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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.