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
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!