Route Options between Mowich Lake and Carbon River
This section of the guide covers the trail between Mowich Lake and Mystic Lake. Most of the Wonderland Trail hikers I’ve met in this area were traveling to Carbon River from Mowich Lake. This makes a short day if you take the lowland route through Ipsut Pass and I would recommend continuing to Dick Creek or Mystic Lake if you’re on an itinerary of 9 days or less.
While the distance to Carbon River via the alternate Spray Park route only adds about half a mile in distance, this path is somewhat arduous and takes much longer, and therefor Carbon River and Dick Creek both make good stopping points for the day if you choose this direction.
Carbon River via Ipsut Pass (7.6 miles)
The official Wonderland Trail continues northward over the nearby Ipsut Pass and descends to Ipsut Creek Campground. Ipsut Creek was for many years an access point to the Wonderland Trail, however the Carbon River Road washed out in 2006 and has remained closed since. A new ranger station is currently being built at the campground, and plans are underway to develop the closed section of road into a non-motorized mixed-use path.
Eunice Lake and Tolmie Peak Fire Lookout side-trip
For Wonderland Trail hikers, Ipsut Pass is the fast and easy direction. From Mowich Lake the trail rises only a few hundred feet in elevation climbing to Ipsut Pass. Just before Ipsut Pass at 1.6 miles, the trail reaches the Eunice Lake / Tolmie Peak Lookout trailhead. This 1.8 mile (one-way) route makes a great side-trip, and the views of Eunice Lake and Mount Rainier from the Tolmie Peak fire lookout are superb when the weather permits.
Ipsut Pass is an unmistakable notch in the ridge where the trail passes abruptly from one side to the other. From here the trail switchbacks steeply along the cliffs of the valley head. The vegetation is lush and springs emerge from the hillside. Crossing a small stream, the headwaters of Ipsut Creek, the descent becomes gentler passing into the ever-thickening forest in the shadow of Castle Peak and then along the northern slopes of Mother Mountain, a dense forest of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and Alaskan and western red cedar.
Following Ipsut Creek as it grows in strength, the trail crosses three tributaries that tumble down the hillside in steep, moss-draped cascades. At 3.6 miles from Ipsut Creek, it reaches a junction with the short trail to the Ipsut Creek Campground.
Ipsut Creek Campground
Ipsut Creek campground was once a bustling car camping destination, but now is only reachable by foot, five miles from where the Carbon River Road was washed away in flooding in 2006. As such, it now offers some luxuries not typical to most walk-in camps — a sprawling array of campsites to choose from, picnic tables, deluxe pit toilets with hand sanitizer, and large metal bear boxes for storing your food. It makes an excellent place to stay the night. Don’t miss the quick side-trip to Ipsut Falls, and if you find yourself with extra time to kill in the afternoon, consider walking along the old road 1.2 miles to the Chenuis Falls trail.
Chenuis Falls Side-Trip
Just 1.2 miles from Ipsut Creek Campground on the abandoned Carbon River road, the 0.5 mile trail starts near an old picnic and parking area, crosses the milky waters of the Carbon River, and leads to the crystal clear cascades of Chenuis Falls.
Ipsut Creek Campground to the Carbon River crossing
From Ipsut Creek Campground, the Wonderland Trail follows the Carbon River westward for 1.9 miles. Here you can see the harshness of the Carbon River as through time its channels constantly sweep back and forth across the valley, wiping out juvenile stands of forest that become established when the river’s path shifts away for a decade or two.
The valley is lush with growth, and huckleberries line the trail in abundance. The mountain looms from the head of the valley, and the roar of the river is punctured only by the industrious activities of the woodpeckers, occasional thuds of activity from the nearby glacier, and high-pitched whine of mosquitoes as they do low passes along your ears.
At 1.9 miles from Ipsut Creek, hikers are directed across the Carbon River to the east side of the short Carbon River loop where the trail junctions with the Northern Loop trail. The traditional Wonderland Trail ran alongside the west bank of the river, but it has been recently closed for a 0.9 mile stretch between this point and the large suspension bridge near Carbon River campground. The detour runs parallel on the east bank of the river until it meets up with the Wonderland Trail at the suspension bridge after 1 mile. If your destination is Carbon River camp, you will need to backtrack the short distance from the suspension bridge westward to the camp.
Carbon River to Mystic Lake
At Carbon River, a spur trail crosses a log bridge to the campground. Carbon River campground has four camp sites. Turning east, the Wonderland Trail soon reaches a large cable bridge which spans the Carbon River.
The path takes one up through the deep glacial canyon. On the eastern edge, the crumbling Northern Crags vanish towards the sky, and on the western side, the Echo Cliffs rise thousands of feet to Seattle Park. The climb starts out sharply just below the lower terminus of the Carbon Glacier. This is a rocky and desolate glacial landscape, and is one of the more intimate views the Wonderland Trail provides of a glacier. The trail immediately runs parallel to the edge of the rock-covered glacier as it climbs the cliffs toward Dick Creek. One is offered dramatic views of the ice and rock falls from the edge of the glacier. The layer of rocks that blankets the glacier is from edifice failures that come crashing down from the Willis Wall — the most unstable face of Mount Rainier. The first mile of travel from the suspension bridge is both awe inspiring and a bit nerve wracking. As you watch the glacier calve and crumble you come across rocks the size of basketballs sitting squarely in the middle of the trail, reminding you that you are in an area of rapid geological change. There is strong evidence that small rock avalanches sometimes rain down from the Northern Crags above. This will put a little spring in your step as you grind up the difficult path which rises nearly 1,000 feet in the next mile in steep switchbacks across the hillside.
Once you arrive at Dick Creek, the dangers of falling rocks diminishes. This is a small camp with only two sites and no room for large groups. Clear and cold water rolls down from marshy Elysian Fields, just a mile above. I consider Dick Creek a nice place to stop for the day, as it allows you to split the long ascent to Mystic Lake into two parts. If you are just passing through, this is a good place to see how much chocolate you can eat. You will need a lot of fuel to finish the climb.
Mystic Lake lies 3.6 miles ahead, and the trail ascends steeply from Dick Creek, rising nearly 1,000 feet in the next half mile. Rounding inland past Goat Island Rock, Carbon Glacier again comes into view. The trail hugs the glacier closely for the next two miles before nearing Moraine Park.
If this is the end of a long day, it is quite easy to overestimate your mileage at this point. Looking up the valley it seems likely a glacial cirque lake lies just over the next rise (and then the next one). During the summer, the path is flanked by lush patches of lupine and Castilleja (Indian paint brush), and as you near Moraine Park, the view of the volcano and the Willis Wall can be superb when the sky permits.
The hike to Moraine Park is nearly magical, a sub-alpine sanctum of wildflowers where fog frequently drapes the narrow valley. The warning whistles of marmots announce your presence as you arrive at a large open meadow. You will pass through to a steep hillside where you should muster your best efforts and lean into the final climb before Mystic Lake. Rising off the meadow floor, the trail switchbacks steeply up the ridge. Finally the crest is reached and Mystic Lake will be visible in the treed marshland below. It is reached in 0.8 miles of long switchbacks.
It is a nice place to camp and can be a social place as it’s often fully booked with overnight backpackers from Sunrise. Don’t come without a reservation. In addition to many small tent sites, there are two large group camps here. The campground is on the far side of the lake, partway down a wooded hillside. Some sites offer views towards the passage to Berkeley Park, past the south side of Skyscraper Mountain. Beware of the mice.