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Cowlitz Divide Trail

Difficulty: moderate

8.0 miles

Elevation gain: 2400'

Max elevation: 4750'

Camps: Olallie Creek

First hiked by me: 2022

This quiet, forested trail is often visited with an attitude of utilitarian purpose or even disappointment, rather than considered as a worthy destination unto itself. It's so rarely hiked for its own merits that it doesn't even have an entry on the Washington Trails Association website.

Many hike here as part of an Eastside Loop, and I have to be honest: nice though the Cowlitz Divide Trail may be, it's definitely the least memorable part of that loop.

Every year some number of Wonderland Trail hopefuls hike here on an alternative route around the mountain after finding themselves unable to get permits for the campsites at Summerland or Indian Bar. These camps are popular and limited in capacity, so they tend to fill up early in the permit reservation process, and once full they become the limiting factor on availability of full Wonderland circuits. It is however possible to circumnavigate Tahoma without camping at Summerland or Indian Bar, by detouring off the east side of the Wonderland via Owyhigh Lakes, the Eastside Trail, and the Cowlitz Divide Trail. A twinge of disappointment is inevitable for hikers forced onto this alternate route by lack of Wonderland campsite availability, as they'll be skipping a life-changingly splendiferous section of the Wonderland.

True disappointment would kick in for anyone who heard other hikers describing the Cowlitz Divide as their favorite part of Rainier, and hiked the Cowlitz Divide Trail to see it for themselves. Walking along the top of the Cowlitz Divide is indeed a marvel of big views and wildflowers, but that's the Wonderland section between Box Canyon and Indian Bar, not the Cowlitz Divide Trail at all! This confusingly named trail climbs up the side of the Divide, through forest with no views, and ends at a junction with the Wonderland about a mile south of where the epic pretty stuff begins. You could continue north on the Wonderland from this junction, but if your goal is the top of the Cowlitz Divide it'd be easier to get there from Box Canyon, skipping the Cowlitz Divide Trail entirely.

With properly calibrated expectations, however, this trail can be a delight. Although averagely steep for Rainier, the terrain rarely requires switchbacks so you'll be covering lots of horizontal as well as vertical distance. This results in a good workout that feels like you're stretching out and eating up the miles. Forested terrain makes it a good hike for bad weather, or for a hot day when you want to hike in shade.

And oh, the forest is lovely: peaceful, quiet, giant trees, and open enough that the undergrowth is luxuriant. Huckleberries will abound here later in the season. It's a good place to come for tree healing when you're having difficult times.

Just south of the trailhead along Stevens Canyon Road, the appropriately named Fall Creek is a reminder that once you move past Rainier's famous named waterfalls (Silver, Spray, Comet...) it is sometimes the little quiet ones tucked away in the woods that really get to you and are worth spending some extra time to stop and look and think at

Neat bit of trail design, using a fallen tree to create a bridge

Along the trail

Hiking poles for scale

Mossy branches glow in the sun

Olallie Creek (Olallie means 'berry' in the Chinook Jargon)