While not everyone is happy with the recent announcement that Mt. Rainier National Park would declare the Carbon River Road officially a trail, I was excited to hear it.
The Carbon is so different from the rest of the park, it has its own feeling. The first time as an adult I visited the area (and I don’t remember going there as a child, we would head up the Nisqually entrance, to Paradise) it was the early summer of 2003. The road was awful, if you could even call it that. 4 ½ miles of lumpy bumpy, narrow, trenches on both sides. The pullouts were few and far. I was glad to get to the end of the dumb road and go hiking. I had recently moved down South and the Carbon was free of snow – being in 2,000′s for elevation – so it made a great early season hike. A young Ford accompanied me and we did the hike out to the Carbon Glacier on The Wonderland Trail. Only thing is the WT was on a road bed as well in some areas. It was blazing hot with little shade for a good half or more of the hike. I don’t remember being overly impressed. Frankly the hike wasn’t stellar. It was over run. The trailhead sat next to the even more over run Ipsut Creek car campground that was always full of loud people and tons of dogs. What stands out in my memory of that hike was as we got back to the truck. There was a bear right there. Well, actually it was coming at us, flying out of the ladies outhouse. It was freaked out and scared.
The story behind the bear came out: a group thought that it was hilarious to feed a 3 year old male bear food. (That is when they leave Mom and are often very hungry). Bear came back. Idiots decided to let dogs chase the bear. Bear starts freaking out in the trailhead parking lot, gets on the engine of a newish pickup truck and starts jumping up and down, high pitched wail, claws out, while those damn dogs were barking non-stop. It was horrid. And illegal! I grabbed Ford after yelling at the jerks and drove out quickly to find a ranger to report it (the bear was caught 3 times and finally thankfully didn’t come back and was rehabilitated). I was soured on the Carbon to say the least. A blah hike, a bad road and a bad ending. I didn’t get why people got all excited about the area truthfully.
The next time I came back was in the summer of 2005 when I did the Mother Mountain Loop with Drew and Marty as a dayhike. The view here doesn’t exist at this point anymore – this part of the WT cleaved off in the storm of 2006. You got a great view of the Carbon Glacier, its snout and even the Mountain when there wasn’t clouds. I remember yet again hating the section to the suspension bridge/glacier. We encountered many people, even early in the morning and a couple of odd fruits who appeared to be doing drugs and making out instead of hiking. After all, ANYONE could drive out there. We were glad to turn off and head up the hard part of the trail where we saw only a few others the rest of the hike.
The last time I hiked it was in the summer of 2006 when Tori, Ford and I did a backpacking trip in Seattle Park and used the Carbon River Trail as a way to get up there (similar to 2005 trip above). We blew through that section both ways as fast as we could.
Ford ahead of me as we passed over the final creek before the suspension bridge:
I made a pact with myself that I wasn’t going back. No way. Every time I went out there I hated it. It was b-o-r-i-n-g. I could drive a paved road to Sunrise or Chinook Pass and go to alpine bliss in the same amount of time instead!
Then the storm of 2006 happened that fall. And what a storm. It crippled the park. The entire park shut down, all gates shut. Sunshine Campground by the Nisqually entrance was gone, wiped out in a blink. Major sections of the road to Longmire and Paradise were gone. Creeks jumped majorly. And the Carbon River Road was literally gone. There was a tragic drowning that winter out there on Ipsut Creek of a couple who had gone backpacking and got stuck on the wrong side when the water went up. It was nothing but water and trees everywhere.
The park closed the road at the park boundary and staffed the tiny old ranger station. There was a few parking spots. In the spring of 2007 I went out there, wondering honestly was the road really as bad as the papers touted? It was jaw dropping bad. That is as you got farther in. At first it didn’t look that bad, you know…go run it smooth, right? Well….that didn’t last long….
This was how it looked much of the way: the road bed crossed by massive old growth trees, coming in from both directions, with water flowing in the roadbed.
The road bed went through here, where the trees are crisscrossed. The park had quickly tried to put in some areas of fixes to make it walkable.
The roadbed is to the left, where the rocks are. Ford standing next to the massive tree’s root ball:
It really hit home when you walk into the clearing along the river and there was no road anymore. Nothing. A small path had been rudely cut out to the right to bypass it:
After the flood, Ipsut Creek had jumped its channel and was no longer going under the car bridge. The couple who sadly drowned had attempted to cross the creek on a log just upstream. The park installed very soon after that this first “bridge”, a planed log with a hand rail. You can see the road ahead of Ford, with a road sign warning about the 1 lane car bridge:
Cat, Ford and I spent the night at Ipsut Campground. It was tentatively a backcountry site but they let us use the garbage cans – and we had to have our own bear cans or Ursacks (something that normally you don’t have to have in Rainier). Picnic tables made camping great indeed.
I realzied on that first trip out that suddenly I had seen a side of the Carbon River I had never seen before. It was so quiet out there. The forest on the road walk was gorgeous. Old growth, rock walls, streams, a river. So many places to just stop and sit. A beautiful backcountry campground. And suddenly I was hooked.
I kept taking people out there, I wanted them to experience it. The walking was easy, you gain about 450 feet in 4½ miles. Kids could do it. You could bike or push a jogger stroller.
We celebrated New Years Day by hiking the Carbon in the snow on January 1st, 2008.
Teresa and Cat in the snow:
In March of 2008 I took Kirk and Ford out to the Carbon and showed Kirk the damage. The roadbed was still just as bad. You can see a road sign reflecting light under one of the trees. Kirk was shocked when he saw it.
Me standing by the same root ball that Ford had stood by the year before:
On one trip with Lynn we stopped and had lunch at the old parking area for Chenius Falls, which is across the river, accessed by a couple log foot bridges. At this time you could still see the falls clearly across the river. The flood of 2006 had wiped out everything growing in the river bed. The parking “lot” has picnic tables and a gorgeous view.
As we kept hiking the area we started hiking hikes that had been ignored before, such as Ranger Falls/Green Lake. The spot where the trail takes off from the road is a favorite sitting spot now, the creek pouring out to the Carbon. It is scenic and if daring…a great swim hole in the summer. We explored an old mine, waterfalls and more. If you read up old books and maps you will see what I talk about, or look for old parking areas and trails that wander from them.
The forest on the way to Ranger Falls is sublime, some of the best around:
Go in late spring/early summer for a great show. This year the lake isn’t even frozen right now. The falls are massive and go up a couple tiers. Loud as can be!
By 2010 the road in most parts has lost the “road feeling” and has become a trail. It is well loved and work is often done. Sections of the trail I didn’t recognize, they were that new. Suddenly I realized they had moved it away from the roadbed.
Walker’s first real hike was on the Carbon in late April of 2010, he was a day past one month old. It was to me the place I needed to take him.
I went back out this past summer with my friend Jared and we did a long day, a good 15 miles roundtrip, till we got to where the Wonderland Trail ceases to exist. The road I walked in 2007 was not the same anymore. It felt like a trail. But what I noticed was how quiet it was. While the road trail has become popular, it is popular with people wanting to get outside and exercise. Young and old, lots of families. Lots of smiling faces. A lot of people who have never walked in such a grand forest. When you go beyond Ipsut you suddenly realize how truly quiet it has become without the car. The waterfall of Ipsut Creek is now a destination worthy hike. In 2003 I took a quick glance but didn’t stop to enjoy it. After all it was a pithy .10 of a mile from the trailhead. That wasn’t a “hike”.
The old powerhouse is long destroyed by a massive tree going through it:
The waterfall is in a tiny canyon that feels like a grotto. Like AC cranked up high with clear water and so much green you can’t believe it:
The campground now is a real backcountry site with bear poles installed. The last half of the road/trail has smoothed out into a nice trail. Coming eventually in the plan selected, the road will become a trail with bike racks at points of interest. It will allow the area to become a quiet clean mecca without car exhaust.