Yellowstone Cliffs and Windy Gap offer a chance to experience a side of Mount Rainier National Park like no other. Most trails in the park highlight views of the main mountain, but here, it’s more about the surrounding peaks, which make the area seem more like somewhere in Alaska or Montana, rather than Washington. Add to that the fact that accessing this area now requires an approach hike in the double digits, and you’ve got a remote, high mountain valley where relatively few people come, despite the fact that it’s in Washington’s most popular national park.
Beginning from the Carbon River, which requires a 5-mile road walk, arrive at Ipsut Campground. Stop here for a rest, then continue on, hopping onto the Wonderland and heading southeast. You'll pass Ipsut Falls, with the Carbon River on your left. After two miles on the Wonderland, arrive at an intersection where the trail to the left crosses the Carbon River.
Take the left trail (the Wonderland continues on straight ahead). You'll press on for 0.4 miles, meandering on level ground through bright, green forest. The understory is lush, and berries abound, even here where it’s relatively shaded. The path is springy and soft from generations of pine needles.
After 0.4 miles, turn left and gradually begin to climb. Then, the trail makes its first switchback, and you really start to understand just how much you’re going to have to push yourself up this hill.
Luckily, the switchbacks are well-built, and if you get into a good plod coupled with plenty of sips of water, the 2 miles of switchbacks go by fairly quickly. But then, the switchbacks cease and it's a straight push uphill. As a recompense, you can catch glimpses through the open second-growth forest of rocky outcroppings, a hint of what’s to come at Yellowstone Cliffs.
The trail narrows and steepens, pushing you higher and higher, until you’re 3.8 miles from the turnoff of the Wonderland. Just before you want to throw in the towel, you'll arrive at Yellowstone Cliffs camp. Nestled in a copse of woods at the base of Yellowstone Cliffs, this little campsite is near Spukwush Creek where you might want to replenish your water supply, or pitch camp if you’re overnighting. If you’re good on water and food, look to your left. You’re standing at the base of the cliffs, and you can see an area where a large chunk of rock sheared off many years ago.
If you're heading to Windy Gap, continue heading uphill through switchbacks. It’s a steady uphill push, though now instead of being shaded by tall cedars and hemlock, you’re in a hillside meadow, where huckleberries and beargrass don’t do much to hide you from the sun. Put on some sunscreen before you get underway.
After a dozen switchbacks, the trail becomes a tad more forgiving. The slope moderates, and you begin traversing to Windy Gap. It's 1.5 miles steadily uphill from camp to Windy Gap but once you arrive, you’ll realize how worth it all the climbing was. To your right are Crescent Mountain, complete with a crystalline tarn, and Sluiskin Mountain, craggier and more impressive. To your left, it’s Tyee Peak and the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest stretching north. Straight ahead, the trail winds away, down to campsites like James Creek, the White River, and eventually, Grand Park and Sunrise.
As if this wasn’t enough, there’s one further option. The Natural Bridge is about a mile and a half further away, through the gap and down a side trail. It’s a wonderful diversion, if you have the energy, and it’s possible to see two large lakes, James and Ethel, from it. But Windy Gap is the real stunner here, and simply staying here and soaking the sights makes for a perfect day.
Yellowstone Cliffs and Windy Gap
- 24.6 miles, roundtrip
- Elevation Gain
- 3500 feet
- Highest Point
- 5800 feet
Mowich Lake Road is closed for the season
Hiking Yellowstone Cliffs and Windy Gap
Yellowstone Cliffs and Windy Gap
Map & Directions
Co-ordinates: 46.9949, -121.9123 Open in Google Maps