The way to Lake James offers a myriad of experiences, from deep rainforest to the high country of Mount Rainier National Park.
From the Carbon River Road entrance, hike 5 miles along the decommissioned road to the Ipsut Creek Campground, which is the junction with the Wonderland Trail.
From here, northeast on the Wonderland Trail towards the Northern Loop trail junction. Cross the Carbon River on a log bridge to yet another junction. From the trailhead to this junction, you've had a relatively flat seven miles of hiking, but now begins a steep uphill climb on the Northern Loop trail.
As you gain elevation, the forest becomes thinner, shifting from rainforest to drier, second-growth, and finally becoming subalpine meadow just before you arrive at Yellowstone Cliffs. Grab some water and some air during a break, then climb one more mile before arriving in Windy Gap, a remarkable, open section of Mount Rainier National Park rarely seen by hikers.
Meander through this wide-open meadow, complete with mountain views (though not of Rainier) and small tarns before heading another 1.5 miles down the trail and back into forest to Lake James.
WTA Pro Tip: Lake James is a great backpacking destination, in and of itself, or you could make it part of a longer outing on the Northern Loop. Several camps exist, including one at Yellowstone Cliffs or the Lake James Ranger Cabin, but you'll need to secure a permit before heading out. Stop at the ranger station at the Carbon River Entrance to do so.