Near Mt. Rainier National Park is a hidden gem. A flat trail that leads to waterfalls, that can be snowy in winter but perfectly manageable for those without equipment. Better yet? This trail was empty–on a weekend! The secret is out–Skookum Flats is a trail you can’t miss.
I have had my eye on Skookum Flats for awhile. Being at a fairly low elevation, this trail is generally regarded as a good one for shoulder seasons if you’re trying to avoid snow. However, trip reports also said it was perfectly manageable even when snowy, with only likely needing microspikes and poles at the very end even with snow on the trail. Skookum Flats is also nice because there are two route options, one at 7.8 miles in length, the other at 4.2 miles. Being an idiot, I opted for the longer route. In my defense, the longer route has less driving on a snow-packed forest road, so if you or your car aren’t great in snow and ice, this might be a good option. If you choose the longer route, the trailhead lot is almost immediately on your left after you turn on FR 7160. There is a downhill to the lot, so highly recommend All or 4-Wheel Drive for getting you out. Once you’re parked and situated, go back and cross the forest road, away from the trailhead signs, to start your hike.
A wooden sign quick into the hike tells you that you are on trail #1194 and that it’s 1.6 miles to get to the junction with the Buck Creek Trail. You will then meander north along the White River. I quickly became enthralled by the hike, even with water from melting snow dripping all over me. The weather was gorgeous, the snow under our feet wasn’t too slick, and the trail felt easy.
Along the way, you’ll cross a few creeks here and there, all with the aid of well-maintained bridges. Even in the snow, there was no risk of getting lost, as the path was well-trodden. Along with human footprints, I noticed (what I hoped were) canine pawprints on the path, as well as what I’d guess to be elk prints too! I had seen trip reports mentioning seeing elk on the way to the hike but didn’t expect them on the trail! Sadly, we saw no wildlife that day, but the tracks were a good reminder to be aware always.
After a while, we reached a fork in the trail, with one route staying flat and one going down to the river. WTA instructions had not mentioned any fork, and while there was a 4’x4″ in the ground at the fork, it was lacking what would have been extremely helpful signage. We guessed and went towards the river–which turns out to have been correct. If we had remembered the sign at the beginning of the hike properly, we might have realized this was the junction with the Buck Creek Trail, but we did not realize that until our return journey.
Once we got closer to the river, it was great to see it up close. I could easily imagine what it would be like in the late spring or summer–elk bedded down to cool off, or taking a quick dip myself if the water wasn’t too strong. However, the entire time I was in fear that we had taken the wrong trail and would have to turn back. After a mile had passed, I knew my feet wouldn’t not make it back to the fork and further on the real trail if we were wrong. I suddenly got annoyed at the rushing river next to us as it made listening for a roar of waterfalls more difficult.
We kept asking ourselves if we were on the right trail and second-guessing everything. “It’s called flats, maybe we should have stayed on the flatter trail?” “Well maybe it’s a good thing we went downhill, as the hike is to the *bottom* of the falls…?” And so forth. I was fretting so much I completely missed a sulphur smell on the trail–if you find yourself worrying as well, that sulphur smell means you’re about five minutes away. Around that time, we agreed to set a timer for ten minutes and turn around after that if we still hadn’t reached the falls.
Mercifully, four minutes later we saw it–a wooden sign indicating the falls were to our west. Heeding the advice, we strapped on our microspikes and hit the trail upwards. This really was more of a scramble than a trail, and I would not recommend going near this scramble in winter without microspikes, and would strongly recommend poles as well. I am guessing even in snow-free months this scramble could be quite muddy and difficult. If you have any physical limitations, this section might not be for you–I 100% overdid it here and was in pain for days from my lingering hip issues. But the incoming view was too good to throw in the towel.
It probably took us a good 20 minutes each to go up and down maybe a tenth of a mile. I really wish they had a rope like Franklin Falls has to help you get up and down, but with going slow and taking breaks we made it up (and down) without falling. Once at the top, there was some post-holing, but it was so so worth it to be surrounded by icicles and the frozen falls. The spray from the falls felt like more of a light mist. Similar to Cedar Creek Falls, reports and reviews say the falls are most enthralling in spring or early summer, when the water coming down is at peak volume, but I’ll take frozen falls any day. The water does go down into the depths of a large hole I was too scared to look down but the boyfriendo said was deep, so be extra careful with your step, especially with kids or pets.
Finally, I got the winter hike of my dreams. We didn’t see another soul on this trail, so I’m worried I’m sharing a hidden gem, but this hike was too amazing not to share!
Distance: 7.8 miles if taking the long route, 4.2 if taking the short route
Elevation: 300 feet if taking the long route, 100 feet if taking the short route.
Parking: NW Forest Pass/America the Beautiful
Bathrooms: None at the trailhead for the long route, unsure about trailhead for the short route.