Carbon River

Carbon River Old Growth

I recently made the laughable decision to hike the Carbon River old growth forest in Mount Rainier National Park on a rainy day. This is a very special place for me and despite the difficulties of visiting it, I always seem to find something new to see. Here’s a small set of photos from that wet day:
Carbon River valley old growth, Mount Rainier National Park
Carbon River valley old growth, Green Lake Trail, Mount Rainier National Park
Green Lake during rain showers, Mount Rainier National Park
Weathered stump, Green Lake Trail, Mount Rainier National Park
Old growth and young trees, Green Lake Trail, Mount Rainier National Park

Intro to Winter

The first “big” snow storm of winter came rolling through Washington State this past weekend. Based on the forecasts, I decided a trip back to Green Lake in Mount Rainier National Park might be in order. Besides, it’s been two years since my last visit. This time, I opted to bring my mountain bike instead of hiking the 3 mile road to the trailhead.

Large fungus along Green Lake Trail, Carbon River valley, Mount Rainier National Park
Large fungus along Green Lake Trail, Carbon River valley, Mount Rainier National Park
I actually wanted to do some photography down in the old growth forest along the road but I didn’t find the time to do it. I think I’ve finally accepted that I need to devote an entire day just for that; the shorter amount of daylight really limits how much time you really have in a dark place such as the Carbon River valley forests. The day started mostly dry with some occasional drops during my bike ride in. After my first photographic stop a short way in, the rest of my hike (and day) would be under steady rain.

I made the requisite stop at Ranger Falls (roughly the halfway point up to Green Lake) and was happy to come away with a couple nice shots. The first was the “standard” view of the falls but the rainy, overcast conditions provided great light. In addition, the waterfall seemed to have more flow than I could recall seeing during my previous visits. I also made a second shot with which I attempted to incorporate a cedar trunk into the right side of the scene. Not exactly sure why the right side of the falls is clipped by the trunk (I think there was a reason I couldn’t move to the left to recompose).

Ranger Falls along the Green Lake Trail, Carbon River valley, Mount Rainier National Park
Ranger Falls along the Green Lake Trail, Carbon River valley, Mount Rainier National Park
The rain falling at Ranger Falls felt heavy and it turned to sleet as I started hiking away from the falls. Snow was beginning to stick on the ground in the random openings of the forest’s canopy. I encountered a bit more snow on the ground in the vicinity of the log bridge over Ranger Creek but this was still a far cry from the several inch amount I had hoped to encounter.

I arrived at a mostly bare Green Lake. The skies were definitely brooding with alternating periods of rain and snow showers. Gusty winds were also sweeping across the lake so I found a little dry shelter to sit down and snack a bit. It should come as no surprise that while I was snacking, the low clouds parted a bit and offered a few long range glimpses up the valley towards the Tolmie Peak lookout.

Green Lake adorned with the first snows of Winter 2011-12. Mount Rainier National Park
Green Lake adorned with the first snows of Winter 2011-12. Mount Rainier National Park
I tried to quickly gather my gear but by the time I was in position to shoot, the conditions had changed back to less than ideal. The weather was really starting to wear on me so it was time to head home. On the hike out, I still was observant of my surroundings and was tempted to stop several times. There were only 2 more hours of daylight left and I knew that any exposure would require 30 seconds.

This forced me to forgo a few shots but I had to stop for one more photo. Along the trail, this mossy cedar trunk just spoke to me. I loved the gently curving lines of the trunk along with the complete carpet of moss. What little daylight that was penetrating the forest canopy seemed to make the moss on the ridges of the trunk glow.

Mossy Cedar trunk along the Green Lake Trail, Carbon River valley, Mount Rainier National Park
Old growth windfall along the Green Lake Trail, Carbon River valley, Mount Rainier National Park (Iphone 4S photo)
I still had about another mile left on the hike out so I just marveled at all of the new windfall since my last visit. It’s not just any windfall- it’s OLD GROWTH windfall. The size and dynamics of these big trees falling is unbelievable. Having reached the road, I stowed my gear and hopped on my bike for the speedy ride back to the park’s entrance. It looks like I should have gone on this trip this coming weekend based on the current forecasts. Oh well- for so few photos, I’m happy to come away with two nice shots!

Old growth windfall along the Green Lake Trail, Carbon River valley, Mount Rainier National Park (Iphone 4S photo)

Mount Rainier Biathlon

My first connections to the Pacific Northwest began with a visit to the Carbon River valley portion of Mount Rainier National Park. My first visit to Green Lake as well as the hike to the snout of the Carbon Glacier left such an impression that I wanted to make this area my home. Through the years, I’ve made repeated visits to both. I had wondered about what lay beyond the glacier’s snout and one summer, I made my first hike up to Moraine Park.

Tucked away alongside the Carbon Glacier, Moraine Park starts about 5300 feet and is bordered to the south by Moraine Ridge at 6000 feet. The Wonderland Trail bisects the area and I’d hazard a guess that the majority of its visitors are Wonderland Trail hikers on their way to Mystic Lake and destinations beyond. I have made the hike to Moraine Park three times before. My first time, I was blown away by the display of Avalanche Lillies along the trail in lower Moraine Park. On another visit, I explored Moraine Ridge (the high point on the Wonderland Trail in this area) and eventually found myself perched above the sprawling Carbon Glacier and the formidable Willis Wall and north face of Mount Rainier.

My last visit was five years ago. Since then, the active nature of the Carbon River down in the lower valley damaged the Carbon River Road so severely that the National Park Service finally gave up on the road. These days, if you want to visit Moraine Park, you must hike or bike the 5 miles of the road AND THEN hike 8 miles. Through the years, this has been a pretty big deterrent but my fading memories of the views finally compelled me to return.

My last visit was with my point & shoot so I really wanted to capture the views with my latest SLR gear. Luckily, I was able to convince a friend to join me on this long outing which I’ve dubbed the Mount Rainier biathlon. I know we needed an early start so I met him in South Hill at about 7am. From there, we made our way to the Park’s Carbon River entrance. To my surprise, the small lot next to the ranger station was already full so we parked alongside the road just inside the gate. We geared up and set out on our bikes around 8:30.

Ipsut Creek and Ipsut Falls - Mount Rainier National Park
Carbon River and Mount Rainier - Mount Rainier National Park
I’ve hiked the road several times on my way to Green Lake and biking the road definitely made quick work of the distance! The road is steady (but gently) uphill so I knew the ride back would be low effort and a relaxing end to the whole outing. The road has about 3-4 major sections of damage but otherwise is a gravel road still in good condition. The damaged sections a little tricky to navigate due to large amounts of cobble and sand. As you reach the Ipsut Creek Campground (road end and trail head), you navigate through some of the most severe damage. After just over an hour, we reached the campground where we locked up our bikes to an eye hook at one of the camp sites.

Now it was time to travel on foot. The first quarter mile of trail has always struck me as some of the prettiest stretch of the Carbon Glacier Trail. The flood damage of recent years has changed that. Throughout the day, I found myself telling my friend “wow- that’s different” a number of times. Although I’ve hiked the trail a number of times, I never stopped at Ipsut Falls. We made the brief side trip and the dappled sunlight through the trees really made a beautiful scene.

Carbon Glacier snout - Mount Rainier National Park
North face of Mount Rainier and tarn from Moraine Ridge - Mount Rainier National Park
Pressing on another two miles we reached the junction with the trail that crosses the river valley and joins the Northern Loop Trail. At some point the “traditional” trail to the Carbon Glacier became damaged so, for now, hikers are rerouted across to the north side of the valley. I have to admit that the north side is prettier and more aesthetic. After about 1.5 miles, we reached the snout of the Carbon Glacier. The wildflowers alongside the trail here were about prime and putting on a nice show. We rested a bit in preparation for the climb up and into Moraine Park.

While the day had been pleasant and cool to start, the climb up away from the snout was in the sun and the sweat began to pour. After another mile, we reached the Dick Creek camp and the shade of the forest for the final switchback climb to Moraine Park. Your arrival in Moraine Park is the crossing of Moraine Creek. Suddenly the forest is a bit more open and parkland. The trail travels up a gully between what I guess are two older lateral moraines.

North face of Mount Rainier and the Carbon Glacier from Moraine Ridge - Mount Rainier National Park
Storm clouds and Mount Rainier from Moraine Ridge - Mount Rainier National Park
In this lower portion of Moraine Park, we finally hit some snow patches but nothing substantial. As a testament to our non-summer, I guess that we were perhaps a week shy of “prime” Avalanche Lilly conditions. Many were in bloom but still more were preparing to bloom. We enjoyed the pleasant stroll that leads you up to the large 13 acre meadow below Moraine Ridge. This meadow provides you with your first BIG view of the north face of the mountain. Suddenly, all the large old growth trees you hiked past seem small.

At the far side of the meadow, a short series of switchbacks take you up to the 6,000+ saddle (also part of the divide between the White River and Carbon River drainages). While the Wonderland Trail continues downhill another 0.6 mile to Mystic Lake, a way trail heads west past a couple tarns and steadily climbs up through the subalpine parkland. After cresting a knoll with a worthy view of its own, the path grows a bit more fainter and drops down into a small tundra-like basin. Climbing through stunted heathers and wildflowers, there’s just one final scramble up the lateral moraine to one of the best views in the park.

Mount Rainier and Carbon Glacier from Moraine Ridge (portrait version) - Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier and Carbon Glacier from Moraine Ridge (landscape version) - Mount Rainier National Park
Throughout our push to this point, we saw clouds slowly creeping up from the lower Carbon River valley. As we dropped our packs and I broke out my camera gear, the clouds caught up with us. They lifted faster than I was able to set up for my first shot. Luckily, we had some time to spare before our turnaround time of 5pm. In a few minutes, the clouds parted like they tend to do in the mountains and we were treated to clear views of the mountain and glacier. We had the entire view to ourselves and the only sounds were the large waterfall across the valley from us and the ping-ponging of rocks within the Carbon Glacier below us.

We soaked in the sights as much as we could but eventually we had to turn back. After spending most of the day ascending nearly 4800 vertical feet, the descent went much faster. I had passed on taking a particular shot from the lower end of the Moraine Park meadow on our way up because I thought it would be better light on our way back. We were racing to beat the upwelling clouds and I thought we would just beat it. Turns out I was wrong. As I swung my tripod out of my backpack, the clouds drifted in. I was only able to rattle off just two shots before the clouds obscured the mountain permanently.

Mount Rainier and Carbon Glacier from Moraine Ridge - Mount Rainier National Park
Carbon Glacier detail - Mount Rainier National Park
My friend noticed this one tree in the area whose bark had been peeled away like a banana by a bear. It definitely made a curious sight. The time for photography was over and now it was time to hike out. We had a LONG way to go and not many more hours of daylight. The cumulative effects of the day were already wearing on me. After replentishing our water, we set out. One by one, we again passed milestones from earlier in the day.

Our last break was the final bridge across the Carbon River, 2 miles from the trailhead. I felt completely spent but light was fading like sand through an hourglass. I had given a time estimate to my girlfriend about when we would be done and I knew that we would be off- A LOT. One last time, we stood up and plowed onward. At this stage of fatigue, auto-pilot mentality clicks in. The scenery fades away and my only focus is on my footing to prevent a trip or stumble. The closer we got to the trailhead, the darker the forested sections of trail got.

Carbon Glacier detail - Mount Rainier National Park
Carbon Glacier detail - Mount Rainier National Park
We finally passed the turnoff for Ipsut Creek and I knew we were finally down with the hike. Of course, we still had 5 miles of road to navigate in the dark. Both of us came prepared with headlamps so we did the best we could. There is nothing like absolute pitch black darkness and pale LED light to make you unsure of how to ride a bike. I think I would have felt safer with training wheels! Within a short distance away from the campground, I stopped abruptly and promptly fell over. I heard a sickening sound which I assumed was a piece of camera gear breaking.

No time to check- have to keep moving. The undamaged portions of the road went by as smoothly as could be expected. The occasional section of sand and cobble would instill fear and several near misses were averted. The whole dark bicycle ride out was somewhat of a surreal experience. We rode wobbly side by side to combine the lighting of our headlamps. The huge old growth trees in the peripheral of my vision looked like fog and the whole road ahead seemed to be a featureless landscape.

Last glimpses of Mount Rainier from Moraine Park - Mount Rainier National Park
Moraine Park tree stripped of its bark by a bear - Mount Rainier National Park
After making our way through the last damaged section of road (first on the way in), we were able to comfortably coast our way back to the ranger station and my truck. Eventually, the reflectors on the access gate came into view and we were back at my truck. Time? 10pm on the nose. A very, very long day had finally come to an end without any severe injuries. Granted, I could barely walk and I was 3 hours over the time I said I would be done hiking but still a successful day.

Reaching Moraine Park has always been a serious effort and with the road’s demise it has become even more so. Three backcountry camps lie within 4 miles of Moraine Park so I would wholeheartedly recommend a visit to anyone.

Going Green Again

Another foolish weekend in the rain down at Mount Rainier National Park and along the Carbon River valley. I had some regret for NOT taking a particular shot last week so I decided to head back down to get it. Once again, the weather was steady rain and a complete challenge to keep my camera & lenses moisture free.

This was the shot I noticed last week:

Forest Window - Mount Rainier National Park
I also took advantage of the hike in to explore the old growth forest:

Carbon River Forest - Mount Rainier National Park
Carbon River Forest - Mount Rainier National Park
Old Growth - Mount Rainier National Park
Carbon River Forest - Mount Rainier National Park
Carbon River Forest - Mount Rainier National Park
Carbon River Forest - Mount Rainier National Park
A Sudden End - Mount Rainier National Park

Green Lake

My first visit to Washington State was in the summer of 1992 and I spent a week with my best friend staying with his aunt and uncle. His uncle took us out on a few tourist type outings down to Mount Saint Helens and to Mount Rainier National Park. I was in awe of everything I saw but what left a lasting impression on me was a simple hike to Green Lake in the northwest corner of Mount Rainier National Park. I can’t explain it but the stillness and peace of the setting has always been something I’ve looked forward to. Now that I live here, the opportunity to visit Green Lake in a winter setting is really special to me.

View Larger Map in New Window
Back in 1992, accessing Green lake was pretty easy. The trailhead lies at the side of the road halfway between the Carbon River Park Entrance and the end of the road at Ipsuit Creek Campground. Flooding in the late 1990s changed all of this and sadly, the road can no longer be driven (and most likely will never be repaired). What used to be a 1.8 mile hike is now requires a 3 mile hike along the road just to reach the trailhead. The extra hike along the road makes this a long day but the flip side is that it allows you to enjoy the temperate old growth forest that would normally blur past you while driving the road.

Starting the day
New side channel to the Carbon River running down the middle of the road
On this particular outing, I expected rain and hoped for snow at the lake (both of which I got). I also enjoyed the entire day in solitude. At the lake, the weather was steady light rain with some brief sleet. After 2 1/2 hours of hiking in the rain, I was saturated and slightly chilled so I was not able to stay as long as I would have liked. After some quick pictures and lunch, I was headed back and trying to take photos of all the things I made a mental note of. I’ll have to make a return trip just to explore the forest along the road..

Green Lake with fall snow
Green Lake
Ranger Falls - the halfway point along the trail to Green Lake
Ranger Falls
Forest Window - Green Lake Trail
Green Lake Trail
Green Lake Trail
Roadside attraction

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