Carbon River and Mowich Lake - The Quiet Corner

Clear, blue water of Mowich Lake surrounded by forested ridge.
The clear, blue waters of Mowich Lake.

A. Spillane

The history of this quiet corner of the park goes back beyond years of backpackers and decades of rangers, past loud echoes of mining blasts and logging saws . Through archaeology and tribal histories, human use of Mount Rainier can be traced back thousands of years. At sites around Spray Park and the Mowich Lake area, generations of native people took advantage of abundant food and other resources gathered from the mountainside. As European-Americans came into the area, they too found great value in this now quiet corner of Mount Rainier National Park.
Bailey Willis, geologist for U.S. Geological Survey
Bailey Willis, geologist for U.S. Geological Survey

NPS Photo

In the 1870s, discovery of coal veins around the towns of Carbonado and Wilkeson drew folks from the Puget Sound cities. Miners extracted the coal desperately needed by Northern Pacific Railroad to fuel their engines and transcontinental railroad. While scouting for coal prospects, geologist Bailey Willis worked his way up the rivers to Spray Park and fell in love with Mount Rainier. Besides his scientific work for the United State Geological Survey, Willis became an advocate for creating a national park around Mount Rainier in his free time. He shared his love of the mountain and joined many influential politicians, scientists, and conservationists in pressing Congress to establish Mount Rainier National Park.
Plant over-growth around old mine entrance.
Lush plant over-growth around old mine entrance.

NPS/K. Loving Photo

On March 2, 1899, the Mount Rainier National Park Act was signed into law by President McKinley. It was modeled on and sometimes copied from the Yellowstone Park Act of 1872. Section 2 of the Act stated the Secretary of the Interior was charged with “preservation from injury and spoilation of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition.” This was the same wording as Yellowstone National Park, but Section 5 allowed for prospecting and mining at Mount Rainer. In the northwest corner of the park, a number of mine claims were staked. Over the years, these would include the Washington Corporation Mining Syndicate that started claims at the headwaters of the Mowich River, the Crater Claims near Crater (now Mowich) Lake, the Hephizibah Mining Company’s claims along the Carbon River near June Creek, and the Washington Mining and Milling Company’s claims along the Carbon River.
None of these mines ever hit a big load and over the years, rangers began to suspect the claims were made for other purposes. By June 30, 1907, there were 165 mining claims located within the park. Some were thought to have been created by folks just wanting a summer cabin on the mountain. Others might have been part of illegal hunting operations. There were also cases of suspected timber poaching. In 1907, the Washington Mining and Milling Company asked the Secretary of the Interior for permission to construct a road from the nearest road at Fairfax out to their claims, about 6 miles. The project was approved but they only built the portion within the park, and told rangers it was a private road not open to their use. Interestingly, when rangers investigated the road, many more trees had been cut down than what was actually needed for the road.

Thomas O'Farrell, first park ranger at Carbon River.
Thomas O'Farrell, first park ranger for the Carbon River and Mowich Lake area.

NPS Photo

The conflicts between preservation and mining quickly came to the notice of park rangers and then the Secretary of the Interior. Many folks worked to solve this riddle. On May 27, 1908, Congress passed the Sundry Civil Act, which included a little section that closed any new prospecting or claims within the park. Over the next couple years, mining activity slowed down and ceased on many of the mining claims. Most were invalidated or relinquished quickly.
A man working at road construction along the Carbon River with rocks in the foreground.
Road construction along the Carbon River, circa 1930s.

NPS Photo

From the 1910s through the 1930s, there was one project that created a bit more noise in the northwest corner of the park: road building. While the Northern Pacific Railway had built their line to Wilkeson for the coal deposits, the railroad also provided access for mountain visitors. From Tacoma, folks took the railroad out to Wilkeson and then took horses, and later cars, up the Carbon River to the park to Moraine and Spray Parks and Mowich Lake. From Wilkeson the road was extended to Fairfax and then up to the park boundary by 1921, with State Route 165 reaching Mowich Lake in 1933. Inside the park, the Carbon River Road extended as far as Cataract Creek. It was the dream of many people to complete a round-the-mountain road, but the steep, dangerous hillsides of the west side of the park discouraged any more road construction after 1934.
Washed out section of Carbon River Road after 2006 flood.
One of many sections of the Carbon River Road washed away by November, 2006, floods.

NPS / F. Parlini Photo

The loudest noise maker in the area turned out to be none of the human activities but the mountain itself. Though volcanic activity has been quiet for many years, the active geologic processes of Mount Rainier and its glaciers create aggradation, rock slides, and debris flows that contribute to frequent flood events. Over the decades, floods on the Carbon River have chewed away at roads, trails, and bridges. The Carbon River Road was closed to cars at the park boundary after a 2006 flood rampaged over the 5 miles of road up to Ipsut Creek Campground.
Mountain bicycle leaning against fence at Carbon River entrance.
Mountain bicycle leaning against fence at Carbon River entrance with bicyclist in background.

NPS / P. Wold Photo

As the river made accessing the campground and trails more difficult, it also had another effect. With no easy view of Mount Rainier, many folks decided to bypass this isolated quarter of the park and go to Paradise or Sunrise instead. The northwest corner became a much quieter place with relatively few visitors on the trails and roads.
Today, the park works to find a balance with the forces of the mountain while still allowing access to the quiet corner of the park. Visitors can hike or bike year-round up the old Carbon River Road from the park boundary to the backcountry campsites at Ipsut Creek. From there, hikers can continue on the Wonderland Trail to the Carbon Glacier or Spray Park. The road to Mowich Lake is open in the summer to cars and there are the walk-in campsites near the lake. To better help day hikers, backpackers, and bicyclists enjoy the quiet corner of the park, the Carbon River ranger station was moved from the park entrance to a larger building refurbished from a local homestead called the Thompson Place, located just a few miles from the park entrance.

Learn more about visiting Carbon River and Mowich in the quiet corner of the park.

Additional Resources:
Wonderland: An Administrative History of Mount Rainier National Park. Theodore Catton. Seattle, Washington. May, 1996.
Highways In Harmony. National Park Service website.

Last updated: November 29, 2017