At the start of the summer season, I look forward to warming up with a hike up to Carter Falls. I generally do this hike as a first chance to work back into steep mountain hikes.
This hike is forested, so there is less worry about sunburn, but the elevation increases after the first quarter mile, so the shade helps keep me cool when I am in early summer mode and have not yet built-up endurance for more challenging hikes.
The Carter Falls trail follows a short segment of the 93-mile Wonderland Trail, which circumnavigates the volcano Tahoma. More commonly known today as Mt. Rainier, it was given this second name in 1792 by the Royal British Navy navigator and captain, George Vancouver.
Crossing the Nisqually River
Starting at 3000 feet and climbing an additional 660 feet to Carter falls, the 1.1 miles are under shaded woods with occasional breaks that allow for peeks up to the surrounding mountains.
The falls were named for Henry Carter, a guide in the late 1800’s who cut this first trail up to the Paradise Meadows.
For those who want a longer hike, the trail to Carter Falls continues on to Narada Falls or even a further three miles to Reflection Lakes.
It is best to park on the road from the Nisqually entrance to the park, just before the Cougar Rocks camping area. Later in the day, there are lots of vehicles parked here, so I try to start early, or park below at the Longmire area and hike an additional mile up to the trail head.
This trail is popular, and the Washington Trails Association spends hours maintaining this section each year. Once parked off the pavement, the trail starts with stairs down onto the Nisqually River bed. The way is marked by stones lined along the dusty footpath.
All summer long, there will be visitors to the park who hang out here to wander the stones and admire the stunning view up towards Mount Rainier. For those who want just a little adventure without hiking, this trailhead is perfect.
Once across the rock filled river bed, there is a log footbridge to cross the Nisqually River. This pretty bridge is remarkable because it is one log long and wide. The hand rail is important. If I slip off this log bridge, the water temperature is just above freezing. The river is fed by the melting Nisqually Glacier, which terminates just 2,000 feet above this crossing. Having just dropped from that height, the water moves at significant speed.
If swept off the bridge, it is nearly impossible to find solid footing with the strong current and the stony bottom. Three points of contact on the log bridge are important. I keep two hands and one foot connected to the bridge. I take my time crossing. Later in the day, hikers will queue up and take turns to cross over.
This photo was taken in late June, when the melt from above had begun. It is incredibly important to check the trail conditions before starting on this hike. This day, the water was already running a little high, and lapping over the top of the bridge.
If the day has high temperatures, or a warm rain, melting snow above makes this portion of the Nisqually rise quickly. It is never fun to return after the hike to discover water is over this bridge, making it too dangerous to cross back to the trail head. Most summers, the bridge washes out at least once and has to be repositioned once the water level drops.
Starting the Incline
Once over the Nisqually, the trail follows a smaller river uphill, the Paradise. It follows a steep path through a narrow gorge for a mile. The river hops and sings parallel to the entire trail. A reminder of the power of the mountain, erratics, large random boulders, dot the river and sides of the trail.
There is a scree field along the trail, one of several in this gorge. This is a good place to stop and listen for pika, small rabbit relatives, who burrow in the rocky fields. They give an “eep…..eeep” call to warn each other of danger as well as to communicate other information.
This is also a good place to keep an eye out for larger birds of prey who will fly above, watching for pika or other small mammals which might expose themselves. Hawks and eagles a quick to dive and pick off unwary pika.
Old Growth Forest
One of the delights of this trail is walking through a forest of old growth trees. This is a chance to hike below enormous Douglas fir, red cedar, and western hemlock.
The ground is softened by a layer of needles covering the rocky ground, so footfalls are muffled. When I solo hike this trail early in the morning, it is likely that I’ll come upon small animals while listening to birds singing out their territory lines.
Another feature of old growth is the moss that grows in the branches. On the lower part of this trail especially, there is abundant moss to examine.
Early in the morning, the soundscape here includes the dropping of dew from the end of these mossy “beards”.
Nurse logs, old trees that have fallen to the forest floor, provide a good grip for all sorts of tiny plants. While nurse logs are most often noticed because they help new trees get a start, decaying wood is the start for smaller plant life, too.
At the half-way point, the trail climbs at quite a pitch, following the wooden, wire wrapped pipe from the 1920s that once supplied water to the powerhouse to generate electricity for Longmire.
The older trees were removed in this section, so slender, young trees allow for clear views down to the Paradise River, tripping along below at the bottom of the gorge.
The Falls and Higher
And then, Carter Falls appear. They drop 80 feet with a rush that I hear long before I can see them. There is a log safety rail because the edge of the trail drops away to the bottom of the falls.
I like to rest against the rails while listening to the roar, enjoying the drifting mist and the hypnotic movement of the water.
Usually, I continue on above the falls. The river roils with tumbling water coming from the snowfields above. The water is clear, and the gorge opens up a little.
On previous hikes here, I’ve seen larger animals, like deer or elk, or the occasional bear ambling along on the opposite bank.
Early season means the trail maintenance has yet to happen, so this year a large tree had fallen across the way. Snow makes its first appearance, and is a sure sign of much more ahead, but on this day, I wanted to see how much further I could go, so I clambered over the log and continued on.
Not much further, the first of the winter snow was still hanging on. And I could see much more snow ahead, as well as the next tree that had fallen over the trail. This was a good spot for a little snack and to rest my feet in the cool snow, but it was not safe to continue on. It doesn’t look problematic from this angle, but experience has taught me late summer snow hides danger.
The snow melts from below. Often small creeks carve away under the snow, though it is not possible to see the voids from above. I did learn the hard way years ago that walking across the top leads to breaking through unexpectedly. If I have a buddy with me and use of the handle of an ice ax to probe, the snowfield can be traveled through, but on this day, I was hiking by myself. Better to turn back and hike again another day.