Spring hikes: The waterfalls of Mount Rainier

This is the time of year when Mount Rainier taunts hikers.

It looms on the horizon all week, beckoning visitors to hike its trails. But if you dash up to your favorite trailhead, you’re likely to be disappointed.

“The hikes everybody wants to do are not ready yet,” said Daniel Keebler, a park wilderness ranger. “For the most popular hikes, we’re looking at late June and early July before they are doable for the average hiker.”

While most of the trails are still covered with snow – there is more than 140 inches of snow at Paradise – Rainier still has plenty to offer spring hikers.

Especially for those who enjoy waterfalls.

As the snow melts higher on the mountain, the lower waterfalls are in full glory.

The epicenter for spring hiking at Mount Rainier is the Carbon River entrance in the northwest corner of the park.

While the road remains wiped out after the 2006 flood, volunteers and park crew have transformed it into a 5-mile trail until a long-term plan for the road is determined.

Because the trail is still classified as a road, it’s one of the few unpaved places in the park where you can ride a mountain bike.

“It’s a good area to hike,” said Eric Matt of South Dakota after crossing the Carbon River to see Chenuis Falls. “It’s fun and we get a nice view of Mount Rainier.”

So while you wait for Mount Rainier’s most popular trails to thaw out, try these hikes to five raging waterfalls to keep you busy.


Miles: 9.6, including hike to Green Lake

Details: This is the most challenging of the early spring hikes at Mount Rainier, but it’s also the biggest of the five falls we’re recommending here.

The Ranger Falls overlook is a mile up the trail from the old road but it’s worth continuing another 4/5 of a mile to Green Lake. This makes the round trip 3.6 miles from the road with 1,300 feet of elevation gain.

On May 18, the final 200 yards to the lake were still covered in several feet of snow. Route finding can be a little tricky here, but rangers say the snow in the area has been melting quickly.

While this is the toughest of the three waterfall hikes off the Carbon River Road, it’s still doable for the average hiker. For a heartier day, add Chenuis and Ipsut falls to your itinerary for a 14.4-mile hike.

Trailhead: Carbon River entrance


Miles: 7.4

Details: This typically easy hike also offers good views of Mount Rainier’s Liberty Cap as you cross the Carbon River bed.

While crews have put in foot logs for crossing most of the river, you’ll still have to rock hop your way across two sections of moving water. Trekking poles are a good idea here to help with balance.

“It’s a little dicey but it’s fun,” said Megan Finnie of Port Orchard as she wrung out her socks after crossing the river. “… I feel safe but you are going to get wet. People should dress appropriately.”

Trailhead: Carbon River entrance


Miles: 10.4

Details: Like Chenuis Falls, this used to be an easy 2/5-mile hike. Now, with the road out, it’ll take you most of the day unless you arrive at the old Ipsut Creek Campground by bike.

The falls are not listed on the standard-issue park service map, but a more detailed map is available at the Carbon River Ranger Station.

To get there, simply follow the old road 5 miles to the campground and then pick up the trail at the end of what used to be the campground’s parking lot.

Hikers cross Ipsut Creek just before the short spur trail to the falls. Trail crews were finishing putting in a foot log over the creek May 18.

Trailhead: Carbon River entrance


Miles: 2.2

Details: In a few weeks this will be a great family hike. Until then, you’ll need to be extra careful. A foot log was put in recently making it easy to cross the Nisqually River. However, much of the trail is still covered with snow.

Considering the trail is flanked by Paradise River to the south and a steep slope on the north, it’s easy to pick your way through the trees to the falls and back without getting lost. Still, watch your step to avoid falling through the snow.

Hikers will encounter Carter Falls first, then Mad Cap Falls about 50 yards farther. On May 19 the snow was so deep, only the top of the handrail at Mad Cap Falls was visible above the snow. In other words, don’t get too close to the edge.

Keebler suggests lengthening the hike by 5 miles roundtrip by starting at Longmire.

Trailhead: Cougar Rock Campground gate

More information: Current trail conditions are available at 360-569-2211 or nps.gov/mora.

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497


Find more hiking options in our database at wwwb.thenewstribune.com/hikes.


Mount Rainier National Park celebrates its 110th anniversary this year. News Tribune writer Craig Hill plans to hike 110 miles of trail in the park this year. He’s logged 16.9 miles so far. Read his dispatches in the Adventure section and at blogs.thenewstribune.com/adventure.