Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Little Mashel Falls

Middle Falls on Little Mashel River
5.5 miles round trip, 700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

There's nothing little about Washington State's Little Mashel Falls. Near Eatonville, the Little Mashel River makes a series of three drops on its descent to meeting the Mashel River. Fed primarily by winter rains, these waterfalls are most spectacular in winter and spring, when constant rains give the river a thunderous flow. With recent improvements to the trail, this slightly over 5-mile round trip hike from the University of Washington's Pack Experimental Forest is an excellent way to see the falls.

I hiked to Little Mashel Falls with some friends on a rainy February weekend. From Puyallup, we followed Highway 161 south through Eatonville to its junction with Highway 7; after turning left (east or south) onto Highway 7, we followed it for a half mile to the entrance of Pack Forest on the left (east) side of the highway. Turning off into Pack Forest, we followed the main road in the forest (453rd St E) uphill to a trailhead parking area.

Leaving the trailhead, we followed the dirt road heading east (the road parallel to the parking area). We followed this gravel road east for 1.8 miles; there were a few gentle ups and downs but the road was generally flat. At a few points, other gravel roads came up to join the road, but the main gravel road was always fairly obvious. The road cuts through the Pack Forest, which is an experimental forest for studying sustainable forestry run by the University of Washington's School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

At 1.8 miles, the road entered a small clearing and came to a fork; the trail to the falls follows the road on the left, so we headed left and continued east. We followed this road for a quarter mile, passing some small clearings on our right, and came to an intersection with a spur trail on the left marked by a rock with the word "FALLS." Here, we finally left the system of gravel roads and headed onto a single track trail. This trail circled around a small pond and soon began a descent as it entered the gorge holding the three falls on the Little Mashel River. The trail, which to this point had been excessively mild with virtually nonexistent elevation gain, was about to get a bit more exciting.

The falls trail came to a junction after a short stretch of descent. Here, the trail off to the right led towards the Upper and Middle Falls while the trail that continued to descend led down to the Lower Falls. We decided to check out the Middle Falls first; the Upper Falls trail branched off from the Middle Falls Trail and led further up a stream valley, but the Upper Falls were a little underwhelming and couldn't be seen well from the trail. The Middle Falls trail made a steep descent down to the Middle Falls. Reading past trip reports before the hike suggested that this trail used to be extremely muddy and poorly maintained, but it was in good shape during my hike. The trail descended to the base of Middle Falls, which was a roaring, 90-foot tall sheet of water that is among the most impressive waterfalls in Washington State. In mid-winter, the sheer power of the water is overwhelming: all of us were quickly drenched by the falls' forceful spray.

Middle Falls
After eating lunch just uphill from Middle Falls, we returned to the main falls trail and took a right, following it down to Lower Falls. At the very bottom of the gorge, Lower Little Mashel Falls was a pretty 40-foot cascade. We spent some time admiring the tumbling water and the greenery of the gorge before heading back the steep uphill of the trail and then returning to the trailhead.

Lower Falls on Little Mashel River
A word of warning: a few social paths lead to the lip of Middle Falls. If you choose to visit the top of the falls, be extremely careful; multiple people have died at the falls in the past few years. Don't enter the river above the falls and avoid putting yourself in situations where a slip could be fatal.

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