While Mount Rainier and its neighboring craggy peaks offer excellent backcountry skiing and challenging winter hiking adventures—there are plenty of less-intimidating family-friendly spots within the frozen shadows of the mountain. Here are five of my favorite places to break tracks in the snow suitable for families with children and newbie snowshoers.
Trail of the Shadows
Distance: 0.8 mile loop
When snow levels in the park are low, the easy Trail of the Shadows makes for a perfect destination if you’re brand new to snowshoeing. Starting right across the road from the lovely and historic Longmire Inn, this easy 0.8 mile nearly level loop circles around scenic Longmire Meadow. Traipse through towering old growth while you skirt the meadow. Catch glimpses of the Mountain and of Rampart Ridge forming an emerald northern flank. Pause to check-out the 1888-built homestead cabin, built by pioneer James Longmire and his sons. And pass by a pair of bubbling warm springs which gave rise to a hotel and spa (now gone) more than 125 years ago. Then return to the inn for a hot drink by the fireplace. If you’re looking for more exercise and up for a good workout, follow the Rampart Ridge Trail for a short ways from the loop.
Distance: 4.0 miles roundtrip
Here’s an opportunity to snowshoe a section of the famous 93-mile round the mountain Wonderland Trail. From Longmire head north on Rainier’s signature trail. Soon bear right at a junction and follow the trail—this section once an old carriage road—through towering old trees. Soon the way comes up along the Nisqually River. Now follow the crashing river upstream pausing along the way to marvel at Eagle Peak rising to the east.
There are several nice viewpoints along the way. Just be sure to safely stay far enough back from the river bank. Approach Cougar Rock Campground and continue a short distance beyond it dropping down to the river outwash area. Here a log bridge crosses the river. This is the end of the route for most snowshoers—as the bridge crossing and terrain beyond can be tough in winter. From this spot, enjoy a breathtaking view of Mount Rainier hovering over the glacier-fed river. Then turn around and enjoy a gentle downhill return.
Distance: 4.0 miles roundtrip
While Paradise is world renowned for its summer wildflowers, when shrouded deep in snow it is a breathtaking winter wonderland. From a lofty 5400-feet starting point, you can snowshoe the high country with minimal effort. The trek to the Reflection Lakes requires no dangerous avalanche chute crossings. And it requires no tricky navigation either as the park service marks the route with snow wands.
From Paradise, follow the Lakes Trail slowly descending on a ridge above the Paradise Valley. The way traverses deep old-growth forest reaching the Paradise River at 0.6 mile and after dropping 600 feet. Cross the river on a bridge and then begin climbing. Cross the closed-in-winter and buried-in-snow Paradise Road and continue climbing reaching a junction (elev. 5,150 feet) at 1.1 miles. The way left is a more challenging but incredibly scenic route along the High Lakes Trail to Mazama Ridge.
You want to continue straight descending 300 feet and reaching the larger of the Reflection Lakes at 1.6 miles. The lakes which in summer beautifully reflect the Mountain will appear as a frozen meadow. It’s always a prudent move not to snowshoe across them—feel free to explore along their edges. It’s about .4 mile to the smaller lake. Be sure to admire the steep frozen spires of the Tatoosh Range from a safe distance—as there are several avalanche slopes on these peaks. Find a nice spot in a cluster of firs to have your lunch—and be prepared to guard your morsels from scavenging gray jays who flutter over these lakes year round.
Area: Mount Baker-Snoqualmie Forest near Greenwater
Distance: 4.0 miles roundtrip
This is a great easy snowshoeing route that is not only kid-friendly, but dog-friendly, too. The route begins from the Sun Top Sno Park (Sno Park pass required) and follows alongside Huckleberry Creek through thick old growth timber. A popular destination for beginner cross-country skiers too with its gentle incline; be sure not to snowshoe in any ski tracks. Also note that this route begins at an elevation of 2,300 feet which usually means no snow in mild winters and late in the season. But after a good snowfall, this route utilizing Forest Road 73 will provide plenty of fun for the whole family.
The way heads southwest through groves of ancient forest. After about a mile Huckleberry Creek comes into view. There are several spots along the way if you want to veer off of the route to take a closer look at the cascading creek which originates high in a basin beneath the Sourdough Mountains in Mount Rainier National Park.
At about 2.0 miles the way bends south. If snow conditions are stable (there are a couple of potential avalanche spots beyond) and you are feeling like getting more exercise—continue. After another 1.5 miles you’ll reach a bridge over Huckleberry Creek. This is a good spot to turn around. Beyond this point the way is unmaintained and steadily climbs making it the domain for experienced backcountry travelers only.
River Trail (Blue Diamond Trail)
Area: Mount Baker-Snoqualmie Forest near Crystal Mountain
Distance: 3.2 miles roundtrip
The River aka Blue Diamond Trail is flat and easy and dog-friendly, too. Starting from the Silver Creek Sno-Park, follow trees sporting blue diamonds; hence the trail’s alternate name. It’s not on maps and not well known, but it’s well marked and a pure delight to snowshoe.
The route weaves through an open forest of old growth hemlock, cedar and Douglas-firs—before reaching the glacier-fed White River. Then walk downriver meandering through groves of big trees and passing by openings along the crashing river. The trail skirts behind the old Silver Springs Guard House. Built during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corp, this eloquently rustic structure now serves as a visitor’s center during the summer months.
Next pass a couple of intriguing steel sheds. They were used back in the 1940s and 50s for housing explosives used for building logging roads and for avalanche control when SR 410 used to be kept open all winter. The way then eventually enters the Silver Springs Campground. The trail carries on through the attractive campground terminating not too far from the campground’s main entrance. Turn around—or extend your adventure by traipsing around on the campground’s loop roads through old-growth timber and along the White River. And be sure to look for elk. They winter in this valley.