Trip reports

Mount Rainier backcountry: Yellowstone Cliffs and Windy Gap

Way back in April, when snow was still piling up in the Cascades, Mr. Adventure and I sat in our living room with two of our dearest friends, Analog Girl and The Geographer, planning an adults-only backpacking trip. When our kids were young — born nine days apart, they’ve grown up like cousins — we regularly camped together. Kids grow, jobs change, life goes on, and now AG and TG live in central Oregon’s high desert, a five-hour drive away. But that evening they were headed north and stopped in for a quick visit. Determined to spend at least one weekend together during the summer, we pulled out calendars and started searching for dates. May, nothing. June, nothing. July, nothing. August, nothing. Finally, in mid-September we were all free, and we all liked the idea of a long weekend backpacking Mount Rainier’s Northern Loop, 33 miles through some of the most remote backcountry in the park. “At least we’ve got plenty of time to train,” I joked.

Houston, we have a problem

Fast forward to September. Two weeks before our trip, the lightning-ignited Norse Peak Wilderness Fire forced the closure of the White River entrance to Mount Rainier National Park. This meant our planned starting point and a chunk of the trail was off-limits. Uh-oh. Emails flew back and forth. What about the Wallowas? The Geographer came up with a route, but none of us were enthused about the long drive to get there. Then, four days before we were to depart, inspiration struck (in the shower, as it so often seems to).

We could still hike a big chunk of the Northern Loop by going in via the Carbon River entrance on the northwest side of the park. A flat five miles would get us to Ipsut Creek Campground, now a backcountry camp after catastrophic floods in 2006 washed out the road. From our base camp there, we could day hike to the Yellowstone Cliffs and the Carbon Glacier, two of the sights we all wanted to see. I submitted a request to change our permit and a park wilderness ranger approved it. Our moods instantly changed from low and anxious to happy and excited. We were still going to Mount Rainier, and this plan looked even better because we wouldn’t be hauling heavy packs for most of it.

At the trailhead, cool, sunny weather promised nice hiking. We pulled our packs from the car, attracting the attention of several tourists from China who clearly thought we were nuts. One asked about bears. When The Geographer explained that there were no grizzlies at Mount Rainier, just black bears, the man said, “Oh, so they are friendly?” Well, no. But it was an instructive cultural exchange, and they were enjoying the park. They took our picture and headed out. We headed in.

That moment before the backpacking trip starts when the sun is shining and you're raring to go.
That moment before the backpacking trip starts when the sun is shining, your hair and clothes are still clean, and you’re raring to go. (Photo by friendly tourist from China)

Carbon River Road

The first five miles follow the old Carbon River Road. In 2006, a massive storm destroyed big sections of the road (it also destroyed roads and campgrounds elsewhere in the park, which was closed for six months). The Park Service decided against reopening it because the costs of regularly rebuilding the road were too high. Instead, it’s now a wide, flat hiking trail that mostly still hugs the riverbank. The bleached remains of enormous trees uprooted in 2006 litter the river valley, sprinkled like toothpicks on the tumbled boulders of the riverbed. Although new growth is abundant, evidence of the storm’s destruction is still very much present.

The Carbon River looks harmless today, but logs and boulders strewn around the valley testify otherwise
The Carbon River looks relatively harmless today, but logs and boulders strewn around the steep-walled valley testify otherwise. (Mr. Adventure photo)

We stopped for lunch at Chenuis Falls, once a pullout and short hike for car tourists. Because of the road-to-trail conversion, getting here now requires a 3.5-mile walk in, plus a short crossing of the Carbon River. The Park Service replaced a washed-out bridge earlier this year, making it a lot easier to reach the falls. Packs dropped and food retrieved, we each found a rock to laze on and watched water sheeting over smooth granite into a clear pool. With less than two miles to the campsite, we had plenty of time to relax.

The light made photographing the falls a challenge, but The Geographer managed a few good shots
The light made photographing the falls a challenge, but The Geographer managed a few good shots. (The Geographer photo)

A backcountry camp for the post-apocalypse

Ipsut Creek campground looks like an angry giant swept his hand through it, scattering ancient trees, and then stomped off to continue the destruction in the river valley. Enormous downed logs lay everywhere, disorienting me. Posts with site numbers stood among the waist-high logs, most of them sawn off to make access paths to campsites and the loop road. Bear boxes squatted incongruously at the makeshift entrances to the sites. It felt like something out of a dystopian novel, like this is where you might end up after the missiles struck Seattle. I half-laughed, “We could survive here if we could catch our own food.” We all agreed that the converted car campground had a weird vibe. Not creepy, just weird. We looked around and found a good site near the river.

We walked out to the river, scouting a place to filter water and watching dusk settle on the valley. Back at camp, Analog Girl set a solar lantern and some twigs in a makeshift fire ring, and we pulled up seats and talked. The forecast looked good for the following day, and we decided to head to the Yellowstone Cliffs and Windy Gap. Mount Rainier’s only accessible natural bridge — something you might expect to see in Arches National Park, not here in the soggy Northwest — lay another mile beyond past the gap, and we wanted to see that too.

Back out at the river, we watched night creep up the mountainsides as the air cooled. Stars sparkled like sugar on a black licorice sky. Time for bed.

An epic (for me) day hike

The next morning, we downed breakfast and coffee, then hit the trail. A little more than two miles of easy hiking brought us to the Carbon River crossing. I’m not a fan of cairns — in fact, The Geographer and I share an aversion to them and enjoy knocking down ad hoc rockpiles — but these were necessary to follow the trail across the wide river valley.

Looking upstream from the Carbon River valley.
Looking upstream from the Carbon River valley. (Lauren Danner photo)

Once across, it was uphill. Three thousand feet uphill in three miles, give or take. I have no pictures to share from this experience, because every time we stopped I was gulping water and trying to catch my breath, but take my word for it, it was steep. We huffed and puffed for a couple of hours through switchback after switchback, until the trail seemed to level out. Nope. More uphill, this time without benefit of switchbacks. Finally we reached the Yellowstone Cliffs, reputedly one of the most pristine areas of the park. They are worth the effort.

The Yellowstone Cliffs
The Yellowstone Cliffs. (Lauren Danner photo)
We had the Yellowstone Cliffs and all of its huckleberries to ourselves.
We had the Yellowstone Cliffs and all of its huckleberries to ourselves. (Lauren Danner photo)
Yellowstone Cliffs from just below Windy Gap.
Yellowstone Cliffs from below Windy Gap. (Lauren Danner photo)

And, bonus! The huckleberries were abundant and perfectly ripe. We lingered a long time, pulling berries from the bushes. Some of us are eat-as-you-pick berry-ers, while others are get-a-handful-then-stuff-them-all-in-your-mouth eaters. I fall into the latter category. Purple-stained and happy, we continued up the trail to Windy Gap.

At last, the trail leveled out. We perched on rocks near a lovely lake and ate lunch, soaking up the late-summer sun.

Not a bad lunchtime view at Windy Gap.
Lunchtime view at Windy Gap. (Mr. Adventure photo)

It’s only another mile…

Refreshed and giddy at having made it this far, there was no way we were turning around without seeing the natural bridge. If the trailside vegetation is any indication, the side trail to the arch gets even less use than the main Northern Loop trail. In fact, the park website says the natural bridge trail is unmaintained. After a short mile featuring stunning views down the White River valley and across to Sluiskin Mountain, we reached the bridge. The Park Service has wisely erected a fence to deter people from climbing down the slope and walking out onto the bridge. The bridge is pretty cool, and we agreed it was worth the extra couple of miles.

Natural bridge in the Mount Rainier National Park backcountry, with Lake James and Lake Edith in the distance.
Natural bridge in the Mount Rainier National Park backcountry, with Lake James and Lake Ethel in the distance. Forest fire smoke made the horizon hazy. (Lauren Danner photo)
Sluiskin Mountain from the trail to the natural bridge.
Sluiskin Mountain from the trail to the natural bridge. (Lauren Danner photo)

Back to camp before dark

Reluctantly, we started back to camp. Through Windy Gap, down the trail past the Yellowstone Cliffs (with a few huckleberry stops), through the forest, down the interminable switchbacks and finally to the blessedly flat Carbon River valley. Across the riverbed, up the hill, then two easy miles to Ipsut Creek camp and a well-earned dinner. Analog Girl and I believe that no camp dinner is complete without marshmallows, so we had some fancy pineapple-coconut Smash Mallows to celebrate. All day, we’d encountered only one hiker, a trail runner heading down the switchbacks as we were climbing up. We’d seen parts of Mount Rainier that relatively few people visit. And we’d hiked 16 miles, my longest day hike ever. So far, our backcountry trip was everything we hoped.

Next time: fall arrives as we’re eating lunch.

Climbing out of the Carbon River basin, with perhaps less spring in our steps than we'd had that morning.
Climbing out of the Carbon River basin, with perhaps less spring in our steps than we’d had that morning. (Lauren Danner photo)

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4 thoughts on “Mount Rainier backcountry: Yellowstone Cliffs and Windy Gap

  1. Fantastic write up! We’ve made it as far as Ipsut Creek campground (your description of it is spot on!), and planned on making it back there this summer to camp and push further out to the other trails, but we ran out of time.

    We weren’t aware of the natural bridge. We’re adding that one to the list!

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