|Area: Nisqually Entrance||Starting Point: Near Longmire|
|Distance: 2.25 miles, RT||Duration: 1.5 hrs||Difficulty Level: Easy|
|Elevation Start: 2,294 ft||Elevation End: 2,604 ft||Elevation Gain: 210 ft|
When Paradise feels crowded or the road is closed at Longmire due to storms or snow removal there are still fantastic options for snowshoers seeking adventure and/or solitude – the Kautz Creek trail is a great alternative. Snowshoers can venture as far as abilities and conditions allow, ranging from an easy tour to the bridge over Kautz Creek at 1.2 miles, an exhilarating snowshoe climb to the summit of Ararat Peak or any point between.
Mount Ararat is a long and strenuous endeavor – we suggest waiting until March when days are longer if Mount Ararat is your goal. Mount Ararat should not be considered except by strong and skilled snowshoers with route-finding skills and knowledge of how to travel safely through avalanche terrain.
Check with the park before setting out for Kautz Creek. If the bridge at Kautz Creek is not in place your snowshoe trip might end there. Kautz Creek has always been an interesting hike but even more so since the historic floods of 2006. Then, parts of the trail washed out, the creek changed course and the nearby Sunshine Point campground was completely destroyed. The footbridge that spanned Kautz Creek at 1.2 miles washed away and the once clear waters of the creek turned brown from minerals and silt. The effects of the 2006 floods are still visible today.
The Kautz Creek trailhead is three miles from the Nisqually entrance of the park with trailhead parking and facilities. The trail begins across the road and is well signed. Don’t overlook the short, interpretive spur to an overlook of Kautz Creek with interpretive signs about the lahar in 1947, one with a quote from Bill Butler, Assistant Chief Ranger in 1947 that describes how the ground quivered as mud flowed across the road.
Kautz Creek is still the color of mocha and through the alders that line the trail you’ll see where chunks of the land washed away in the floods, gouging a deep channel. Don’t venture too close to the edge of the bank; it is undercut and subject to collapse.
The forest near Kautz Creek is in the process of recovery – alders are the dominant tree and the first trees to appear in disturbed habitats. You almost get the sense that the forest is holding its breath as you follow the trail near the creek. Tufts of lichen and moss daub the alders with shades of blue and green, even orange. Wisps of moss, like the beards of ancient trolls, hang from the alders, drops of moisture sparkle on the salal and lichen like decorative glitter.
The alder-lined trail is easy to follow even in snow. Changing temperatures have created artistic scenes – patches of partially-melted ice draped boulders and stumps in a setting so still you can almost hear the rattle of last year’s desiccated leaves clinging to the deciduous trees.
The snow was deep enough to warrant. In addition to snowshoes we also carry traction devices in case we encounter ice. You may even encounter bare patches where the trail is protected from deep snow by a canopy of conifers, especially after crossing Kautz Creek on the footbridge.
If you are continuing past the creek you’ll need to hop and skip over a small tributary. Remember – conditions change quickly in the mountains. One day a minor tributary is easily stepped across, the next it can run deep and fast depending on rain, melting snow and temperatures.
After crossing Kautz Creek the next couple miles are steep but pleasant as the trail climbs through old-growth forest and with little avalanche danger. Another tributary stream is crossed on a small foot-bridge followed by more (gasp!) steep switchbacks; pace yourself accordingly. Just about the time you catch your breath the forest begins a transition from trees to snow-covered meadows and on a clear day – views. Even in winter you’ll see stalks of last summer’s beargrass poking through the snow, even in the forest between the meadows and the footbridge. On a clear day shafts of sunlight splash down through the dark evergreens like gold spilling out of a bucket.
As the forest thins out, Mount Ararat comes into view (left). Mount Ararat is subject to avalanche – don’t venture beyond unless you have winter-travel, route-finding skills, avalanche savvy and know how to assess the terrain. The views from Mount Ararat are outstanding (bring a map to locate the surrounding peaks). Get an early start; the ideal time of year to snowshoe to the summit is in March/April when days are longer.
To sum up: if you are new to snowshoeing and seeking a safe, easy and scenic trail, we recommend the first 1-1/4 mile of the Kautz Creek trail. Snowshoers without climbing skills who continue from the creek should turn around when Mount Ararat comes into view (the trail is below an avalanche slope).
To get there – from the Nisqually Entrance of Mount Rainier National Park continue about three miles to the Kautz Creek trailhead, facilities and parking (right), elevation 2,405 feet.
For additional information on fees, rules and regulations, current conditions and weather, call Mount Rainier National Park (360-569-2211) or visit their website at www.nps.gov/mora/ . The recommended map for Mount Rainier National Park is Green Trails (Mount Rainier Wonderland Map 269S).
– Karen Sykes
Trailhead Parking Area: N 46° 44′ 10, W 121° 51′ 23