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Backpacker Magazine – May 2011

Going to Extremes

Can you ever really have too much of a good thing? Once you've seen the biggest tree, largest glacier, and deepest canyon, nothing else compares.

by: Ted Alvarez

Mt. Washington's Nelson Crag Trail (Jerry and Marcy Monkman)
Mt. Washington's Nelson Crag Trail (Jerry and Marcy Monkman)
Emerald Lake in the Weminuche (Tad Bowman)
Emerald Lake in the Weminuche (Tad Bowman)
White Fringed Phacelia in the Smokies (Paul Rezendes)
White Fringed Phacelia in the Smokies (Paul Rezendes)

Biggest and Lowest Glacier
Carbon Glacier, Mt. Rainier NP, WA

Imagine the margaritas you could make with 21 million square feet of ice. That’s what you get with the Carbon Glacier. At 5.7 miles long and 700 feet thick, it’s the largest glacier by volume in the Lower 48. And its terminal moraine ends just 3,500 feet above sea level, making it the lowest-elevation glacier as well. But we’re happy to report it recently lost one claim to fame: It used to be one of the country’s most-visited glaciers—until the Carbon River spilled its banks in 2006 and destroyed its namesake road. This year, park officials announced plans to convert Carbon River Road into a permanent trail, thus preserving five miles of bonus forest hiking—and enough distance to keep the minivan crowd at bay for good. Tackle the 20.8-mile trip with a mountain-bike assist. From the Carbon River ranger station, the first five miles wind gently through mossy rainforest over old roadbeds. Lock up your wheels at Ipsut Creek Camp (racks coming this summer) and link to the Wonderland Trail to follow the braided, roiling Carbon River for three miles. Now cue the adrenaline. Cross a wobbly, 200-foot suspension bridge and come nose-to-snout with the Carbon Glacier itself. The river’s milky headwaters and chunks of ice pour from a black-blue ice cave. From here, the rocky trail steepens and gets pinched between glacier’s edge and valley wall, gaining 1,500 feet over a mile to reach Moraine Park, a meadow choked with lupines in August. Hump over two wooded ridges to reach Mystic Lake at mile 10.4. On clear days, Rainier’s imposing, 3,500-foot Willis Wall dominates the horizon. Camp .3 mile downhill in a forested site beyond the lake’s east end.

Do it From Buckley, take WA 165 over the Carbon River Gorge bridge. Bear left to the park entrance. Map Green Trails Mount Rainier West No. 269 ($6, Guidebook Hiking Mt. Rainier National Park, by Heidi Schneider and Mary Skjelset ($16, Contact

[More glacier extremes]

→ At more than a mile wide, the cirque carved by the carbon Glacier is the largest in the Cascade Mountains.
→ Longest U.S. glacier: Bering Glacier, Alaska (118 miles)
→ Highest concentration in North America: Wrangell-St. Elias NP
→ Most in lower 48: North Cascades (300+)
→ North America’s oldest: Canadian Arctic ice sheet (100,000 years)

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Reader Rating: -


Tammy Vanden Heuvel
Jun 30, 2011

I just was at Black Canyon in May 2011 and hiked to the bottom. The only animals I saw were the birds, squirrels and pikas. But there were posted signs around that the park was having an issue with a problem bear.

Don't let the predators scare you off - this is an absolutely gorgeous park. Take time and the right gear and hike to the bottom.


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