The Mt. Rainier Visitors Association is beginning a new series we like to call “Stories from the Mountain.” This will be a series of interviews with Nisqually Valley locals, National Park staff, and visitors just like you!
Meet James, one of the backcountry carpenters for Mt. Rainier. James has been working for Mt. Rainier for 10 years, working for the Maintenance Department in a variety of roles. In 2007, James began doing historical carpentry on the back-country structures for the park. James gets many questions about what this job entails, and which structures he works on.
Here is the deal: all of the older structures in the park are historically protected. While visitors most often are familiar with the Visitor’s Centers and the Longmire and Paradise Lodges, anyone who has hiked in the backcountry of Mt. Rainier has likely enjoyed the site of one of the backcountry patrol cabins, shelters, or the fire lookouts that are spread throughout the park. The National Park works to preserve these structures, along with their historical integrity, meaning that James and his co-workers maintain these buildings using traditional woodworking and masonry techniques.
There are ten backcountry patrol cabins spread throughout the park. These are cabins that park rangers stay in while they are working in the backcountry to protect hikers and ensure park rules. These backcountry patrol cabins include Lake George, Ipsut Creek, Golden Lakes, Lake James, Mystic Lake, Huckleberry Creek (no longer used by rangers), St. Andrews, Three Lakes, Mowich Lake, Indian Henry’s. These cabins were built between the 1930s and 1950s and are all old-growth log cabin structures. although Lake James and Mystic have been completely rebuilt. The most common work on backcountry cabins includes replacing rotten logs, and repairing storm damage to roofs, windows or beams. There are also two base camp patrol cabins located at Camp Muir and Camp Schurman. While technically ranger stations, these structures differ from the other backcountry cabins in that they are located at 10,080 and 9,440 feet respectively, and are made out of slabs of rock.
There are four fire-lookouts in Mt. Rainier: Shriner, Gobblers Knob, Fremont, and Tolmie. All of the fire lookouts were built between 1932 and 1934. Because the lookouts are all built at high points, they offer stunning views of Mt. Rainier and the surrounding areas. However, their vantage points also leave the lookouts exposed to extreme weather conditions, and the lookouts often need to have their decks, windows, and roofing repaired.
There are also three backcountry shelters, located at Indian Bar, Camp Muir, and Summerland. These are the only backcountry structures that the public can stay in. Interested parties should speak to a Park Ranger when obtaining the wilderness permit required for backcountry camping. Permits can be obtained from any ranger station in the park during their normal hours of operation. More info. on obtaining overnight permits can be found here: http://www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/wilderness-camping-and-hiking.htm
James has had the opportunity to visit every structure in Mt. Rainier National Park. His favorite structures are the Ipsut cabin (complete restoration still in progress), Three Lakes, and the Indian Bar shelter. James believes that Ipsut and Three Lakes are the best examples of traditional full-scribed log-work, and he enjoys the combination of log and rock-work that comprise the Indian Bar shelter.
In term of location, James has trouble choosing a favorite place to work or visit. He likes the way Camp Schurman is built out of the rocks and often sits above the cloud deck nestled at the bow of Steamboat Prow, exactly where the Emmons Glacier and Winthrop Glacier split and become their own entities. One of his favorite views is from Tolmie Lookout where you can see all of Puget Sound, the Seattle city-scape, and the Olympic Mountains; and he also enjoys the panorama of Mt. Rainier from Fremont Lookout. James loves Indian Bar because of its plethora of animals – (he says he’s never visited the shelter without seeing a bear!), and because of the shelter’s beautiful valley setting.
While James works for the Maintenance Department year-round, (specifically for the Carpentry shop), he does most of his backcountry work during the summer, as the structures are inaccessible during the winter due to snow. James and a co-worker usually hike to the structures they work on, and stay and work in the structures for eight-day tours in the summer and fall. The supplies and materials they use are usually flown in by helicopter in the beginning of the season, although snowmobiles, ATVS, and mules are also sometimes utilized in designated areas.
James will be working on the Camp Muir project along with his colleagues beginning the latter half of summer 2013, and his other major upcoming projects will include replacing sill logs at Lake George, and continuing to finish the rebuild of Ipsut cabin. Good luck James, and thanks for all of your hard work!
If you have a story to tell, we’d love to hear from you! Contact us at, or call the Visitor’s Center at to be in touch. We’d love to share your story!