Seattle Area Hikes

Carbon Glacier
By Scott Leonard
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Key Info
Level : Easy/Moderate
Total Distance : 7.0 miles
Hiking Time : 4 hours
Elevation Gain : 1,300 feet
Summary : A spectacular sampling of Mount Rainier, this hike passes waterfalls, crosses an enormous suspension bridge, and reaches the largest glacier in the lower 48 states.

The Hike
The hike to Carbon Glacier follows the most scenic stretch of valley on the famed Wonderland Trail. Within the old-growth forest of the Carbon Valley, Wonderland Trail passes several waterfalls before coming face-to-face with one of America’s biggest glaciers. The highlight of the journey for many isn’t the glacier—it’s the gut-wrenching walk across the colossal suspension bridge spanning the river With so many great things to see, this is the best day hike in Mount Rainier National Park.

This is a great trail for hikers of all experience levels. The elevation gain is evenly spread along the route and kids love crossing the suspension bridge. However, don’t expect solitude along this hike. The route is a segment of the popular Wonderland and Northern Loop Trails. Weekdays in the spring and fall are good times to find the trail relatively vacant.

The hike leaves the parking lot at Ipsut Creek Campground and quickly encounters a side trail on the right to Ipsut Falls (0.1 mile). Be sure to check out this quick detour to the large falls. The main trail follows the Carbon River and reaches a junction with the Wonderland Trail (0.3 mile). Stay left on the Wonderland Trail as it parallels the river and heads up the valley. The Carbon River’s turbid water looks incredibly dirty, but, in fact, it’s filled with rock flour, the product of the glacier grinding up and eroding the mountain.

The Wonderland Trail leaves the river and reaches a junction for the southern crossing (1.9 miles), an alternate route. Stay on the Wonderland Trail as it again encounters the river and a wide riverbed of boulders and glacial moraine. Carbon River Camp (2.8 miles) is located along Cataract Creek where it cascades over large boulders beside the trail.

The Wonderland Trail crosses the Carbon River on a large suspension bridge (3.0 miles) spanning more than 200 feet. Even the sturdiest of hikers will be knocking knees as they peer down through the boards to the raging river 40 feet below. At the east end of the bridge, turn right and climb to the snout of Carbon Glacier (3.5 miles).

Acting like a giant bulldozer and covered in rocks and dirt, the end of the glacier is slowly pushing chunks of the mountain down the slope. The Carbon Glacier is the largest in the lower 48 states, both in depth (700 feet thick in some places) and volume. It is also the lowest glacier, with its terminus at just 3,600 feet of elevation. Although the glacier looks benign, appearances are deceiving. Small rock slides occur frequently and are extremely dangerous. The glacier is best viewed from the trail.

Experienced and adventure-seeking hikers can add a small loop to this hike. The Northern Loop Trail parallels the Carbon River on the eastern banks. From the east end of the suspension bridge, hike south 1.1 miles on the Northern Loop Trail to a signed junction. Turn left on an unnamed connector trail and cross the river back to the Wonderland Trail. This crossing is sketchy and regularly washes out. Check with the ranger at the guard station on the road in to see if this south crossing is passable.

From Seattle, drive east on I-90 to I-405. Turn south on I-405 and drive to Exit 4/Highway 169. Drive south on Highway 169 25 miles to Enumclaw. Follow signs for Highway 410 West. Turn west on Highway 410 and drive four miles to Highway 165 in the town of Buckley. Turn left (south) and drive 10 miles, through the towns of Wilkeson and Carbonado, to Carbon River Road at a signed fork in the road. Veer left and drive 13 miles to the signed parking area at Ipsut Creek Campground at the end of the road. The signed trailhead is at the back of the parking lot.

Information and Contact
This trail is accessible mid-May to October and is open to hikers only—dogs are not allowed. A National Park Pass is required to park here. Passes can be purchased at the Carbon River Guard Station, located at the park boundary on Carbon River Road. For a map of Mount Rainier National Park, contact the Outdoor Recreation Information Center at the downtown Seattle REI. For topographic maps, ask Green Trails for No. 269, Mount Rainier West, or ask the USGS for Mowich Lake. For more information, contact Mount Rainier National Park, Wilkeson Wilderness Information Center, P.O. Box 423, Wilkeson, WA 98396, 360/829-5127.

Published: 2 May 2006 | Last Updated: 13 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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