Day three at Mount Rainier was full of lakes and waterfalls. Once again, we were greeted by blue skies as we headed out of Ohanapecosh, traveling west down Steven’s Canyon Road to Cougar Rock campground, which would be our home base for the remainder of our time here. We took the entire day, stopping along the way at the multitude of pullouts as well as taking a few short hikes. The first stop was Grove of the Patriarchs, an interpretive trail that leads through giant old-growth forests and across the Ohanapecosh River on a suspension bridge.
If ever there was a place to do a handstand, it would have been on the bridge. My bad. I’ve learned my lesson for next time.
Past Grove of the Patriarchs, the road drops south around Backbone Ridge before traveling northward again to Box Canyon. Here, the Wonderland Trail crosses over the road (we got to drive through a tunnel!), so it’s a good place to access the trail or simply stop for lunch and a short stroll. We did the latter.
An interpretive trail winds across glacially-smoothed rocks, a mossy meadow, and crosses over Box Canyon, providing views of the rushing water of the Muddy Fork of the Cowlitz River 180 feet (55 m) below. Looking down into a canyon never seems to work well on camera, so the photo below really isn’t the best representation of Box Canyon, but at least it gives the general idea.
Our next stop was The Bench, which is the starting point for the trail to Bench and Snow Lakes. This was a 2.5 mile (4 km) round trip hike with an elevation gain of just 700 feet (215 m). We came to Bench Lake first, at around the 0.75 mile (1.2 km) mark. It wasn’t entirely visible from the trail, but we were willing to bushwhack through plants and mud and were rewarded with a wonderful view of Mount Rainier rising beyond the northern shore of the lake.
Half a mile beyond Bench Lake is Snow Lake, which sits in a fairly deep cirque and was still moderately surrounded by snow. People often backpack in and spend the night at Snow Lake. There’s even a “bathroom” there, though my sister discovered that it’s little more than a hole in the ground and decided maybe she didn’t have to pee quite that badly. But I digress.
Back on the road, our next stops were at Louise Lake and Sunbeam Falls. The falls is visible from the road while Louise Lake is just a 5 minute walk along the Wonderland Trail, which parallels the road at this point. As with any mountainous area, the weather here is ever-changing and we suddenly found ourselves in fog as we approached the lake. As quickly as it appeared, it vanished, and by the time we arrived at our next destination, the mountain was visible again.
Reflection Lakes is a collection of 1 large and 3 small lakes that are probably the highlight of Stevens Canyon Road. The lakes are located such that, on a calm day, Mount Rainier is reflected in their surface. The largest lake is closest to the parking area and provides the best reflection. This is certainly the most popular of the lakes.
Early in the morning or late in the evening is the best time to visit, as the wind tends to pick up a bit during the day. Fortunately for us, there was minimal wind and we enjoyed a pretty clear reflection of the giant mountain.
Our last three stops of the day were waterfalls; Narada Falls, which is visible from the road, Christine Falls, which requires just a short walk, and Carter and Madcap Falls, which required a hike on the Wonderland Trail.
We headed east on the Wonderland Trail out of Cougar Rock campground, coming first to Carter Falls and then Madcap Falls just a couple minutes later. I unfortunately don’t remember many details of this hike. I think it was about 3 miles (4.8 km) each direction and I remember crossing the fast-moving Nisqually River on a precarious log bridge. Other than that, nothing stands out as being particularly steep or difficult. But I may have just forgotten. It’s been a while.
Okay well this is getting pretty long, but fortunately this is the end of day #3 so I’ll wrap things up for now.
Next up: A day in Paradise. Stay tuned!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Stevens Canyon Road traverses the southern portion of the park between WA Route 123 and the Paradise turnoff
- Fees & passes: $25 per car for a 7-day pass; Interagency Annual Pass accepted
- Camping: Cougar Rock Campground is located in the Paradise section of the park. 173 sites, $20 per night, reservations accepted but sites are also available first-come-first-serve
- Hiking: The Wonderland Trail parallels much of Stevens Canyon Road and can be accessed from most pullouts and parking areas. We hiked to Bench and Snow Lakes (not on the Wonderland Trail, 2.5 miles/4 k round-trip) and Carter and Madcap Falls (on the Wonderland Trail, ~6 miles/9.6 km round-trip from Cougar Rock campground)
- Other: Stevens Canyon Road is very curvy, so plan adequate time to drive the full length of it