Cora Lake– Emerald lake cradled beneath craggy High Rock


DSC01624Quick Facts:

Location: Nisqually River Valley

Land Agency: National Forest Service

Roundtrip: 1.4 miles

Elevation Gain: 400 feet

Contact: Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Green Trails Map: Randle, WA no. 301

Notes: no pass needed; creek crossing might be challenging early in the season; trail is open to mountain and motor bikes

Access: From Elbe, follow SR 706 east for 10.1 miles. Turn right onto Skate Creek Road (FR 52) and follow for 4.7 miles. Turn right onto graveled FR 84 and follow for 4.2 miles tuning right onto FR 8420. Continue 1.5 miles to trailhead.

Good to Know: dog-friendly, kid-friendly, old-growth, waterfalls

To hikers who have peered out over the Nisqually Valley from various summits in the area, the serrated Sawtooth Ridge just

Waterfall along the trail.

Waterfall along the trail.

south of the Nisqually entrance to Mount Rainier National Park is a familiar sight. The jagged ridge is quite distinct; and more than a handful of hikers have made the grunt to the High Rock Lookout on the aptly named Sawtooth ridge and marveled at its sweeping and dramatic views. But that is about the extent of what most hikers have experienced and know about of this finned ridgeline within the shadow of Mount Rainier.

While all of the Sawtooth summits are off limits to trails except for High Rock, a network of trails traverses the ridgeline. Hike these trails and you will soon discover that beneath the imposing triangular peaks, lie tranquil lakes, primeval forest, cascading creeks and plenty of other natural delights. One of the easiest of hikes within the Sawtooth Ridge is the one to Cora Lake.

It’s a mere .7 mile hike along Big Creek and through groves of big trees to the fairly decent sized Cora Lake. After the snow melts and before the autumn rains swell Big Creek, this hike is ideal for young children. The scenic and wild payoffs are big for such a short hike.

Immediately enter an impressive forest of big and old trees. Come to your first crossing of Big Creek—a ford early in the season—a rock hop afterward. Delight in the creek cascading both above and below you. Now continue upward on a wide switchback and come to your second crossing of Big Creek. Here the crossing is wider and poses the same challenges in high water.  And here there is a waterfall too, but a much more impressive one fanning down a wide ledge hemmed in by giant hemlocks.

Cross the creek at the foot of this cascade trying to keep your balance on rocks and logs and trying to keep your boots dry! Once across—you’re in the clear. The trail makes a short steep climb to the basin cradling Cora Lake. A short spur splits left from the trail for the lakeshore passing some inviting campsites.

A shallow lake not appealing for swimming (except for dogs), Cora does offer some fair fishing and some excellent scenery. Surrounded by towering old-growth conifers and situated at the base of cliffy and imposing High Rock, the setting feels quite wild and remote. Look straight up High Rock and see if you can locate its teetering Lookout. It’s hovering over 1,600 vertical feet above! When the winds are calm, this impressive sight is reflected nicely on the lake’s waters.

Linger long or if you desire more exercise, you can continue following the Big Creek Trail farther. Reach the junction with the Teely Creek Trail after .6 mile. This trail takes off right rounding basins and ridges on its way to Granite and Bertha May Lakes. It’s a rewarding up-and-down romp through beautiful forests to beautiful lakes.

The Big Creek Trail takes off left across brushy avalanche slopes beneath the cliffs of High Rock. The going is a little rough, but negotiable. Follow the trail for just over a half mile to a 4,580-foot gap where you can take in a great view of Mount Rainier. Beyond this point the trail continues for .9 mile dropping 500 feet through gorgeous old-growth forest reaching FR 8440 about .8 mile north of the High Rock Trailhead.

For detailed information on many great hikes in and around Mount Rainier National Park, pick up a copy of my 100 Classic Hikes Washington (Mountaineers Books). Get your copy today and start exploring this incredible region!9fe142a9-db8e-4f6f-aaec-ce9adf30c1e0


High Hut — Snowshoe to a heavenly hut in the shadow of Rainier



What a front window view!

Quick Facts:

Location: Mount Tahoma Trails near Ashford

Land Agency: Washington DNR and Mount Tahoma Trails Association

Roundtrip: 8.6 miles

Elevation gain: 2,400 feet

Contact: Mount Tahoma Trails Association MTTA

Map: Mount Tahoma Ski Trail System (MTTA)

Notes: Sno-Park Pass required; Reservations required for overnight stays in hut

Access: From Elbe head east 10 miles on SR 7 turning right onto Kernahan Road (2.5 miles east of Ashford). Continue 1.4 miles south on Kernahan (which eventually becomes Skate Creek Road FR 52) bearing right onto Osborn Road (signed for “Paradise Estates”) then immediately turning left onto FR 85. Continue for 1.5 miles turning right onto dirt DNR Road No. 1. Follow for 2.1 miles turning left at a junction after crossing Catt Creek. Then proceed for 3.1 miles to trailhead at lower Sno-Park.

Good to Know: overnight huts, great backcountry skiing, some trails groomed


A group of happy snowshoers and skiers on the MTTA trails.

The crown jewel of the Mount Tahoma Trails Association’s four backcountry huts, High Hut sits on a 4,760-foot perch teetering over the Nisqually Valley with a full-fledged knock-your-wool-socks off view of Mount Rainier! The view will take your breath away; and so will the hike getting there. Reaching High Hut is no walk in the park! It’ll cost you 2,400 vertical feet. But a well-groomed trail helps ease the climb. And knowing that a warm hut waits for you should provide enough of an incentive to keep moving.

Back in 1989, a bunch of folks from the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), National Park Service (NPS), United States Forest Service (USFS), Champion Timber Company, and members from the local business community met to establish a network of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails near Mount Rainier. Their meetings resulted in the establishment of the non-profit MTTA which would go on to build and maintain more than 50 miles of trails, along with four huts and one yurt open to the public for both day and overnight use. Touted as North America’s largest no-fee (although there’s a reservation fee for staying overnight) hut-to-hut cross-country ski trail system, the MTTA network is open to skiers and snowshoers of all ages and abilities. If you plan on staying overnight in any of the huts, reservations are mandatory. If you are coming up just for the day, no reservations are necessary, so feel free to bring along some hot soup and drinks to prepare in the huts’ fully stocked kitchens.

The way starts climbing immediately. At .35 mile, come to a junction with the Anderson Lake Trail. This junction like most of the junctions is well-signed. However, some of the mileages posted aren’t quite accurate, often understating the distance.  Continue straight on the Outer Loop Trail, the main arterial for MTTA’s south district. You’re sure to meet plenty of fellow snowshoers and cross-country skiers along the way on this popular path. Prepare to exchange friendly salutations and be sure to snowshoe to the side of the wide trail staying out of any ski tracks.

Steadily climb. The way is lined with thick forest, but occasional gaps in the green cloak reveal window views of jagged Sawtooth Ridge just to the east. At 1.2 miles reach the Middle Sno-Park (el. 2,900 feet), used when snow levels are high. Enjoy a respite from ascending—then it’s up, up, up once again! At 1.9 miles come to yet another Sno-Park (el. 3,400 feet), used when the snow levels are even higher. Here is also where the MTTA stores some of their grooming equipment.

After passing a tumbling tributary of Catt Creek, the trail switchbacks through cool evergreens and comes to a junction with the Lower Yurt Trail. Save that long and lonely adventure for another time. Continue straight to High Hut! At 2.6 miles reach a low saddle on a high ridge and yet another junction. The Outer Loop Trail continues left along the ridge heading to the Snow Bowl Hut, the Yurt, and beyond. You are heading right with still almost 1,000-feet of climbing left to subdue.

While it is still a steady ascent, emerging views south to Mount St Helens and Mount Adams should help to distract you from your snowy slog. At 3.2 miles, come to another junction; this one with the ungroomed trail to Anderson Lake (an alternative return not recommended for beginners). Turn right and march up the spine of the ridge.

En route you’ll pass yet another junction—this one with the Ben Jones Loop Trail, which allows for you a slightly different and highly scenic short alternative descent from the summit. And speaking of the summit from which you have worked so hard to attain—you’re almost there. Crest the windblown high ridge housing the hut, and it soon becomes apparent why you worked so hard to make this trip. The Views! Take a break and begin reaping your visual rewards. Peer straight down to frozen Anderson Lake. Look northward all the way to Puget Sound. East to the Olympics and the Rockies—not the Colorado Rockies, but the obscure peak east of the hamlet of Mineral sharing the name of that western mountain range. Stare south to America’s most famous recently-erupted volcano. Then east to America’s grandest volcano—Mount Rainier!

The Mountain forms a spectacular backdrop for High Hut, appearing close enough you swear you can feel its icy breath blowing down on you. More than likely though a chilly breeze will be blowing upon you, so get yourself inside the warm and inviting hut. From the kitchen, make yourself a cup of hot cocoa, sit back, and stare out the big windows to Washington’s iconic mountain. If you’re spending the night, sit in awe captivated by the alpenglow on the massive volcano; and watch a dark shroud blanket the Nisqually Valley below as daylight yields to starlight. If you’re here just for the day, you now know what to look forward to on a return overnight visit to this highlight of the MTTA’s outstanding backcountry trail and hut system.

For great summer hiking ideas in and around Mount Rainier National Park, consult my best-selling 100 Classic Hikes Washington (Mountaineers Books)9fe142a9-db8e-4f6f-aaec-ce9adf30c1e0

For information on other things to do in the area and on where to stay, consult Northwest TripFinder.NWTFmasthead_layers15


Lake West and Lake Helen – Seldom visited lakes within the shadows of Mount Rainier


Tranquil and rarely visited Lake West.

Quick Facts:

Location: Glacier View Wilderness

Land Agency: Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Roundtrip: 8.4 miles

Elevation gain: 1,600 feet

Green Trails Map: Mount Rainier West, WA no. 269

Contact: Cowlitz Valley Ranger Station (Randle), Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Notes: FR 59 is rough in spots but is passable for passenger cars. Wilderness regulations apply. Free day permit required—sign in at trailhead

Access: From Elbe, follow SR 706 east (passing through Ashford) for 11 miles. Turn left (north) onto graveled Copper Creek Road (FR 59) and follow for 8.6 miles to road’s end and trailhead.

Good to Know: dog-friendly, kid-friendly, Glacier View Wilderness; backpacking possible


Flowered slopes on the way to lakes Helen and West.

Hike to two tiny and remote lakes close to Mount Rainier, but far from the crowds. And despite having an uphill return, the hike to Lake Helen and Lake West isn’t too long or too difficult. Set deep within old-growth timber on a high ridge above the crashing glacier-fed Puyallup River—the lakes are as wild as any area within the adjacent national park. But unlike most of the lakes within the park, you’ll probably be sharing these little bodies of water with no other hikers. Deer, elk, and bear however may pay you a visit.

This hike starts from the main trailhead leading into the Glacier View Wilderness, a small (3,080-acre) but significant tract of virgin timber, small rugged peaks, and several subalpine lakes. In the heyday of logging in this region in the 1970s and early 80s, this area was threatened with being completely clear cut. The 1984 Washington Wilderness Act with its strong bipartisan support afforded permanent protection to this ecologically rich tract along with many of other prime wildlands across the state.

Sign in at the kiosk and immediately enter old forest.  Pass a small wetland, enter the Glacier View Wilderness and come to a junction. The trail right leads to Mount Beljica, Goat Lake and Gobblers Knob within Mount Rainier National Park. You want to turn left and follow the Glacier View Trail steadily climbing along the saw-tooth like ridge making up the western boundary of the wilderness. Skirt a pointy knoll, one of many along the ridge crest. Then descend slightly before steadily climbing again reaching a small gap. Now dart across a wildflower-bursting slope beneath the rocky summit of a 5507-foot unnamed summit, the highest peak in the wilderness area.


The view of Rainier from Glacier View is breathtaking.

Traverse more steep slopes before reaching at 1.8 miles the ridge crest and a junction. The trail left leads 0.3 mile to 5450-foot Glacier View, the site of an old fire lookout. The views of Mount Rainier from it are breathtaking. Definitely consider making a side trip here now or on your return from the lakes. Now continue straight on a trail that gets considerably less use and maintenance. There are a few brushy spots and a couple of trees to climb over, but it’s in fairly decent shape and route finding is not an issue. Through gorgeous old-growth forest, the way switchbacks down from the ridge coming to a junction at 2.4 miles.

For Lake West bear right and head west 0.5 mile descending to a creek crossing before briefly climbing to Lake West (el. 4582 feet). The lake is set in a deep bowl completely surrounded by thick old timber. There are some nice camps if you want to spend the night. Mosquitoes can be a little troublesome the first half of summer.

For Lake Helen, head left on an even less trodden but still decent trail. Leave the wilderness and enter the 890-acre Deer Creek Roadless Area. Conservationists would like to see this tract of old-growth forest embracing Lake Helen permanently protected by adding it to the Glacier View Wilderness. The trail passes through a small marsh before slowly descending through attractive forest reaching pretty little Lake Helen (el. 4612 feet) in 1.3 miles. From the lake’s south shore there are good views of 5,404-foot Puyallup Point rising above the lake. Near the lake’s outlet (a tributary of Deer Creek) are some small camps. A handful of impressive old Alaska yellow cedars grace the lake’s shores too adding to the beauty of this setting.

Cherish the solitude and when you must leave, retrace your steps back to the trailhead.


For more information on this hike and many others in and around Mount Rainier National Park, check out For some excellent overnight hiking suggestions in Mount Rainier National Park and throughout the state, consult my bestselling Backpacking Washington Book.

Backpacking Book cover

High Rock– The view of Rainier simply rocks from this precipitous peak!

Quick Facts:

Location: Sawtooth Ridge near Ashford and Packwood, WA

Land Agency: Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Roundtrip: 3.2 miles

Elevation gain: 1,350 feet

Green Trails Maps: Randle, WA no. 301

Contact: Cowlitz Valley Ranger Station (Randle); Gifford Pinchot National Forest 

Notes: Dogs are allowed, but should be on leash because of steep and dangerous drop offs. Young children will find this trail difficult and they should be supervised at all times especially at and near the summit lookout.

Access: From Elbe, follow SR 706 east (passing through Ashford) for 10.1 miles. Turn right onto Skate Creek Road (FR 52) and follow for 4.7 miles. Turn right onto graveled FR 84 and follow for 6.8 miles bearing right onto FR 8440. Continue 2.7 miles to trailhead at Towhead Gap.

Good to Know: exceptional views, historical


Teetering on a precipitous pinnacle, High Rock is one of Washington’s most stunning lookouts. The hike to it is short, but steep. And if the climb doesn’t take your breath away, the in-your-face view of Mount Rainier’s snowy face will!


Historic High Rock Lookout.

High Rock is the loftiest and most prominent point along the serrated Sawtooth Ridge which rises above the Nisqually River valley just south of Mount Rainier National Park. Graced with a fire lookout since 1930, it’s one of the few remaining in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Back when the lookout was constructed, folks had to hike over 10 miles to reach this jagged summit. But over the decades roads were punched closer to this peak for timber extraction. The days of the big cut are over in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and the Sawtooth Ridge still retains some healthy stands of old growth forest. But what hikers are most drawn to when they visit High Rock are its far reaching and unsurpassed views.

From Towhead Gap start hiking up the southeast spine of the mountain. In early summer, lupine, paintbrush and other showy blossoms brush the trail in an array of dazzling colors. The tread is built well and well-trodden. This is a popular trail despite its steepness. Shortly beyond a bench, the trail veers off of the spine of the ridge before quickly regaining it again after reaching a small saddle.


Mount Rainier from High Rock.

The way steepens as it approaches an open ledge. It’s quite a drop off and just a small taste of what is about to come. Ambling over ledge and passing by some rocky flower gardens, the trail continues upward. A final switchback has you cresting the narrow summit ridge. Just above the switchback notice a small plaque in the ledge. It’s a memorial for Johnnie T. Peters, who in 1930 packed materials on mules and drove them from the Ranger Station in Mineral to this mountain to construct the lookout. Mr. Peters constructed ten other lookouts in the area as well.

Now continue on the final stretch passing the dilapidated remains of a cabin before coming to the big block of exposed rock and ledge that gives High Rock its name. Head right up the ledge to the teetering white lookout standing out prominently against the gray rock. Use extreme caution as you approach the lookout. The guide cables are gone. Keep children close by and dogs on leash. The cliffs drop over 600 feet inducing vertigo in many a High Rock hiker.


The serrated Sawtooths from High Rock.

Once you’ve lifted your eyes away from the ground and have firmly planted yourself on the balcony of the lookout, soak in the views and let your jaw drop. The panorama from this pinnacle packs a punch! Mount Rainier dominates the scene; its snowy icy presence can practically be felt breathing upon you. Admire the mountain’s craggy and meadow flanked neighbors too—the Tatoosh Range, Mount Wow and the Glacier View Wilderness peaks.

Stare straight down to Cora Lake tucked in a forested valley 1,500 feet below. Look south and east to waves of emerald ridges with Mounts Adams and St Helens floating upon them. Be sure to stare east too, across the Sawtooth Ridge with its notched summits, stark north faces and shadowed folds and drops. If it’s a warm sunny day, bask on the rocks like a content marmot. There’s no need to hurry back, for you’ll not tire of these views.


The High Rock Lookout sits precariously on a steep peak.

For more information on hiking in Washington State, consult one of my many guidebooks!

For more information on where to play and stay around Mount Rainier, check out Northwest TripFinder.NWTFmasthead_layers15