Fall comes early to the higher elevations around Mount Rainier. Startling reds, bright yellows and burnished purples dot the landscape while the majestic snowcapped mountain looms. A particularly enjoyable hike for traversing this colorful landscape is to Snow Lake.
The hike is located along the Steven Canyon Road. This entrance into the Mount Rainier National Park is open seasonally, making autumn an excellent time to get in a last visit before it is snowed in for the winter. Another perk to a fall visit is the waning tourist season. You will encounter fewer park visitors this time of year, especially through this lesser used entrance. We hiked Snow Lake on a Wednesday and encountered low to moderate foot traffic.
To get to Snow Lake we drove east on Highway 12 through Packwood and turned north onto Highway 123. We then turned west onto Steven Canyon Road which also will take visitors to Paradise. The trailhead to Snow Lake is a pullout on the side of the road with a spectacular view of Mount Rainier.
The distance to Snow Lake is 1.1 miles from the trailhead. While 1.1 miles might seem like a quick jaunt, the trail is challenging in areas as it winds over several hills before arriving at the pristine alpine lake. The first time I went to Snow Lake I dubbed it the staircase hike and vowed on the next visit to bring a walking stick. Some of the steps are high enough that I had to pull myself up, while my longer legged companion made the way more easily. We encountered both children and elderly folks along the way, and though portions of the trail may be challenging hikers also pass through relatively flat mountain huckleberry meadows with incredible vistas that offer a reprieve for the body and the mind.
Mountain ash and huckleberries create bright contrasting yellows and reds throughout the journey. Mount Rainier is visible from many points along the way. There is a short trail that leads off the main path down to Bench Lake. This trail is steep, but the view of the mountain from the lake is unobstructed and, if the wind settles at all, its reflection can be captured in the waters.
After one final climb from the main trail you will arrive at Snow Lake. The waters are so clear that jumping fish are clearly visible below the surface. If photography is your main interest in visiting the lake, an early arrival is advised so that the sun will be at your back. The trail leading to the lake is wide enough that your pant legs won’t get wet from the morning dew. Later in the day when viewing the lake, you are more likely to be looking directly into the sun.
There are two campsites at the lake. One campsite, which was occupied during our visit, has its own private cove. There is a line for raising a bear bag and an exposed toilet further up the trail.
There was a bit of exploring to be done around the lake, which is a pleasant place to picnic and enjoy the sounds of Pica calling to each other from the rocks above. (If you hear a creature that sounds a bit like a squeaky toy, that is the Pica, a member of the rabbit and hare family.)
If you include the trail down to Bench Lake, you can expect to hike a total of 2.5 miles.
The drive to or from Snow Lake has many marvels worth stopping for along the way. It is a short trip from Snow Lake up to Paradise and you will pass Reflection Lakes along the way. Heading back toward Packwood, pulling off at Box Canyon is a must. This narrow and startlingly deep canyon is 180 feet deep at one point and you may look down directly into it from the bridge. There is a small loop trail to stretch your legs, view glacially smoothed rocks and the mountains. On a clear day at the Box Canyon pullout you can view both Mount Adams to the south and Mount Rainier to the north. Box Canyon offers a “Comfort Station” which is a last opportunity to use a restroom before arriving at Snow Lake.
Another short hike on this route is Grove of the Patriarchs, which is on an island in the middle of the River with suspension bridge access. The river has helped to protect the ancient trees that grow there from fire, allowing them to reach an amazing girth.
The Ohanapecosh campground is another nice stop offering views of the Ohanapecosh River, hot springs and a jumping off point for the rolling Silver Falls Hike.
Make sure to always check the road status before visiting Mount Rainier National Park.