Skate Creek Road (Forest Road 52): Packwood to Mt. Rainier

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It’s hard to imagine that you could ever get tired of traveling through Stephens Canyon, east of Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park.  Stephens Canyon Road isn’t just beautiful, it’s also the quickest link between Paradise and the nearby town of Packwood, where I had chosen to stay.  I was able to drive through it on my first visit to Mount Rainier in August of 2011, but by September the road had been shut down for road work, and I had to find an alternate route.  Fortunately, there is another way to get from Packwood into the park: Skate Creek Road.

Also known as Forest Road 52, Skate Creek Road begins at the Shell station, at the biggest intersection in Packwood (no, it doesn’t even have a blinking light).  It arrives at State Route 706, near Ashford and the Nisqually Entrance to the park, 23 miles later. It’s rough in places, and becomes quite monotonous if you end up driving it multiple times — which I did.  Here is a time-lapse version of one of those drives:

Starting in Packwood, the first 5 miles are fairly easy.  You pass through a residential area, then into the National Forest, and gain some elevation.  It’s along this stretch that you should stop and enjoy the view…

… overlooking the Packwood area, and the mountains to the south.

There are several spots where you can pull off and enjoy the view, as well as camp in this area.  In fact, you’ll see camping spots everywhere, along the side of Skate Creek Road, many of which are at the edge of Skate Creek.

After the first five miles, the road becomes very curvy and “dippy” — these surprising dips are hard to see from a distance, and can give your car’s suspension a workout.  Take it slowly from mile 5 to 10, then you can speed up again.  The remainder of the drive is smooth and easy.

Unfortunately, the final nine miles of Skate Creek Road seem like a big waste of time.  On this final stretch, the road meets up with the Nisqually River, and parallels it, running west.  Near the end, it turns north, crosses the river, and ends at Route 706.  If you’re heading into the park, you’ll make a right turn, and for the next nine miles you’ll be headed east, once again running parallel to the Nisqually River, and Skate Creek Road.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a bridge that could eliminate this 18-mile detour.

Not so fast! Forest Road 012 might provide a better option. It’s an unmarked road that splits off Skate Creek Road, just as Skate Creek meets up with the Nisqually River (there’s a noticeable Y intersection there, but no road signs). If route 012 goes all the way through, it will take you to Longmire, inside the park — providing an excellent shortcut. I didn’t discover this potential alternate route until my last day at the park, when my GPS mysteriously tried to put me on this road. I ignored the GPS and took the 18-mile detour, so I can’t confirm whether Route 012 will actually connect with Skate Creek Road, or not. If you’ve tried this shortcut, and know if it works, please let me know!

About 5 miles before the end of Skate Creek Road at Route 706, you’ll pass a turnoff on the right (south side) for Forest Road 84.  This dirt road leads to the excellent High Rock Lookout Trail.  There is a sign that marks the turnoff for northbound traffic, but there is NOT a sign for traffic heading towards Packwood.  And after the turn onto FR-84, there are NO SIGNS to point you in the right direction, so make sure you know where you’re going ahead of time.  FR-84 is potholed, but passable for small cars, and the hike up to High Rock is well worth the effort.

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