In Seattle, when you suggest, “Let’s go walk Green Lake,” you head by the Woodland Park Zoo and brave the crowds around the paved pedestrian/wheeled path. In this iteration, you have an emerald-green alpine lake probably all to yourselves, listen to the roar of a river and visit a cool waterfall along the way. And if you’ve not been to the Carbon River corner of Mount Rainier National Park, you’ll encounter a totally different vibe than the ultra-popular southwest quadrant that includes Longmire and Paradise.
The Green Lake Download
Highlights: Great walk in old-growth forest along a roaring river, nice two-tiered waterfall, peaceful alpine lake.
Travel Time (from Urban Centers to Park/Trailhead): Almost two hours from Seattle, about 1 hour 15 minutes from Tacoma, 3 hours 25 minutes from Portland.
Nearby Supplies and Gas: Enumclaw and Buckley.
Difficulty: Not very; the two-mile trek along the Green Lake Trail has a moderate climb with enough diversions for children to make it seem easier. Trekking poles or walking sticks could be helpful on the Green Lake Trail but is not likely worth the effort of carrying them for the super-flat roundtrip to the trailhead.
Distance: 10.8 miles (out and back).
Entrance Fees: $15 per vehicle, $5 per individual (if walk, bike, etc.), various passes.
Top Elevation: 3,400 feet.
Elevation Gain: 1,300 feet.
Trailhead Waypoint: N46° 59.595, W121° 51.221
Maps: Green Trails Mount Rainier No. 269; USGS Mowich Lake.
Getting There: Head down W165 South, through Buckley. After crossing the one-lane bridge over Carbon River Gorge, bear left to Mount Rainier National Park’s Carbon River Entrance. Presently, all hikes in that area begin at the old Carbon River Ranger Station, where there is parking and you must pay your fee or display your National Park Pass. The Green Lake Trailhead is 3.6 miles in, on the right.
(NOTE: Clicking on an image opens full-sized version).
In a lot of ways, hiking here reminded me of ambling along the Sol Duc or Elwha Rivers in Olympic National Parks. Unlike other sectors of Mount Rainier National Park, there are no eye-popping views of the Mountain, or any other glacially endowed mountaintops, along the old Carbon River Road. What you get instead is a peaceful, largely shaded walk along a flat, really wide path (so have at it, families or bikers) along moss- and lichen-kissed, old-growth timber, with the roar of the silty Carbon River as your soundtrack.
You need to traverse the road to the trailhead, by the way, because massive flooding in 2006 washed out the road, which has flooded more than 40 times since being built in the 1920s. Rather than repair the road again, with no guarantee that it wouldn’t wash out again, it was converted to a trail. In the past, you could drive almost directly to trailheads of several great day hikes; now you have to cover an additional 8-10 miles, roundtrip. The compromise (mainly to classic, upslope wilderness trail access) is this utterly pleasant, though longish, walk-in.
The Green Lake Trail makes for a good pairing, particularly for beginners and families. The ascent is gentle, with plenty of distractions to make it seem even gentler. There are three massive trees that cross the trail, for example. And a little more than a mile up is Ranger Falls.
There is a trail at the start of a switchback that appears to lead to the waterfall, but if it isn’t signed, it isn’t the right one. Don’t skip it; there is a blocked-off viewpoint, but you are plenty close to one of the more interesting movements of waters that you’ll see on a hike like this.
When you get to the log crossing, about a half mile up, you’re almost to Green Lake. The creek is easily accessible at the crossing, making it a candidate for lunch or snacks. If not there, then refuel at Green Lake, just over the boardwalks and down a short hill. Don’t be surprised. You will not find roller skaters, folks strolling and talking on cellphones or even a Spud’s there, like the “other” Green Lake. What you will find is a tree-lined, emerald alpine lake with a couple peaks overlooking and another, Tolmie, slightly off in the distance.
The setting is so quiet and idyllic, you’ll hear the birds chirping on the other side of the lake. And, maybe most importantly, you’ll hear yourself think. Unlike at the “other” joint.