There’s nothing that whets our appetite like word or rumors of abandoned trails or historical sites on the verge of vanishing into the mists of history. The Carbon River Valley outside Mount Rainier National Park is full of such places, long-forgotten mining and logging settlements with names almost lost except to historians and descendants of those who once lived or worked there in the coal mines or on the Northern Pacific Railroad.

One such rough gem is the old Northern Pacific railroad grade in the Carbon River valley that runs between the town of Carbonado and Moore-Manley Road along State Route 165. Go soon, the old railroad grade is destined to become part of the Foothills Trail, a multiple-use trail, parts of which are likely to be paved. While we believe multiple-use trails are necessary we also know this railroad grade will lose much of its original character. Though the railroad grade can be muddy in stretches and you may run into an occasional off-road recreational vehicle solitude is practically a given. We’ve hiked there several times, and so far we’ve only run into two local hikers.

Melmont in May

Melmont and Fairfax are the sites of two long-gone settlements. Melmont founded in 1900 when coal mining started up, it’s the easiest to find. Then a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad opened the Melmont Coal Mine,  and the coal was sent by rail to Carbonadno to process. The coal was used until the railroad switched to other energy sources (diesel and electricity); as a result the town lost its economic base. What remained of Melmont was destroyed in the early 1920s by fire.

Fairfax is a little more challenging to find (see getting there for details). If bound for Melmont cross the Fairfax Bridge (see getting there for details), park in a wide spot (parking is limited) cross the bridge on foot, and find a steep path on the south side of the bridge, drop down to the railroad grade. No railroad ties are left but it’s obvious it was once a railroad grade, today a wide, mostly level grade.

Head south (left) on the railroad grade and almost immediately you’ll come to a rock retaining wall (right) used to prevent the roadbed from sliding. A little past the moss-slathered retaining wall you’ll come to an old stone structure once used as a dynamite shack. Notice the licorice ferns springing from any place it can find a foothold on the building.

At about 1.5 miles you’ll come to an unsigned split in the railroad grade: the downhill fork (right) drops down to a large field that once was the bustling little town of Melmont. Little remains today; other than rusty, crumpled remnants of a car riddled with bullet holes and the foundation of a hotel. From the grade a very faint old road leads down to bridge abutments in Melmont where a wagon bridge crossed the Carbon River. On our recent visit it took us a while to find these as there are no markers and no hint a bridge ever stood there other than two supports almost completely obscured by encroaching vegetation.

Melmont makes a good turnaround for a short, but intensely interesting hike – better yet, we suggest returning to the railroad grade, backtrack a bit and hike the short, uphill fork (it will be on your right as you head back toward the Fairfax Bridge) to the site of the Melmont schoolhouse. Only a few moss-covered walls remain of the schoolhouse but it is a pleasant setting on a sunny day and so quiet you can almost hear time ticking away.

Go back the way you came or consider options for a longer hike:  from Melmont continue south on the railroad grade to the Manley-Moore road bridge which spans the Carbon River. This is the southernmost end of the railroad grade – it is 5 miles one way or 10 miles round-trip from the Fairfax Bridge. To hike the railroad grade one way take two cars, leaving one on the far side of the Fairfax Bridge (limited parking), then continue south on State Route 165 to Manley-Moore Road, turn left, continue to the Manley Moore bridge that crosses the Carbon River and on the other side of the bridge look for parking along the road.

Mossy outcrop, near the bridge on Manley-Moore Road

Walk down to the river and pick up the railroad grade directly under the bridge. Make sure to note the beautiful graffiti-style rendition of Mount Rainier under the bridge! This stretch of the railroad grade looks and feels more like a trail as it parallels the river but it is easy to follow. Hike the grade back to the Fairfax Bridge or, if you only have one car, establish a turnaround point and go back the way you came. Along the way you’ll come to a couple of unsigned (vague) junctions along the grade; stay on the main trail. Also a couple of unmarked spurs lead down to the Carbon River and river-bars views upriver toward Mount Rainier and the Carbon Glacier on a clear day.

Under the bridge on Manley-Moore Road

From the Fairfax Bridge you can also head north toward Carbonado though we didn’t find this nearly as interesting as heading south from the Fairfax bridge.

The most obscure point of interest in the Carbon River valley that we know is the site of Fairfax, once a settlement on both sides of the Carbon River spanned by a long-gone bridge. After parking on State Route 165 (see getting there) follow the remains of an old road down to river-level; sturdy boots strongly recommended as this road is muddy and in places obscured by fallen trees and blackberry vines.

The site of Fairfax will be to the north (left); there are no markers but a faint indentation in the vegetation leads to a large, flat area and a short, easier-to-follow path appears through what was once an orchard, leading to the ruins of a swimming pool, complete with steps leading down into it. Finding the swimming pool was the most intriguing part of this walk and well worth getting a little mud on our boots. We cast about through alder groves looking for more artifacts, including the supports of a bridge that once spanned the river – but to no avail. We also found the center post for the railroad.

Getting There: 

Getting to the Manley-Moore trailhead:  From Wilkeson/Carbonado continue on State Route 165 (south), cross the Fairfax Bridge and when you get to the junction with the Mowich lake Road continue on the Carbon River Road to Manley-Moore Road (about 3.64 miles from the Fairfax Bridge). From there it is .6 mile to the Manley-Moore Bridge. Cross the Carbon River and park in the obvious parking area near the bridge.

Getting to Melmont – From Wilkeson/Carbonado continue (south) on route State Route 165, cross the Fairfax Bridge and after crossing the bridge note a small parking spot on the left-side of the road. Park there, walk back across the bridge and look for a short, steep path on the south side of the bridge that descends to the railroad grade, turn left (south) onto the grade and start walking.

Getting to Fairfax – From Wilkeson/Carbonado continue on route State Route 165 toward the Carbon River entrance of Mount Rainier National Park (go mid-week if possible as parking is limited). About a half mile past the Fairfax Bridge turn left at the split in the road onto the Carbon River Road. Continue a scant two miles to where you will see several large boulders just off the road (left). Park in the small pullout there and walk down a short spur road to the meadow, then head north (left). Explore.

If you encounter private property signs do not trespass. Refer to the site below for their “Code of Ethics” which should apply to anyone interested in exploring ghost towns.

Additional information on these and other ghost towns in Washington:  www.ghosttownsofwashington.com  .

For additional information on the Foothills Trail see:

http://www.co.pierce.wa.us/index.aspx?nid=1384

 

 

 

 

 


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