Waterfall Hunting at Mount Rainier National Park
Several weeks ago, Tanya and I camped for a few days east of Chinook Pass. There are many Forest Service campgrounds along Highway 410 east of Chinook Pass, and these make a great basecamp for exploring the eastern side of Mount Rainier National Park if you don’t want to (or cannot get into) the campgrounds in the park itself. While there, I drove up to Chinook Pass for sunrise each morning to capture the rising sun on the mountain reflecting in Upper Tipsoo Lake. The first morning was cloudy, the second morning was foggy at the pass (but clear elsewhere), and finally on the third morning, I was able to capture a decent shot (the shot deserves a post of its own, I’ll post it soon).
On that first day, the overcast conditions persisted through the day, but lightened and became partly cloudy later in the day – though there was still no view of Rainier. However, the light overcast day was perfect for another photographic subject – waterfalls. The Visit Rainier website claims there are over 150 waterfalls in the park. The Park Service just says there are “many.” I venture there are several hundred. My go-to guide for Pacific Northwest waterfalls, the Northwest Waterfall Survey, lists 317 waterfalls in Pierce County, and the majority of these are in Mount Rainier National Park.
However, camping and traveling in a place with little to no cell service, calling up the Northwest Waterfall Survey to locate waterfalls to photograph was a non-starter. I needed to do it the old-fashioned way – look at a map. I had my Mount Rainier East Green Trails map, and I noticed a couple of water falls off Highway 123 near the Owyhigh Lakes trailhead. Though I had no idea whether these falls were visible from the trail, nor how photogenic they are, this seemed like a good destination.
The first one I visited was Deer Creek Falls, a short half mile down the trail. The view from the trail looks down onto the falls as is cascades through a small, steep canyon. The view makes the falls look larger than its stated height of 62 feet. It is quite scenic. A wide-angle lens is required to capture the full falls, with your tripod set right on the edge of the canyon cliff looking almost straight down. When you first arrive at the falls, there is a rope “barrier” (easy to step over) to encourage people not to get too close to the cliff edge, but I actually thought the view was better a bit further down the trail, past the end of the barrier.
From Deer Creek Falls, I continued down the trail to its intersection with the Eastside Trail. Heading north on the Eastside Trail, the trail crosses two bridges, one over Deer Creek right before its confluence with Chinook Creek, and the second over Chinook Creek just above the confluence. A small unnamed, unmapped waterfall (maybe it is too small to be considered a true waterfall?) is located on Chinook Creek just upstream from the second bridge. Though small, with a height of 5 to 10 feet, I liked the look of it with a clear green pool below the white water and spent about half an hour here photographing from various angles.
Continuing north, the Owyhigh Lakes Trail splits off westward from the Eastside Trail. There are two more waterfalls a mile or so up the Owyhigh Lakes Trail, but I left those for another day and continued north on the Eastside Trail to find Lower Chinook Creek Falls, which can be viewed about a third of a mile past the trail junction where the trail makes its first switchback up the hill. The view is not very good, with plenty of trees in the way. I looked for a way down to the base of the falls, but decided it was too steep. The Northwest Waterfall Survey does suggest there are two possible routes, but one requires going considerably downstream and then back up to the falls wading in the creek itself, the other requiring a rope. Instead, I found a spot a short distance off the trail where I could get a good shot using my telephoto lens.
I needed to get back to camp soon, so I decided against hunting for waterfalls I hadn’t seen before and go to one last spot that is a proven winner that I have photographed several times before – Silver Falls. I hike back up the hill to the car and drove to the Silver Falls Trailhead, on Highway 123 just south of the Stevens Canyon turnoff and park entry station. It’s about a quarter-mile downhill to the falls. This is an amazing waterfall, big and powerful, on the Ohanapocosh River. Below the falls, the water is funneled into a narrow gorge with a foot bridge over the top. The best views, in my opinion, are from the trail on the east side of the bridge and from the large, flat rocks above the river on the west side in between the aforementioned viewpoint and the falls. The featured shot at the beginning of the blog is from this spot. You can also easily access the area on the west side near the top and above the falls. It you follow the trail north of the falls, there are several spots where you can get down by the river for more beautiful shots. The Ohanapocosh River, with its clear green and blue water, is perhaps the prettiest river in the park.