Two Waterfalls and a Lake (Chenius Falls, Ranger Falls and Green Lake)

On the first truly hot day of the year we sought shade, a cool breeze and a hike not far from water. A hike along the Carbon River Road (Mount Rainier National Park) met all those requirements so we got an early start and headed to the Carbon River entrance of the park.

Chenius Falls was our first stop – the trailhead is about 3.6 miles from the entrance. As we hiked we were passed by mountain bikers and even a couple of trail runners en route to the Ipsut Creek campground where several other trails begin.

We had no mountain bikes but didn’t mind the road-walk; it’s a nice prelude to the views ahead. Admittedly by the time we were hiking the road back to the trailhead, we did find ourselves wishing that the park would install trailhead parking a little further up the road for those without mountain bikes or any other way to get to the Carbon Glacier/Ipsut Creek trailhead.

Despite the heat we enjoyed the road-walk and reminisced about how the road has changed since the floods of 2006. A few days after those floods we had hiked a rough, flagged route along the Carbon River Road to witness the devastation firsthand. It was one of the most mesmerizing, humbling hikes we’ve ever taken – if nothing else will humble you, the power of nature will. Today the alder-lined road makes it harder to envision the devastation from those floods – in fact, the road appears to be drivable, at least to the Chenius Falls trailhead (a decision was made by MRNP to keep the road as a multiple-use hiking trail). It’s now a five-mile hike (or ride) to Ipsut Creek Campground.

Family outing at Chenius Falls

At 3.1 miles we passed the Green Lake/Ranger Falls trailhead then continued half a mile to the Chenius Falls trail. Here the trail drops down to the Carbon River floodplain on a trail bordered with rocks and to the first of seven footbridges that cross the floodplain and the Carbon River. A sign at the trailhead reminds hikers that these bridges frequently wash out. We were a little concerned about the snow-melt adding to the already high volume of the Carbon River (always check with the rangers at the entrance station to ensure that the bridges are in place).

Crossing the Carbon River

An interpretive sign at the Chenius Falls trailhead explains how flooding can change the topography and the course of the river. Nearby is a picnic table – this is a good turnaround with good views for hikers wanting a shorter hike. Here the Carbon River floodplain sprawls about 400 feet across the Carbon River valley, the trail crosses side-channels on seven foot bridges before crossing the Carbon River (bridges 1, 3 and 7 have railings; they are not needed on the others). The river cannot be safely forded and as one who has always exercised caution in crossing streams, the river level seemed high (about 1.5 feet below the bridge in the morning); we could also see where water had splashed over the bridge. As we negotiated the floodplain we enjoyed the view of Mount Rainier peeking over forested ridges (south) and to the north Burnt Mountain and Old Baldy. Clumps of yellow monkey flowers nestled among the river rocks; the setting was sublime.

A big clump of monkey flowers

From the last crossing, it’s only a short distance to the overlook of Chenius Falls (2,163 feet); the waterfall is about 287 feet high and makes four drops in the form of steep cascades. After enjoying views of Chenius Falls we considered exploring the trail that continues from Chenius Falls (the trail is kept in good condition by volunteers), but we weren’t not certain where the trail ends. We plan to return later in summer when the Carbon River settles down a bit.

Leaving Chenius Falls

Since it was such a hot day and the Ipsut Creek campground felt too far away, we opted for Ranger Falls and Green Lake since they were on the way back to the trailhead. The Green Lake trail is about 3.1 miles in from the Carbon River entrance so it didn’t take us long to get there. It’s about a two-mile hike (one way) to Green Lake (3,189 feet). You might want to include the side-trip to Ranger Falls (2,792 feet) before or after your hike to Green Lake. The Green Lake trail is mostly in the shade and is one of the finest examples of an old-growth forest in the park.  The forest is a combination of stumps adorned with shelf-fungus, moss-frosted boulders, freshets, old-growth trees and nurse logs (home to hundreds of seedlings). Deer ferns, bracken and oak ferns line the forested path along with woodland flowers – trilliums, Canadian dogwood (bunchberry), delicate saxifrages, false lily of the valley, wild ginger, bead lily and a sprinkling of yellow stream violets.

At the designated junction for the side trip to Ranger Falls, we descended to the Ranger Falls overlook. You’ll hear the waterfall well before you get to it. Ranger Falls (2,792 feet) was putting on a good show and a fine mist from the waterfall cooled us down when the breeze shifted in our direction. We attempted to photograph the falls, but given the tricky light we weren’t too successful. Please stay on the trail, don’t try to get close to the waterfall as the terrain is steep and hazardous.

The base of Ranger Falls

After viewing Ranger Falls we hiked to Green Lake (3,189 feet), crossing Ranger Creek on a high footbridge (with a railing). From the Ranger Falls junction it is about 0.8 miles with 300 feet of elevation gain to Green Lake. When the lake comes into view you won’t be wondering why it’s called Green Lake. It is so very green! You may have to wander about a bit to find a place to settle; the vegetation grows right down to the lakeshore and the water was high. You can follow a user path on either side of the lake for a better view of the lake and peaks above (Arthur, Gove and Howard). We walked a short distance clockwise around the lake to a secluded spot with a pretty good view of the lake. We saw a large fish jump, its splash breaking the silence.

Green Lake
Green Lake

As usual we stopped in Wilkeson to visit the town cat, Maizie, and were glad to see that Skeek’s, a diner, has re-opened after being closed for a while. Skeek, the proprietor, was out of town but two pleasant young women who work there were generous with the ice cream scoop when we ordered single cones. Skeek’s is a unique kind of place with historical artifacts to ponder, with old photographs and even a few items for sale. After your hike, stop by for a cold drink, breakfast, or a pastry – if Skeek is there you’ll be in for an additional treat. Skeek is a well-versed, well-traveled individual with many stories to share. Skeek’s is open Friday through Sunday. We found Maizie, the town kitty, outside resting in the shade – we sat outside for a while with her – after she drank down most of a bowl of cold water, she came up to us for a nuzzle before returning to her shady niche.

Getting there:  From State Route 410 turn off at Buckley onto State Route 165 which takes you through Wilkeson, bypasses Carbonado and crosses the Carbon River on the Fairfax Bridge. About three miles from the Fairfax Bridge the road becomes the Carbon River Road – at the road junction where the road (right) goes to Mowich Lake, stay left, continue to the Carbon River entrance of the park.

If you hike to Chenius Falls, Ranger Falls and Green Lake the hike is about 12.9 miles round-trip with an elevation gain of 1,700 feet (mileage/gain will be lower if you only hike to one of the destinations). For additional information and road/trail conditions call Mount Rainier National Park at (360) 569-2211 or visit their website: The best map is Green Trails No. 269 S Mount Rainier.

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