Story and Photos by Craig Romano
Photo at right: Trekking through the snow on the High Hut Trail on the Mt. Tahoma Trail System.
What’s as exhilarating as hiking the radiating high ridges surrounding Washington’s highest summit? Snowshoeing those ridges! If you’re itching to get out and bask in the scenic glory of Washington’s iconic mountain, there’s no need to wait for your favorite trail to melt out. There are some great snowshoeing routes ringing the mountain. Here are three family-friendly winter wandering destinations within the snowy shadow of Mount Rainier. What are you waiting for?
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Mount Rainier National Park
Green Trails Map: Mount Rainier Wonderland Map 269S
Fees/Restrictions: Dogs prohibited; national park entrance fee required; chains must be carried; road closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Beneath a shroud of glistening white, Paradise, on the mountain’s south side, is just as beautiful as when it’s bursting with dazzling wildflower blossoms. The snowshoeing season is long at Paradise, with epic amounts of snowfall averaging nearly 700 inches a year. From a starting elevation of 5,400 feet, there’s a lot of terrain that can be traversed. There’s no need to worry about tramping across fragile meadows as they’re buried deep in snow and well protected. However, you do need to be concerned with avalanches. Be sure to check avalanche reports before heading out and stick to routes less prone to them.
One of the safer and more popular routes is the easy and well-marked two-mile trip to the Reflection Lakes. Traverse subalpine forest dropping down to cross Paradise Valley, and then crest a small ridge and drop down to the well-photographed lakes. Don’t expect any silhouettes on the lake surface this time of
year, but do expect some wildlife activity in the surrounding forested glades. Watch for foxes and whiskey jacks—especially the latter, which are also known as campground robbers. They will live up to that name trying to abscond with your granola when you pause for a break.
If snow conditions are stable, return via Paradise Valley. Pass through clusters of old-growth firs and hemlocks before breaking out into the open to be mesmerized at Mount Rainier’s massive presence looming above the ridges and steep slopes cradling the valley.
The ultimate Paradise snowshoe trip for views is along Mazama Ridge. From this long open ridge, enjoy non-stop jaw-dropping views of Rainier and beyond. Look west out over the Paradise River Valley to the Nisqually River Valley. Locate High Rock in the Sawtooth Ridge, and waves of blue-green ridges behind it that fade into the western horizon. The views south of the serrated Tatoosh Ridge are excellent, too. You can see various Cascades peaks from Mounts Adams and St. Helens and everything in between.
White Pass Nordic Center
Green Trails Map: White Pass No 303
Fees/Restrictions: Dogs are allowed on the trails after 3:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, and all day on the trails Monday through Wednesday. A Nordic center fee Wednesday through Sunday. Purchase ticket at yurt. Trails open Monday and Tuesday, but no grooming.
While most winter sports aficionados associate White Pass with downhill skiing, snowshoers need to put this 4,500-foot pass south of Mount Rainier on their radar as well. Across the road from the ski area you’ll find the White Pass Nordic Center. Yes, it’s mainly a complex of well-groomed and family-friendly cross country ski trails. But look closer—there are designated snowshoe trails too, and the Nordic Center grooms them as well.
You’ll find seven miles of kid- and beginner-friendly marked snowshoe trails, including a lovely loop around Leech Lake, known at the center as simply “The Lake.” The Lake Trail not only hugs Leech’s shoreline, but also travels through glades of towering old-growth evergreens. It crosses an open slope where you can enjoy a breathtaking view of the frozen body of water below, and the busy ski area slopes across the pass.
At the Center’s yurt you can rent snowshoes, making White Pass a good place to try out this sport if you’re a first-timer. And if you’re an experienced snow tramper, follow the Pacific Crest Trail from the Center north into the William O. Douglas Wilderness.
Over a high plateau draped in old-growth forest, you can hike about 2.5 miles to Deer Lake. Sand Lake is just another half mile north. Of course, in a winter wonderland these two small lakes will appear as frozen meadows, and no doubt will tempt you to carve them up with snowshoe tracks.
With its high elevation on the Cascade Crest and copious amounts of snowfall, a long snowshoeing season is usually guaranteed here.
Mount Tahoma Trails
Map: Mount Tahoma Ski Trail System (MTTA)
Fees/Restrictions: Sno-Park Pass required. Reservations required for overnight stays in hut.
The non-profit Mount Tahoma Trails Association (MTTA) on the western edge of Mount Rainier National Park offers snowshoers and cross country skiers over 50 miles of groomed well-marked trails. Plus, four huts and one yurt open for both day and overnight use. Touted as North America’s largest no-fee (although there’s a reservation fee for staying overnight) hut-to-hut cross-country ski trail system, the MTTA network is open to skiers and snowshoers of all ages and abilities.
The crown jewel of the MTTA’s four backcountry huts is High Hut, located on a 4,760-foot perch teetering over the Nisqually Valley. The view of Mount Rainier from the hut will take your breath away; so will the 4.3-mile hike getting there with its 2,400 foot vertical rise.
The route follows a wide logging road, which, when covered in snow, makes for a nice winter outing. Fight temptations to explore side trails branching off from your route. Save those for return trips.
The trail climbs steadily and is lined with thick forest. Occasional gaps in the green cloak reveal window views of jagged Sawtooth Ridge just to the east. At a low saddle on a high ridge, a trail veers left to the Snow Bowl Hut, the Yurt, and beyond. High Hut is another 1,000 vertical feet to the right. Emerging views to Mounts St. Helens and Adams help take your mind off of the grunt.
Reach the hut after cresting a windblown high ridge. Views! Peer straight down to frozen Anderson Lake. Look west to the Olympics and south to America’s most famous recently erupted volcano. Then east to America’s grandest and most awesome volcano—Mount Rainier!
Feel free to warm up in the hut, and make yourself a cup of hot cocoa. If you’re spending the night, sit in awe captivated by the alpenglow on Rainier, and watch a dark shroud blanket the Nisqually Valley below as daylight yields to starlight.
Paradise: From Elbe, drive 14 miles west on SR 706 to Mount Rainier National Park. Then continue on the park road 18 miles to Paradise.
White Pass: From Morton, drive 54 miles east on US 12 to White Pass Ski Area.
Mount Tahoma Trails (High Hut): From Elbe, head east 10 miles on SR 706, turning right onto Kernahan Road (which becomes Skate Creek Road FR 52). Continue 1.4 miles and bear right onto Osborn Road; then immediately turn left onto FR 85. Continue 1.5 miles turning right onto dirt DNR Road No. 1. Follow for 2.1 miles, and then turn left reaching trailhead at lower Sno-Park in 3.1 miles.
Paradise (Mount Rainier National Park): www.nps.gov/mora
White Pass (White Pass Nordic Center): skiwhitepass.com
Mount Tahoma Trails Association: skimtta.com
Craig Romano is the Trails Editor of Outdoors NW and is the author of eight Northwest hiking guidebooks including the Winter Hikes of Western Washington (The Mountaineers Books), card deck, which includes 50 snow-free hikes. Visit him at CraigRomano.com.