The sign along Washington State Highway 410 announcing Buck Creek Recreation Area is easy to miss, and the single-lane bridge crossing the White River from the highway would give any RVer pause. Since the recreation area is within the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest but hardly merits a mention on the forest’s website, you would think it wasn’t worth a visit.
But with a little research and a weekend campout, I learned there are recreational opportunities aplenty in the Buck Creek Recreation Area. There truly is something for everyone in the family to enjoy: hiking, mountain biking, river fishing, horseback riding trails, target shooting, a dirt bike trail, waterfalls, geocaching, camping, photography and wildlife. There is even a slice of the past for the history buff in the family, and in season, you can enjoy wild strawberries and huckleberries. Have friends with an airplane instead of an RV? They can join in the fun too, as there is a paved airstrip within the recreation area.
And once you have experienced everything the Buck Creek Recreation Area offers, you can use it as a base camp to travel the historic Mather Memorial Parkway and explore nearby Crystal Mountain and Mt. Rainier National Park.
Buck Creek Recreation Area is just off Hwy. 410 about 30 miles from Enumclaw. The area borders the northeast corner of Mt. Rainier National Park and encompasses an airstrip controlled by the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Let’s look at some of the many recreation opportunities available at this unique area.
There are a multitude of trails for hiking and riding. The Sun Top Trailhead 1183 departs from the southwest end of the airstrip, climbing through old-growth timber past cascading waterfalls, eventually ending atop Sun Top Mountain eight miles later. While on Sun Top be sure to visit the historic lookout built in 1933. On a clear day the view from the lookout is outstanding, with Mt. Rainier only 10 miles to the south, Mt. Baker 150 miles to the north, the central Cascades to the east, and the Olympic Mountains to the west. The lookout is open to the public during the day and can be reserved for overnight stays.
For those who aren’t up for an eight-mile hike, there is a forest service road that will deliver you to the top of Sun Top Mountain. Since the Sun Top trail is open to all user groups (hikers, mountain bikes, motorcycles and horses), one good option is to have someone in your group drive you and your mountain bike to the top so you can enjoy the downhill ride back to camp.
Another trail departing from the recreation area is Skookum Flats Trail 1194. The trailhead is on the west side of the White River just after you cross the bridge into the recreation area. Hiking downstream 2.6 miles you will find a beautiful view of a basalt formation known as The Palisades across the river to the east. An additional mile downstream will deliver you to impressive Skookum Falls. Heading upstream from the trailhead, the trail meanders by a bench overlooking the river, past springs and through dense second-growth forests, ending at the national park boundary.
Regardless of which direction you head on the Skookum Flats Trail, there is little elevation gain, making it an easy hike for any family member. The trail is also open to mountain bikes for those that would like to employ pedal power. Numerous other user-made trails ramble throughout the forest, especially along the west side of the airstrip. These trails pass through sections of very impressive old-growth forest and are an excellent choice for those who like to explore on horseback. More trails exist just across Hwy. 410 from the recreation area for those searching for more places to ramble.
Multiple geocaches reside throughout the recreation area, leading you to waterfalls, memorials for fallen horsemen, ancient fir trees and other places of interest. You may even catch a glimpse of a deer or elk. It is a great way to explore the less-traveled areas of the recreation area and find a little “treasure” too.
Two waterfalls are easily reached from the recreation area. The largest, Skookum Falls, is a tiered horsetail-type falls with a total height of 250 feet and two drops, with the tallest being 150 feet. It can be viewed from Hwy. 410, but the best view is from the base of the falls, which can be reached, as mentioned above, via Skookum Flats Trail 1194. Doe Creek Falls is more of a long cascade than a plunging type of falls. It can be reached by traveling the Sun Top trail from the recreation area or for a shorter hike via the Doe Falls Trail 1174. The Doe Falls trailhead is a short drive from the recreation area. Both falls are best viewed during spring runoff.
Those who would like to practice their marksmanship in the recreation area are welcome to do so as long as they adhere to Forest Service policy which prohibits discharging firearms within 150 yards of a residence, building, campsite, developed recreation site or occupied areas and across roads or bodies of water. Information on restrictions and other areas that are closed to shooting can be obtained at the Forest Service’s Enumclaw district office.
While the White River is murky white from glacier flour, don’t think there aren’t any fish in it. The river is open to fishing for trout and no surprise—whitefish!
The recreation area surrounds the Ranger Creek State Airport, which is managed by the Washington State Department of Transportation and features a 2,875-foot asphalt runway. Don’t be surprised to see a plane land during your stay. Many use the airstrip to access area trails or visit friends camped at the adjoining campground.
History buffs will enjoy researching early airstrip history and viewing the remains of what once stood on the site. There are varying accounts on how the airstrip came into existence. One story declares, “When the US went to war with Japan in the 1940s there was great fear that our air bases would be hit. Ranger Creek Airstrip was built as a place for our war planes to evacuate to.” A different version states, “During the war years Ranger Creek (Buck Creek) airfield may have also been a training field for Army Rangers and Air force P-51 Tank Busters as they prepared for war in Europe.” There is probably some truth in both historical accounts. More recently the airport is noted for its history in connection with state altitude records and some significant cross-country flights by gliders using the lee wave formed off Mt Rainier. For those that really want to explore, there is an old wooden dam to be searched out on nearby Doe Creek.
Finally, what would a good recreation area be without camping?
There are several options to choose from, including an area designated for campers with horses.
Buck Creek Campground is a primitive campground with vault toilets and fire rings among the few improvements. The access road and spaces are primarily dirt. Campsites along the one-way road through the campground are suitable for medium-size RVs, with longer spaces found along the two-way road facing the airstrip. Additional campsites can be found across the airstrip.
Dispersed camping (boondocking) is allowed anywhere in the recreation area, but the best sites are among the old concrete foundations at the northeast end of the airstrip. This area is open to the sky and has a multitude of established fire rings along with pockets of grass. Some of the old concrete slabs are suitable as parking pads for smaller RVs.
Buck Creek Recreation Area truly has something for the outdoor enthusiast in all of us.
Dave Helgeson and his wife, Cheri, promote RV and manufactured home shows in Western Washington. They spend their free time traveling and enjoying the adventures of the RV lifestyle. Follow Dave’s RV adventures at rvlife.com/67-dave/
IF YOU GO:
Drive east out of Enumclaw for 29 miles on highway 410. After mile marker 54, look for the “Buck Creek Recreational Area one-quarter mile” blue Forest Service sign on the right. Turn right on Forest Service Road 7160, cross the bridge and travel .2 miles, turning left at the first junction. Upon turning left you will immediately have a fork in the road. The left fork will take you to the best dispersed campsites at the end of the airstrip, followed by Buck Creek Campground along the east edge of the airstrip. The right fork will take you to the west side of the airstrip where you will find more designated campsites (4×4 post with a tent emblem emblazed on it). Traveling past the south end of the airstrip will take you to additional dispersed camping sites.
To reach the “horse camp” noted above, cross the bridge, travel about .25 miles and take the second left.
Note: Vehicles parked in the Buck Creek Recreation Area must display a Northwest Forest Pass. Daily passes can be purchased (self-serve) at the Buck Creek Campground. There are no fees to camp.
There is no garbage service provided in the recreation area, so if you pack it in, pack it out.
To avoid confusion, please note that within the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest there is another Buck Creek Campground on the Suiattle River east of Darrington.