Carbon River Bike Camping: Aug 29-31 2013

There is a problem with trips that involve lots of logistics and also involve travelling with other people: You can’t easily get out of them. 

Thursday morning, August 29th: I just got a cold the day before, and awoke to the sound of thunder. Now in most of the country a summer thunderstorm is par for the course, but it’s rare to get thunderstorms in the West-of-Cascades Northwest ANY time of year. The forecast for Thursday looked especially soggy. Now if I was just biking out to the Gorge for three days, I could have simply baled and decided to ride out Friday instead, when the weather—and my health—looked better. But there were train tickets involved, and I was also travelling with Ed. Bailing wasn’t an option. So I packed ye olde Long Haul Trucker and rolled down to Portland Union Station, where I met Ed. We boarded the 8:30am Amtrak Cascades northbound to Tacoma. The 2 ½ hour ride was uneventful, and we watched a succession of rain showers move past us outside the window.

We rolled into Tacoma a little after 11am. And it began to dump. The route out of Tacoma sucks, to put it mildly: high-speed roads with no shoulder and loads of big trucks. Add to that the pouring rain. At least it was flat. We didn’t breathe easy until we reached Puyallup* some ten miles later where we broke for lunch. And I checked the weather, which was warning that we might see 1.5 to TWO INCHES of rain in some of the downpours? Yikes! That’s flash flood territory, and we’d be camping next to a river prone to flooding.
Anyways, it was too late to turn back now. We pressed on. The weather alternated between cloudy and raining. About 20 miles of the trip was on the Foothills multi-use path, a rail-trail. The scenery was pretty decent, and we barely saw any other cyclists, being a rainy Thursday and all. We left the trail in the teeny town of South Prairie, and then climbed our first hill to get into Wilkeson, the “last chance” town before we camped. From there, another good climb into the small hamlet of Carbonado, and then we were on pure “country road” as SR 165 gradually climbed through the forested canyon of the Carbon River valley.
We arrived at the ranger station at 7pm, two hours after it closed. Here was a major snag: While the campground we intended to use, Ipsut Creek, was free to use, one needed a backcountry permit to legally use it. I had heard that, unlike other areas of the park, getting a “first come” backcountry permit for the Carbon valley was pretty easy, so I didn’t worry about getting one in advance. But this of course meant getting to the ranger station by 5pm, something I didn’t factor into the planning. Do we just go for it, camp in Ipsut Creek without a permit for the first night, then come back the next day and beg forgiveness? With no other viable (or legal) options (there were no other campgrounds on the way, and the miles of forest we just passed through were all private holdings) we pressed on.

And then we got lucky. We passed through about a mile of National Forest before the entrance to the National Park, and noticed folks camping along the river. Free camping! We found an appropriate spot: a small little island accessible by a log-bridge. Too small a footprint (and too hard to get to) for most car camping folks, but not so for bike tourists! And the moat protected us from the yahoos camping around us. Yeah, yeah, I know, I try not to be so judgmental about these things. But not too long after we had set up camp and it started to get dark, the people just downstream from us starting shooting guns. Great. It was too late to move on, and we didn’t want a confrontation, so we hoped for the best and prayed they wouldn’t aim in our direction.**
The next morning we woke up, made breakfast, and rolled a mile and a half back down the road to the Ranger Station to pay our park entrance fee and obtain our backcountry permit. Easy peasy. Then it was down the road and into Mount Rainier National Park. Carbon River Road is closed to auto traffic from the park entrance to Ipsut Creek campground, a distance of about five miles. The Carbon River has a tendency to flood, and there was a major flood in 2006 that washed out many sections of the road. Rather than try to repair the road, the Park Service basically wrote it off. They re-routed the sections that washed out and depaved the sections that still remained.

You could tell what was what. The original sections of road were pretty good riding, the destroyed and/or re-routed sections were primitive and rough, usually strewn with a fair share of boulders. The Long Haul Trucker handled it all pretty good, but there were moments where I wish I was riding a Pugsley instead, or at the very least, something with a higher bottom bracket.
But in the end, it was all worth it. Ipsut Creek was a gem of a campground, although quite a weird hybrid of a beast. A car campground closed to cars. I was expecting to find it in a state of benign neglect, but it was maintained very well, with new picnic tables and bear boxes galore! The pit toilets were even stocked with toilet paper. No water pumps, so I ended up filtering water from Ipsut Creek. (The Carbon River, fed by glacial melt, was too full of silt for me to attempt to filter it.)

After setting up camp, Ed and I took a little hike, about 3.5 miles round-trip. We hiked further up the Carbon River to get to the point where one can see the end of Carbon River, lowest glacier in the Lower 48. We could have hiked a bit more to get a better view, but it required crossing a very sketchy and narrow foot bridge across the raging river, something neither of us could bring ourselves to do.*** After that we just hung around the campsite, nursing what was left of the Jim Beam.

We got up good and early (for us, at least) on Saturday. We had to be back to Tacoma by 6:15pm at the latest to catch Amtrak home. Thankfully we had a lot of things in our favor: beautiful weather and more downhill than up. We broke for lunch of pizza in Orting around noon, already thirty miles in. We got to Tacoma’s unglamourous**** train station just a hair before three, way ahead of schedule!*****This is where we made an alarming discovery: Ed broke his bike. And when I mean “broke”, I’m being literal: there were cracks through BOTH his chainstays on his Rawland Sogn, a bike supposedly beefy enough to handle all the rough stuff someone like Ed could throw at it. Alas, this was not to be. So we retired to a nearby brewery (Wingman) and enjoyed some nice draughts before the train. Another uneventful ride home, and we were back in Portland around 9pm.

Overall, despite the crappy first day (and the gun) the trip was good. The Carbon River Valley is the undiscovered gem of Mount Rainier National Park. While the overall views are nowhere near as spectacular as what I saw in the park last year, having a car-free campground divorced from the hustle and bustle of the busy areas of the park. The ride was good, too, with the exception of the 10 miles between Tacoma and Puyallup, which seems unavoidable. If I was going to do this again it would be nice to have an extra day to do some more extensive hiking around the Carbon valley. And I’m sure I’ll be back someday.

More photos here.

*Try to pronounce it. I guarantee that however you do, unless you live in Metro Seattle/Tacoma, you’ll get it wrong.
**When we passed by this very site at 9:30 am on Saturday, they were shooting their guns again.
***The scenario that went through my head: What would do me in first? Drowning, getting smashed against the rocks, or hypothermia?
****Tacoma had a very beautiful and grand Union Station downtown, but as passenger traffic dwindled, the powers that be decided to build the Amshack of a regional airport station over by the freight yards instead. There is a much newer and grander passenger station used by Sounder (Seattle area commuter rail) and Tacoma Link (light rail) across the street, though. Whenever they finish the newer line that will bypass the Tacoma Narrows, Cascades service should move to this station.
*****There was a train departing at about 3pm, so we could have theoretically made it for that one. But you know how it all goes…

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