The air is crisp, clear and cool, and you can see your breath hitting the icy air as you trudge up the hill. Remnants of winter snow probably will be deep enough for you to switch into snowshoes and sip hot cocoa. But the solitude you’ll feel gazing up at Eagle Peak standing sentinel over Paradise River Valley will be worth the trek — the Cascades during the off-season are magical.
Spring and late fall aren’t packed with people, probably because the weather is fickle. But a good pair of waterproof boots, wool socks, trekking poles and snowshoes will provide the ability to cross most trail conditions you may encounter.
A trip on the section of Wonderland Trail that runs between Longmire and Carter and Madcap Falls makes a great snowshoe adventure, hike or a little bit of both. This popular trail in Mount Rainier National Park is crowded during summer months and provides a peaceful experience in spring when park users aren’t as interested in venturing off the beaten path.
The trail is accessed directly from the Longmire area of the park, so it doesn’t matter if the gate to Paradise is closed. If you want to make the hike shorter by starting at Cougar Rock, you will need to call ahead to find out if the gate is open.
The trail starts at the Longmire Visitor Center and meanders through an easy and mostly flat trail through a forest filled with lush cedar and fir trees tucked between the road to Paradise and the Nisqually River. At the 1.7-mile mark, you’ll arrive at the Cougar Rock campground, which is a nice place to stop for lunch. Normally busy with cars and campers, it is a serene delight in the off season. If you want a shorter hike, drive to the pullout just below the campground and park there.
The trail will turn sharply and drop down to the river. During spring, it’s important to pay attention to the river flow, as glacial melt can make crossing treacherous. The bridge washed out during the 2006 floods. A foot log with a handrail was placed across the deepest part of the channel by the NPS. Make sure you check for any signs of washouts, and watch for ice on the log as you cross.
Once across the river, stop and enjoy the majestic view of the mountain and imagine the power of the floods
and glacial melt that carved out this immense channel.
The trail becomes a bit more challenging from here as it climbs alongside Paradise Creek. After the first, somewhat steep ascent, you will notice an old wooden pipeline running alongside the trail. It was built in the 1920s to transport water to the powerhouse that generated electricity to the Longmire area.
The cascading water you encounter first is Carter Falls, which drops 80 feet down to the river. It was named after Harry Carter, who built much of the Paradise Trail. A mere .3 miles up the trial is Madcap Falls, which is well worth the minimal extra effort. While not as tall as Carter Falls, the Madcap Falls tumble over a wider swath of boulders and are perhaps even more beautiful. Both falls have nice overlooks for photography or lunch and are especially lovely when there is snow on the ground.
This will be your turning-around point for an easy day trip. The more fit and adventurous can continue up the Wonderland Trail. It is a 9-mile roundtrip with 1,970 feet in elevation gain to get to Narada Falls and the heated comfort station.
This is the time to get out and experience the park before the summer crowds return. The transition from winter to spring, as life is getting ready to spring forth from winter’s icy grip, is invigorating and inspiring. You’ll be glad you made the trip.
How to get there
From Tacoma: Take Highway 7 South to SR 706 in Elbe. Proceed East on SR 706 through Ashford to the Nisqually Entrance of the park.
Good to Know
Before You Go: Call the park at 1.360.569.2211 to confirm road conditions.
Distance: 2.8 miles roundtrip from Cougar Rock to Madcap Falls. 6.2 miles roundtrip from Longmire to Madcap Falls.
Elevation: Longmire — 2,757 feet // Cougar Rock — 3,200 feet // Carter Falls — 3,650 feet
Required: Always check in with the ranger station for the latest on avalanche, road and trail conditions. A trail that’s safe one day can become life-threatening the next. Avalanche danger can increase dramatically from morning to afternoon when the sun warms up the snowpack.
Maps: Green Trails, Mount Rainier West No. 269
Longmire area trail map (not for navigation)
Get the Proper Training: For a list of organizations that provide winter skills training, visit the Washington Trails Association website.
Tip: Always carry tire chains in your vehicle (and know how to use them) for travel anywhere in the Cascades.