I spent two hours Monday night trying to find a hike that 1) appealed to me (e.g. has a vista view), 2) isn’t snowed in, and 3) isn’t two to three weeks out from wildflowers I want to wait for. This is not an easy time of year for a semi-casual hiker around here. I had nearly given up when I found Green Lake on my Washington Trails Association wanna list. It doesn’t have a vista view, but I was desperate. And I’m a sucker for waterfalls.
I hit the coffee kiosk at 5:45 and head east on the Thurston County back roads, cruising past Rainier, Yelm, and McKenna, and on to almost ghost-town Wilkeson and nearly non-existent Carbonado. It’s between McKenna and Wilkeson I have lost my way every time I take this route to the west side of Mt. Rainier National Park. It changes highway numbers several times, making turns with confusing signage. I’m determined not to mess up this time and arm myself with handwritten, detailed instructions. Success!
I wind along the curving road up the mountain after Carbonado. I glance down at the map screen on my dashboard, wondering if I should have paid attention to the detour sign and look back up in time to realize I had narrowly missed hitting a deer, seeing only the blur of white spots. I breathe the second of the three great prayers: thank you. I don’t know nor care to whom or what I express thanks for beauty and bare misses, maybe a greater being, maybe even my parents in the beyond. I only know I am not alone.
I drive past the Carbon River ranger station to the end of the road. My boots are on the trail at 8:15. I’m not sure what happened to the sun that was supposed to break through the clouds right about now. I’m glad it’s not a vista trail, or I would be disappointed. At least it’s not raining, and I’m confident there will be sun at some point.
I’m five minutes behind two hikers leaving the parking lot, but I won’t see them again—or anyone else—until I get to the lake, which they are leaving as I arrive.
The first three miles are on a decommissioned road, official vehicles only. Generally I don’t much like walking on roadbeds, but this one—a soft bed of hemlock, fir, and cedar mulch—is easy on the feet, and flat. It extends through a rainforest I had no idea was here. The WTA says this about it:
[It] is considered the only inland temperate rain forest of its kind, being well beyond marine areas. But just like the valleys of the wet Olympic coast, the Carbon catches showers in its trajectory, holding them longer, and making its own fog when it needs to. In other words, this valley lives and breathes differently from its neighbors.
It is beautifully full of mother logs dripping with moss and licorice fern, the fallen giants embracing the next generation in loving nurture whether lying on the ground with trees growing on their backs, or still-standing hollowed out trunks with new trees growing through their core, or being the core. Others, newly felled by more recent storms, wait to be the umbilicus for new life.
Sword fern and devils club blanket the forest floor in rich green. The Carbon River flows in the distance changing the landscape at will, sometimes near enough to hear it tumbling along to the sea, while Ranger Creek babbles alongside the trail. Otherwise it is so quiet. The mist hanging over the tops of the hills on the other side of the river and down into the trees makes the primordial forest even more eerie. It really does breathe differently, and so do I.
I reach the trailhead and start up. A map of the area greets me with the usual cautionary tales, including “Don’t hike alone.” Why doesn’t it say, “Be aware of the risks of hiking alone”? Like anyone who drives 2-1/2 hours then walks three miles on a road bed to the trailhead is going to turn around and go home because the sign says don’t hike alone. I feel like a scofflaw. Anyway, I rarely feel truly alone on a trail, even when I see no one. Still, I put my bear spray in my jacket pocket instead of buried in my knapsack.
It’s a moderately steep ascent of human-made natural steps as well as some formed by tree roots, linked by easier going trail sections past uprooted old growth trees with beautiful and stunningly huge root systems that I can’t even get in a photo frame without using panorama.
A mile in I hear the roar of Ranger Falls before I see it. “Holy crap!” I exclaim—the third great prayer—when I spot it through the trees. As I stand at the viewpoint, awestruck by its enormity and power, I think for how many eons snowmelt plummeted 172 feet down through this narrow rock slot choked with these same boulders along with felled giants before anything that walked on two legs knew it existed. I am humbled to be standing before it.
I tear myself away from the falls and continue up the trail through long, lazy switchbacks, past last stage trillium, and over a demure section of Ranger Creek that is oblivious to the coming trauma.
I arrive at the small, very green mountain lake just as the sky clears to blue. Tolmie Peak, which boasts a lookout I have hiked to from Mowich Lake, peaks through a crotch at the other end. I am enchanted. I love hidden mountain lakes. I walk out onto the long jam—a little gingerly, aware of my age—and sit down to eat my apple slices and homemade trail bar while fish jump in the lake. The camp robber shows up too late to share my lunch.
Shortly after I leave the lake, I meet another couple, older than I, which always gives me hope that I will be able to do this for a few more years. They and the couple I met on my arrival at the lake are all I will see on the trail (along with a few on the road bed). My favorite happenstance on an in and out trail: knowing there is someone ahead of me and someone behind, but not sharing the trail.
Back down at the road, there are two bikes chained to a structure. I wonder if they belong to the older couple. I wish I had a bike; this hike is almost ten miles and I’m ready to be back at the car. I don’t stop to gawk at mother logs, shaving a little time off the road walk. I’m back home before 4:30, managing not to end up in Puyallup and on I-5 as I have in the past, and wondering where I can go next week.