Located about 25 windy miles east of Salem, Silver Falls State Park’s 9,000 acres offer camping, picnicking, a historic district, conference center, and 25 miles of multi-use trails friendly to horses, hikers, hikers with dogs, trail runners and mountain bikers. (Some trails are restricted. Be sure to check signage.)
The highlight of this park is the Trail of Ten Falls. We’re talking serious Wow Factor here.
This nationally recognized hiking trail snakes through a series of waterfalls along a rocky canyon thick with ferns, Big Leaf Maples, Western hemlock, Douglas fir and Alder trees. You pass behind several of the canyon’s most impressive gushers. (Hello, Hawkeye!)
The total loop trail is about nine miles. It offers several connecting points for shorter hikes, depending on what you want to see and how much time you have. For the best “Wow!” factor, you’ll probably want to start from the Stone Circle in the South Falls Day Use Area. Proceed along the Canyon Trail.
This trail might also double as the “International Trail.” The day we hiked this loop, we met hikers from half a dozen different states as well as Canada, Poland, France, Australia, Switzerland, Germany, and the U.K. Also the entire coaching staff of the University of Minnesota.
Official signage pegs the Trail of Ten Falls as “moderately difficult.” Nah. The trail includes some ups and downs and a few switchbacks. But the climbs are relatively short. The grades are mild. It’s a pretty easy hike for anyone in halfway decent shape. (If you’re not in halfway decent shape and tackle this trail, I won’t say “I told you so.” But I did tell you so.)
Also, the “No Trail” or “Stay Behind Rails” signs/barricades are there for a reason.
Arrive early to avoid crowds, especially on clear, sunny summer weekends. We arrived just after opening – at 8:00 a.m. – and had the trail to ourselves for a couple hours. There’s a $5.00 day use fee. Self-pay stations are located in parking lots.
And yes, on the west and north portions of the trail, a river runs through it. You’ll have to drive a ways for Missoula.
Outdoor opportunities are so abundant in the Golden State, it may be hard to know where to start. The following picks are based on personal visits and first-hand experience. They combine the best in outdoor recreation, ease of access, a wide variety of activities, and sheer spectacular-ness (new word I just made up).
Here, in no particular order, are my highly subjective, 100% unscientific picks for 8 Best Outdoor Sites in California:
- Yosemite National Park – central Sierra Nevada.
Almost 1,200 miles of Serious Wow! with high Sierra mountains, deep canyons, soaring Sequoias, spectacular waterfalls, idyllic meadows, and granite behemoths.
Tip: Unless you’re fond of hordes and masses, avoid the valley floor during peak season. Focus on the Tuolumne Meadows and the Tioga Lake area. It’s higher, cooler, and not quite as crammed. Great hiking, picnicking and outdoor opportunities. Roughly six hours north of Los Angeles and about 4 – 5 hours south of the San Francisco/Bay Area.
- Sequoia & Kings Canyon – southern Sierra Nevadas, east of the San Joaquin Valley.
Rugged terrain and deep canyons crochet rushing rivers, majestic mountains and the world’s largest trees. Like the humungous General Grant Tree. Lots of camping, hiking, fishing, and picnicking opportunities. Four lodges operate inside the park. Also a couple old favorites: Hume Lake and Grant Grove. Fresno County, central California.
- June Lake Loop – eastern Sierra Nevadas.
Dubbed the “Switzerland of California,” the loop includes a total of four lakes including Silver Lake and Grant Lake. It has a variety of resorts, campgrounds, and restaurants. Also hiking, climbing, fishing, camping, swimming, water skiing, snowboarding and snow skiing. Surrounded by the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Mono Lake, Yosemite National Park, Bodie, Bishop, Mammoth and Bridgeport. A family favorite since 1973.
Fishing Tip: If you don’t catch anything in the lakes, try Rush Creek. Other tip: Fern Lake. The trail is steep, but this secluded high mountain lake offers one of the best canyon panoramas in the Sierras.
- McGee Creek Pack Station – Eastern Sierras, north of Bishop near Crowley Lake.
An outdoor adventure into the High Sierra backcountry of the John Muir Wilderness where pack mules do all the “heavy lifting.” Fishing, hiking, saddle horses, and all the fresh air your lungs can suck in. What’s not to love? About a 5 – 6 hour drive north of Los Angeles.
- Monterey Peninsula – central California. Includes the cities of Monterey, Carmel, and Pacific Grove.
If you veins bleed saltwater, this is the place. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve has miles of ocean-hugging trails. Don’t miss Seventeen Mile Drive or the touch pools and outdoor tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium . (Close second: Catalina Island. Resist the harbor-hugging tourist traps at Avalon and head inland for great hiking and spectacular ocean views.)
- Mount San Jacinto State Park, Palm Springs area
At 10,834 feet above sea level, Mount San Jacinto is the second highest mountain range in Southern California. Home to superb granite peaks, subalpine forests, and fern-lined mountain meadows plus two drive-in campgrounds. Also a really cool aerial tram. About a two hour drive from both Los Angeles and San Diego.
Tip: You may not want to visit during the summer, unless you’re melt-proof.
- Big Bear – Southern California
Located at about 7,000 elev. in the San Bernardino Mountains, this locale’s taglines are Small Town, Big Adventure and Live It. Up. They’re not kidding. Hiking, camping, fishing, kayaking, parasailing, rock climbing, mountain biking, horseback riding… About 2 ½ hours from Los Angeles or Orange County and about 3 hours from San Diego.
A mild Mediterranean climate with truckloads of sunshine year-round. Need I say more?
Are you packing yet? What would you add?
If you’re scouting some awesome West Coast-hugging hikes offering everything from stunning mountain vistas to jaw-dropping ocean views, check out northwest Oregon. Here are our top three hikes from Astoria to Tillamook:
Fort to Sea Trail – near Warrenton, OR
Distance: About 13 miles, round trip
Elevation Gain: 659 ft.
Yes, it’s kind of a long trail if you do the whole thing, starting at the Fort Clatsop Visitor Center out to Sunset Beach and back. Dotted with wooded pasture and small lakes, the trail includes hoofin’ it through deep forest up and over Clatsop Ridge. But the ridge isn’t that steep. Really. Besides. Where else can you cross under Highway 101, pass the oldest Presbyterian Church in continuous existence west of the Rocky Mountains, and chug through a real, live cow pasture – with real, live cows – en route to the beach? (I am not making this up.)
The Fort to Sea trail is a beautiful hike, well worth the time. Unless you’re the Roadrunner, plan on a full day. Leashed dogs okay.
Saddle Mountain – near Seaside, OR
Distance: 4.3 miles, round trip
Elevation Gain: 1,968 ft.
This popular out-and-back hike to the highest point in NW Oregon includes a commanding panorama from the ocean to Mount Saint Helens and hillsides flush with wildflowers.
The last half mile or so is steep, exposed, and not exactly acrophobe-friendly. Wear a hat. Use sunscreen. Bring plenty of water. One other thing. The cable guards along the final portion of this trail are there for a reason. Use them. (You’ll understand if you tackle this trail on a windy day.)
Distance: 12.50 miles, round trip
Elevation Gain: 3,293 ft.
Located near Cannon Beach, this trail climbs, dips and switchbacks, but not severely. The longer trail winds through a thick forest and hugs the coast most of the way, offering stunning peek-a-boo views of the Pacific.
We hiked this trail in November. Not exactly a stroke of genius. You could hang meat in the winds catapulting off the water onto the headland. At least we were properly outfitted.
Anyway, don’t forget to take a gander at the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. It reminded us of the Chateau d’If (you’ll get that if you’re up on your Alexandre Dumas.) You can cheat and try to snag a view from Indian Beach if you brought binoculars and 20/20 vision. But the best view is from the overlook off the main trail on the headland.
Camp 18 Restaurant – Elsie, Oregon. Near Seaside-ish.
Throwin’ this in for free.
First off, this restaurant is out in the middle of pickin’ nowhere. I mean, it’s not quite at the Edge of the World. But you can see it from the dining room.
The food is adequate. But the décor – both inside and out – is a hoot and a half. Think humungous log cabin, tall timber, mini-museum and northwest logging. Did I mention the fireplace and life-sized, wood-carved bears?
On your way to and from the Oregon Coast via State Highway 26. Between Portland and Seaside / Cannon Beach.
Are we there yet?
- Texas summers are hotter than hell
- The best parking spot isn’t determined by proximity to the store entrance, but to shade
- The Medina Apple Festival
- The Guadalupe River is warm
- Sweet tea
- You can drive for days without ever leaving the state
- The Alamo is air-conditioned inside. The San Antonio Riverwalk isn’t
- Sharing the street with saddle horses in downtown Bandera
- “Ya’ll” is singular. “All ya’ll” is plural
- The Kendall County Fair and Rodeo are the Real Deal
- Armadillos are nocturnal. Remember that if you’re on the road after dark
- Texas Longhorns are huge
- Scorpions (don’t ask)
Also, Texans are a “Breed Apart.” They’ll tell you so. Every chance they get.
Texans ride tall. Eat hearty. Smile quickly. They’re rightly famous for their warm hospitality and generosity. Texans are also resilient and fiercely independent.
If I know Texans, they’ll weather Hurricane Harvey just fine and come back stronger than ever. But they could use your help.
Please consider Samaritan’s Purse. A world-renowned Christian disaster relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse is on the scene in Texas, providing tangible help and hope for thousands hard hit by Hurricane Harvey. Find out how you can help here.
Thanks and God Bless Texas!
Oregon’s Fort-to-Sea Trail is really two hikes in one. About 13.5 miles round trip, this out and back trail includes a switchbacky hike through a lush forest and a few miles through a flat, unshaded, browned-out stretch of cow pasture.
Starting at Fort Clatsop, the trail climbs mildly for about a mile to its first branch-off option, the Kwis-Kwis Trail. Veer right to take the Kwis Kwis Trail to Sunset Beach, or veer left at the sign and take the trail over Clatsop Ridge to Sunset Beach. Both options re-unite near the Skipannon River. We’ve done both.
The Kwis Kwis option is arguably less steep but more circuitous. It’s also quieter and less crowded. On the other hand, the well-marked Sunset Beach trail includes a fine overlook of the ocean at Clatsop Ridge at about 1.5 miles before a switchbacky descent off the ridge. Both trails are well-shaded and join up shortly before the muddy Skipannon River. They merge into a single trail toward the sea.
Just after the four mile mark, the re-united trail passes under Highway 101 via tunnel. It winds past a quaint red-brick church that’s one of the oldest continuously operating Presbyterian churches in America.
You hit the first of nine cattle gates just past the church. About two miles, this stretch of trail snakes through an open cow pasture. It’s treeless and shadeless. We call it “The Frying Pan.” During summer, it’s cooking. You’ll want to plan your hike so that you either clear this two-mile stretch before noon or tackle it after the heat of the day.
Clear The Frying Pan and continue across an asphalt road and a bridge through a patchy wood to the beach. You’ll hear the ocean before you see it. Once you hit the wood, you’re within a few minutes of the Sunset Beach parking lot. There’s a picnic table, bathrooms, and signage.
From the beach parking lot, it’s about one-third of a mile to the beach. Post-parking lot, the trail meanders through tall, thick grass onto a choice beach (also no shade). On a clear day, you can see Tillamook Head. The beach is a nice lunch stop. Then it’s turn around and retrace your steps for 6.5 miles back to the Fort Clatsop start.
Don’t let the RT distance – 13 miles – deter you. Yep, it’s a lot of miles. If you take the Sunset Beach loop, the return trip includes a good climb up and over Clatsop Ridge. You’ll want to save some energy for this switchbacky climb. Once you hit the vertical pillar in the middle of the hike up and out, you’re almost to the ridge overlook and level ground. It’s an easy 1.5 miles back to the parking lot from the overlook.
The Fort-to-Sea Trail doesn’t include any eye-popping mountain vistas, cascading waterfalls, glassy alpine tarns, or Renoir-petaled meadows. But it’s scenic and interesting in its own rite and traces the route of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery from Fort Clatsop to the sea. The sense of accomplishment after completing this hike is significant. (Insert fist-bump here.)
Plan on a full day for this hike. We’ve done it start-to-finish in about five hours. But we usually allot six to seven hours to accommodate additional meandering, picture-taking, or beach-combing.
We rate this hike as “Moderate” due to the overall mileage and the climb out on the way back. Note that the climb isn’t particularly steep and it’s relatively short. Also, this trail is mostly at sea level. Much of it is flat or nearly flat and an easy walk. However, the climb up and over Clatsop Ridge on the return may be a challenge. That’s because you’ve already done about ten miles at this point and the ‘ole hoofers may be barking. Save some energy for this portion and you’ll be fine.
Distance: About 12 -13 miles, RT
Wind along a conifer-bristled ridge to an idyllic mountain meadow cross-hatched with mini waterfalls, wildflowers, and choice views of Windy Ridge and Mounts Saint Helens, Adams, and Rainier.
Starting on the opposite side of the Boundary Line viewpoint across from the parking lot on Forest Road 99 out of Randle, the rugged Bear Meadow trail cuts through a well-shaded forest along a ridge overlooking the 1980 blast area, then descends to a beautiful meadow.
Overgrown and sorely neglected, this trail doesn’t look like it’s had any real attention since Daniel Boone cleared the Cumberland Gap. The trail head is well marked, but that’s about it as far as signage goes.
After crossing the road to the trail head, the trail begins with a gentle climb roughly paralleling Forest Road 99. It turns away from the road, crosses a slight draw, and starts climbing at about one mile. Also at this point, there’s a junction. And no signs indicating what’s what. Turn left at the first switchbsck to continue to Bear Meadow. The trail mostly levels our along this side of the ridge. There’s some undulation, but no hard climbing. You’ll pass three small waterfalls and scramble over or under numerous downed logs. Turn around occasionally for peek – a – boo mountain views.
Note that although the initial portion of this hike is through thick forest and good shade, the final stretch was affected by the 1980 eruption. That is, no big trees. And little to no shade. The switchbacky descent into Bear Meadow, though not particularly steep, is exposed, in direct sun. If you hike this trail in summer, plan on an early start. Wear a hat. Slather on the sunscreen. Also, this is a “dry trail,” with little or no water sources. BYO H2O.
Keep in mind that the return hike may be challenging. Much of it is in direct sun, over a lousy trail. Be sure to fuel up the after-burners.
The BearMeadow trail would get higher marks if it was in better shape. Unfortunately, this scenic trail is in deplorable condition. It’s littered with fallen logs, many of them sizeable, especially on the northwest-facing side of the ridge heading down to Bear Meadow. Choked with overgrown bushes and brambles in places, the trail all but disappears more than once. A hiker has to push through shoulder-high foliage to regain the trail on the far side of the ridge. As the trail narrows to ribbon-width, it sometimes disappears into a mere suggestion. The bridge is also out at Bear Meadow.
When we hiked this trail in July, mosquitoes were minimal. But black flies were out in force and voracious.
As previously noted, signage is non-existent after a lone posting on a tree at about Mile 1 indicating the Forest Service Road is 5.5 miles further. Inexperienced hikers may easily get lost or confused as a result.
Indeed, the Bear Meadow trail has the dubious distinction of being the worst maintained, most neglected trail I’ve hiked in a decade. Maybe more. If you’re up for a rough trail, however, the hardy hiker will appreciate the from-here-to-eternity vistas, truckloads of emerald green, wildflowers by the bushel, and endless blue skies.
Hike to Bear Meadow on You Tube:
I’ve been hiking Mount Rainier National Park since shortly after the discovery of fire. (Well, actually, since the 1960s. But who’s counting?) People sometimes ask me, “What’s the best trail at Mount Rainier?” Or, “What’s your favorite hike inside the park?”
Man. That’s like asking a mom which kid she likes best. But the short answer is: that depends.
For one thing, “best” is highly subjective. Does that mean trails crocheted with gurgling streams and thundering waterfalls? Smooth-as-glass mountain lakes or tarns? Spectacular old growth forests? Alpine meadows marinaded in wildflowers? Stunning views of the Mountain?
Also, when people pose this question, they often mean, “What spectacular Mount Rainier trail can I do in ten minutes, without burning more than nine calories in the process?”
Good luck with that one.
Although Mount Rainier National Park offers a wide variety of hiking trails ranging from rookie to seasoned veteran, most of the jaw-dropping vistas and eye-popping landscapes require effort. You usually have to climb, often steeply. Switchbacks are standard. So is thin mountain air, especially if you’re coming from sea level.
For those willing to put in the effort, however, Mount Rainier has a stunning network of breathtakingly beautiful trails like Iowa’s got flat.
Here, in no particular order, are my four “go to” trails at Mount Rainier. I never tire of these favorites:
- Mazama Ridge
- Naches Peak Loop Trail
- Panorama Point/Skyline Trail
- The Palisades
- Mazama Ridge
A perennial favorite. This loop trail of about 5.5 miles can be accessed at Reflection Lakes or at Paradise. We’ve started at both sites and hiked this trail both clockwise and counter clockwise many times. Our favorite route is counter clockwise from the small Reflection Lake (east) along Stevens Canyon Road.
This amazing hike includes a good climb up to Faraway Rock and breathtaking views of the valley. Continue climbing past a pristine alpine tarn. The trail opens up into a glorious riot of wildflower color along the ridge before you descend into Paradise Valley. Watch those knees!
Stop at the Jackson Visitor at Paradise to refill your water bottles or stiff your lunch go back into your chest. Regain the trail across the road at the sign. The initial trail is rutted and may be muddy here as you descend. Meander past a crashing waterfall, criss Stevens Canyon Road, and start climbing again. Youll switchback into big Reflection Lake, wondering why you didn’t take this beautiful trail sooner.
From Tacoma, drive east on State Route 7, turning left onto SR 706 at Elbe. Continue east through Ashford and the Nisqually Entrance of Mount Rainier National Park. Pass Longmire. Take the cut-off to Steven’s Canyon Road to begin this hike at Reflection Lakes. If you want to start at Paradise, keep going up the Longmire to Paradise Road. Park in the lot at Paradise. The trail sign is on the right, overlooking the Nisqually Valley. If you want specifics, pop in to the Jackson Visitor Center and ask a ranger. A topographical model is also on display inside the center.
2. NACHES PEAK
This 3.5 mile loop trail has it all: a beautiful lake, steady but not too difficult climbs, a clear as glass mountain tarn (great lunch stop), and an outrageous view of the American River Valley from Chinook Pass at Highway 410. There’s also that amazing Mountain looming in the distance.
Park in the lot at Tipsoo Lake. There’s a vault toilet and picnic tables here. The trail starts above the west shore of the lake. You’ll cross Chinook Pass. Start climbing. You’ll meander into the William O. Douglas Wilderness and dip into the Pacific Crest Trail briefly before re-entering park boundaries above Dewey Lake.
Round a bend and the Mountain bursts into view. One of the best panoramas of Rainier from this side of the Mountain. Ravines and meadows are awash in wildflowers in season both on the trail and clustered around Tipsoo Lake.
Tip: Hike this trail clockwise for best views of the Mountain. You can hike counter-clockwise but the Mountain will be at your back from this direction.
Park at Tipsoo Lake, .5 mile west of Chinook Pass on SR 410. For a clockwise hike of the Naches Peak Loop Trail, follow the trail from the picnic area to Chinook Pass and the Pacific Crest Trail.
3. PANORAMA POINT/SKYLINE TRAIL
This hike offers in-your-face views of Mount Rainier. It’s also about as close as you can get to the Mountain without an ice axe. The 5.5 mile RT trail begins at Paradise behind Jackson Visitor Center. It includes an elevation gain of about 1,625 feet. The trail is paved for the first half mile or so.
From the trailhead, head straight through two junctions for about a quarter mile. Warm up the ‘ole hamstrings cuz it’s a good uphill jaunt from here, with an elevation gain of about 200 feet over the next quarter mile or so to a junction with Dearhead Creek Trail. Keep chugging. Stay to the right through the junction. Make a left at the next junction with Alta Vista Trail. The pavement peters out here, along with the less hardy. The next 1.25 miles stair-step up about 850 feet to Panorama Point. In season, you’ll pass through perfumed flower fields, streams and snowfields and canyons ribbed with waterfalls. Watch for marmots and rock pikas.
Postcard-perfect, Panorama Point offers some of the most breath-taking views this side of Eden. (Not that I’m biased or anything.) It’s a good lunch stop, provided you can tear your eyes away from the snowy colossus behind you or the jaw-dropping views of the Tatoosh Mountains as well as Mounts Adams and St. Helens. The site includes a solar toilet (I’m not making this up). It’s always been clean and well-maintained whenever we’ve hit the Point.
Continuing on, there’s a “short cut” from Panorama Point along the Lower Skyline Trail. It includes a hazardous trek through a steep snow shelf, lopping off about a half mile from your hike. Park rangers don’t recommend it. We opted for the upper trail, adding a climb of about 300 feet – with much better footing. The upper trail joins the lower route eventually and winds through a rocky “moonscape,” with the added bonus of maintaining all your limbs in the process.
Continue another half mile or so until you hit the Golden Gate Trail. You get to choose here. Skyline Trail descends another two miles to Myrtle Falls, brushing Sluiskin Falls along the way. The Golden Gate Trail is more direct, reuniting with Skyline Trail at Myrtle Falls after a descent of about a mile. We’ve done both. (Hint: This isn’t a road race. Take the longer route and enjoy.)
The pavement resumes at Myrtle Falls. From the falls, you’re just a hop, skip and a jump from Paradise and the conclusion of one of the best trails in the park.
Tip: Hike this trail in the clockwise direction. You’ll get most of the uphill out of the way at the beginning, while your legs are still fresh.
Drive east from Tacoma on State Route 7 and bear left onto SR 706 at the town of Elbe. Continue east through the Nisqually Entrance of Mount Rainier National Park. Proceed up the road to the Paradise parking area. The trail starts behind the visitor center.
4. THE PALISADES
A popular trail that skirts seven lakes, this trail is named for a rocky escarpment called “The Palisades” which towers over the lake near the end of this hike. A good alternative to Sunrise’s more crowded trails.
This trail begins with a steep descent. The first lake is Sunrise Lake, at about .5 miles. Clover Lake is at about 1.5 miles. Continue through a small grove of lightning-gashed ‘ghost trees’ past one pristine mountain lake after another, including Tom, Dick and Harry Lakes. (I’m not making this up.)
Upper Palisades Lake is less than a mile past the spur trail to Hidden Lakes (You won’t want to miss these on the way back!). In season, you’ll cross a lovely meadow dripping with purple lupine, scarlet paintbrush, and sunny bursts of yellow cinquefoil.
U.P. Lake is just over the next rise. The descent to the lake is switch-backy and somewhat steep. A popular trail, it’s named for a rocky escarpment called “The Palisades” which towers over the lake near the trail’s end. A good alternative to Sunrise’s more crowded trails.
Drive 10.5 miles (some sources say “13 miles”) beyond the park’s White River Entrance to the parking area at Sunrise Point. The lot skirts a hairpin turn, about 3 miles before you get to the Sunrise Visitor’s Center. Cross the street. Head east and down.
- Rating: Strenuous
- Distance: About 9.0 miles RT
- Elevation Gain: 3,200 ft
- High Point: 5,935 ft
A tough climb topped with big views of the Mountain, the Mildred Point hike begins on the southwest side of Mount Rainier National Park off the trail to Rampart Ridge.
Most people take this trail out of Comet Falls. When we hiked this trail last November, we started near park HQ in Longmire on The Wonderland Trail. From this start, you’ll hit a trail junction off the Rampart Ridge trail about a mile or so in. The brown sign notes mileages for Mildred Point, Rampart Ridge and other destinations. Veer right and start climbing.
Much of the lower trail winds through conifer-choked forest. After the Van Trump Park junction, the trail steepens. A burbling brook slices through alpine meadows studded with wildflowers. The last half mile is narrow, rutted, and steep. Pause to stuff your lungs back into your chest and turn around for awesome views of Mount Adams.
The Mildred Point promontory offers magnificent, uncrowded views of the south side of the Mountain and the Kautz Glacier. If you time it right, you can watch the sun slide over the summit like a giant egg yolk.
Enter the park via the Nisqually (west) entrance, 13.5 miles east of Elbe on State Route 706. Continue north past Longmire to the parking area, about .4 miles north of Longmire. It’s on your right. Cross the street to join up with The Wonderland Trail towards Rampart Ridge and VanTrump Park, taking the spur trail to Mildred Point.
Distance: 6.2 miles, round trip
Elevation gain: 2,300 ft. over three miles
The Crystal Lakes trail probably isn’t a great choice if you have a heart condition. This is a tough, steep climb. For the stout-hearted and strong-kneed, however, this hike offers a back country bonanza of Renoir-petalled wildflowers, mountain meadows cross-stitched with birdsong, skipping creeks, and two pristine mountain lakes.
The first 1.5 miles or so is a tough climb switchbacking through a thick forest. Crystal Creek canters along the trail to your right for about half a mile. Later, you’ll cross a wooden boardwalk over a bog. The trail then junctions with Crystal Peak at about 1.5 miles. The junction is well marked, noting that the peak is 2.5 miles to the east and Crystal Lakes is another 1.5 miles up.
Keep climbing and switch-backing. Cross another boardwalk and creek, which you’ll hear before you see. Pause a moment to stuff your lungs back into your chest. You’re almost to the lower lake. Shimmering and acquamarine, the lower lake is fine. But access to the shore is limited and there’s almost no where to sit. (There’s also an outdoor toilet – sort of – near the camp sites. It’s well-marked.)
Continue climbing another half mile to the upper lake. You can catch a break on this stretch of trail between lakes. The trail is mostly uphill, but the grade isn’t as demanding as the initial portion of the hike. It also levels out in places so you can take a breather and meander through superb alpine meadows marinaded in scarlet paintbrush, purple lupine, and snowy bear grass. Crystal Creek sings on your right as it rushes downhill. Buck up for the final climb up and over a series of log steps to the upper lake.
The larger upper lake is spectacular, with plenty of boulders for a great lunch break. Trekking poles highly recommended, especially for the descent. Unless you’re 23. With titanium knees.
Take 410E from Enumclaw and drive under the Mount Rainier National Park arch/boundary. Look for pullouts on both sides of the road after about four miles, post-arch. The trail head sign features a “hiker” icon on the east side of the road. About 36.5 miles from Enumclaw, between mile markers 61 and 62. If you hit the sign for White River and Sunrise, you’ve gone too far.
“… the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I ever beheld in all my mountain-top wanderings.”
– John Muir on wildflower meadows at Mount Rainier’s Paradise
Mount Rainier’s wildflower meadows are world-renowned. Indeed, it’s peak season right now and wildflowers are laughin’ it up all over the park! From last week’s Old Iron Knees Expeditionary Trek to the northwest corner of the park (Mowich Lake/Tolmie and Paul Peaks, Crystal Lakes):
In Lummi Indian legend, Mount Rainier left her husband, Mount Baker, taking the choicest flowers and fruits with her. When Chinook summer winds flutter alpine frocks and cyan skies frolic over blushing swells of mountain heather, Western anemones, and the flaming heads of mountain paintbrush, you can’t help believe that the legend is true. And that John Muir was right.
To Mowich Lake:
From Buckley, head south on Highway 165 through Burnett, Wilkeson, and Carbonado. Cross the one-lane Fairfax Bridge. Continue until you hit a “Y” in the road. Take a right. The route to Mowich Lake is clearly marked. The Paul Peak Trailhead is about 11 miles in and six miles from Mowich Lake. The sign is on your right. There’s a parking area and a couple rustic bathrooms.
Note: About 1.8 miles after leaving the “Y,” the road is unpaved. It’s rough and rutted. It takes about 45 minutes to cover 17 miles to its terminus at Mowich Lake.
To Crystal Lakes:
Take 410E from Enumclaw and drive under the Mount Rainier National Park arch/boundary. Look for pullouts on both sides of the road after about four miles, post-arch. The trailhead sign features a “hiker” icon on the east side of the road. About 36.5 miles from Enumclaw, between mile markers 61 and 62. If you hit the sign for White River and Sunrise, you’ve gone too far.
Note: The Crystal Lakes trail probably isn’t a great choice if you have a heart condition. With an elevation gain of 2,300 over 3 miles, this is a tough, steep climb to two pristine mountain lakes.
The lower lake is fine, but access is limited and there’s almost no where to sit. The upper lake – another .5 miles, still climbing – is spectacular, with plenty of boulders for a great lunch break. Trekking poles highly recommended, especially for the descent. Unless you’re 23. Or have titanium knees.