Tag Archives: Camping

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

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!

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.

Paddling around Rainier

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Are you looking for other outdoor recreation for you and your family around Mt. Rainier?  A paddle on the Nisqually or Cowlitz River could be just the ticket.

The Nisqually river runs out of the park right alongside SW entrance, and through Ashford, WA. The Nisqually is recommended for more experienced paddlers, and not recommended for canoes.  The drop-in is at Skate Creek/USFS-52, where the bridge crosses over the Nisqually.  The drop in is about 5 minutes fro the Visitor Center, and the take-out is about 6 minutes away, so make sure to drop by for a visit! This run is about 11 miles, paralleling SR 706 until the takeout where Hwy 7 crosses the Nisqually in Elbe, just before Alder Lake.  A Class II and III run, this is a fast-paced run (3 hours or less) that carves through narrow slot canyons at the three-mile mark.  Scouting this section of the river is recommended, or kayaking/paddling with someone who is familiar with the river.  As the run progresses, it opens up for a few miles, allowing a few glimpses of Mt. Rainier and her glory, before passing under Hwy 7 and gently folding into Alder Lake.

To get to the Cowlitz river from our Visitor Center in Ashford, drive east on SR 706 for 3 miles,a and take a right on NSFS-52. You’ll cross over the aforementioned  drop-in for the Nisqually run, and travel on this beautiful scenic road for 22 miles before arriving in Packwood. There is camping along Skate Creek as well, though camping spots are generally taken early on weekends.

Kayaks and canoes frequent the Cowlitz in a few different sections, depending on the experience of the paddler. One put-in is at La Wis Wis campground, just a few miles east of Packwood.  There is 7.5 miles of Class II water, and the take-out is under the Packwood bridge (where USFS-52 crosses over the Cowlitz).  This run is best run at high water, April through mid-July.  It is possibly to run later in the summer/fall, but you may have to portage your vessel over shallow areas. Not recommended for young children.

A personal favorite is to put-in at the Packwood bridge (NF-52 crossing over the Cowlitz), and do the 11 mile float down to the bridge where Hwy 12 crosses over the Cowlitz.  This stretch is a fun one since the water runs at a steady pace and keeps you moving.  The run takes about 3 hours non-stop, but the mountain views are spectacular if you look back over your shoulder, and the fishing and river beaches are definitely worth pulling over for. Plan for 5-6 hours and take your time.  This section of the river is also Class II, but you’ll have to keep an eye out for sweepers (logs and log jams that can be dangerous if not avoided).  This section is not recommended for young children.

If one is looking for a family-friendly paddle, you can put in at the aforementioned bridge between Packwood and Randle where Hwy 12 crosses over Cowlitz, and float 9-10 miles until the 131 crosses over the river, just a quarter mile of Hwy 12 in Randle. This section is slow and winding, so make sure to plan by bringing plenty of water, and sunscreen.  The float takes plus or minus 5 hours non-stop, but longer if you take significant or frequent breaks. This is a great one for families, and there are plenty of spaces to camp for those that want to take it easy and make it a two-day adventure. Bring your fishing pole for this section as well!

While both rivers are accessible and gorgeous, paddlers should always take precaution.  Always paddle with a friend, scout areas that are unknown, and check your gear.  Remember that these are glacial waters and even the best swimmers will have a challenge fighting the cold if you do roll, and always wear your life jacket.  Be safe out there!