“The mountains are calling, and I must go.”
(Mt. Rainier from Tolmie Peak)
One of the great things about living in Washington state is the proximity of the mountains. Whether it’s the Cascades, the Olympics, or the Blue Mountains, they are always there and always calling, as John Muir famously said. And if you’re someone who responds to that call, Washington will spoil you for choice. Doesn’t matter if you prefer strenuous day hikes or weeklong backpacking sojourns or an easy ramble for the whole family; a difficult, technical climb, glacier traversing, or rock scrambling. You can find any and all of these to challenge you, to soothe you, to inspire your soul, and usually within a sixty to ninety minute drive or less.
Anyone who has tramped as many trails as I have in Washington will have their personal favorite, footsore stomping ground. For me, it’s the area in and around Mt. Rainier National Park (MRNP). The Paradise and Sunrise visitor centers get most of the attention (and the hordes of visitors to prove it) and certainly a visit to Rainier would be incomplete without treading some ground near one or both of them. If, however, you’re looking for something off the heavily beaten path, let me suggest the Carbon River entrance to Mt. Rainier. Now this does not mean you’re going to find complete solitude in the Carbon River area of the park. There will be other hikers and campers, but nowhere near the peak summertime swarms you will encounter at Paradise or Sunrise.
(Along the trail)
The Carbon River entrance is located in the northwest corner of MRNP. Whether you approach from the west, north, or east, you will be driving on Highway 410. If you come from the north, as I do, you will first drive through Enumclaw, a quiet, bucolic town of small farms situated on a plateau west of the Cascade foothills. Here you will find staggering views of Mt. Rainier and staggering smells of the abundant dairy farms. A few miles down 410 you will drive through the even smaller town of Buckley, then Wilkeson, then Carbonado, each one tinier than the last, like uncovering a series of Russian nesting dolls disguised as rural villages.
(Eunice Lake and the lookout tower)
Once past Carbonado, you drive a few more miles before crossing an old steel frame bridge with peeling green paint, spanning a hundred-fifty foot deep gorge over the Carbon River, which appears as a thin gray ribbon far below. The bridge itself looks like a prehistoric relic, accommodates only one vehicle at a time, and is paved with a black, lumpy substance that has the topography of the backside of the moon. Half a mile past the bridge you can go two ways: straight ahead to the official Carbon River entrance and trailheads, or bear right to Mowich Lake.
(Stop and smell the flowers)
(The lookout tower atop Tolmie Peak)
Fair warning: the Mowich Lake road is 17 miles of rutted, washboard, hardpan gravel. I’ve been on far worse mountain access roads, and far better. It’s not quite bone-shattering. More like teeth-chattering and filling-loosening. You don’t need four wheel drive or an off-road vehicle – I’ve done it many times in my trusty Civic – but it will sternly test your suspension system. At about the 11 mile mark, you reach the MRNP boundary, where you can stop and pay your $15 entrance fee.
(Another view of Eunice Lake)
As this is one of the least used ways into the park, there is no manned station, no ranger on duty to take your money and hand you a map of the park. This is the honor system. Take an envelope, put your money in it and drop it in the metal tube. Or drive on in without paying a dime. As far as I can tell, there is no way for anyone to know the difference. You probably didn’t expect a moral/philosophical dilemma on the way to your hike, did you?
Another 6 miles of dust-eating and bone-rattling later, you arrive at Mowich Lake, and alpine jewel of camping, canoeing, and hiking. Two of the best day hikes in all of MRNP embark from here: the Eunice Lake/Tolmie Peak trail to the north, away from Mt. Rainier, or the Spray Park trail heading south toward the mountain. Each of these has it’s pleasures, and if I had to pick one…well, I’d pick both. But not in the same day.
(Halfway up to Eunice Lake to Tolmie Peak)
Tolmie Peak is a 6 to 6.5 mile roundtrip, Spray Park around 6. Spray Park, however, is a bit harder to quantify, as it has no true endpoint. Spray Park is really just a series of open meadows that continue on with side trails branching off in all directions. You can wander on as far as you wish before reversing your steps back to the parking lot at Mowich Lake, or keep going and hook up with the 160 mile long Wonderland Trail, which loops the entire park, and yes, there are crazy people who do the entire trail in one continuous ten-to-fourteen day trek.
The Eunice Lake/Tolmie Peak trail is a real gem and certainly one of my all-time favorite day hikes anywhere. It’s about the right distance and elevation gain for a good, sweat-inducing workout, without being so long or strenuous as to intimidate most folks. Anyone in reasonably good shape can do it. My wife and I recently trekked it in about 6 hours, and that was with lots of dawdling, flower smelling, picture taking, a leisurely lunch break and a very quick dip into the icy waters of Eunice Lake. You could hike it in three hours if you only wanted to see how fast you could go, but where’s the fun in that?
(Ridgetop of Tolmie Peak)
You start off easily enough along the shore of Mowich Lake, climb a little, drop a little, meander through some Really Big Trees. In short, a typical Cascade mountain hike. Then you climb some steep switchbacks for less than a mile and just about the time your thighs start screaming at you, voila, Eunice Lake. You will immediately see the Tolmie Peak Lookout tower situated atop the nearly vertical rock face across the lake. This wall of rock looms several hundred feet above the water and rims the entire south side of the lake. Looking at the tower from the shoreline and having just labored up that last steep stretch of trail, you might consider skipping the extra mile of uphill trail to reach the lookout tower.
(Made it to the top!)
(View from the lookout tower)
Don’t skip it. Take a ten minute break, wander the shoreline, take a few pictures of the sparkling, pristine, aquamarine waters of Eunice Lake and then head on up to the Tolmie Peak Lookout tower. It’s a slog, but if you go in September, as we did, you can stop along the way and nibble on wild blueberries, take some more photos, and keep on climbing. Once you reach the lookout, you’ll be glad you did. The view is unparalleled, a 360 degree jaw-dropper in every direction you peer, and the vistas of Mt. Rainier are some of the best you can find anywhere in the park. This is the perfect spot to munch that lunch you packed up here, so pick a rock to park your carcass, take off your boots and rest your sore doggies, and chow down.
(Eunice Lake from lookout tower)
As with most exposed high mountain ridgetops, there’s always a breeze and depending on how long you sit, once the sweat dries it can get a little cool. Pull on that jacket or extra shirt you stuffed in your daypack and when you’ve finally had your fill of the eye-popping splendor, head on down the way you came. Stop and eat some more berries. You’ve earned it.
(A well deserved nap)
(Purple Mountain’s Majesty)
Back at the lake, if you’re feeling brave (or stupid?) take a few minutes to strip down and plunge into the crystal clear, frigid waters of Eunice Lake. Believe me, if you haven’t yet cooled off from your exertions, this will do it, and then some. For me, it was a very quick dip. Thirty seconds was just long enough to get the heart racing and the head pounding and make me wonder what the hell I was thinking. But, hey, you only live once.