Author Archives: mtrainierva

Cathedral Falls

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The Nisqually Valley is an amazing and wonderful place, and Mt. Rainier is arguably one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Sometimes it is hard to wonder why we’d ever venture out of the valley for more beauty, but sometimes a short day trip can have spectacular results.  Cathedral Falls, located in the Cowlitz Valley – is just such one of these places.

Mt. Rainier has waterfalls galore.  But Catheral Falls is spectacular.  It feels like you could be in Costa Rica or in Western Africa, but with huckleberry bushes and pine and cedar trees surrounding you.  What’s more, the drive to Cathedral Falls is only about 1.5 hours from Ashford, and about 45 minutes if you are staying in Packwood or Morton – which happens often to folks who don’t make reservations on busy summer weekends. The hike is easy, and you get to traverse behind the waterfalls on the trail! Family friendly, and dogs are welcome. Read on for the details!

To get there, you’ll need to head towards Riffe Lake.  From the Ashford Visitor’s Center, head west 6 miles to Elbe, and take a left on Hwy 7 to Morton.  Once in Morton, take a left on Hwy 12. Head east for about 8 miles, and take a right on Kosmos Road, and take your next main left on to Champion Haul Road.  Follow this road along Riffe Lake and over the bridge, and continue following the road to the right onto a dirt road.  Follow this for a bit less than a mile, and take a left on another dirt road.  This road has a gate that should be open, posting that it is privately owned by a timber company, but publicly accessible.  Rules and regulations are posted.  Carry on, and the dirt road will take you into Gifford Pinchot National Forest! You’re almost there.

Drive for about 4.5 miles, keeping on the main dirt road and curving uphill and to the left.  Just when you’ve thought your lost your way, you’ll see the cars parked at the trail-head.  Unload your kids, dogs, snacks and packs, and hit the trail! The path is wide, well-maintained, and obstacle free.  The shady forest is cool and sweet smelling, huckleberry bushes are everywhere, and wildflowers liven the trail in late spring/early summer.

After about a mile, you’re there! And it will take your breath away. The falls launch 248 feet above, pummeling over an overhang high above, and creating a sheet of water that visitors can walk behind, or marvel at from various viewpoints to either side/front of the falls.  The trail takes all hikers behind the falls, and aside from a spactacular vantage point, visitors can linger in the cavernous hollow in the rocks that gave Cathedral Falls its appropriate name. At the bottom of the falls, the water has pounded the rock into a gentle swoop that loops the water around in a semi-circle before continuing it on its way.

The falls are most spectacular when the falls are running when the water is at its highest, from early May to mid-June, or after a heavy rain in the fall.  The falls will lose most of their power by late-June, but a trickle should continue through the year.  This is a great hike for a rainy day – hikers are protected by the tall cedars and pine trees, and hikers can continue their hike after the falls if they are interested in exploring further.

A wonderful family outing awaits at Cathedral Falls – enjoy!

Rampart Ridge

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The wildflowers of Mt. Rainier are just starting to come out in full force, but so are the crowds.  If you have done your wildflower hike and have an extra morning where you’d like to get back ont he trails, or you’re just looking for a mountain view and a trail free of the crowds, Rampart Ridge is a nice moderate day hike that can be managed in 2.5 – 3 hours.

The Rampart Ridge trail is a 4.9 mile loop that begins and ends at Longmire.  We recommend doing this hike clockwise so that you can enjoy the view of Rainier when it comes into view on east side of the ridge.  To begin, park in the Longmire parking lot and cross the road (if it is clear Mt. Rainier will be spectacular across the meadows), and head to your left.  You’ll see a sign for the Trail of Shadows (which is also a loop) and Rampart Ridge, and continue clockwise.

The first .2 miles of the trail overlaps with the westernmost part of the Trail of Shadows trail.  After crossing a wooden bridge and making your way through lush, marshy foliage with Devil’s Club and Skunk Cabbage, you’ll set foot on drier soil and begin marveling at the old growth firs towering above and the calming shade they provide.  Keep an eye out for the sign that will point you left to the Rampart Ridge Trail, and here the slope will start to incline slowly.

The trail begins gently for the first half mile as you gradually hike through the trees, and then gentle switchbacks will keep you heading up the mountain for another 1.5 miles.  The trail is never unbearably steep, and the path is wide and free of obstacles for 98% of the route, with the exception of a few loose stones on the ridge.  There is a 1,300 foot elevation gain in total – an intermediate to advanced hiker will be able to make his/her way up the mountain in no time, and even beginning hikers or families will find the trail do-able with a few breaks along the way.

After two miles, hikers reach the west end of the ridge, and a small viewpoint at 3,700 feet. For the next mile, the trail follows the ridge, offering glimpses of Longmire and Longmire Meadows below and to the right, and with Mt. Rainier peaking through the trees directly ahead.  There are a few small spurs off the main trail where one can take a few steps and take a glorious photo of the mountain, but Mt. Rainier comes into full view the last quarter mile on the ridge, allowing mountain lovers and photographers to gaze at their heart’s content at the huge and glorious mountain before them.

The trail will eventually join with the Wonderland Trail.  Follow the trail to the right and descend the 1.8 miles towards Longmire.  This is an enjoyable descent – nothing too hard on the knees and minimal switchbacks.  You will descend through the trees for a little over a mile before you’ll notice the ecosystem changing back to the marshy dense foliage similar to the start of the trail. A little creek will babble alongside you to your left, and you’ll walk over a lovely boardwalk until you meet the Mountain Hwy/SR 706. Cross the highway and continue going straight  – note that this is not well-marked, but continue on and you’ll me just fine. After .3 miles walking int eh woods alongside the road, you’ll emerge just above Longmire, and can make your way back towards your car.

Don’t forget to take one look back at Mt. Rainier, beaming over the Longmire meadows in all her glory.

Stories from the Mountain: Meet the Utelas

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The Mt. Rainier Visitors Association is working in a 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 David and Marci Utela.  Both have been visitors to the park for 60+ years, beginning with family adventures from their youth.  David Utela, hailing from Winlock, WA, remembers visiting the park for the first time, around 5 years old. In the late 1940s and early 50s, his family would visit the park to play in the snow and admire the wildflowers. Dave began frequenting the park on a regular basis at 15 years old, one his friends has cars, and he and his buddies began hiking, camping, and skiing regularly at the mountain. He remembers Skiing at Paradise in army surplus cross-country gear, and recalls the rope tow being very steep and terminating somewhere near the Alto-Vista trail.*  After a day of floundering in the snow (he and his friends were learning), they’d ski down to Narada Falls.

In the mid-60s through mid-70s, Dave entered his hiking and climbing phase, often joining a group of amateur mountaineers from the University of Washington. They’d do self-arrest and crevasse rescue practice on Inter Glacier, and he made many summits via Camp Muir and Schurman.

Marci Utela, from Kirkland, WA also first visited the park as a child. She remembers these first young visits as special occasions, but when she and Dave began dating in the 1960s, Mt. Rainier became a huge part of her life. One of her favorite memories was her summit of Mt. Rainier from the Schurman side when she was 27 years old, in 1974.  As the only female in the group, she recalls being held up by the other man on her line, and being frustrated because the rest of men thought it was Marci that was holding up the group.  Marci was doing just fine, thank you kindly gentlemen! She remembers how spectacular it was when the sun came up over Tahoma, and the amazing view from top of the mountain.

The Utelas spent a lot of time before having children in the Klapatche area, with great campsites and beautiful views. When Marci was pregnant with her first child in 1980, the Utelas snowshoed on the road to Paradise in the winter, and camped ON Reflection Lake.** How many people can say they were snowshoeing and camping on frozen lakes in utero? Marci was pregnant with her second child during a camping trip in Van Trump Park, so both of the Utela children started their relationship with Mt. Rainier early on.

The Utelas hiked numerous times in the Tatoosh Range with Pinnacle Peak being a favorite hike before and after children, and they used to snow camp just behind the rock outcropping between Pinnacle Peak and Castle Rock, when it was still permissible to do so. ** Enjoyable time was spent hiking and camping in the Sunrise area, off the West Side road (it extended further then).  The Utelas enjoy how close the mountain looks and the accessible trails around the Sunrise Visitor Center, although they find themselves camping more often on the west side of the mountain. Most trips were taken summer through early fall, but spring snow shoeing, cross country skiing and snow camps had their own magic.

After both of the Utela kids were born (in 1980 and 1982), the family camped nearly every summer at Cougar Rock.  The location is excellent for family outings, and the Utelas would drive up to Paradise or down to Longmire for adventures, cross the road and over the log bridge to walk through the rocks by the Nisqually River, listen to Ranger talks in the evenings, and sit by the campfire to visit with friends as the children would scamper through the forest.

Just a few years ago the Utelas camped again at Cougar Rock with friends and  went up to Paradise for sunset and Reflection Lakes for moon pictures. In their “older” years, they enjoy staying at Paradise Inn in September, when the crowds have subsided a bit but the fall foliage is in striking bloom, though they also love Paradise in August when it is in full bloom.  They have been up to Paradise once already this year, and will likely make an August and a September visit as well. Dave says the beauty, variety, and majesty of the mountain and surroundings keep them coming back.

The children of the Utelas used to make fun of Marci because every time the mountain came into view (be it from Seattle, on a drive, or nearing the park entrance), she would exclaim “Be still my beating heart.” She explains that the mountain is still breathtaking, even when you are seeing it for the thousandth time. “The mountain is so majestic.  The mountain is beauty, tranquility, serenity, inspiration, meditation, really almost spiritual.”

We couldn’t agree more! On one of Marci and David’s early adventures one summer on the Northern Loop Trail, they fell in love with Mystic Lake.  For awhile the Utelas had it written in their wills that their ashes be spread specifically in that area, but they have decided that their earthly remains can be left anywhere within the park.  Fitting for a couple who have lived their lives so close to this incredible National Park.

* The the pomalift and the rope tow at Paradise were removed in 1973
** Camping on Reflection Lake or at the rock outcropping below Castle Rock and Pinnacle Peak are no longer allowed, as many more backcountry camping sites have been established since the 1970s to protect the fragile park wildlife

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!

Cora Lake

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Continuing our list of amazing hikes and activities to do just outside Mt. Rainier National Park in the beautiful Nisqually Valley, we’re pleased to introduce visitors to Cora Lake.  Cora Lake is a wonderful 1.4 mile hike (roundtrip) that is great for children, provided they are given a sturdy hand to hold during the creek crossings.  From start to finish, hikers will enjoy lush green foliage and the spectacular waterfalls of Big Creek.

To get there, continue driving east on SR 706 from the Mt. Rainier Visitor’s Center in Ashford. After about 3 miles, turn right on Kernahan Road (also which turns into Skate Creek/FR 52), and drive 4.6 miles before taking a right onto FR 84 (this is unmarked – it is one turn after the dirt road with the gate on the right) and keep on it for 4.2 miles before taking a right on FR 8420.  Continue 1.5 miles to the trailhead. Both FR 52 and FR 8420 are in good condition and are drivable for passenger cars, so long as you are wary of the occasional pothole.

Parking is on your right, with the trailhead and a Cora Lake sign to your left.  If the road seems to narrow significantly, you’ve gone too far – turn around and you’ll see the trailhead about 100 yards down on the right.  You’ll begin up a gradual incline with a well-maintained trail, and children and adults alike will enjoy looking for frogs along the way.

After about 10 minutes, you’ll see your first waterfall.  The beauty just gets more spectacular form here on! Continue along Bog Creek and you’ll come to a spectacular waterfall shooting out of the rocks high above, and continuing through lovely pools.  Below these pools is your first creek crossing!  Big Creek is passable by walking on rocks and logs – but beware – the logs are slippery when wet, so it is best to give little ones a hand and let them go near the front.  There is no real danger other than a soggy shoe, so comfortable hiking sandals are a great idea to avoid the wet-foot worries!

You’ll hike up a small hill through a switchback, and keep an eye out for Mt. Rainier peering at you through the trees! The mountain is with you the entire hike, though it is sometimes hard to make out through the denser growth. Notice that you are in a stand of old-growth trees for the latter half of the hike, providing beauty and a sense of calm.

After the switchback, you’ll make your way back across the creek for your second crossing.  The waterfalls at this point are wide and stream steadily over giant rocks, creating a spectacular view.  Keep climbing for another 5-10 minutes until the trail flattens out, and you’re there!

The 30 minute hike will end at the tranquil Cora Lake (elevation 3,800 ft.), where there is plenty of space for hikers to find their own space to picnic, fish, swim, and relax – even on busy weekend days.  From mid-June to mid-July, peer into the shallow water to look for tadpoles and pollywogs.  There are thousands in early summer!   High Rock Lookout (written about previously here: https://mtrainierblog.com/2013/07/09/high-rock-lookout/) is viewable 1,600 feet above, perched on an aptly-named large rock with sheer walls.

If hikers would like to continue their walk, the Big Creek Trail continues to the right of Cora Lake for .6 miles before splitting.  To the left fork, hikers can pick their way across an avalanche slope below the sheer face of High Rock, to enjoy a beautiful view of Mt. Rainier after a half mile.  This route is not recommended for the kiddos! The right fork is the Teely Creek Trail, which makes its way to Granite and Bertha May Lakes.

Both Big Creek and Teely Creek Trails are open to motorcyclists and mountain bikers. Big Creek runs highest from late-May to mid-July, or once the fall rains begin.  After a heavy rain the trail can be muddy and Big Creek difficult to cross, so check your weather conditions.  In late summer into the fall (pre-rainy season), the creek will be lower, and should be a breeze.

Lake Alder adventures

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Trying to get out of the crowds, and into some water?  With this heat wave, it can be great to take a break from hiking in the sun, and spend part of your Mt. Rainier visit lounging on Alder Lake!

About 15 minutes before the Nisqually entrance to Mt. Rainier lay one of the jewels of the Nisqually Valley.  As the Nisqually River flows from the Nisqually Glacier, through the park, and through Ashford (passing just a mile from our Visitor Center), it empties it’s jade-colored water into Alder Lake at Elbe.  Formed by Alder Dam, Alder Lake stretches 7 miles, past the town of Alder, winding along HWY 7.

There are three fantastic parks for your family’s enjoyment (all part of the Alder Lake Park system).  If you have a paddleboard, kayak, canoe, motorboat, jetskis, or other water vessel – bring it along! Park fun includes swimming areas, boat launches, barbeques, bathrooms, playgrounds, and plenty of picnic space – but not all three parks include all facilities.  Read on for the what’s what of Alder Lake summer fun!

Driving west from the Ashford Visitor’s Center on SR 706, you’ll reach Elbe after 7 miles, and join HWY 7.  Drive through Elbe, and you’ll see the first park, Rocky Point Campground on your left.  With the least facilities of the three parks, Rocky Point is best used for it’s boat launch, camping and fishing.  There are a couple of picnic tables, but there is not a swimming area. There are 25 campsites with electric and water hookups, and a bathroom facility. You can fish for largemouth bass, rainbow and cutthroat trout from this westernmost area of the lake, and the boat launch is free of charge.  It is a great option for launching the boat when the other parks are super-busy! More info can be found at http://www.mytpu.org/tacomapower/parks-recreation/alder-lake-park/rocky-point-campground.htm

Sunny Beach Point is 3 miles further west along HWY 7. There is a swimming beach, a sheltered picnic area, restrooms, and 20 picnic tables with grills. Sunny Beach Point is open May 15th – September 15th, and there is always free entry.  No alcohol allowed, and there is no camping. Pets are welcomed on-leash. More information can be found at http://www.mytpu.org/tacomapower/parks-recreation/alder-lake-park/sunny-beach-point.htm

Alder Lake Park is .6 miles west along HWY 7 from Sunny Beach Park. Alder Lake Park is the most expansive of the parks by far, with a swimming area, boat launch, and 149 campsites. There are coin-operated showers and restrooms.  The park has free entrance on weekdays, and a $5 parking fee on weekends and holidays.  If the day-use parking lot is full, the gates will be closed, but that does not mean the park itself is closed! Open year-round.  More info at http://www.mytpu.org/tacomapower/parks-recreation/alder-lake-park/

Bring your family, dogs, swimsuits, and a picnic blanket and soak in the beauty of Alder Lake.  Summer doesn’t get much better than lake swimming, bbqing, boating and camping!

Details:

Rocky Point Campground
52910 Mountain Highway E
Eatonville, WA 98328

Sunny Beach Point:
50316 Mountain Hwy E
Eatonville, WA 98328

Alder Lake Park
50324 School Rd
Eatonville, WA 98328

For all 3 parks (all part of the Alder Lake Park system):
Park office: (360) 569-2778
Fishing and recreation line: (888) 502-8690

*Note – while State Highway 7/Mountain Highway is closed to through traffic for construction this summer, the parks are still accessible, as they are considered local traffic. Coming from the south, continue through road closure signs.  From the north, follow the detour routes, until you can pass the road closure signs from the south as directed above.

High Rock Lookout

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We’re thrilled that the great weather has brought thousands of visitors into Mt. Rainier National Park the last few weeks.  However, long lines to enter the park has people asking about hikes and activities that are available in the Nisqually Valley, just outside the park entrance.  Don’t worry – there are plenty of hikes and activities to enjoy in and around Ashford, where our Visitor’s Center is located.  One such hike is the High Rock Lookout.

High Rock is one of the fire lookouts that was used by the Forest Service in pre-satellite days, so that staff could keep an eye out for smoke, indicating a forest fire.  Since their purpose was to observe large swaths of land, fire lookouts are always located atop high peaks and offer incredible views.  High Rock Lookout is just such a site, and still retains the original 1929 tower, perched at 5,700 feet and offering an incredible view of Mt. Rainier.

To get there, continue driving east on SR 706 from the Mt. Rainier Visitor’s Center in Ashford. After about 3 miles, turn right on Kernahan Road (also which turns into Skate Creek/FS 52), and drive 1.5 miles before taking a right on Osborn road. Immediately, take a left on FR 85 (it is unmarked), and continue 5.8 miles.  When the road forks, take the left fork onto FR 8440 (unmarked) and  continue 4.5 miles to the trailhead on the left.

An slightly longer, but smoother alternate route is to drive east on SR 706, turn right on Kernahan Road (which turns into Skate Creek/FS 52), and drive 4.6 miles before taking a right onto FR 84 (this is unmarked – it is one turn after the dirt road with the gate on the right) and keep on it for 6.8 miles, bearing right onto FR 8440 for the final 2.7 miles to the trailhead (on the right).  This route is recommended for cars lacking 4-wheel drive.

The trail is 1.6 miles each way, but with a hefty 1,400 foot elevation gain. The well-used trail is wide and in great condition, following the spine of the ridge through hemlock and silver fir with wildflowers decorating the trail in the early summer months. The path steepens as it approaches the lookout, and towards the end hikers can choose to either scramble up a steep rock slope with a 600 ft. vertical drop to the right for the most direct route to the lookout, or wind a bit further through the forest and then cut back up along the ridge, approaching the lookout from the west with the cliff to the left.

High Rock sits on a prominent point on Sawtooth Ridge, and is a popular destination for nature photographers. From the lookout, enjoy the amazing view of the south face of Mt. Rainier, the Tatoosh Range, and Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams to the south and east respectively.  Look down at Cora Lake, nestled in the forested valley below, and marvel at the sheer rock faces.

This hike takes on average of three hours round trip, and while the steep incline may intimidate hikers early on, the hike is finished in a short time and the view is well worth the effort. The fire lookout is open during the summer so hikers can go inside and check it out, but folks mostly spread themselves out among the rock, enjoying the sun and the spectacular views.

The view from the top has the most clarity in the early morning or late-afternoon, but the bugs are full-on at dusk and dawn.  even during the day, bugs will keep most hikers moving steadily through the shade.  The path is clear of snow as of early July, and bear grass, Indian paintbrush, and avalanche lilies color the landscape.

While this trail does allow dogs, dogs should be kept on a leash due to the dangerous ledge near parts of the trail.  Similarly, this path is not recommended for young children.  Since there are no public facilities, make sure to bring plenty of water and snacks.

Happy hiking to you and yours!

Stories from the Mountain: Meet Mt. Rainier’s backcountry carpenter!

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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!