that the inside is hollow or is filled with a spongy mass of black glass. Their outer surfaces are cracked like the crust of a loaf of hard-crusted bread (fig. 7), so we call them breadcrust bombs. They originated as blobs of soft, red-hot lava which were thrown out of the volcano's crater. As the masses arched through the air, they quickly chilled on the outside, and a hardened skin formed around the still hot and plastic core. As their outsides cooled, gas pressure in their hot interiors caused the bombs to expand slightly and their solidified outer skin to crack. When they struck the ground, many of the bombs became flattened on one side, but they were still plastic and sticky enough to remain whole.

breadcrust bomb
A LARGE BREADCRUST BOMB enclosed in a mud flow deposit that consists of a mixture of volcanic ash and rock fragments. The outcrop is on the south bank of the White River about half a mile downstream from the White River campground. (Fig. 7)

pumice layers
GENERALIZED DISTRIBUTION of some pumice layers within Mount Rainier National Park. The pumice of layers W and Y was erupted by Mount St. Helens; all the other pumice originated at Mount Rainier. Letters represent the following localities: C, Cougar Rock campground; I, Ipsut Creek campground; L, Longmire; M, Mowich Lake; O, Ohanapecosh campground; P, Paradise Park; S, summit crater; T, Tipsoo Lake; W, White River campground; and Y, Yakima Park. Based on studies by D. R. Mullineaux. (Fig. 8) (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Bombs can be found in two deposits that form the south bank of the White River about half a mile downstream from the White River campground. The deposits are mudflows caused by the mixing of hot rock debris with the water from melted snow and ice. As the mudflows moved down the valley floor they must have resembled flowing masses of wet concrete.

Mount Rainier erupted several times between about 2,500 and 2,000 years ago. During one of the first eruptions, a mass of hot ash, rock fragments, and breadcrust bombs avalanched down the side of the volcano and buried the floor of the South Puyallup River valley. Although this hot mass flowed like a wet mudflow, the temperature of the rock debris was above 600° F. Thus, if any water had been present, it would have been in the form of steam. You can see the resulting deposit in cuts along the West Side Road on both sides of the bridge across the South Puyallup River. Innumerable bombs have rolled from the cuts into the ditches beside the road. A charcoal log found in the deposit had a radiocarbon age of about 2,500 years.

Large amounts of pumice were thrown out of the volcano at the same time as the bombs or soon after. The pumice covers most of the eastern half of the park, and fragments are scattered as far southwest as Pyramid Peak and as far northwest as Spray Park. This pumice, called layer C, is especially thick and coarse at Yakima Park and Burroughs Mountain, where it lies at the ground surface (fig. 9). Here the light-brown layer is 5-6 inches thick and consists of irregularly shaped pumice fragments as much as several inches across. Mingled with the pumice fragments are fist-sized chunks of light gray rock that probably were simultaneously thrown out of the volcano by violent explosions. Some of these angular rocks were hurled as far as Shriner Peak, 11 miles east of Mount Rainier's summit.

pumice layer
PUMICE LAYER C, which consists of light-brown fragments, lies at the ground surface over much of the eastern part of the park. (Fig. 9)

The eruptive period was climaxed by the building of the volcano's present summit cone, which is at least 1,000 feet high and l mile across at its base. Although dwarfed by the tremendous bulk of Mount Rainier, it is a little larger than the cone of the well-known Mexican volcano Paricutin that appeared in 1943 and erupted until 1952. Mount Rainier's present summit cone was built within a broad depression at the top of the main volcano that had been formed nearly 4,000 years earlier (fig. 10; see p. 18). The cone consists of a series of thin black lava flows, and its top is indented by two overlapping craters. Rocks around the craters are still warm in places, and steam vents melt caves in the summit icecap. The first climbers who reached the top of the mountain, in 1870, spent the night in one of these caves, as have many benighted climbers since.

summit of Mount Rainier
THE SNOW-COVERED LAVA CONE lies in a depression 1-1/4 miles wide at the summit of the volcano. The cone was probably built about 2,000 years ago. Liberty Cap is to the left and Point Success is to the right. The cliffs below and to the right of Liberty Cap enclose Sunset Amphitheater. (Fig. 10)

Even though the lava flows that formed the summit cone were relatively short, their eruption greatly affected some valleys at the base of the volcano. The hot lava melted snow and ice at the volcano's summit, causing floods that rushed down the east and south sides. When the floods reached the valley floors, they picked up great quantities of loose rock debris and carried it downstream, sometimes forming mudflows. The resulting flood and mudflow deposits raised the floors of the White and Nisqually River valleys as much as 80 feet higher than they are today. These valley floors, as well as several others, then became broad wastes of bare sand and gravel that extended beyond the park boundaries. Later, the rivers cut down to their present levels, but they left remnants of the flood and mudflow deposits as terraces or benches along the sides of the valleys. You can camp on such a terrace in the Nisqually River valley at the Cougar Rock campground. The White River campground occupies a similar terrace in the White River valley.

When did Mount Rainier erupt last? The most recent pumice eruption was just a little over a century ago. However, between 1820 and 1894, observers reported at least 14 eruptions. Some of these may have been just large dust clouds, caused by rockfalls, that were mistaken for clouds of newly erupted ash. Other clouds may have been from genuine eruptions that left no recognizable deposits. D. R. Mullineaux has found that at least one eruption of that era did spread pumice over an area east of the volcano between Burroughs Mountain and Indian Bar to a distance of at least 6 miles from the crater. Pieces of the pumice, layer X, are light brownish gray and as large as 2 inches across. We find only scattered fragments of the pumice, and nowhere are they in a continuous layer. Where the X pumice is directly on top of layer C, we cannot tell them apart. The best areas for us to study the younger pumice, therefore, are glacial moraines formed within the last 150 years, because no pumice other than layer X is present on the moraines. Fortunately, R. S. Sigafoos and E. L. Hendricks of the U.S. Geological Survey have determined the ages of the moraines by counting the growth rings of trees on them. Their studies show that the pumice was erupted between about 1820 and 1854.

Captain John Frémont, an early explorer of the Oregon Territory, recorded that Mount Rainier was erupting in November 1843, but his journals give no details. Others have reported eruptions in 1820, 1846, 1854, and 1858. Pumice layer X probably was erupted during one or more of these times, but we do not know exactly when.

And will Mount Rainier erupt again? We think that it will, but we now have no sure way of predicting the time, the kind, or the scale of future eruptions.

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Last Updated: 01-Mar-2005