Hike the Carbon River

The days are getting longer, so this is the perfect opportunity to get some fresh air and exercise with a long yet easy hike to a fabulous waterfall, with options to visit two more.

Since the permanent closure of the Carbon River Road in 2006 due to flooding, this side of the park has become a haven for those seeking quiet and a sense of solitude. As soon as you step out of your car, your senses will be refreshed with the songs of birds, the sound of the powerful Carbon River crashing over boulders, and the fresh scent of evergreen trees.

At only 2,000 feet in elevation, the Carbon River entrance to Mount Rainier National Park is often accessible when other hiking trails are buried under heavy snow or on roads that are closed in winter. The trail is actually the old road bed, which is mostly flat and level. Boots with good traction and trekking poles are often enough to safely traverse the trail, even if there is some snow. You also can pedal a mountain bike along the main road.

Your adventure begins at the gate at what is now the end of the Carbon River Road, which takes you up what used to be an often-flood-ravaged road bed. You can hear and see the powerful glacier-fed Carbon River running alongside this road-turned-trail. There are reminders all around that a river will claim what it wants despite attempts at engineering.

The area is home to impressive old-growth forest, including Douglas fir trees up to 800 years old. Stop and look up at some of these majestic and ancient sentinels reaching skyward with their lofty branches, and enjoy a sense of wonder and amazement.

After about 3 miles, you will see a small sign to your right marking a side trail to Green Lake and Ranger Falls. This 3.5-mile round-trip trail will climb steeply and really get your heart pumping. This is a worthwhile trip, depending on snow conditions.

Carbon RiverFrom the Green Lake trailhead, proceed another half-mile to find a short side trail to Chenuis Falls on the left. This trail crosses the river on several log foot bridges. Do not attempt this crossing if any of the bridges are out.

About 1½ miles from the Chenuis Falls trailhead is the Ipsut Creek Campground, which is a great place to stop for lunch. This used to be a car campground, but now serves only backcountry campers. From there it is a short hike to reach the overlook for Ipsut Falls. You also can reach the Carbon Glacier and the Wonderland Trail from there.

For those who want a shorter and less time-consuming adventure, the Carbon River Rain Forest Trail, which is just inside the gate and off to the right, is a self-guided loop trail that is approximately 1/3 of a mile around. It’s a perfect place to bring the kids to stretch their legs and read many interpretive signs that teach about this rare area, which is one of the last remaining lowland rain forests.

With so many choices — a mountain bike ride, short loop hike or two, a longer hike, or a weekend backpack — a trip to the Carbon River side of Mount Rainier National Park is a great way to begin the new year.

Good to know

  • No dogs allowed on trails in Mount Rainier National Park.
  • An America the Beautiful or National Park Pass is required.
  • A permit is required for all backcountry camping.

Green Trails Mount Rainier West

Check road and trail conditions: Mount Rainier National Park, (360) 569-2211; nps.gov/mora

10.8 miles round-trip to Ipsut Falls

Elevation gain: 300 feet

Approximate hiking time:
5 hours round-trip

How to get there:
Take SR 410 to Buckley. Turn south onto SR 165. Proceed to the bridge over the Carbon River Gorge, and then bear left to Mount Rainier National Park’s Carbon River Entrance. Go 3.5 miles to the trailhead at the end of the road.

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