Bench and Snow Lakes

Thursday, July 28, 2016

We really lucked out on this one. We inquired about the Snow Lake Trail upon our arrival to Mt. Rainier National Park, but the ranger told us that it was still impassable due to snow. However, the next day, the park updated their website and stated that the trail was now “open”. So we jumped on our chance to hike this very scenic trail.

The hike begins from a roadside parking area known as “The Bench”, located east of Paradise on Stevens Canyon Road. From the trailhead you’ll enjoy some awesome views of Mt. Rainier and Little Tahoma Peak.

I would estimate that at least three-quarters of this hike passes through open terrain, which means you’ll enjoy some great views along much of the route. Not far from the trailhead we had a great view of 6917-foot Unicorn Peak, which rises out of the Tatoosh Range.

In mid-summer this area explodes with a wide variety of wildflowers, including beargrass. During our mid-June hike hundreds of avalanche lilies lined the trail near the trailhead.

Further up the trail we saw trillium and several other varieties, including these marsh marigolds sprouting from a tiny island in the stream.

After about a half mile you’ll reach a small rock outcropping just off the side of the trail on your left. This vantage point offers good views of Bench Lake to the east, as well as Mt. Rainier and Little Tahoma Peak towards the north.

From the outcropping the trail begins descending. At roughly two-thirds of a mile you’ll reach a split in the trail. The short spur trail leading towards the left will take you down to Bench Lake. Due to very high and dense brush surrounding the lake at the time of our visit, we really couldn’t see anything here. I’m not sure if this is typical or not, but it really wasn’t worth the effort. Perhaps the water level in the lake was higher than normal, which may have prevented us from reaching the shore.

Once back on the main trail we continued descending down towards a beautiful meadow along the valley floor. After crossing over a small creek the trail began ascending towards Snow Lake. Roughly one mile from the trailhead we reached our first snow field. From this point forward we hiked across hard-packed snow all the way to the lake. Because so many hikers had already reached the lake over the prior days and weeks, the route was very easy to follow. This lingering snow, which often rings the lake until late summer, is very likely the inspiration for its name.

At 1.2 miles we finally reached the end of the trail at Snow Lake. The views from the lake, which is tucked in a cirque below 6917-foot Unicorn Peak, are simply outstanding.

Here’s a view of Snow Lake looking towards the northeast:

On our way back to the trailhead we enjoyed sporadic views of Mt. Rainier:

All in all this was a very nice hike – in fact, we really enjoyed it. For the best photographic opportunities I would highly recommend doing this hike in the morning, as the mountains lie towards the west and the north, and will present themselves at their best in the morning light. I should also mention that the park website notes that “there is always a chance of seeing black bears” on this trail.

Trail: Snow Lake Trail
RT Distance: 2.4 Miles
Elevation Gain: 700 feet
Max Elevation: 4679 feet
TH Location: The Bench – east of Paradise
Map: Mt. Rainier National Park Trails Illustrated Map

Day Hike! Mount Rainier uncovers the best trails for the day tripper, whether you’re a newbie hiker or a veteran with hundreds of miles on your boots. Northwest outdoors expert and Seattle Times's Trail Mix columnist Ron Judd reviews more than 50 of the best day hike trails in Mt. Rainier National Park, from Paradise and Sunrise to the lower foothills. The book describes classic routes - from easy to moderate to extreme - giving hikers the choices they want.


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