A hike that ends in a waterfall is a perfect family adventure. In spring, especially, the dramatic rush and splash of water is a terrific payoff for hikers young and old and makes for a natural turnaround point.
Here are some favorite South Sound waterfall hikes. Though they’re an easy drive from the greater Tacoma area, we think they’re also worth the trip for waterfall-loving families and their kids from all over Puget Sound. Want more terrific waterfall hikes? Check out these hikes in the greater Seattle area).
Tips: As with all hikes, you’ll want to bring along the Ten Essentials. Also keep in mind that paths to waterfalls can be slick and muddy, and the rocks around waterfalls can be loose. Get your fill of photo ops from a safe distance, and don’t allow children to play in the falls, swim under the falls or climb up behind them. And always check trail and road conditions before heading out, to stay safe and avoid disappointment; the WTA's trip reports are a great resources.
1. Skookum Flats, Enumclaw
This relatively flat, 4.2-miles hike takes you along a wooded path that winds along the White River. It’s a popular, multi-use trail, so expect company, including lots of dogs (they should be on leashes) and mountain bikers. Our boys loved the giant boulders and massive trees. The climb to the waterfall itself requires goat-like footing, so we suggest younger hikers admire it from the base. We encountered a few downed trees on our last visit, but they were easy to scramble over.
More details: wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/skookum-flats
Getting there: This hike is off 410 past Enumclaw. Turn on to Forest Road 73 and find the well marked trailhead just beyond the bridge. Find a longer option detailed on WTA's site.
2. Snoquera Falls, Mount Rainier area
You usually have to drive farther and work harder to see a waterfall this dramatic. Go in the spring because it becomes a trickle and eventually disappears in the summer.
This roughly 4-mile hike is right behind a Boy Scout camp, Camp Sheppard. Visit in the morning so you can find a parking spot. Well-marked trails take you through a lush forest toward the base of the falls, which spill dramatically over rocky cliffs.
Admire the falls from the trail and resist the temptation to scramble closer to the base. This is a great turnaround point.
More details: wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/snoquera-falls
Getting there: Drive east on 410 past the Dalles Campground. Look for signage for Camp Sheppard on the left. The parking for the hike is just past the entrance to the Boy Scout camp.
3. Porter Falls, Olympia area
A working, multi-use forest a short drive from bustling Olympia, Capitol Forest is managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) so you’ll need your Discover Pass. If you are bothered by evidence of logging or the occasional ATV, this is probably not the outing for you. On our visit, we saw just one other group and enjoyed an easy walk to Porter Falls, a waterfall in a pretty forest.
The most thing difficult about this roughly 2-mile hike is navigating the forest roads to find the trailhead. We suggest setting your GPS to the Porter Creek Campground. The trailhead is almost directly across from the campground, right by the water spigot.
The initial part of the hike goes up, but it’s a gentle, short climb before it goes down and eventually levels out. The rest of the trail is a gentle walk through mossy trees. We encountered some blowdowns, but this was otherwise an easy, pleasant ramble.
The falls are at the confluence of two creeks. Stand carefully and look over when you get your photo ops. During our visit, the rivers were swollen and dramatic from recent rainfall.
More details: wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/porter-falls
Getting there: The DNR site has downloadable maps and information on Porter Creek Campground, which is directly across from the Porter Falls trailhead. The WTA site has driving directions from Highway 12, as well as recent trip reports. We suggest making sure you have a map before you head out, as the trails and roads in Capitol Forest can be maze-like.
4. Little Mashel Falls, Eatonville area
Don’t be fooled by the word “little.” That part of this waterfall’s name refers to the river that feeds it — not the falls themselves. They have plenty of “wow” factor.
Signage to this waterfall has been much improved, but finding it continues to be the trickiest part of this 5-mile hike. We approached it from Smallwood Park in Eatonville, where you can connect with the last section of the Bud Blancher Trailhead, a flat, gravel path from Eatonville to the Pack Forest. Find the end of the trail just up from a small pond after you park. This part of the hike is flat and skirts private property. Look for bald eagles as you cross the new cedar bridge.
After you leave the bridge, the trailhead is just to the left. On our last trip, there was not a sign here, but there were markings on the trees. Just a few yards in, you will also see metal signage pointing the way towards the “Falls Trail.” From here you begin a gentle but definite ascent with the sounds of the river accompanying you as you climb through forest.
As you approach the top, there is a small boulder field before a fork to the left with other marked trees. Take this path and shortly come to another metal sign indicating the way to the middle falls or upper falls. We took the path marked “Upper Falls Trail” to the right and were rewarded with a spectacular view. There was also a rough path down to the river itself that we chose not to take. This last section was steep and skinny in parts. You may want to send a grown-up ahead to scout it out.
We plan to try the trail marked for the middle falls on another visit, as well as the approach from Pack Forest. Be sure to stick to official paths rather than those carved out by visitors, and use caution on steep terrain, especially if it has been raining. Prepare for truly boot-sucking mud regardless!
Note: Past trip reports indicated people reached the falls by crossing a railroad track. We do not advise this route as you will be trespassing on private property and crossing dangerous railroad tracks.
More details: wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/little-mashel-falls
Getting there: We began this park from Smallwood Park in Eatonville at 436th St E. You can also start from Pack Forest. Directions can be found at the Pack Forest website here.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2016 and updated for 2018.