Hike to Carter Falls & Madcap Falls along the Wonderland Trail


On my second rain-soaked day at Mount Rainier, I had driven around for a while, hoping the rain would stop, and the clouds would part.  Based on a sketchy forecast animation, it looked like the sky would start to clear around midday, so I drove into the park and up to Paradise, with great hopes.  When I arrived, the mountain was so fog-covered that I could barely see the other side of the parking lot.

Frustrated, I drove back downhill again, and even spent a few minutes hanging out in the only dry spot I could find — underneath the bridge over the Nisqually River. A bit further down the road, I decided I could either hike through a 40-degree drizzle, or give up on the day and return to my hotel in Packwood.  When I saw the Carter Falls trailhead, I decided I wasn’t willing to quit.

The trail to Carter Falls begins with this perilous crossing over the Nisqually River, about a mile downstream from the bridge.  This is one of the longest “log-bridges” I’ve ever crossed, and it passed over a particularly ferocious stream of rushing water.  It’s tough to watch where you step, while not watching what’s immediately below where you’re stepping.

After the foot bridge, the trail follows the Paradise River (which merges with the Nisqually River, just below this point).

The trail to Carter and Madcap Falls is part of the Wonderland Trail, a 93 mile loop around Mount Rainier. You will likely run into this trail multiple times on your visit to Rainier, since it runs past many attractions, like Narada Falls, Box Canyon, White River, and Sunrise.

The trail stays slightly above the tumbling waters of the Paradise River throughout the entire hike.  Most of the time, the water is within earshot, but out of sight.  One exception…

… is this spot, where the river curves around a huge boulder.  It’s one of the prettiest places on the trail.

For most of the hike, you’ll need to be content with the sights of rocks and trees.  In late September, I found a few patches of leaves turning red, orange, and yellow, which added a much-welcome splash of color to the otherwise green trail.

You’ll have to hike over some big roots along the way…

… and for part of the hike, you’ll also be walking alongside this big water pipe, made of wood and wrapped with wire.  I’ve read that the pipe was probably installed here in the 1920’s, and used to carry water to a power generating station, which gave electricity to Longmire.

After hiking 1.1 miles, you’ll reach Carter Falls.  I was disappointed to discover that the falls is partially hidden behind trees.  This is probably the best picture you’ll be able to manage.  Getting any closer would involve a perilous attempt at climbing down the hillside.

While Carter Falls wasn’t exactly worth carrying a tripod for a mile, I was happy that another waterfall was just a short distance away.

Madcap Falls is only about a tenth of a mile further up the trail from Carter Falls.  There are a couple of fairly good spots to view Madcap Falls — and even though you can’t safely climb down to the water’s edge, you’ll still get some satisfying pictures of this waterfall.

After Madcap Falls, I turned around and headed back to the trailhead.  The drizzle hadn’t been unbearable, but after spending a second day hiking in a cold rain, I was beginning to wonder if the weather would make me sick.  With sunny days in the forecast, I didn’t want to chance it.  So, I headed back to my hotel in Packwood, where I spent the rest of the afternoon reading a book, and listening to the rain fall.

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