|Distance:||6.1 miles, one-way|
|Hiking Time:||2.5 hrs|
|Elevation Gain:||2,700 ft (or loss)|
|High Point:||5,358 ft (at Paradise)|
|Snow Free:||Mid-July - October|
|Trailhead Pass:||National Park Pass Required|
Paradise: N 46° 47' 02", W 121° 44' 26"
ON WEEKENDS: This is a shuttle-friendly hike
This trail can be like hiking through the four seasons. In early July winter still had a grip on Paradise but it felt like spring at Narada Falls and summer at Longmire. Though snow lingered at Paradise it was melting fast and where snow ended, flowers were blooming. Snow patches were bordered with avalanche lilies, glacier lilies and pink heather.
This hike is best done with a car shuttle; leave one car at Longmire and drive to Paradise if you wish to hike downhill. If you can't arrange a car shuttle, then utilize the free National Park Service shuttle.
Before you begin a word to the wise. If you have knee problems, the hike from Paradise to Longmire, with a loss of 2,700 feet, might not be for you. Conversely, if you are not in good condition hiking uphill from Longmire to Paradise can be daunting.
We do have good news: the trail has several access points. Hike the whole trail or break it up into tasty tidbits. Pick up the trail at Narada Falls, Cougar Rock (across from the Cougar Rock Campground) or Longmire. A look at the map will reveal other access points where you can pick up the trail from the Nisqually-Paradise Road. A good option for a family hike is to start from the Cougar Rock Campground. Or start from the campground but only go as far as Carter Falls; this section of trail is 2.2 miles round-trip.
In early July, the trail lacked trail markers as the park didn't want to encourage hikers to venture out onto it until the snow was gone. However, the trail marker is now in place for this hike at Paradise (signed Lakes Trail, Narada Falls).
After finding the trail we hiked through a mix of melting snow and emerging meadows. Avalanche and glacier lilies accompanied us from Paradise to Narada Falls. In mid-July you are likely to see marsh marigolds and as you approach Narada Falls, even a few lingering trilliums and yellow violets.
We didn't encounter hikers or visitors until we reached Narada Falls (4,540 feet). Narada Falls is always worth a visit; whether you walk in from the road-side trailhead or from the trail.
The next stretch from Narada Falls toward Cougar Rock was new to us - the river is crossed three times on jerrybuilt bridges in various stages of repair, however, none of the crossings presented a challenge (new bridges are under construction). As the terrain gradually transitioned from alpine to old-growth forest, trilliums, salmonberry and violets replaced the glacier and avalanche lilies. Of course as summer progresses mid-to-late summer flowers will replace these early bloomers.
From Narada Falls the trail descends through mostly through old-growth forest. Alaska cedars, Douglas firs, and Western red cedar predominate between colorful swathes of new-green vine maple foliage, bracken and hellebore.
We paused at Madcap Falls (3,822 feet), modest in comparison to Narada Falls. It is not designated but it's hard to miss. A little below is Carter Falls (3,712 feet); this waterfall is designated but hard to view through the trees. Benches near the waterfalls provide an ideal spot for a breeze and a break on a hot, summer day.
From Carter Falls the trail descends toward Cougar Rock, at times following an old road-turned-trail beside an old penstock pipe, part of an old hydro-electric plant system. The trail then crosses the Nisqually River (3,162 feet) on a footbridge with a single hand-rail. Stand on the bridge and listen to rocks bumping and grinding against each other by the force of melting glaciers above.
The trail from Cougar Rock to Longmire is a quiet stretch, at times within sight of the Nisqually River. Here the forest is dark and sweet with the twitter of birds, the sigh of the river and silence thick as moss. Behemoth trees appear beside the trail, shafts of sunlight fall through the branches and dappled light paints the forest floor in myriad shades of green and brown.
Finding the trailhead at Paradise: Park along the Valley Road and where trees end, find the trail. If you're hungry, there's a cafe on the first floor of the new Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center.
- Karen Sykes, Visit Rainier Hiking Expert