Distance: 12.5 miles, RT
Hiking Time: 6 hrs
Elevation Gain: 2,700 ft
High Point: 5,500 ft
Snow Free: July – Mid-October
If you are seeking a bit of solitude, a quiet lake, wildflower displays and a historic lookout, this hike will more than meet your expectations. Throw in summer’s avalanche lilies and wildflowers, views of Mount Rainier, a bit of park history, and the Tahoma and South Tahoma Glaciers and you’re in for a full and memorable day.
Hikes from the West Side Road are apt to be more lonesome than other trails in the park since the only way to access trailheads is by walking a few miles or mountain biking. The West Side Road has been closed to vehicles and gated since 1986 due to flood damage ad potential hazards.
As you hike the first stretch of the West Side Road witness the damage caused by the park’s most recent natural disaster. In November of 2006, the park received over 18 inches of rain in 36 hours; the worst floods in the park’s history. The floods were unprecedented; much damage occurred throughout the park, including the West Side Road. Where the road parallels the route of Tahoma Creek, look upon the jumbled chaos of uprooted trees and dead trees still standing amidst boulders and piles of debris; an awesome sight of Mother Nature’s unyielding power.
There is room for several vehicles to park near the gate where the hike (N 46° 46′ 46″, W 121° 53′ 05″; 2,895 feet) begins. In about 1.2 miles you’ll come to the unsigned trailhead to the Tahoma Creek Trail, a long and challenging approach to Emerald Ridge. Some sections of the Tahoma Creek trail were wiped out altogether and so this hike is recommended for only experienced hikers with cross-country hiking skills.
As we walked the road, we enjoyed the wildflowers growing beside the road and also noted the fine stonework by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) at the abandoned Tahoma Vista (N 46° 47′ 42″, W 121° 52′ 54″ ; 3,213 feet) about two miles from the trailhead. However, there is no overlook today – the trees have grown tall enough to block the views. During the Depression years, thousands of young men joined the CCC to work on construction projects, including buildings, roads and trails inside Mount Rainier National Park. The men lived in tent villages inside the park and one of their camps was here at Tahoma Creek.
At 3,922 feet we reached Round Pass (about 3.6 miles from the gate) and the trailhead for Lake George and Gobblers Knob (on the left side of the road); there is a handy bicycle rack there for hikers who ride a mountain bike to the trailhead.
The forested trail climbs lazily through silent old-growth forest to Lake George at 4,305 feet in just over a mile. The blue-green lake is about a mile and a half in length, larger than we anticipated and bordered by evergreens. We admired the Lake George Patrol Cabin (locked) and a stone’s throw away from the cabin, a three-sided shelter for hikers, unoccupied.
Past Lake George, the trail continues to climb a little more steeply. We slowed our pace accordingly and enjoyed lavish displays of avalanche lilies that lined the trail. Avalanche lilies are among the first flowers to bloom where snow has melted; so impatient to bloom they push their way through the snow. There are also displays of glacier lilies, interspersed with avalanche lilies, especially near Lake George. In mid-July, most of the snow had already melted and there were only a few patches remaining on the trail.
We paused at the junction for Goat Lake (N 46° 47′ 30″, W 121° 54′ 47″; 5,033 feet), dithering about whether to include that in our itinerary. However, since the lake was further than we wanted to go, we left it for our next visit. (Goat Lake lies within the Glacier View Wilderness outside the park.)
While much of the hike is in the forest, as the trail approaches Gobblers Knob, evergreens are replaced by cliffs and rocky knobs be-ribboned with colorful penstemon, phlox and Indian paintbrush. More of the lookout comes into view with each switchback and as we climbed, we heard the voices of other hikers above us already at the lookout.
In 2006, high winds tore the roof off Gobbler’s Knob lookout and two of the walls caved in. The lookout has since been restored by park personnel and other organizations including the SCA (Student Conservation Association).
The setting for the lookout (5,485 feet) is so different from the forested trail, that it was initially a shock to be out in bright sunlight after emerging from the shady forest. We climbed the stairs to walk around the perimeter of the lookout, peering in at the contents inside and tried to imagine what it would be like to stay there. Since the group that preceded us had commandeered the lookout steps we retreated to the outcroppings for lunch and turned our gaze toward Mount Rainier and the Tahoma Glacier, one of the best views in the park. On a clear day you can also see Mount Saint Helens, Mount Hood and Mount Adams. You can also look down to the blue-green gleam of Lake George and Goat Lake seemingly far below.
As we sat on the outcropping we were mesmerized by the courtship swirl of yellow butterflies above us; a beautiful aerial ballet. Wildflowers clung to the rocks along the summit ridge; Indian paintbrush, stonecrop, penstemon, saxifrage and small white flowers we were unable to identify (don’t forget to bring a field guide).
The hike from the lookout back to the West Side Road went faster than expected; other than encountering a couple of hikers bound for Lake George we had the West Side Road to ourselves.
Incidentally if you have time when you get back to Round Pass, it is only a short distance further up the West Side Road to the Marine Memorial Airplane Crash Monument, a stone memorial for the 32 Marines of a C-46 Marine Corps plane that crashed in December of 1946 on the South Tahoma Glacier where their bodies remain.
To get there: From the Nisqually Entrance of the park drive a little over a mile on the Nisqually-Paradise Road, turn left onto the West Side Road, and continue 3.2 miles to the trailhead and parking area (2,895 feet).
Access: The hike to Lake George is snowfree June through October and the trail to the lookout is free of snow July to mid-October.
For additional information on fees, rules and regulations, conditions, and reserving campsites, call Mount Rainier National Park at 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