Comet Falls could be arguably Mt Rainier National Park’s most beautiful waterfall (though I could easily see how Spray Falls or Narada Falls could challenge that assertion). It’s said to plunge at least 320ft in mostly freefall from a hanging valley (which I believe is known as Van Trump Park). There were also additional tiers both above and below the main plunge so the reported height could conceivably be an underestimate.
Adding to the scenic allure was that Julie and I were lucky with our timing as we witnessed a very bright rainbow across its base on the morning of our visit.
In order to reach this waterfall, we had to earn it with a pretty hot and tiring uphill hike of about 2 miles each way (4 miles round trip). Although the distance was modest, it was the relentlessly uphill nature of the hike that took a lot out of Julie and I. Essentially, it was one switchback after another with very few breaks in between, and the climbing began almost immediately from the car park.
Fortunately, there was plenty to see along the trail to help distract us from the physical exertion. Allow us to break down the hike.
First, after ascending the stairs leaving the car park into the forest, we crossed a bridge over Van Trump Creek above Christine Falls. Looking upstream from the bridge, we saw some cascades in addition to the cascades we noticed tumbling downstream below us.
Beyond this creek crossing, the trail began its first very long climb, which passed by a handful of fair-sized cascades along Van Trump Creek itself as the trail pretty much followed its eastern banks. Author Gregory Plumb in his Pacific Northwest Waterfalls book called these cascades Lower Van Trump Falls.
When the trail finally flattened out for a bit of a breather, it then narrowed as it hugged the volcanic slope with a bit of overgrowth protruding onto the trail. Julie and I couldn’t tell, but we thought the vegetation resembled poison ivy so we were careful to minimize skin exposure to them. Anyways, it was also in this stretch that the clouds started clearing thereby allowing us to get glimpses of Mt Rainier.
The last long ascent traversed a series of large volcanic boulders before flattening out again. The ascent began near another impressive cascade on Van Trump Creek, and I believe this was what Gregory Plumb referred to as the Middle Van Trump Falls.
At the end of this ascent, the trail then rounded a bend before a one-sided log bridge made another traverse of Van Trump Creek. This was where we were a little confused and nearly mistook Van Trump Falls (or Upper Van Trump Falls) for Comet Falls!
The reason for this confusion was that the three-tiered Van Trump Falls looked impressive in its own right. After such a long and tiring climb to get to this point, if we hadn’t seen Comet Falls photos in the literature, we could have stopped here and turned back prematurely!
Fortunately, our pre-trip research along with us noticing a sign indicating that Comet Falls was another 200 feet away on the other side of the one-sided log bridge were enough to indicate to us that we weren’t done with the hike yet. In fact, it turned out that Comet Falls wasn’t even on Van Trump Creek (it fed that creek instead).
Once we were finally able to go that extra 200 feet, we managed to get varying views of Comet Falls. Initially, we got an angled view of its main plunge as well as its two lower tiers facing us. However, the trail continued to switchback some more as it got closer to the falls.
After about the 2nd or 3rd switchback, there was a spur trail leading right to the misty base of the falls. This also happened to be the place where we saw the rainbow at its boldest.
I managed to climb another 3 or so switchbacks more before I finally turned back. From up there, I got some additional views of the main tier of Comet Falls. But I felt the views had gotten progressively worse the higher I went so I didn’t continue any further.
It turned out that had I continued up the rest of the switchbacks, I would have gone beyond the waterfall and into Van Trump Park. Like Spray Park above Spray Falls, I believe this was another subalpine meadow with wildflowers and views of Mt Rainier. I could imagine that under Winter and early Spring conditions, this meadow would contain the snow that would ultimately source the waterfall when it would melt as the weather warmed up.
The trailhead is about 10.5 miles east of the Nisqually Entrance of Mt Rainier National Park on the left side of the road. The car park seems to fill up fast as we witnessed this firsthand at 9:30am on a weekday. We also observed some people using the pullouts for Christine Falls (about a 1/4-mile further east) as spillover trailhead parking.
We reached the Nisqually Entrance from Seattle by taking I-5 south to the Hwy 167, then took the Hwy 167 to Hwy 161. Going south on Hwy 161 from the suburbs of Puyallup and South Hills is actually on surface streets. I think it’s this stretch that slowed us down due to a combination of traffic lights, the heavy volume of traffic, and police looking to issue speeding tickets.
Eventually, the 161 leaves the suburban sprawl, passes through Eatonville, then goes east on Hwy 7 before continuing east on Hwy 706 just east of Alder Lake. Hwy 706 is the highway leading to the Nisqually Entrance.
Now with all that said, it’s barely 60 miles from Seattle to Mt Rainier’s Nisqually Entrance, but it can still take nearly 2.5 hours to cover this drive thanks to the surprising lack of a dedicated highway once you get onto the 161!
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