|Distance:||10 miles, RT|
|Hiking Time:||6 hrs|
|Elevation Gain:||3,138 ft|
|High Point:||5,609 ft|
|Snow Free:||Mid-July - Mid-October|
|Trailhead Pass:||National Park Pass Required|
Trailhead: N 46° 44' 16", W 121° 51' 36"
Some hikers consider the Kautz Creek trail a great four-season trail; not only does it provide access to Indian Henrys Hunting Ground, the first stretch of the trail can be hiked until mid-October, perhaps into November depending on snow levels.
The first couple miles of trail also opens earlier in the season than other trails inside the park - hike until you reach snow or run out of steam (the trail is steep). Check with Mount Rainier National Park ahead of time to make sure the bridge over Kautz Creek is in place.
Hikers with climbing and avalanche awareness skills can snowshoe to Mount Ararat when snow conditions are safe; (hiking or snowshoeing beyond Mount Ararat in winter is dangerous as the Kautz Creek trail crosses avalanche slopes before it drops to Indian Henrys). Only mountaineers should attempt Mount Ararat in winter.
The first ¾ mile is flat as the trail parallels the dry creek channel where Kautz Creek used to flow before winter floods rearranged the landscape. Recent floods tore out part of the trail and the footbridge over Kautz Creek, the damage so extensive that Kautz Creek changed its course and that first mile of trail had to be rerouted. An interpretive nature trail at the trailhead explains the effects of such floods and how they shape the land.
Today alders are growing back in, playing their role in re-settling the landscape. The rock-lined trail paralleling the dry creek-bed is sandy, almost like a beach. As the trail heads toward the crossing where Kautz Creek used to flow there are overlooks with views of the destruction. Here you will see where stream-banks eroded away and in the dry channel a trickle of mineral-stained water, downed trees, debris and root-balls clutching boulders. You may well ask, where is the fine line between destruction and creation?
At the original crossing of Kautz Creek the old footbridge lays asunder; new foot-bridges are in place. After crossing the creek channel the trail reverts to good trail as it climbs toward Indian Henrys. Though steep the trail is in good condition. With recent rains mushrooms are popping up, breaking through the duff, lighting the dark forest with their luminescent colors. Angel wings peek out from under decaying logs, speckled amanitas glow as if lit from within.
As we climbed we passed stands of bear grass long past bloom; fresh snow had settled in the well of each plant, suggesting we'd soon be hiking in snow.
Ever so slowly the forest transitioned to small meadows; snow had fallen and already melting. Hellebore lay wan and flattened, the boughs of evergreens weighted down with melting snow, blueberry shrubs leaning over the trail glittered with water soaked us as we passed through.
Mount Ararat (6,010 feet) soon came into view (left) above crimson, high-angled meadows. To the right is a view of Satulick mountain. Between stands of evergreens the meadows were resplendent with fall color beneath a cold pewter sky broken by a silent stampede of wind-driven clouds.
By then our feet were soaked from melting snow but we carried on, stopping long enough to eat, drink and change into dry socks. A turnaround time was established; we still had miles to go before we reached the ranger cabin at Indian Henrys.
Indian Henry was a Native American who adopted the style and dress of settlers, preferring to live at the foot of the mountain rather than a reservation. Indian Henry, his wives and a few others settled near the confluence of the Mashel and Nisqually rivers. Here Indian Henry hunted mountain goats, his wives picked huckleberries in nearby meadows. Indian Henry offered visitors shelter in his barn, occasionally guiding guests to Paradise or other points of interest. Among visitors who bedded down in his barn were John Muir and Fay Fuller.
The trail continued with ups and downs, none terribly steep; we hiked through pale meadows where flowers had gone to seed and grasses were bent by snow. The clouds lifted from time to time giving us a glimpse of Mount Rainier but visibility was limited. We climbed to a rocky pass, our high point at 5,609 feet ( N 46° 47' 29", W 121° 50' 79") but our high point only revealed we had further to go. The day was too short, the trail a little too long; the ranger cabin would have to wait until next year.
We recommend you save this hike for a long, summer day; then you can take your time enjoying the meadows and identify peaks denied to us by cloud-cover. From the meadows there are also views of Iron and Copper mountains on a clear day. A look at the map will reveal other possibilities including a side-trip to the airy suspension bridge over Tahoma Creek on the Wonderland Trail or a visit to Mirror Lake.
We turned around but found it hard to leave the moody, ever-changing landscape of snow, clouds, sun and rain. Only the promise of a hot thermos of tea waiting in the car enabled us to hike a little faster.
- Karen Sykes, Visit Rainier Hiking Expert