Family Weekender: Seattle

Backpacking Windy Gap
Go Guide: Windy Gap

Activities: Hiking, photography, wildlife watching, berry picking, wildflower viewing.
Age Levels: All ages, provided adults carry gear for the little ones.
Hours from Seattle: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Getting There: From Puyallup, drive 13 miles east on Highway 410 to Buckley. Turn right (south) on Highway 165. Proceed to the bridge over the Carbon River Gorge and bear left to Mount Rainier National Park's Carbon River entrance. Proceed five miles to the trailhead at the road's end at Ipsut Creek Campground. Hike the Wonderland Trail 2.1 miles to the Northern Loop Trailhead near the Carbon River. Note: Portions of Highway 123 (Cayuse Pass) and Highway 410 (Chinook Pass), and all roads within Mount Rainier National Park, are closed in winter, except the road between the Nisqually entrance and Paradise, which is kept open as conditions permit. Contact the park, 360/569-2211, for current road conditions.
Reference: 50 Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park, by Ira Spring and Harvey Manning (The Mountaineers Books, 1-800-553-4453).
Contact: Mount Rainier National Park, Park Headquarters, Tahoma Woods, Star Route, Ashford, WA 98304; 360/569-2211.
Extra Treats: Blacktail deer frequent areas crossed by the trail, while mountain goats prowl the high meadows and cliffs of Windy Gap. Other wildlife viewing includes: Stellar's jays, whiskey jacks (a.k.a. camp robber jays), red-tail hawks goshawks, black bears and elk.


This trail leads into some of the most beautiful — and least visited — areas of Mount Rainier National Park. Part of the reason for the isolation and quiet found on this trail is that the trail is rough and steep. You'll have to work a little to enjoy the beauty found here, but its well worth it.

The trail begins at Ipsut Creek Campground and follows the Carbon River Trail upstream for 2.1 miles. A small side trail drops into the wide, tree-filled riverbed at that point. Take this side trail and cross the river on a series of rough-hewn foot logs (there are three separate river channels to cross). On the other side, you'll climb out of the riverbed and turn sharply left and begin climbing, weaving back and forth through a seemingly endless series of switchbacks.

Finally, the trail slices through a small moss-laden growth of ancient cedars and erupts into a bear grass-filled meadow rolling steeply away from the vertical wall of Yellowstone Cliffs. Enter these sloping meadows quietly and you have a good chance of finding blacktail deer, mountain goats, or both grazing in the rich forage. A small campsite is stuck along the edge of the meadow, a dense field of bear grass.

About a mile beyond the cliffs, the trail weaves through a minefield of small ponds and to a broad granite-studded meadow nestled in a deep saddle at 5,800 feet. This is Windy Gap. IF you've got the energy, you might venture another long mile past Lake James, then about a mile northeast to a viewpoint of the Natural Bridge. But it's difficult to see the open arch of the Natural Bridge.

A better option for further exploration is to climb the gentle ridge on the south side of Windy Gap for a stunning view of the north face of Mount Rainier and, just below the ridge, the emerald plain of the Elysian Fields.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 9 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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