Area: Paradise Starting Point: Paradise
Distance: Depends on route  Duration: Up to 1 day Difficulty Level: Easy
Elevation Start: Depends on route Elevation End: Depends on route Elevation Gain: Up to 1,700 ft

* Exact mileage, elevation gain and high point will vary depending on your route.

There’s a reason they call this place Paradise. Actually, there is an abundance of reasons why this picturesque spot occupies such a special place for anyone that visits Mount Rainier.

On a crisp and clear winter’s day, with skies of blue and snow so pure and white it almost hurts the eyes, a snowshoe trek through the Paradise backcountry is one of the best ways to experience the beauty and power of the mountain. Below the towering bulk of Rainier’s upper reaches, at the edges of the steeper terrain, lies a web of trails that beckons to hikers of all strengths and abilities.

Although the Paradise Area trails that radiate out from the Visitor Center are popular in any season, winter is when they really shine. The Nisqually Vista Trail is a loop that takes in the magnificent sights of one of the mountain’s largest and most active glaciers while traveling across relatively level ground, in and out of the trees. The section of the Skyline Trail that leads to Myrtle Falls is another one of the less strenuous options; each of these routes covers approximately one mile with minimal elevation gain.

The main trail, and the longest, is the Skyline Trail. Many of the other trails are spurs that branch off of the Skyline and often rejoin it at another spot along the way. This particular route is the beginning of the approach that most climbers use on their summit attempts and the elevation gain is considerable (about 1700 feet overall.) The Skyline Loop is a 5.5 mile circle that can easily take a full day of snowshoeing to complete, but the views of the high country on all sides and the lowlands stretched out beneath your feet make it a Northwest classic. Panoramic vistas of the Tatoosh Range, Goat Rocks and the distant summits of Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams will occupy your eyes as well as your imagination.

Some of the connections with the Skyline Trail include the Deadhorse Creek and the Glacier Vista Trails, each of which runs roughly parallel to Skyline but a bit closer to the Nisqually Glacier. The views of the glacier in the ice-carved valley below seem even more awe-inspiring the higher up the mountain you go. The Paradise Glacier Trail branches off from Skyline at Sluiskin Falls and continues up toward the permanent ice fields about three-quarters of a mile distant.

Avalanche danger can be a factor on some of these routes, especially on the steeper sections. Check with visitor center staff or other park personnel for updates before you start out.

An excellent option for those who don’t own snowshoes (and even for those who do), is to try one of the ranger-guided snowshoe walks that leave from the visitor center on loops that take about 2 hours. The rangers can offer tips on snowshoeing technique while providing information on the winter flora and fauna, along with interesting historical points that make every guided walk an enjoyable educational experience.

The guided walks begin in December and run until March. From December until early January, they are offered every day; after that, they switch to a weekends-and-holiday schedule only. There are normally two per day, beginning at 12:30 pm and again at 2:30 pm and they are limited to 25 participants, eight years of age and older. Sign-up begins an hour before each session at the information desk in the visitor center and the cost per person is an amazingly reasonable $4. For more information, or to book a special group tour, call (360)569-6575.

In addition to snowshoes, there are a few other items you’ll want to remember before you set out. Layered clothing helps with temperature regulation. Put on another layer when you get chilly, take one off if the hike is more of a workout. A good hat is a necessity, as are gloves or mittens. Comfortable, fairly rigid and waterproof boots are important for keeping feet happy, and gaiters can be helpful if the snow is deep. Finally, don’t forget the sunscreen and sunglasses; even on cloudy days, the glare from the snow can be intense.

Regardless of the route you choose, whether your Paradise snowshoe experience is a group hike with a view of a mighty glacier or a solo ramble through a white mountain wilderness, it is sure to be a memorable event. And the simple fact of the matter is that, if you decide to break from the trail and set out cross-country, it’s relatively easy to do. When the snows lie deep on the hills around Paradise, the whole place is a trail, waiting to be explored.

– Ken Campbell


Waypoints:

Trailhead: N 46° 47′ 12, W 121° 44′ 03

About The Author

Ken Campbell

A perfect day for Ken Campbell is one that is spent outdoors. Ken owns and operates Azimuth Expeditions, a paddle sports outfitter based in Tacoma, and spends as much time as possible in the wilderness backcountry of the Pacific Northwest. His travels around Mount Rainier have included summit climbs and significant chunks of the Wonderland Trail. Over the past 25 years, he has written about climbing, paddling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and backpacking for a variety of publications including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Sea Kayaker magazine and Sports Etc, and he's published five books on sea kayaking (four of which are still in print.) He lives at Salmon Beach, amid the stunning scenery of the Tacoma Narrows, with his wife, Mary, and their four year-old son, Micah. When he's not "out there," he's writing about where he's been as well as what he's got coming up, here at visitrainier and at his blog, lastwilderness.blogspot.com.