In the Rain: Carter Falls and Madcap Falls

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We know how it is; you plan for your trip, you get excited, you see the mountain from the road (almost there!), then, on the day of the trip- snow at paradise, and raining everywhere else. We know, because it happened to us too. It’s always unfortunate when you can’t see the mountain because of weather, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the park and the many other views it has to offer.

When we woke up the day of our hike and checked the weather reports (always important!), we saw that there was a storm warning at paradise, and it was raining cats and dogs everywhere else. Checking the weather beforehand and talking to the rangers at the park helped, and so we changed our plans. Instead of a hike near Paradise, that would put us at snow level, we opted for a lower elevation hike in the trees for partial rain coverage. The perfect trail for that? Carter and Madcap Falls.

The Carter Falls and Madcap Falls trail is a 1.1 mile part of the Wonderland Trail, a 92 mile trail that goes around Mt. Rainier National Park. The trailhead is across from the Cougar Rock Campground, about 8 miles from the park entrance, with parking off the side of the road.

The hike starts by crossing the Nisqually riverbed; including walking across a log bridge- kids should have an adult cross with them to be safe. The cliffs across the river are spotted with long, graceful waterfalls, and if there are no clouds, Mt. Rainier can be seen looking up the river. Once you are on the other side of the river you head up into the trees and start making your way to the falls, with the river on your right. It is an uphill hike, but not a steep one.

Carter Falls is a spectacular waterfall with an 80 ft drop. A nice reward for your hike! Just past Carter Falls, 1/10th of a mile up is Madcap Falls, a smaller set of waterfalls in the Nisqually. Fun Fact: the Nisqually River, which flows from the Nisqually Glacier seen above Paradise to the left, feeds Alder Lake, a large lake you pass if you’re entering the park from the southwest.

Hiking is great in that it isn’t necessarily a fair-weather sport. As long as you are prepared, i.e. a waterproof coat, gloves, appropriate shoes, etc., you can still go out in the rain. Wildlife is still out and about, but there are fewer crowds. Check out other good hikes in bad weather in our previous blog ‘Don’t Let the Rain Stop You.’ If you do go out in bad weather, make sure you know the conditions beforehand, you’re prepared, and safe.

Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad

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All aboard! If you are exploring Mt. Rainier and are looking for an extra activity outside the park, the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad is an amazing ride. Located just twelve miles from the west entrance to Mt. Rainier, the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad (MRSR) is close to the action and family-friendly, with beautiful scenery and a stop at a historic logging museum

The Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad train has been operating out of Elbe  since 1981. The non-profit organization’s mission is two-fold: to educate visitors and locals alike about the  logging industry that shaped the region over the last 100 years, and to preserve the steam engines that made the lumber industry possible in the first part of the 20th century.

Rides are offered Saturday and Sunday at 10 am, 12:45 pm, and 3:30 pm through October 27th, when the trains will stop for the winter season. You can reserve seats in advance (recommended) or arrive at least 30 minutes early to purchase tickets. Check here for occasional Groupon opportunities to save some dough.

The staff will let you and your family know when it is time to board, and then let you take your seats.  As the train pulls out of the Elbe station, a staff member will come around to punch tickets, answer questions, and provide safety rules for the journey.  Once you and your family depart on your adventure, you’ll cross over the highway and head west towards Ashford (and Mt. Rainier Nat’l Park) until the train turns southwards at Park Junction and makes its way south towards Mineral. The other branch (which is no longer in use), once  made its way onwards to Ashford and National the first half of last century, where one of the largest logging mills in America used to reside.

Continuing on the adventure, the train will cross back across the high way and across a bridge over the Nisqually River.  On a clear day you can look upriver to enjoy the grandeur of the river’s source – Mt. Rainier. The mountain will show her face a bit throughout the latter half of the ride, peaking above the hills and adding another dimension to the scenes of changing leaves, flowing rivers, and forested hillsides.

The train will stop after approximately 30 minutes in Mineral, at the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad’s own version of a railroad camp.  Historic logging camp buildings from all over Washington have been brought together to form this camp. The largest structure is the MRSR restoration and repair shop which contains a track with a servicing pit, and all the necessary tools to rebuild a steam locomotive.  The staff and volunteers work here on the MRSR trains, using skills and tools employed since the 1800’s. The railroad camp is still under development to restore and furnish each of the camp buildings to accurately portray life as it once was at a railroad camp.  On each visit you can come to enjoy something new!

Once run on coal, the train now runs on used motor oil. The round-trip adventure from Elbe to Mineral and back takes 150 gallons of the recycled oil, and 1,500 gallons or more of water. A steam locomotive works by burning a combustible material (in this case used motor oil),  producing steam in a boiler, which is then driven through an engine.

The water is an incredibly powerful source of combustion – when a molecule of water is heated to 387 degrees, it expands to more than 1600 times it’s original size.  The steam engines are marvelously effective, but their disuse came about because of their difficulty to maintain.  Steam engines were used until the 1950s.

Interestingly, the steam also explains where the “choo-choo” sound comes from. When the slide valve opens the high-pressure steam into either side of the cylinder, the escaping steam makes the recognizable “choo!” sound as it exits.

Learn all about steam engines and the fascinating logging history of the Nisqually River region on the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad.  The views are beautiful, the people friendly, and the ride is sure to please everyone in your family, young and old.  Enjoy!

More information can be found at the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad website here.

DNR Horse Camp

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Looking for a place to camp that can accommodate a large RV outside the west entrance of Mt. Rainier Nat’l Park?  Or perhaps you are looking for a place to camp when the auto campgrounds at Mt. Rainier close on Sept. 29th, 2013. Look no more! As long as you can live without hookups and can pack out your own garbage, the Sahra Creek DNR Horsecamp is just the place for you.

The DNR Horse Camp is located about 8 miles from the west entrance to Mt. Rainier, in a beautiful wooded locale.  The sites are large and plentiful, there are pull-through spots that can accommodate large RVs, and most of the sites have picnic tables and fire grates.  There are two water spigots and a couple of fairly nice pit toilets, and there’s a central grass area that has horse shoe pits if you bring your own shoes.  There is even a building in the center of the camp with over a dozen picnic tables – perfect for a group gathering when the weather isn’t optimal.

The campground accesses a large system of horse trails, meaning that summer weekends and holidays during the summer finds the campground filled with horse trailers. However, mid-week and into the fall season, the campground is very quiet. Since this is a horse camp, you can expect to find some horse “residue,” though most folks are good about cleaning up after their animals. Pets and tent camping are welcomed! This is a great family-friendly place, although the grounds are quite open – so privacy is minimal.

The campground is free to use, but a Washington State Discover Pass is required.  These passes can be obtained at sporting good stores, anywhere a fishing or hunting license are sold, or at the AVG gas station in Ashford (approximately 2 miles east of the DNR horsecamp).  Licenses are $30 for a yearly pass or $10 for daily passes (with transaction and dealer fees the totals are $35 or $11.50), and can also be bought online here: http://www.discoverpass.wa.gov/.

The DNR horse camp is located approximately 5 miles east of Elbe.  When heading east, the DNR sign and drive will be on the left side of the road.  The Visitor Center is just two miles further east in Ashford, and the Mt. Rainier west entrance is less than a 10 minute drive away.

Happy camping!

Address: 262nd Ave E, Ashford, WA 98304
South Puget Sound Region DNR phone: 1-800-527-3305

Don’t Let the Rain Stop You

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You’ve got an adventure all planned to one of the most beautiful places in the world, and now it’s raining.  Sigh.  What is there to do at Mt. Rainier without all of those spectacular mountain views?  Lucky for you – there is plenty that Mt. Rainier still has to offer, even with grey skies and some drizzle. Mt. Rainier is home to old growth forests, plenty of animals, and wildflowers and waterfalls abound, even in the rain.  Here are some ideas to make sure that you still have a fantastic time on the mountain.

Heading through the Nisqually Entrance on the Southwest corner of the park, begin by winding your way up to 6.5 miles miles East to Longmire.  Stop and check out the Longmire Museum, open year-round. The museum is open 9-5 July 1st – Sept 2nd,  with its historical collection on the early history of Longmire, and exhibits and an information booth.  Operating hours are limited outside of peak season, so check here to plan your visit.

Leaving Longmire and continuing east for four miles, you’ll drive right over Christine Falls. This is a beautiful two-tiered smaller waterfall that shoots ecstatically from a slot canyon in the rocks.  You can take great photos from the road, or walk five minutes below the falls for a view of the second tier of the waterfall, framed by the beautiful reinforced concrete/rock bridge you just drove over on SR 706.

Hope back in your car heading east, and you’ll soon come to a large parking lot on your right.  Pull on over, and welcome to Narada Falls! Narada Falls is a family favorite, because all family members get to cross the reinforced concrete/rock bridge that crosses over the first tier of the waterfall on the way to the restrooms, and a short 5-minute walk gives the visitor a fantastic view of the entire two-tiered 188 foot waterfall.  The mists from the falls at the viewpoint can get you a bit damp – but you won’t even notice if it is already raining and you are wearing your rain jacket! Here there are restroom facilities and picnic tables as well.

Once at Paradise, take a look around to see if the clouds will clear to give you a view of the Tatoosh Range, or if you can catch a glimpse of the mountain.  If Rainier is not out, don’t despair! Head to the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center, open June 15th – September 1st, 9 am – 7 pm daily. There are interactive displays, videos, ranger talks, photos, climbing relics, a gift shop, and wonderful area to get warm and spread out your family’s picnic lunch and rest for a bit before heading out for more fun.

This time of year (August), the wildflowers are in full bloom as well.  A walk around the Paradise area in the mist is still beautiful. The yellow-green grasses, blue-green sub-alpine trees, and the pinks, yellows, purples and whites of the flowers pop against the grey. The animals are often out in the rain as well, so keep an eye out for marmots, deer, mountain goats, and even black bear – particularly at dawn and dusk.

On your way back down, about a half mile after you cross over Christine Falls, you’ll see a parking lot for Comet Falls on your right-hand side. If you have appropriate weather gear and it isn’t raining too hard, the is a 2-3 hour hike round-trip to Comet Falls (3.8 miles total) is mostly protected by trees.  You’ll cross above Christine Falls after . 7 miles on a beautiful little log bridge, and you can continue on to Comet Falls if your feet are still feeling dry and comfortable. If the weather clear, Von Trump Park  and its fields of wildflowers and mountain views is an additional mile after Comet Falls, making your total round-trip hike 5.8 miles.

A few of the lower hikes in and around Longmire offer some great hikes for rainy days as well. Twin Firs, Trail of Shadows, Lower Kautz, Rampart Ridge Loop Trail, Eagle Peak, and Carter and Madcap Falls are all great wet weather hikes as well.  Look them up on the NPS website, or stop by our Visitor Center for additional information.

Enjoy the rain!

Lake George and Gobbler’s Knob

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While hoards of tourists are streaming to Paradise to get their wildflower fill for the summer, it is a great time to find a hike with a view and get in some quiet trail time in the forests of the park.  Let others fight for parking! Lake George and Gobbler’s Knob Lookout are great destinations and are moderate hikes (.9 miles from the trail head to Lake George, and another 1.6 miles to Gobbler’s Knob Lookout), and there are very few people on the trail.

“What?!” you say.  “A lake, a fire lookout, and a moderate-level hike accessible to the family that can be enjoyed in relative solitude at Mt. Rainier?  How can this be?!”

I’m so glad you asked!  The Lake George/Gobbler’s Knob trailhead are on the Westside Road, which is the very first left you can make when entering the park from the Nisqually entrance.  However, there is a catch.  Continual flooding of the Westside Road has shut down public vehicle access for nearly 15 years.  The road is gated off after the first 3 miles, and is only accessible for work vehicles.

“Wait a minute,” you say.  “Then how do we get there?  How far is it from the gate to the trailhead?”

Don’t throw in the towel yet! Park your car alongside the Westside Road at the gate. The trailhead for Lake George/Gobbler’s Knob is approximately 4 miles from the gate on your lefthand side, and is impossible to miss.  Many people choose to make a visit to Lake George/Gobbler’s Knob an overnight or even two-night experience, and hike in the 4 miles to the trailhead.  There are campsites (even a group campsite) available at Lake George, and the 4.9 mile hike from the gate to the lake is relatively easy, though hikers will be packing in on a gradual incline the entire hike.  Gobbler’s Knob can then be done as an afternoon hike once the backpacks are dropped off and camp is set up, or the next morning before packing up camp. Heading out is easy, as hikers enjoy a gradual descent that is gentle on the knees.

“But didn’t you say this is a moderate hike? One where my family and I can hike 5 miles roundtrip and relax lakeside, as well as at an old fire lookout?! 13 miles and 5 miles are quite different. We were really looking for a day hike”

Settle down sassypants! You’re absolutely right.  13-miles is a different cup-of-tea than a 5-mile  hike.  But lucky for us, there are other ways to utilize the Westside Road. Does your family bike? Grab your bikes, helmets, and day packs, and enjoy a 4-mile bike to the trailhead and a .9 mile walk to Lake George. The roundtrip 8-mile bike ride and 1.8 mile hike to and from Lake George can be done easily in 2-2.5 hours, and the drive from Ashford (where the visitor Center is located) to the Westside Road gate is just over 20 minutes.  This bike and hike can be done in as little as an afternoon, and Gobblers Knob is a strongly recommended addition.

The 4-mile bike ride from the Westside gate to the trailhead is all uphill on the way in, so get an early start to beat the heat.  Mountain bikes are recommended for the gravel road, and make sure to carry an extra tube and a pump.  There is a bike rack at the trailhead, which you’ll pull up to on your left.

The hike to Lake George is easy, wide, and pleasant.  Even young children who may have freeloaded in a seat on mom or dad’s bike can make their way along this path, and the hike is short enough to feel like a cool-down for your uphill bike ride. Mt. Rainier will show her face within the first .4 miles of hiking, so make sure to peer westward through the trees to enjoy your mountain views.  Once arrived at Lake George, you can picnic with your family in shady quiet and soak in the beauty of the blue-green lake. Make sure to check out the historic log patrol cabin (it was originally built as a horse barn) that sits on the northeast end of the lake, built in 1934.

Once everyone is rested and has snacked at Lake George, continue on the trail another 1.6 miles to the Gobbler’s Knob.  Gobbler’s Knob is one of four fire lookouts within the park boundaries that are historically maintained, with stunning views of the mountain. The trail to Gobblers Knob begins by following the bank of Lake George before taking a few mellow switchbacks.  Hikers are then treated to a pleasant respite from elevation gain as the trail flattens out alongside a pond and makes its way across a small valley, before the ascent begins again and the path meanders its way up in a few more agreeable switchbacks.

After 1.2 miles the trail intersects with Goat Lake Trail, which heads outside the park and into NSFS land.  (This is another route to Lake George and Gobblers Knob – this junction can be reached after 4 miles of hiking, beginning at the trailhead outside the park for Lake Christine). You only have .4 miles left to go! This last section of trail will fly by, as the trail opens up to fields of wildflowers to your left, and then curves up and behind the huge rock outcropping on which the lookout sits.

Mt. Rainier, who has been showing her face through the trees throughout your hike, is now out in all of her glory.  You’ll scramble up the rocks alongside the lookout and settle on your own private boulder throne, or perhaps climb up the lookout stairs and lean your back against the historic 1933 building while soaking in the beauty of the mountain.  Rainier is huge from Gobblers Knob (5,485 ft.), and there she provides you with a panorama that is arguably one of the best in the park.  You can see Mt. Wow to the south and Mt. Ararat to the east, and on a clear day you can see Mt. St. Helens gray and yawning in the distance.

Have a snack.  Relax.  Soak in Rainier in peace and quiet – you and your companions may be the only visitors! The 1.6 mile return to Lake George is a moderate descent where walking sticks come in handy but the path is generally very kind.  From Lake George, the .9 miles back to the trailhead and your awaiting bike will take you 20 minutes max. The 4-mile bike ride to your parked vehicle is all downhill and also takes less than 20 minutes.  If you’re really cruising, you can get from Gobbler’s Knob to your car in a little over an hour.

The secret is out.  Grab a friend or your family, load up those bikes and get out there!

Reflection Lakes

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It is that time again.  The wildflowers are in full bloom, and every person visiting Paradise leaves dazzled and in full comprehension of how the name came to be.  There are many fantastic wildflower hikes to do, but one of the stunners to be sure is the Lakes Trail, which passes by the famous Reflection Lakes. Reflection Lakes are beauty unto themselves when Mt. Rainier is out and reflecting in the lakes (hence the name), but the wow-factor only increases when the wildflowers are out in all their glory.

You can get to Reflection Lakes two ways.  Either approach from Paradise on the Lakes Trail, or you can take a shorter route from the Reflection Lakes trailhead on the Stevens Canyon Highway.  I prefer to enjoy my wildflowers and mountain scenery a bit longer, and the longer version is OUTSTANDING, so I opted to begin my stroll at Paradise.  This loop begins and ends in the Paradise Visitor Center Parking Lot, and is 5.4 miles roundtrip with a 1,300 elevation gain (and a 1,300 foot elevation drop).  Walking sticks are advised for those with sore joints.

Doing the walk counterclockwise is highly recommended, for the stunning Rainier views during the latter portion. From Paradise, you’ll begin by parking in the Visitor Center Lot.  The trailhead is where the one-way Paradise Valley Road driving loop begins, just below the Paradise Lodge.  I recommend starting early in the morning, when the cool air feels fresh and smells sweet, and before the bugs come out.  The insects can be really intense one it warms up, and are particularly bad at dusk. I was lucky enough to see a fox, four deer, and six marmots on my walk, so keep an eye out for animals!

You’ll begin be descending fairly steeply (this is the only rocky portion of the trail) into beautiful subalpine firs and fabulous meadows. The trail flattens out a bit at the bottom, and you’ll cross over the Paradise River and pass by some beautiful little falls.  After a few hundred yards, you’ll cross the Paradise Valley Road and head uphill up over Mazama ridge, before heading downwards again towards Reflection Lake. The Lakes Trail joins the Wonderland Trail for a short way while passing by Reflection Lake.

You’ll reach Reflection Lake 1.7 miles from the trailhead. After passing Reflection Lake and a pond alongside it (this .2 miles is alongside the Stevens Canyon Road before you dip back into nature), you’ll curve around to the left and have the option of following the Wonderland Trail towards Paradise River Camp, or continuing on the Lakes Trail.  I opted to continue on the Wonderland Trail for a few hundred feet, and was rewarded with a beautiful view of Louise Lake.  After snapping a photo, return to the Lakes Trail and head upwards for a half mile, before arriving at Faraway Rock for an excellent view of the Tatoosh Peaks and Louise Lake.

A short uphill grade from Faraway Rock (.2miles) will have you passing by two ponds on the right, and a lovely marshy area to the left before bringing you to a decision on whether to continue on the Lakes Trail for 2.6 miles, or to take the High Lake Trail for 2.2 miles.  The High Lake Trail cuts to the left through the trees and rejoins up with the initial first mile leg of your walk.  I opted to stay with the longer Lakes Trail (following Mazama Ridge) so I could avoid re-tracing. This loop continues above Paradise and comes back down by the Paradise Lodge, ending the hike in fields of wildflowers with Mt. Rainier spectacular in the background.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  As you head right at the ‘Y’ in the road to continue on the Lakes Trail, you’ll pass by a vibrant green meadow to your left and then round the corner to have Rainier literally in your face.  She is too large and beautiful and close to capture in all of her beauty, but you’ll snap a hundred photos trying! Every step the next mile for me was a spiritual experience. I was wading through rippling oceans of Lupine, my eyes darting across fields to take in the fireworks of Magenta and Harsh Paintbrush, American Bistort, Yellow Arnica, Rosy Spirea, White and Pink Heather, Subalpine Daisies, and Sitka Valerian  – all identified using the Mount Rainier Subalpine flower gallery . There were countless others weaving together the landscape, with stunted firs framing the mountain.

The climb is a pleasant gradual incline and mesmerizing at every step.  After about a mile, the trail meets with the Skyline Trail for the final 1.4 miles. From here on, you’ll begin running into considerably more people.  The marmots abound, and the wildflowers change with every dip and turn.  You’ll have a llittle ascent into a watershed, then have a bit of a climb, before the path definitely turns itself downwards and gently propels your feet towards the Paradise Lodge/Visitor Center Parking Lot.

There are more stunning photos in every direction – of the mountain, wildflowers, waterfalls, and the Tatoosh Range. The earlier hikers hit the trail, the less people there will be sharing the popular Skyline Trail at the end of the walk.  Set an alarm and get out there by 7 am and enjoy – I’m getting excited for you and this fabulous adventure you’re going to have.

Read more about accessing Reflection Lakes from the Stevens Canyons Road trailhead here: http://www.visitrainier.com/pg/hike/9/Reflection%20Lakes

Indian Bar

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Oh Indian Bar.  To be clear, this hike is not for the weak or weary.  This hike is a hard stretch of the Wonderland, with 14.5 miles round-trip and a 2,900 foot elevation gain on the way in (800 on the way out). Is it worth it?  Absolutely.  A hundred times over.

In an interview with the backcountry carpenter at Mt. Rainier, see blog here: (https://mtrainierblog.com/2013/07/07/stories-from-the-mountain-meet-mt-rainiers-backcountry-carpenter/)  he said that Indian Bar is one of his favorite places in the park.  Furthermore, he said that he had never NOT seen a bear at Indian Bar (sorry for the double negative), and sightings included a mother bear with three cubs, and a six-bears-in-one-day day.  Bears, wildflowers, dozens of waterfalls, and a babbling brook all in a private, wide-open valley.  YES PLEASE!

Indian Bar can be reached from two different access points – beginning from Box Canyon or from Fryingpan Creek Bridge (taking the the Summerland Trail from the White River side of the park).  I’ve done the Box Canyon route, and will focus on this route for all intensive purposes.  The Box Canyon trailhead is on Stevens Canyon Road, 11 miles east of the Longmire-Paradise Road. The gravel trail (with a sign) is directly across from the parking lot.

The first mile-and-a-half allow hikers to pass alongside Nickel Creek and another small creek with a mild grade. The next mile and a half are tough – there is a lot of elevation grade without much reprieve, and the area is all forested – not allowing for scenic overlooks until the 3-mile mark. At three miles, hikers will reach the crest of the Cowlitz Divide, which hikers will follow for the next four-and-a-half miles. Off the right hikers can settle themselves into a moderate sized field of wildflowers with nice views southwards, to drink and eat trail mix before continuing north and climbing onward.

As hikers continue onwards on the ridge, the trail gradually opens up.  Mt. Rainier will start to show its southeast side ahead and to the left through the trees, and the trail will follow the contours of the ridge, at times quite steep, but allowing hikers to rest on some flat stretches, and enjoy the wildflower meadows as they widen and beckon. Finally, the trail widens to show Mt. Rainier in all of its glory, with a colorful valley in the foreground. This is the high point of the trail at 5,914′ and from here, hikers will descend 800′ into the valley where Indian Bar sits in a huge open meadow.

The Ohanapecosh river splits the meadow in two, and the Indian Bar shelter beautifully sits to the west side of the river, its open side facing the flowing water.  Animals frequent the meadows north of the shelter and camping areas, and in late spring there are many waterfalls pouring down the lava cliff faces high above the valley. The backcountry camping area is southeast of the shelter about 100 feet, and sits right above Wauhaukaupauken Falls, which are small but beautiful.

Once you’ve set up your camp and rested a bit, it is recommended to clamber up the hill above the camp.  Elk sightings are almost guaranteed when the animals are in rut in September.  Remember always to give animals plenty of space.  Bull elk can be extremely aggressive in mating season, and you should take care never to surprise a black bear.  Take extra precautions around the black bear if there are cubs around.  Never get between a mother and her cub, and make sure to make plenty of noise when hiking at dusk and dawn, so as not to catch a bear unaware and on the defense.

This hike is generally snow-free from late July – September, and the wildflowers are out in full effect late-July to mid-August. If hikers arrange for a car drop-off, the Box Canyon hike can be combined with the Summerland trail to the trailhead at Frying Creek bridge (another 8.7 mile hike), for a one-way 17 mile hike through some of Mt. Rainier’s most beautiful country.

If you choose to do the Box Canyon trail in and out of Indian Bar, it is most definitely recommended as a two-day hike, so make sure that you apply for the appropriate backcountry camping permit, which must be arranged in person. Wilderness Camping and Climbing permits are available at the Longmire, White River, and Carbon River Wilderness Information Centers (WICs) and at the Paradise Climbing Information Center during the summer season. Permits are also available at visitor centers.