West Side Road Snowshoe - Visit Rainier

West Side Road Snowshoe

Area: Nisqually Entrance Starting Point: West Side Road  
Distance: 8 miles, RT  Duration: 3-4 hrs Difficulty Level: Easy
Elevation Start: 1,927 ft Elevation End: 2, 927 ft Elevation Gain: 1,000 ft

In April, hikers are right on the cusp between winter and spring. At this time of year, hikers may wonder as we did, what trails are snow-free. Will you need snowshoes to hike some of the trails at Mount Rainier National Park this spring? The answer is – probably.

Our solution: plan for a hike and pack snowshoes as a backup. That way you’ve got them and won’t need to turn back before you’re ready to call it a day. Nobody enjoys post-holing in snow; not even climbers. For those who haven’t experienced the joys of post-holing that’s when you break through the snow; snowshoes may be the solution for those getting impatient to hit hiking trails during the spring months.

This hike/snowshoe begins on the gated West Side Road (1 mile from the Nisqually entrance of Mount Rainier National Park at its junction with the Nisqually-Paradise Road where the road is gated for the winter.). When snow melts the road will re-open; then you can drive the to the summer trailhead (2,902 feet). The West Side Road is permanently closed to vehicles at the summer trailhead due to damage from floods and debris flows triggered by outburst floods from the South Tahoma glacier in the not-so-distant past.

The ranger at the Nisqually entrance predicted we’d be in deep snow by the time we reached the summer trailhead (3.2 miles from the junction with the Paradise-Nisqually Road). He was right. We started out in boots the first mile as that stretch was snow-free; plus the sun was shining, a good indication we’d experience a pleasant day that at least felt like spring.

Before Tahoma Creek comes into view, the road contours below mossy outcroppings through a thick band of forest broken by small waterfalls and freshets. At about a mile we hit a thin layer of snow; so far, so good.

As Tahoma Creek comes into view, the damage from floods is striking to behold as the creek has changed course and hasn’t made up its mind where it wants to be. In such a setting you know that rivers are alive and follow agendas scripted by the moods of Mother Nature.

When you venture into Mount Rainier National Park you might fret about bears or cougars but now we know there is another park resident you should be aware of; the ruffed grouse. A couple miles up the road we spotted a chicken-sized bird standing on a snow patch in the road just ahead. Certain it would fly away as we approached we slowed down; surprisingly the bird held its ground and stood still as if waiting for us. Was it a grouse or a ptarmigan?

As we pondered the bird and it studied us, the bird suddenly rushed at me, pecking at my bootlaces. Then whirling about, she flew at the ankles of my companions, attempting to peck their ankles. We were dumbfounded – was it addled?? Hungry? We moved away from her after determining she must be a female defending her nest. When we looked back a couple hundred feet later she was still following us up the road!

When we stopped again she caught up to us and attacked again. Only when we picked up our pace did she stop pursuing us and disappear into the shadows. During the skirmishes we’d taken photos because she was gorgeous with golden brown feathers mingled with patterns of gray, white and black. When she fanned her tail out like a hand of cards she was a beauty! We were moved by her courage at standing down three two-legged monsters; it was quite an intense experience and left us a little rattled. Back home we went through field guides and determined she was a ruffed grouse.

By the time we reached the summer trailhead we were in deep enough snow that snowshoes were handy. Here we stopped to admire Mount Wow towering above the road and across Tahoma Creek to an undulating line of minor peaks and forested foothills. As we moseyed along we enjoyed partial views of Mount Rainier, her white shoulders gleaming like alabaster through a screen of evergreens.

A bit beyond the summer trailhead, avalanches had come down almost to the road; was it safe to go on? For now we recommend turning around when the avalanches come into view unless you are properly equipped and skilled in assessing avalanche risk and know what to look out for.

Meanwhile you can view their strange beauty without placing yourself in danger – just make sure there isn’t a mass of snow poised on the cliffs above you. Be sure to get a weather/avalanche report from the park ranger at the park entrance if you venture beyond the summer trailhead.

As much of the snow had already come down we opted to continue. That’s as close to avalanches as we’ve been for a while. Avalanche fans are scary yet beautiful in an eerie way. Snow is deceptively soft yet it sets up like concrete when it settles; skiers and snowshoers call it Cascade concrete for that reason. With cycles of freezing, thawing, re-freezing interspersed with cycles of rain and snow there is always some risk of avalanche.

To play it safe we crossed the avalanche fans one at a time and continued a little further to the footbridge that crosses a tributary of Tahoma Creek, elevation 2,927 feet, about four miles from the beginning of the West Side Road. That makes a good turnaround; the footbridge is in place and we could see where hikers have snowshoed beyond.

When avalanche danger is minimal (or when snow has melted) strong, experienced hikers/backpackers can continue to Round Pass (3,886 feet), about four miles from the permanent summer gate. The trail to Lake Louise and Gobblers Knob begins there and a short distance beyond the Marine Memorial Airplane Crash Monument, a stone memorial for 32 Marines of a C-46 Marine Corps plane that crashed in the winter of 1946 on the South Tahoma Glacier where their bodies rest today.

As for those snowshoes; they will come in handy for a few weeks more, especially as snow continues to fall (as I write this, the snow level is at 1,000 feet and there are about 238 inches of snow at Paradise). You’ll be glad you brought snowshoes, especially on a warm day as the snow softens and you start breaking through the crust.

It’s also interesting to mention a phenomenon we’ve noticed about snowshoers. They fall into two groups: those that put them on before they are needed and those that wait too long to put them on. I tend to fall into the latter category.

On our way back we steeled ourselves for another attack by the ruffled Ruffed Grouse; fortunately for all, we did not encounter her again. On the way home we stopped at the Hobo Inn in Elbe for elk burgers, blackberry cobbler and beverages of choice. We will return. The food is delicious and the ambience is unique. For those who are old enough to have ridden trains when dining cars were in vogue this restaurant (a caboose) made me nostalgic for those days when dining cars on trains had silver pitchers, linen napkins, good food, patient waiters and a mellow atmosphere.

To get there: From the Nisqually Entrance of the park drive to the West Side Road and park (don’t block the gate).

For additional information on fees, rules and regulations, weather, current conditions or to obtain an overnight permit call Mount Rainier National Park (360-569-2211) or visit their website at www.nps.gov/mora/ . A backcountry permit is required for over-night camping. The recommended maps for Mount Rainier National Park is Green Trails (Mount Rainier Wonderland Map 269S) or Green Trails No. 270S Paradise, Wa.

– Karen Sykes, Visit Rainier Hiking Expert


Trailhead: N 46° 44′ 32, W 121° 53′ 57
Summer Gate, West Side Rd:  N 46° 46′ 50, W 121° 53′ 17
Creek Crossing: N 46° 47′ 04, W 121° 53′ 17