Carter, Madcap & Narada Falls
|Scenery:||(4.0 / 5)|
|Difficulty:||(3.5 / 5)|
There’s lot to do and see at Mt. Rainier National Park, but waterfall lovers will want to put the hike to Carter, Madcap and Narada Falls near the top of their bucket list. The stunning old-growth forest and serene riparian setting feels like a forgotten corner of the national park, even though the trailhead is right off the main park road and right near its biggest car campground. And if it’s cloudy or raining, even better, as most of the hike is under tree cover and the lack of direct sunlight only enhances waterfall viewing.
From the signed trailhead on the south side of WA 706 near the turn-off for Cougar Rock Campground, descend quickly into a scree field where previous eruptions of Mt. Rainier have scattered jagged rocks and boulders throughout a wide channel that serves as the riverbed for the Nisqually River on its path down from its namesake glacier above. Within a tenth of a mile, cross a 60-foot wooden-log footbridge over the Nisqually River and then find your way on the trail as it winds its way east under the evergreen forest canopy and then southeast along the Paradise River, which provides a nice aural backdrop to the hike.
Continue the gradual ascent for another mile or so through beautiful old-growth forest and eventually, after about an hour of hiking, end up at an overlook of Carter Falls, which veils out in two side-by-side segments as it bounces its way down 53 feet into a roiling pool below before rushing downstream. The only way to get a completely unobstructed look of Carter Falls would be to hike down the side of the gorge that forms it—a risky proposition at best—so unless you’re an adventurer, content yourself with a view framed by trees. After drinking in the scene and perhaps eating lunch or a snack, pick up where you left off—you’ve got more waterfalls to see—and keep heading southeast on the trail.
Within another 0.1 mile, Madcap Falls shows itself through the trees to the right (south) of the trail as it hopscotches 34 feet down a natural rock staircase. At your own risk, climb over the rough-hewn timber fence separating you from the river to get a better look—and if you do so, be careful of slippery rocks.
Back on the trail, keep heading east and ascending with the rushing sounds of the Paradise River as your constant companion. Snow often lingers on the ground well into midsummer here. In 0.8 mile more, stay straight on the main trail at a signed junction where a spur trail splits off right (south) to some backcountry camp sites near the banks of the Paradise River. (If you are planning to camp overnight here, make sure you have obtained a backcountry camping permit in advance from any ranger station in Mt. Rainier National Park and come prepared with a tent, sleeping bag, food, and a camp stove, as no open fires are allowed at backcountry campsites.)
In another two-thirds mile, stay straight again toward Narada Falls at an intersection with the Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile boot path that encircles Mt. Rainer. A couple hundred feet farther along, the main trail hangs a right and views of Narada Falls open up to the northeast. The trail winds around to the right more and then curves up to better views of the imposing 176-foot cascade, which tumbles over a wide rock ledge and then plunges down in gushing torrents of gray-green glacial runoff. Even if you keep your distance of Narada Falls by staying on the trail around it, expect to get sprayed as you make your way along the rough-hewn fence protecting you from falling into the gorge below.
Make your way up and to the right along the trail and cross a wooden footbridge before reaching a stairway up to the Narada Falls parking area off WA 706 and views down on top of powerful Narada Falls. With three waterfalls and 3 miles of hiking behind you, turn around and retrace your steps back to the Carter Falls trailhead. Alternatively, if your party brought two cars along and arranged for a car shuttle, hop in and drive back down WA 706 for 6.5 miles to the Carter Falls parking lot. (Or ask one of the Narada Falls gawkers there to give you a ride down if going that way.)
Drive 8 miles east of Mt. Rainier National Park’s Nisqually entrance and look for the signed Carter Falls parking area on the right (south) side of the road, and look for the marked trailhead (GPS: N46 45.990’ / W121 47.462′).
For more info, contact: Mt. Rainier National Park, Ashford, WA; www.nps.gov/mora; (360) 569-2211.