Sunday, August 6, 2017

Comet Falls and Van Trump Park

Comet Falls
To Comet Falls: 4 miles round trip, 1100 feet elevation gain
To Van Trump Park: 5.6 miles round trip, 2200 feet elevation gain
To Mildred Point: 7.5 miles round trip, 3000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate (to Comet Falls and Van Trump Park), Moderate-Strenuous to Mildred Point
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Mount Rainier National Park entrance fee required

The hike to Van Trump Park in Washington State's Mount Rainier National Park visits multiple destinations of note, making it a hike with good rewards adjustable to level of fitness. The wildflower meadows of Van Trump Park and the stark, wild view over the canyon of the Kautz Creek from Mildred Point are both worthy spots, but luckily for hikers who prefer a lighter outing, the true highlight of this hike is the wispy, free-falling Comet Falls, one of the most extraordinary waterfalls in a national park packed with them.

I hiked this trail on a hazy, early August weekend with a friend, setting out from Seattle early in the morning after finding an AQI reading of less than 100 for Mount Rainier that day. From Seattle, we took State Route 167 and then SR 512 south to Puyallup, exited onto SR 161 and followed it south past South Hill, Graham, and Eatonville to the junction with SR 7; we turned left and followed Highway 7 to Elbe and continued on Highway 706 from Elbe towards Mount Rainier. Passing Ashford, we entered the park and followed the road past Longmire to the Comet Falls Trailhead, where there was limited parking on the left side of the road. We snagged the last parking spot and started up the trail.

The trail started out by climbing above the road, running parallel to it for a couple hundred meters until the trail reached a bridge crossing over Van Trump Creek. Here, the pretty blue water of the creek tumbled down successive steps in a narrow canyon, falling down Christine Falls just a little downstream of the bridge crossing.

Van Trump Creek
Past the bridge crossing, the trail became rocky as it began a steady but gradual ascent along Van Trump Creek. For the next mile and a half, the trail headed uphill through the forest, at times via switchbacks. At a few points, the trail broke out into clearings near Van Trump Creek; one such clearing had a limited view of Mount Rainier rising above. The trail also closely approached the creek a few times, with short spur trails leading to views over small plunging waterfalls.

At about 1.8 miles from the trailhead, we crossed a log bridge over a tributary of Van Trump Creek. Looking upstream, we spotted a pretty three-tiered waterfall, one of the multiple scenic water features along this hike.

Cascades along the trail
After crossing the stream, we almost immediately came to the first view of Comet Falls, a wispy, horsetail-style falls that leaped off the steep cliffs guarding Van Trump Park, plunging over 300 feet. Along with Spray Falls and Narada Falls, Comet Falls is one of the most impressive of the waterfalls at Mount Rainier National Park; the high concentration of cascades near the mountain is due to the sharp relief difference between the glaciers terminating at the 5000-8000 foot level on the mountain and the bottom of the Nisqually Valley at under 3000 feet just a few miles away.

Comet Falls
Many hikers turn around after catching this initial view of Comet Falls; I strongly urge that you continue onward to the base of the falls, even if you're not planning on hiking to Van Trump Park. From the initial viewpoint to the base of the falls, the trail stays out in the open with constant and increasingly better views of the feathery drop. Near the base of the falls, two miles from the trailhead, the trail makes a sharp switchback, with an unmarked spur trail continuing onward for a closer look at the falls. At the base, we were showered with a strong spray from the falls and we spotted a rainbow in the mist at the foot of the falls.

Rainbow at Comet Falls
Past the falls, the trail reentered the forest, climbing briefly and then flattening out before embarking on a steady switchback ascent through thinning forest with a plethora of blooming wildflowers. Presumably views would stretch to encompass the Tatoosh Range, Mount St. Helens, and High Rock on a nice day, but with the thick haze we could just barely see the Tatoosh. Blooming lupine, beargrass, paintbrush, valerian, and arnica made up for the lack of views.

Beargrass on the trail
Two and a half miles from the trailhead, we came to the junction between the Van Trump Park Trail and the Rampart Ridge Trail. Heading left at the junction led to Rampart Ridge and Mildred Point, while the trail to the right led up into Van Trump Park. We decided to first check out Van Trump Park and took the right fork, which immediately began a steep ascent.

The Van Trump Park Trail made an aggressive uphill push in its short 0.3-mile length, climbing through steep meadows with occasional views of Mount Rainier and improving views of the Tatoosh Range; as Mount Rainier was coated in haze at the time of my hike, the meadows were the true highlight, showcasing beautiful blooms of paintbrush, western anemone, lupine, heather, and beargrass. After an especially steep section of the trail, we reached the end of the maintained trail at a spot amongst the trees; an unmaintained and clearly oft-traveled use path continued forward, so we plowed ahead. I'm glad we did: the most expansive meadows at Van Trump Park were still ahead.

A couple hundred feet beyond the sign, we broke out into a lovely, lush meadow with an explosion of lupine, heather, and paintbrush. Wilted avalanche lilies were also everywhere; we were perhaps a week too late to see that portion of the bloom. Point Success, the southernmost peak of Mount Rainier, towered above us.

Lupine blooms at Van Trump Park
Walking through the meadows of the park, we found successively more impressive patches of wildflowers. Overall, Van Trump Park had a wonderful wildflower display, although the size of the meadows was a little smaller than those found at Paradise, Spray Park, or Indian Henry's and this was not the most flattering angle for Rainier.

Bloom at Van Trump Park
The origin of the name Comet Falls is fairly obvious; Van Trump Park is named after P.B. Van Trump, who along with Hazard Stevens made the first recorded ascent of Mount Rainier in 1870. Speaking of names, it's interesting to note the dominance of names of men who passed through the landscape transiently- Camp Muir, Stevens Canyon, Van Trump Park- over names preferred by those who had lived near the mountain for centuries. Indeed, the common name of the mountain today- Rainier- was bestowed by Captain George Vancouver for a man who never laid eyes on the mountain; Rainier is almost uniformly used over Tahoma, the name bestowed by the Native Americans who lived nearby.

Wildflowers of Van Trump Park
After sufficient wandering through the wildflowers, we backtracked to the junction with the Rampart Ridge Trail and followed that trail towards Mildred Point. Past the junction, the Rampart Ridge Trail made a rapid descent past patches of avalanche lilies to a log bridge crossing over Van Trump Creek.

Avalanche lilies
After crossing Van Trump Creek, the trail headed southwest along meadow-lined slopes above the creek until we saw the creek plunge into the abyss at the top of Comet Falls. Some of the flowers blooming profusely along the trail we had not seen earlier in Van Trump Park: here there was plenty of red from columbine and orange from tiger lilies, painting the slopes with a richer palette than the earlier meadows.

Half a mile from the Van Trump Park Trail junction, we came to a second, signed junction for Mildred Point; we took the right fork at the junction for the trail to Mildred Point. I was surprised that this trail was marked at all: the path felt unmaintained at times as it embarked on a steep, direct climb along a ridge, ascending 600 feet in just under half a mile. Along the way, we passed through even more beautiful wildflower meadows, including a huge, open slope on the longest, steepest hill of the ascent that was carpeted with valerian and tiger lilies. A stretch of trail on this hill was both steep and sandy, making footing very difficult on the way up; the trail to Mildred Point is substantially more difficult than anything seen on the hike into Comet Falls and Van Trump Park.

Wildflowers in the meadows along the way to Mildred Point
Our rewards at the top of the hill were a view to the south of the full Tatoosh Range through the haze. On a clear day, both Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams should be visible from this point; the view was impressive even without the distant volcanoes.

Hazy Tatoosh Range from trail to Mildred Point
The trail meandered through a final, flat meadow, passing a small remaining snowpatch before going up a slight incline to come to Mildred Point. Mildred Point is a small promontory above the canyon of Kautz Creek, which has carved a dramatic and unstable canyon into the volcanic rock on the slopes of Tahoma. The Kautz Glacier was visible at the head of this barren landscape and Point Success rose above it all.

View of the Kautz Creek Valley from Mildred Point
Comet Falls is remarkable; the rest of this hike is beautiful but perhaps not unique, although Mildred Point is quite stunning. I did find this to be an enjoyable hike despite the limited visibility due to wildfire haze; Mount Rainier was close enough that it was visible despite the haze and neither the wildflowers in Van Trump Park nor Comet Falls were impacted by the smoky skies.

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