Trip reports

Mount Rainier backcountry: Carbon Glacier

Weather brewing atop Mount Rainier

Day hike to Carbon Glacier

Morning dawned cloudy but dry on our second full day at Mount Rainier’s Ipsut Creek backcountry camp. The forecast promised rain around noon, so we got on the trail early, heading to Carbon Glacier. In contrast to the previous day, this 8-mile roundtrip hike felt easy, with moderate elevation gain (only 2000 feet!) on a well-graded trail. Retracing our steps to the Carbon River crossing, we turned upriver.

First stop, a suspension bridge that led to Carbon River backcountry camp. The bridge, built in 1984, swings high over the river, safely above the flooding caused by severe winter storms that typically take out lower crossings each year. It provides an excellent view of the upper Carbon River valley and is less than a half-mile from the glacier’s terminus.  “One person at a time” the sign warned, so we individually made our way across and sprawled on big rocks on the other side.

"One person at a time" on the suspension bridge across the Carbon River.
“One person at a time” on the suspension bridge across the Carbon River. (Lauren Danner photo)
View up the Carbon River valley from the suspension bridge.
View up the Carbon River valley from the suspension bridge. (Lauren Danner photo)
Snack, anyone?
Snack, anyone? (Mr. Adventure photo)

After lazing a while, we recrossed the bridge and continued up the trail. Within a half-mile, we paralleled the glacier, which rises dramatically from the river valley. Carbon Glacier is the lowest-elevation glacier in the contiguous United States, its snout at 3500’ above sea level. According to Wikipedia, it’s also the longest (5.7 miles) and thickest (700’) outside of Alaska. Because it faces north, it is slightly less susceptible to melting caused by global warming. And even though it’s coated with a protective layer of soil, gravel, and debris, rendering it a gritty gray color, it is huge. I’ve been close to glaciers before, but not this close, and the sense of grinding grandeur and timelessness was impressive. We paused frequently, not speaking, just to look.

The snout of the Carbon Glacier.
The snout of the Carbon Glacier. Note the increasing clouds overhead. (Mr. Adventure photo)
The length of Carbon Glacier coming into view.
The length of Carbon Glacier coming into view. (Mr. Adventure photo)
Mount Rainier and Carbon Glacier.
Carbon Glacier stretches down the valley in front of Mount Rainier, where a lenticular cloud signals changing weather. (Mr. Adventure photo)

At one point we were high enough to see where the Carbon River exits the glacier, and watched the roiling, milky waters at the moment they transform from ice and snow. The trail hugs the slope next to the glacier, so the higher we got, the better the view—and the bigger the glacier appeared.

Summer leaves the mountains in a hurry

After crossing a talus field and a bridge over Dick Creek, we hauled ourselves up a rope to Dick Creek camp, two tiny sites and a backcountry privy with a stellar view perched above the glacier. This was our turnaround point, and we were ready for lunch.

The Geographer and Analog Girl find a lunch spot with a view.
The Geographer and Analog Girl find a lunch spot with a view. You can see the terminus of the glacier in the lower center left of the picture. (Mr. Adventure photo)

We backtracked to a promontory along the trail and sat down. Behind the glacier, clouds spilled over the ridge, fickle fingers of vapor reaching over the ridge into the valley. A lenticular cloud clinging to Mount Rainier’s summit was getting bigger by the minute. The weather was about to change.

Five minutes into lunch, we felt the first raindrops. The Geographer looked up and said, “Well, there goes summer.” And just like that, it was autumn. As we pulled on rain gear, the wind picked up, barreling down the valley and buffeting our picnic area. The mountain disappeared behind a wall of rain. Quickly jamming everything into packs, we hurried down the trail, whipped by wind and water and needles flying off evergreen trees. Past the suspension bridge, across the Carbon River, and back to camp.

We’d held out a whisker of hope that the rain wouldn’t be as bad at the campground, protected by tall trees. Not a chance. Mr. Adventure and I were a few minutes behind Analog Girl and The Geographer. “What do you think?” Mr. Adventure called over. “He’s already packing!” Analog Girl replied. Our tent site was rapidly turning into a large puddle, so we dove in and started packing too.

Remember the picture of us starting out two days earlier in sunny weather? Yeah, neither did we.
Remember the picture of us starting out two days earlier in sunny weather? Yeah, neither did we. (Mr. Adventure photo)

Let me just review our mileage to this point. Day one: five flat miles. No biggie. Day two: 16 miles and 3,000’ of elevation gain. Kind of a big deal. Day three thus far: eight miles and 2000’ of elevation gain. Now we were going to put on packs made heavier by wet gear and walk another five miles out??

Yes. And Analog Girl and I hightailed it, arriving at the car about five minutes ahead of the guys. Mr. Adventure says this is because his pack was so much heavier than mine, but I am skeptical. Regardless, the walk out was quite lovely, with low clouds filling river valley and cleansing rain dripping through the ancient rain forest. It is, in fact, an inland rain forest, the only one at Mount Rainier and a rare sight anywhere, since most rain forests grow in coastal areas.

Clouds settling into the Carbon River valley. Summer is over.
Clouds settling into the Carbon River valley. Summer is over. (Lauren Danner photo)

Two hours later, we were ensconced in a booth at King Solomon’s Reef, a funky old Olympia diner, choosing various fried and starchy things to eat. The next day we’d see pictures of the first snowfall at Paradise, but now, warm and dry, we laughed about our excellent adventure way back in the backcountry of Mount Rainier.

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About Lauren Danner

When I’m not out hiking on our public lands, I'm either buried in a book or writing about Pacific Northwest and environmental history, outdoor recreation, and public lands policy from my home near Puget Sound.
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4 thoughts on “Mount Rainier backcountry: Carbon Glacier

    1. Thank you! And you know what they say: there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate gear. Not a problem for us, fortunately. Although I definitely prefer fair-weather backpacking!

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