Mt. Rainier National Park – Ranger Falls/Carbon River

The Carbon River and Ranger Falls occupy a canyon on the northwest corner of Mt. Rainier National Park. This area supports a rare inland temperate rain forest featuring towering trees, ferns, and moss for days.

Distance: 8.5
Elevation Gained: 1,000
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 3:30
Critters: None

Get there like this.

Note: There is a $15 fee to park inside Mt. Rainier N.P., which is good for 7 days.


I’ve visited the temperate rain forests of Washington once before when I took a three day trip around the Olympic Peninsula. During that trip, I walked up Quinault Valley and Hoh Valley beneath towering, moss-draped conifers. Every single square inch of real estate burst forth with life of some sort. Trees grew off of dead stumps while mosses and ferns blanketed every part of the ground.

For the most part, Mt. Rainier is a very different kind of experience. Nearly everything here is dominated by the presence of the mountain, particularly when it decides to “come out.” The forest quickly gives way around 6,000′ to alpine scenery full of meadows, wildflowers, and lakes. Being so far inland, which tends to drain and sap the incoming coastal storms, means that Rainier tends to get less rain, particularly on the east side. However, the northwest corner, through a combination of slope effect and sitting in the path of the Jet Stream, tends to receive similar amounts of precipitation, and therefore supports a similar ecosystem.

Through this ecosystem runs the Carbon River, which is born from and fed by the Carbon Glacier on Mt. Rainier’s north side. This glacier plunges remarkably low to about 5,000′, and it is one of larger glaciers on the mountain. The river runs through a glacial canyon left by the Carbon Glacier as it retreated over the eons. The main trail into this region is a disused road that has been abandoned and maintained as a trail. This trail leads to a wealth of opportunities further into the canyon, including Ranger Falls, which was the ultimate destination of this hike.

I took this hike with Kelly, who braved the brisk elements to enjoy a relatively lengthy hike. When I say “braved,” I mean it, since she is not a cold weather person. Granted, the temp was between 40 and 50 degrees, but she is a slight woman without the abundant insulation around the middle that I’ve acquired over the years. She bundled up quite thoroughly, and at one point, she was in at least 5 layers where all I had on was a base layer.

We set out from the parking area and following the long, flat road down the canyon. It had rained the day before, but was relatively clear on this day. Occasional patches of sunlight broke through the cloud layer, illuminating the forest around us. Streams seemed to spring out of the ground every 100 yards or so. Waterfalls rumbled in the distance, occasionally obscuring the sound of the river nearby. The forest here is deep and primeval, and is far lusher than any forest in the Sierras. While the term rain forest conjures up images of tropical jungle, the forests here and at Olympic leave little doubt that they deserve that moniker. Hoh River Valley gets upward of 140″ per year – roughly three times that of Sequoia National Park.

The road takes a bend while opening up to views down the river. The river here occupies a broad flood plain, while the actual water braids its way down the canyon. Had we gone further, we might have glimpsed Carbon Glacier. Instead, we opted to turn up the trailhead for Ranger Falls and Green River. I knew Kelly wasn’t likely to want to go all the way to Ranger Falls, but she was gracious enough to wait the 20 minutes it took for me to hike up the hill toward the view of the falls.

I don’t usually care much for waterfalls, but Ranger Falls was one of the most beautiful falls I’ve ever seen. Yes, there is a lot of growth obscuring clear views of the falls, but the way the falls are nestled into a deep ravine framed by cedars is a perfect picture. Add the sudden burst of light from a clearing in the clouds, and I found myself soaking in (all too briefly) a sublime scene.

The trail ultimately leads up to Green Lake in another .8 of a mile. However, we were done for the day, and we enjoyed a more leisurely descent through slightly warmer weather. While the entire forest is spectacular, the Ranger Falls Trail is easily the highlight. It’s all worth it for the falls alone, but taken in sum, this will be one of the more memorable hikes of the year; even if it nearly froze my poor wife.


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