Carbon River
(Rainforest Loop, Old Mine, Green Lake, Chenuis Falls, and Ipsut Falls)

Trail Highlights:Old-growth rainforest; waterfalls; lake views; historic context
Round-trip Distance:0.30 miles / 0.50 km (Rainforest Loop only)
3.00 miles / 4.80 km (Old Mine only)
7.40 miles / 11.90 km (Chenuis Falls only)
9.60 miles / 15.45 km (Green Lake only)
10.80 miles / 17.40 km (Ipsut Falls only)
Location:Mt. Rainier National Park - Carbon River and Mowich Lake Area,
Washington South Cascades

Ancestral lands of the Puyallup and Muckleshoot
Directions:
  • From State Route 410 in Buckley, Washington, turn right from eastbound/left from westbound onto State Route 165
  • Between Mileposts 11 and 10, bear left at the fork onto the Carbon River Road where indicated by signage
  • Proceed approximately 8.00 miles/13.00 km to the parking lot at the park entrance (Note that the park entrance and parking lot are over 2.00 miles/3.20 km beyond the ranger station and its parking lot beside the Carbon River Road)
  • Required Pass:National park pass or equivalent for national parks and federal recreational lands
    Additional Trail Info:U.S. National Park Service (trail descriptions)
    U.S. National Park Service (trail map)
    Washington Trails Association

    The Carbon River Trail accesses one of Mt. Rainier National Park’s lesser known wonders:  the only rainforest within the park and one of the last stands of old-growth inland rainforest in the Pacific Northwest.  Although temperate rainforests are common along the coast where precipitation is most abundant, the Carbon River Valley’s unique geography and weather patterns create conditions that sustain a rainforest at the very foot of Mt. Rainier.  Many of its venerable giants have stood for near a thousand years.  Wander amid their shadowy columns and explore side trails to several features along the way, including an interpretive boardwalk loop, an old mine shaft, a gem-tinted lake, and thundering waterfalls. Here and there, marvel at how the river’s capricious roving alters the surrounding landscape when its waters run high.  Other than the occasionally passing hiker or biker, little else breaks the woodland hush but the twittering of birds and river’s meandering murmur.  Do be aware of your surroundings and prepared to encounter bears and other wildlife that are at home here and throughout the park. (Information about wildlife safety can be found on this site’s “Resources” page under “Safety and Preparation.”)

    The main trail is the remnant of a gravel road that, at one time, provided vehicle access from the park’s northwestern corner to the Ipsut Creek Campground and the Carbon Glacier from which the river is born.  However, the river’s extensive flooding over the years repeatedly washed out portions of the road, rendering it too costly to maintain other than for foot-powered traffic.  The road is now closed to vehicle use beyond the park boundary, offering several hiking options of various lengths and levels of difficulty.  Although bikes are not permitted on the side trails or beyond the campground, the Park Service has installed convenient bike racks along the way to facilitate quicker access to those wayside features.  Given the number of side trails that may be hiked singly or in combination from the main trailhead, the round-trip distances above are given for each individually.  Just beyond the campground, the trail joins the park’s Wonderland Trail that circles Mt. Rainier, providing access to points beyond, including the Carbon Glacier, Tolmie Peak, Eunice Lake, and Mowich Lake.  To plan your hike, be sure to print or download the park trail map at the “Additional Trail Info” link above.

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    The flat Carbon River Trail permits an easy stroll through misty, old-growth rainforest garbed in moss and ever within earshot of its namesake’s rushing waters. The Carbon River Valley contains the only rainforest within Mt. Rainier National Park and one of few remaining patches of North American rainforest inland and apart from their more common coastal ranges. Carbon River Trail, June 11, 2017.
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    The main trail generally parallels the Carbon River, which, rather than flowing in a single stream, consists of several braided strands across its flat, flood-prone valley. At times, the river runs milky with silt ground from stone by the glaciers above, which, as it deposits, alters the river’s ever-shifting channels. Here, the river zigzags below Chenuis Mountain’s Tirzah Peak. Carbon River Trail, June 07, 2015.
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    To the south (right) of the park entrance, boardwalks carry the Rainforest Loop Trail on a 0.30-mile/0.50-km interpretive tour of classic rainforest habitat. The loop trail also provides access to the park’s longer Boundary Trail.
    Carbon River Rainforest Loop Trail, June 11, 2017.
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    Thick moss pads most surfaces of the rainforest. Hylocomium splendens, known by several accurately descriptive common names, e.g., glittering wood-moss, stairstep moss, and mountain fern moss, grows especially luxuriantly.
    Carbon River Trail, May 11, 2014.
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    In the deep woodland shadows, look for mostly pallid blooms peering out of mossy nooks, including, clockwise from top left, queen’s cups (Clintonia uniflora), western bunchberries (Cornus unalaschkensis), Siberian springbeauty (Claytonia sibirica), Pacific trilliums (Trillium ovatum var. ovatum), two-leaved false Solomon’s seals (Maianthemum dilatatum), false bugbane (Trautvetteria caroliniensis), and salal (Gaultheria shallon).
    Carbon River Trail, May 11, 2014, June 11, 2017, and June 25, 2018.
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    At approximately 1.30 miles/2.00 km from the main trailhead, the Old Mine Trail, marked only by a very small sign, leads to the right from what used to be a small parking area. The 0.30-mile/0.50-km trail is relatively flat until it reaches the edge of the river valley and then climbs steeply to its abrupt end at the entrance of an abandoned mine shaft.
    Carbon River Old Mine Trail, May 11, 2014.
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    Leading a short distance directly into the mine shaft, the Old Mine Trail provides an eerie view down its gorge. The shaft was likely bored by the Washington Mining and Milling Company around 1910. Although local lore refers to it as a copper mine, sources suggest that the company dug thirty-odd shafts in the area to explore for gold and silver as well – and as cover for illegal logging operations within the park. No significant minerals being struck, the company gave up its mining claims in the park within a few years. Carbon River Old Mine Trail, June 11, 2017.
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    The floral star of the spring rainforest is the delicate, yet nearly alien-looking Scouler’s corydalis, or, Scouler’s fumewort (Corydalis scouleri), which blooms in knee-high banks along the main trail and the Old Mine Trail.
    Carbon River Trail, June 11, 2017.
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    At approximately 3.30 miles/5.30 kilometers from the main trailhead and just beyond sight of Tirzah Peak, the 1.50-mile/2.40-km side trail to Green Lake begins on the right where Ranger Creek intersects the Carbon River Trail. The side trail climbs moderately through old-growth, coniferous forest replete with ancient giants. Some Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) along the trail are known to be over eight hundred years old. Carbon River Green Lake Trail, June 25, 2018.
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    Several toppled titans span the side trail to Green Lake, topped by seedlings of the next generation.
    Carbon River Green Lake Trail, June 25, 2018.
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    Fanciful fungi abound in the woody upland along the Green Lake Trail.
    Carbon River Green Lake Trail, May 11, 2014, June 07, 2015, and August 15, 2015.
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    Lichens also flourish in the rainforest’s abundant moisture. Long thought by morbid imaginations to resemble lung tissue, the lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) (left) is sensitive to air pollution and is thus an indicator of woodland health and maturity. Like a wintry forest in miniature, tiny ball lichens (Spaerophorus sp.) (right) spread delicate branches across their treeside barkscape. Carbon River Green Lake Trail, May 11, 2014.
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    Approximately 1.00 mile/1.60 kilometers from the Green Lake trailhead, a short side trail leads left to a view of Ranger Falls, where Ranger Creek roars over its rocky escarpments. Most often shrouded in deep, woodland shadows, Ranger Falls is sometimes backlit dramatically by mid-day’s soft, mist-laden sunbeams.
    Carbon River Green Lake Trail, May 11, 2014.
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    Aptly named, Green Lake’s emerald waters pool in a deep basin formed by Gove Peak and Arthur Peak. Tolmie Peak tops the distant horizon. Carbon River Green Lake Trail, June 07, 2015.
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    Pacific Northwest orchids thrive in the trailside rainforest. Resplendent in shafts of sunlight, Pacific coralroots (Corallorhiza mertensiana) nevertheless bloom directly from the forest floor without the aid of leaves, chlorophyll, or light by subsisting solely on fungi in the soil (left). By contrast, their tiny green relatives, the heart-leaf twayblades (Listera cordata), appear nothing but chlorophyll and spring from single pairs of namesake leaves below their slender stalks (right). Carbon River Trail, June 07, 2015 and June 11, 2017.
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    At approximately 3.80 miles/6.10 km from the Carbon River trailhead, the side trail to Chenuis Falls leads left toward the river. When not washed out by high water, log bridges span the various river streams along the 0.25-mile/0.40-km side trail, which generally disappears into the vast gravel bar that is the riverbed. After crossing the first bridge, angle downstream and listen for Chenuis Falls rushing just beyond the forest hem.
    Carbon River Chenuis Falls Trail, June 07, 2015.
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    Near its entrance to the Carbon River, Chenuis Creek descends Chenuis Falls‘ grand staircase.
    Carbon River Chenuis Falls Trail, June 25, 2018.
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    Beyond the side trail to Chenuis Falls, the forest along the Carbon River Trail opens where high winds and fickle river waters have felled swaths in wide-ranging forays. Carbon River Trail, June 11, 2017.
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    In brighter stretches of trail, look for more flamboyant blooms, including, clockwise from top left, tall bluebells (Mertensia paniculata), creeping buttercups (Ranunculus repens), thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus), western columbines (Aquilegia formosa), bigleaf lupines (Lupinus polyphyllus), American twinflowers (Linnaea borealis), and common cow-parsnips (Heracleum maximum a.k.a. H. lanatum). Carbon River Trail, June 2015, 2017, and 2018.
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    Beyond the Ipsut Creek Campground, the trail continues into deep forest approximately 0.30 miles/0.50 km toward the side trail to Ipsut Falls and on to its junction with the Wonderland Trail. Here again, access may be limited when the creek’s own rampages sweep away the log bridges spanning its many channels. Carbon River Trail, June 07, 2015.
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    At Ipsut Falls, Ipsut Creek dashes down a contorted slot jammed with logs and jumbled boulders.
    Carbon River Ipsut Creek Trail, June 11, 2017.

    © 2014-2024 Anthony Colburn. Images may not be used or reproduced in any form without express written consent.

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