|Distance:||12 miles, RT|
|Hiking Time:||6 hrs|
|Elevation Gain:||1,900 ft|
|High Point:||2,453 ft|
|Snow Free:||Late-May - October|
|Trailhead Pass:||National Park Pass Required|
|GPS Waypoints:||Ohanapecosh Campground: N 46° 44' 07", W 121° 33' 59"|
Silver Falls: N 46° 45' 09", W 121° 33' 37"
Suspension Bridge to Grove of the Patriarchs:
N 46° 45' 47", W 121° 33' 25"
Ohanapecosh Falls: N 46° 48' 16", W 121° 59' 18"
Last hiked: May 25, 2012
12 miles round-trip from Ohanapecosh Campground to Ohanapecosh Falls.
It's all about the river - the Ohanapecosh River that originates as melt-water from the Ohanapecosh Glacier and flows into the Cowlitz River on its 16-mile long journey. The river is named for an Upper Cowlitz habitation site and means "clear stream, deep blue." Hikers can view this teal-colored river from several points between the glacier and the Cowlitz River: Indian Bar, Ohanapecosh Falls, Stevens Canyon, Grove of the Patriarchs, Silver Falls and the Ohanapecosh Campground/Visitor Center. Hikers can hike beside and/or near the river on trails that range from nature trails to one-way hikes, including the 13-mile Eastside Trail that runs between Chinook Pass and the Ohanapecosh Campground.
There are several approaches to the Eastside trail - we started from the Silver Falls Loop that begins from the Ohanapecosh Campground. When trails at Chinook Pass are still under snow the campground is a good approach (for a shorter hike you can start from the Stevens Canyon entrance - refer to the map for details). The Eastside trail also has connections to other trails including the Laughingwater Creek Trail, Owyhigh Lake, and the Cowlitz Divide Trail.
We'd hoped to get to Ohanapecosh Falls before encountering snow so we crossed our fingers, laced our boots and set forth. A short distance from the campground we passed Ohanapecosh Hot Springs, site of a historic hotel where visitors came to cure their ailments by soaking in the springs. Today it will take imagination to picture a hotel in this sulphur-scented setting.
After leaving the campground the trail seldom strays far from the river; competing with the Ohanapecosh River for your attention are tributaries and small streams, some seasonal, others named including Laughingwater Creek which you'll cross on a footbridge.
After a relaxed jaunt through the forest the trail proceeds to Silver Falls, a mighty cataract produced by rain and snowmelt from the Ohanapecosh glacier. You will cross the river on a footbridge where the river spills over cliffs, thundering through a mist-driven vortex. While there are other viewpoints of Silver Falls from the trail, some of those are unofficial and can be dangerous - please stick to the main trail.
After crossing the river, the trail parallels the river for a while, and then comes out at the Stevens Canyon Entrance, another access point for hikers wanting a shorter hike. Cross Stevens Canyon Road (No. 706; N 46° 45' 29", W 121° 33' 28"; 2,199 feet) and pick up the Eastside trail on the other side where the trail merges with the popular Grove of the Patriarchs trail. In about a half-mile you'll reach a signed junction where the Eastside Trail continues uphill (the trail to the Grove of the Patriarchs descends to cross the Ohanapecosh River on a suspension bridge).
All along the trail we saw signs of spring including trilliums, vanilla leaf, stream violets and twinflower. It had rained during the night and rain-drops sparkled on the leaves of vanilla leaf and hung from ferns and moss like tears. The air was so fresh from the rain it felt like the forest had been washed and set out to dry.
Past the junction with the Grove of the Patriarchs, the trail begins to climb - this is a trail with many ups and downs. Though the total elevation of the round-trip hike was 1,900 feet, the ups and downs made it feel like more. Most hikers prefer to get the "ups" out of the way when they are fresh but on this trail there are plenty of "ups" on the way "down," Budget time accordingly and in addition to lunch, bring plenty of snacks and water.
As the trail climbs, there are partial views toward the Cascades and more views of the Ohanapecosh River. Ever wonder why the water is so turquoise? The teal color is the result of snow melt, rain and the reflections of color from the deciduous and evergreen trees that border the trail. You will encounter old-growth giants as you hike including Alaska cedar, Douglas fir, Noble fir, Western red cedar and spruce. Between these solemn giants, vine-maples add a dash of lime-green color early in the season and brilliant reds in the fall.
Where there are not trees or streams the ground-cover is a green blanket of flowers, ferns, lichen and moisture-laden moss. Everywhere you look something is growing. Note how huckleberry, salal and other shrubs spring from stumps and nurse-logs. We saw one nurse log that was at least 60-70 feet long, topped with a line of seedlings competing for light and sustenance.
We also noted improvements to the Eastside trail since our last visit. Footbridges span small streams and there is a robust bridge over Olallie Creek (N 46° 46' 28", W 121° 33' 18"; 2,220 feet). Past Olallie Creek we met another hiker; from him we learned a new bridge is in place over Ohanapecosh Falls. For some hikers that news may be a relief because the old bridge was high above the waterfall, narrow and with only one railing. The hiker also reported we would encounter snow before we got to Ohanapecosh Falls.
Sure enough, it wasn't long before we encountered snow but enough foot-traffic has been through that the trail was not difficult to follow to the bridge. The bridge is strong, wider than the old and sturdier with hand rails on both sides - here you can enjoy the view of Ohanapecosh Falls without getting dizzy. You can also see the old bridge under the new bridge.
Since it looked like solid snow beyond, we made Ohanapecosh Falls our turnaround. The bridge makes a scenic lunch spot but when we sat down on the end of the bridge we noticed a strong, pungent odor. We recognized the scent as feline; perhaps a mountain lion marking its territory.
Mountain lions (Felis concolor) are nocturnal and can travel up to 25 miles per night. Cougars are solitary except when caring for their young; the kittens stay with the mother for about two years. Incidentally should you ever encounter a cougar, do not make eye contact and do not run. Make yourself as large as possible - perhaps by raising your pack above your head and backing away.
We knew we were never alone on the trail; at various points we heard the mournful vibrato of varied thrushes, the drilling of what sounded like a prehistoric-sized woodpecker and hidden frog choirs near small ponds. In addition to the hidden orchestra of the forest we enjoyed the wildflowers, especially large patches of fragrant vanilla leaf.
On our way back there were as many ups and downs as on our way in; by the time we reached the last 1.3 miles of the Silver Falls Loop we were ready for the hike to be finished though not too tired to appreciate the emerald-green corridor of the forested trail as it skirted an outsized rock outcropping and dipped under an overhanging cliff before returning to the campground.
To get there: From Cayuse Pass drop south along Highway 123 to the Ohanapecosh Campground entrance, turn right and just beyond the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center to designated trailhead parking.
For additional information on fees, rules and regulations, current conditions, weather, reserving campsites call Mount Rainier National Park (360-569-2211) or visit their website at www.nps.gov/mora/ . The recommended map for Mount Rainier National Park is Green Trails (Mount Rainier Wonderland Map 269S).
- Karen Sykes, Visit Rainier Hiking Expert