Hiking Review of Carter Falls, Mt. Rainier National Forest
Updated: Jul 27, 2022
Bear spray and taser flashlight in hand, Hailey and I set out on a dusk hike to see Carter Falls in Mt. Rainier National Forest.
Before you ask: isn't dusk when predators come out?
Yes. Every stump, rock formation, and scraggly tree looked like a bear or cougar.
It didn't ease our nerves that Cougar Rock Campground was nearby. Is the campground named after a rock? Or the cougar that stands atop the rock?
As women, animal predators were not our only concern.
Hailey and I were old college roommates and close friends. We were both uneasy about hiking at dusk, but eager to get out on the trail.
By uneasy, I mean to say that my internal monologue was we are going to die.
Before reaching the trail, we met a grey haired couple walking from their campsite to the Nisqually River.
The old woman had waist length brown hair and used a cane because of her recent hip surgery.
She and her husband had hiked to Carter falls many times, but this evening they would watch the sunset from the trailhead at Nisqually River.
A grin grew across the woman's face as she realized that she could live vicariously through Hailey and me: "Do you have a flashlight?"
Hailey held out her taser flashlight, pointed it at the ground, and pressed the secondary button. ZPP—ZPP! Blue strings of electricity shot from the unassuming silver flashlight.
The woman—our new friend—cheered. Her husband dropped back a couple of steps.
"You'll be fine!" She said, waving us on.
With the encouragement of a complete stranger, we walked the single—log bridge crossing the Nisqually River and scampered up the hill on the other side.
The hike to Carter Falls from Cougar Rock Campground along the Wonderland Trail is about 1.3 miles each way. The elevation change is gradual, unlike the staircase climb of Mildred Point.
There are lots of tree roots for tripping though, so while this is a family friendly hike, it's not a good hike for someone who isn't sure footed or who might be seriously injured if they trip.
At a brisk walk, we traversed the roots and raced the waning light.
Rounding a corner, we encountered a backpacker sitting on the ground with a bloody nose. Moments earlier, she had tripped on one of the roots and fallen face first.
The dim walk back would be dubious.
We are going to die. We are going to die. We are—
A cacophony of crashing water interrupted my mantra.
Carter Falls welcomed us from behind a lace curtain of trees. Turquoise water pooled under white churning froth. Branches hung low, obscuring pieces of the waterfall like chemical marks on an old photograph.
We leaned on a rickety wooden fence that marked the edge of the trail on one side and a cliff on the other.
Hiking at dusk might be dumb, but damn, what a reward.
With vanishing daylight, we started back down the trail.
Walking back was more unnerving than hiking out. Suddenly the forest was alive with sounds: some real and some created by worry.
I scanned the canopy above for the eyes that I certainly felt watching us.
Seeing a large hunched figure a hundred ahead, I tapped Hailey and whispered, “Shh, what's that?"
Cautiously, we continued toward it. I gripped the sleek red bottle of bear spray hanging from my belt.
My eyes attempted to bring the distant mass into focus, but only managed to see movement.
"I—" Hailey began, "I think it's a stump."
We inched forward and I rehearsed what we would do when the stump turned into the bear that I still believed it to be.
Run—no! Make noise and wave your arms—er lay down and play dead.
The path narrowed and the stump proved wooden.
Overhead, we witnessed the oranges and pinks of the sun finally dropping behind the Mountainside.
By the time we reached the familiar sound of the Nisqually river, the ground was fuzzy with darkness.
Hailey and I stepped out of the trees to a post sunset periwinkle sky: a beautiful ending to my first and last dusk hike.
Updated July 27, 2022