Comet Falls – Mount Rainier National Park
If there is one waterfall that every visitor to Mount Rainier National Park should see, Comet Falls is it. Van Trump Creek hurtles from the lip of a lofty hanging valley, plunging in four steps flanked by lofty amphitheater cliffs of Andesite. The falls are usually cited as standing 320-feet tall, but have been measured by the Northwest Waterfall Survey as 462 feet tall if the lower pools are included.¹
The trail to Comet Falls follows a tumbling, churning, whitewater creek upstream as it thunders through a narrow gorge of glacier-polished rock on its way to a waterfall that drops 462 feet in three tiers. There are numerous small waterfalls and cascades and two significant ones to admire, all in less than two miles.
The trail continues further up past Comet Falls to Van Trump Park, which features an alpine meadow with views of Mount Rainier and easy wandering. For an added treat, hike an extra mile for a stunning view of the barren Kautz Creek valley from Mildred Point.²
Van Trump Park honors P. B. Van Trump, who with Hazard Stevens, was one of the first people to stand on the summit of Mount Rainier in 1870.³
Stevens and Van Trump probably did not stand on the true summit of Mount Rainier, but they are credited with the first ascent, two months ahead of geologists Samuel Emmons and Allen Wilson. That is why the names Van Trump and Stevens are attached to numerous features in Mount Rainier National Park.
A Yakima Indian named Sluiskin guided Stevens and Van Trump up the Muir snowfield to 9200 feet, but refused to go higher. Other native guides had similarly stopped short of the summit, largely because of Sluiskin’s grandfather, who decades earlier had climbed the highest of any native on Takhoma (Mount Rainier). He had not summited, and strongly advised against it, reporting that Takhoma was inhabited by an evil spirit who dwelt in a fiery lake on its summit.²
This would have been a great hike for Mongo, but the NPS does not allow dogs in the back country, so Dad had to make this trip alone. It was a beautiful day to go for a walk. The route to the park took Dad through La Grande WA, with its classic General Store & Post Office, then through Elbe with its railroad themed motel and restaurant, and finally into Ashford where Dad was buzzed by and ultra-light aircraft.
After Ashford, Dad entered the park. The brilliant fall sunlight was spilling through the leaves of the trees and onto the road. He stopped at the Kautz Creek Trail Head to snap a picture Mt. Rainier, on his way to the trail head. At the trail head, Dad noticed a Schwinn mountain bike chained to the map display. He nodded his head to the brave soul who rode here on a mountain bike and then hiked up the trail. He thought to himself, “That’s something Kimi might do!”
The trail started off at a steep climb, and then crossed a sturdy bridge. The trail followed the Van Trump Creek upstream, passing by scars from landslides, and interesting volcanic features like a volcanic dyke composed of hexagonal columns of basalt like Calcite Springs in Yellowstone NP.
Dad trudged on up to the falls. As he neared the top of the climb, he came upon another set of falls. They did not match the picture he was looking at. He was a might bewildered for a while. Then, through the trees, he caught a glimpse of a towering set of falls. He set off across the skinny log bridge of the other falls, and struck out quickly for the falls behind the trees.
The falls continued to grow more impressive the closer Dad drew towards them. As he came close enough to see the base of the falls, he saw the rainbow created by the spray coming off the rocks.
Dad decided to continue up the trail to reconnoiter for other camera angles. He climbed past a photographer with a huge camera and lens on a tripod. Dad waved his iPhone as he passed.
As he headed upwards, he saw signs to Van Trump Park, which sounded like a pleasant destination. He decided to head up and explore that area. The path had a fairly consistent climb to it which was not bad, and path itself was in pretty good shape, even if it were deeply rutted in a few places. Then as it approached the crest of the ridge the trail increased its pitch dramatically. It was like climbing incredibly steep stairs.
At the top of the ridge, he turned to survey the horizon. From here he could see the summit of Mt. Rainier, but also Mt. St. Helens, Mount Adams, and the Tatoosh Range. He stood there for a moment to drink in all the sights.
The wind and clouds were growing as the afternoon wore on, but that gave Dad an opportunity to film an exciting video of wind blowing clouds off of Mt. Rainier. (Click HERE to see the video.)
Dad stopped at just above the tree line and just below the glacier line to capture a few pictures of Van Trump Park.
Dad sat down on a boulder to drink some water and eat at Cliff Bar (Mongo’s FAVORITES!!!) Then he headed back down the trail.
At the junction with the Comet Falls trail, Dad almost passed a bald headed gentleman headed up the trail, when the man stopped and asked Dad, “Have you been to Mildred’s Point?”
Dad looked at the man quizzically, “No… Should I?”
“Absolutely,” answered the man emphatically. “It’ll add another mile, but if you have never been there, it is worth the climb!”
“Twelve miles v. thirteen miles; what’s the difference”, thought Dad. So he asked the man for directions, who replied to just follow the signs. Dad thanked him and headed off.
The first thing Dad saw on this part of the trail was the top of Comet Falls, which had been one of the reasons he had kept walking beyond the falls in the first place. That put a check in the box next to that landmark. It did require crossing another log bridge, which are amongst Dad’s least favorite methods of crossing streams. The only methods below maintained log bridges on the list are: plain logs, tight ropes, and rocket powered motorcycles.
Dad followed the path around and started another steep climb up into another alpine meadow. This one interestingly enough had a small tree frog hopping along the trail. Who knew there were tree frogs above 5000 feet? Once again Dad reached the end of civilization and entered into the unmaintained wilderness.
Dad started his descent back to the trail head. It was now mid-afternoon, and the temperature was starting to drop up on the mountain.
He walked swiftly down the trail, pausing every now and then to look at a mushroom, or a chipmunk, or a coyote print.
As he neared the parking lot, he could see someone was unchaining the mountain bike. As he turned the corner into the parking lot, he saw it was the bald gentleman from the trail.
“You’re going to bike home from here”, asked Dad incredulously.
“Oh no”, answered the man. I drop the bike off here, and then drive my car back to Longmire. Then I hike up from there. When I finish the hike, I ride the bike, down hill all the way, back to the car.” Dad was impressed, even if the ride was all downhill, and he told the man so.
Then as Dad piled his bag into the car and swapped his boots for shoes, the man shot off down the road. By the time Dad left the parking lot, the man was long gone from sight. Dad did eventually catch up to him, but not for a while because the man was making really good time.
In Ashford, Dad stopped in the Copper Mill Inn for a “Cheese Burger in Paradise”, and a shake before making the rest of the trip back to Seattle.
- Waterfalls Northwest; http://www.waterfallsnorthwest.com
- Washington Trails Association; http://www.wta.org
- National Park Service; http://www.nps.gov