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.
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.
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.
This article was written by Greg Prohl, photos by Greg Prohl, and originally published on Prohltravel.com.