Cora Lake - Visit Rainier

Cora Lake

Area: Ashford / Skate Creek Rd
Hike Type: Family-friendly, dog-friendly Pass: No Pass Req
Distance: 1.4 mi RT Duration: 1 hr Difficulty Level: Easy
Snow-Free: late-June – Nov High Point: 3,850 ft Elevation Gain: 400 ft


Features: kid-friendly, dog-friendly, pretty waterfall, old growth forest

It’s a mere .7 mile hike along Big Creek through groves of big trees to this pretty lake tucked in a cirque beneath the serrated Sawtooth Ridge. The easiest hike in this jagged cluster of peaks just south of Mount Rainier National Park; after the snow melts and before the autumn rains swell Big Creek, this trail is ideal for young children. And with High Rock’s fire tower teetering on a precipice above the lake, the scenic payoff is huge for such a short hike.

Hit the Trail:

The Big Creek Trail immediately enters an impressive old-growth forest. Many of the surrounding ridges are a patchwork of forests of varying ages. Sawtooth Ridge and nearby Osborne Mountain have been heavily logged over the past decades. But surviving along this trail and embracing Cora Lake are plenty of big old trees.

The Big Creek Trail is open to a variety of different trail users including equestrians, mountain bikers, and motorcyclists. But the trail isn’t heavily traveled by those users. Of course, weekdays are almost always quiet here. Overcast days, too.

The trail easily climbs a slope above Big Creek. Carry on and come to the creek before you know it. Here is the first of two crossings of Big Creek—and both of them lack the luxury of a bridge. Early in the season plan on getting your feet wet. If the water is too deep and rapid, better to call it a hike and turn around and head over to a nearby alternative trail. Later in the season, the crossing is a just a rock hop.

As you negotiate the creek, take time to admire the small cascade above and below you. Collectively known as Cora Falls, you will pass by several tiers of this cataract. Each tier is beautiful and different, ranging from the creek crashing down a narrow cleft to it fanning across a mossy ledge.

The trail now makes a wide switchback soon coming to the second crossing of Big Creek. This crossing is wider and poses the same challenges in high water as the first crossing.  Here you’ll be distracted by the uppermost tier of Cora Falls. The creek fans down a wide ledge hemmed in by giant hemlocks. You cross just beneath it. On a warm summer day you’ll be tempted to capture some of it on your sweaty body.

Now pay attention while you cross, trying to keep your balance on the jumble of rocks and logs lying across the waterway. And try to keep your boots dry! Once across—you’re home free. The trail now makes a short steep climb to the forested basin cradling Cora Lake (el. 3,830 feet). A short spur splits left from the trail for the lakeshore passing by some inviting albeit busy campsites. Scout around for a nice place to picnic—but walk softly along the lakeshore which has seen some heavy use and unfortunately a little misuse.

The lake is not particularly appealing for swimming, but your dog won’t mind jumping right into it. The fishing might be good and there are plenty of amphibian residents here. Cora’s real appeal is its beautiful setting. Surrounded by towering old-growth conifers and situated at the base of cliffy and imposing High Rock, you feel like you have hiked deep into the wilderness.  Look straight up at High Rock and locate its teetering fire lookout, one of the most intimidating in the state to anyone prone to vertigo. The lookout hovers more than 1,600 vertical feet straight above. On a calm day, High Rock reflects upon Cora’s green-tinted waters. It’s a breathtaking sight.

While the hike to the lake is a short one, the trail keeps going offering you more hiking options. Continue on the Big Creek Trail for another .6 mile climbing 300 feet to a junction with the Teely Creek Trail. This trail takes off right traversing ancient forest and rounding basins and ridges on its way to gorgeous Granite and Bertha May Lakes. It’s a much more in depth hike involving a lot more mileage and elevation gain.

A shorter consideration would be to continue left on the Big Creek Trail. This is a rugged route and not recommended for children. If you don’t mind a little brush and some slumping tread, there are some scenic surprises along the way. The trail crosses brushy avalanche slopes beneath the cliffs of High Rock for about a half mile climbing to a 4,580-foot gap. Here take in a great view of Mount Rainier. Then retreat the way you came as beyond this point, the trail drops 500 feet through gorgeous old-growth reaching FR 8440 in a little less than a mile. Of course, you can use this access as an alternative starting point for this hike. It’s much rougher—but solitude is almost guaranteed.

Notes: Big Creek Trail is also open to mountain bikes and motorcycles. Motorized use is light. Mountain bike use is moderate. Creek crossing may be difficult and dangerous in early season and after heavy rainfall.

Contact: Cowlitz Valley Ranger Station (Randle), Gifford Pinchot National Forest; (360) 497-1100;

Maps: Green Trails Randle No. 301

Trailhead directions: From Elbe, follow SR 706 east (passing through Ashford) for 10.1 miles. Turn right (south) onto Skate Creek Road (FR 52) and follow for 4.7 miles. Turn right (south) onto graveled FR 84 and follow for 4.2 miles turning right onto FR 8420. Continue 1.5 miles to trailhead.

Trailhead facilities: none

Craig Romano, is an author of more than a dozen hiking guidebooks including the newly released 100 Classic Hikes Washington (Mountaineers Books) which includes several hikes in and around Mount Rainier National Park.


Starting Point: N 46° 41.713′, W 121° 53.192′  
Notable Waypoints:
Cora Lake: N 46° 41.446′, W 121° 53.393′