I thought I understood what we signed up for when we chose the Carbon River Road, Ranger Falls and Green Lake last weekend. This route turned to be a lesson in preconceived notions, and the ways in which a simple trail can surprise you. Most stories that end in reflective surprise usually come with a harrowing tale in which the hiker was not prepared for the ruggedness of the trail, or some unexpected event derails the day. However, in this story, nothing was out of the ordinary, no unusual perils or being caught unprepared. Rather, I thought we were doing a simple hike to an alpine lake that looked rather pretty, but would likely be similar to the dozens of lake hikes we have done in the past few years. The reality turned out to be so much better.
The shock came as we walked about 20′ on the Carbon River Road and discovered a brilliant old-growth forest, where I expected tedium. Then, a side-trip waterfall was a stellar display of ferocious spring melt and worthy of being a main-event. A tree-rimmed sub-alpine lake is standard fare in the summer for the PNW, but the deep green pools and sunshine after a cold winter rejuvenated me in a myriad of ways. You see, I thought we were on a simple trail, priority being a chance to stretch our legs without making too much of a fuss. Instead, I was surprised to discover we had entered a magical corner of Mount Rainier National Park, where you get a neck ache from straining to see the tops of trees.
The lesson is something I learn again and again. Sometimes, if you do just enough research to ensure the route is safe, get in the car and get outside, a many splendid things are there to be discovered. The hike I expected to be a maintenance hike for my shins and sanity ended up being a hike full of the promise of a new season, a reminder of why we suffer through winter and an all together lovely day.
The Road Walk
We reached the carbon river road after a drive that became more and more beautiful as we rambled on. After sighting two elk crossing the road, our wildlife quota was already doing great and we arrived to the trailhead in excellent spirits. We parked the car in a parking lot getting fuller by the moment and set out on the trail. I knew that the first three miles would be a road walk, but was surprised to see that the first section was paved. It shortly turned into gravel, but soon turned into one of the best closed roads I have walked on.
And, oh, the forest! After settling in for a boring walk before the “real trail” started, I was shocked to discover the old growth, phenomenal forest we were walking through. I forgot my wide-angle lens, but I doubt the pictures would have done the sight justice. While the route description mentioned old growth trees, I didn’t expect mammoth trees until we moved away from the road and reached the turn-off to Green Lake. Instead, there were some of the largest, most magnificent trees I have ever seen in every direction. Like an overly excited puppy, I ran from one edge of the road to the other, exclaiming that each new tree was my favorite and the best of them all. Verdant growth exploded from every corner, nurse logs supported 6 new firs, brand new baby ferns pushed up through the soil, moss covered trees glowed in the morning sun. If you love a forest, get thee to carbon river road.
What a unique forest it was. The only inland temperate rain forest of its kind, it resembles some of the areas on the Olympic Peninsula, despite being far from marine areas. The valley’s unique shape holds rain and fog, creating a wet forest dominated by giant Douglas Fir. As the route continued and we neared the lake the Western Hemlock dominated, but the green remained.
The Carbon River edged in and away from the road, displaying a silty, meandering route. Between the river and abundant birds, the forest was absolutely alive with sound, and in the early morning, few of them were human-based. We made slow time for a road walk because of my constant distraction. Logs steamed as sunlight broke through the canopy and dappled sunshine barely reached the forest floor. This is an area where I want to grab a journal, sit for 8 hours dissecting a 6’x6′ square and let the ecologist in me have a field day.
After 3 short miles, we reached the turn-off to Green Lake. Our route thus far had been entirely flat, but we were promised some glute-busting elevation gain before reaching an alpine lake surrounded by temperate rainforest. Before we made it to the lake, however, we were compelled to visit Ranger Falls. After reading of its splendor, we were determined not to miss it, so when we saw a small boot path leading away from the main trail, we followed it to spectacular views of a waterfall. “Oh, it is marvelous indeed!” we exclaimed, while expressing concern for a trail so primitive that under poor conditions could be dangerous. We resumed our hike only to find the viewpoint for Ranger Falls a mere 0.25 miles farther on the trail. Complete with signage, a viewing platform and safe, established path, this led to a waterfall far more grand than the one we assumed was the main event.
The spring melt caused an abundance of water to spill over in a two-level waterfall covering 100′. Tumbling over boulders, fallen logs and other debris, the rushing falls caused a cloud of mist to descend upon the surrounding area. Dark rocks gleamed with neon moss and it seemed to epitomize the concept of lush. But a dirty, earthy, PNW sort of lush where everything smells deep and rich. It was difficult to leave, I was unsure we would see anything quite so beautiful, but our final destination, Green Lake, beckoned to us. Also lunch, lunch called with a ferocity.
We pushed forward for another 0.8 miles, crossing a pleasant bridge and seeing even more fantastic old-growth trees. Though I knew to expect a green lake, as it is in the title after all, I was blown away by how green the rest of the trail was. Soon, we rounded the corner and saw the day-use area.
We climbed over a few logs on the log jam to balance on a particularly large log for lunch. With warm sun on our backs, it was so lovely to complete a hike where an hour long lunch break was welcome. Most of the routes we have done this winter involved eating as quickly as possible to not get cold, then rushing to get back on the trail. Every year, I forget the luxury that is sitting at the top and spending time in the place we worked so hard to be.
I had a chance to look at individual trees, illuminated by pockets of sun. Wonder at Tolmie Peak and make plans to visit the fire lookout there, lay on the log and look for fish. Taking the time to do nothing is one of my favorite things about hiking in the spring and summer. Eventually, after all of the food was consumed we decided to make our way back down the trail.
The road was much busier on the way out, filled with bikers, families and others enjoying the flat, easy access to magnificent forests. Without the solitude and morning light, I was able to stay focused on the hike rather than running around embracing trees, so we made fairly good time. When the road walk began to feel tedious, we decided to push out to the river bank and feel the cold, glacial water on our fingers. We found a log to sit and relax upon for several minutes before making the final push to the car.
The moderately busy trailhead was swarmed by the time that we left, filled with cars, young adults with clipboards, large family reunions and confusion. After our quiet solitude in the woods, it was quite a shock so we booked it out before getting caught up in the craziness.