If you can walk, you can snowshoe.
The most entry-level of winter sports often gets a bad rap. It lacks the cinematic glory of downhill ski movies, the Winter Olympics drama of Nordic skiing or the animal appeal of skijoring and dog sledding. If you’re noticing a theme, it lacks skis.
Indeed, walking on snow is less exciting to many than sliding on snow, but the humble snowshoe is supremely accessible. The gear is cheaper than skis, and you need less of it. No special boots, for example, since you can use good waterproof hiking boots with warm socks, or the winter boots you already have for traipsing around in the snow.
Snowshoeing is also family-friendly, from kids not ready for ski school to older persons who are leery of injuring themselves on the slopes. Ten years ago, I took my grandmother snowshoeing on some trails that meander around Whistler Village, so close to town you could hear the occasional car drive by. She still talks about it glowingly.
Snowshoe prices start around $150 and top out around $300. Several snowshoe makers have local ties, from hometown MSR to the Tubbs and Atlas brands, which are owned by Seattle-based behemoth K2 Sports. Regular trekking poles will do, provided you have powder baskets on the bottom so the tips don’t plunge into the snow. Gaiters are also helpful to keep feet dry in deeper snow conditions. You can procure rentals for $18-$25 (less for kids) from local gear shops like Ascent Outdoors (Ballard), Mountain to Sound Outfitters (West Seattle), ProSki Seattle (Northwest Seattle), Pro Ski and Mountain Service (North Bend), and REI (various locations).
Otherwise, there is little by way of special technique. Widen your stance — the snowshoes have more surface area than your feet. To break trail, walk single file to pack down a track. Unless you are in blizzard conditions, you can almost always follow your track back the way you came, which helps with navigation.
While snowshoers generally stay off the steep pitches that skiers seek out, that does not make them immune from avalanche risk or other hazards, like tree wells and snow cornices. Snowshoers who go beyond the most introductory routes should learn how to identify avalanche hazards. The Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) has a wealth of resources to get you started and will be running online avalanche awareness sessions throughout the winter. Regular winter backcountry travelers, even on snowshoes, should follow NWAC throughout the winter to keep an eye on avalanche forecasts and observations.
Snowshoers should also familiarize themselves with the winter 10 essentials, which include an extra emphasis on warm layers and emergency shelter in the unlikely but potentially fatal event of getting caught out overnight. Start your snowshoe trip early on these shortest days of the year and allow plenty of time to get back before dark.
Finally, we are still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Recreate Responsibility etiquette rolled out earlier this year continues to apply. Research your destination ahead of time and be prepared for the unexpected, like closed visitors centers and trailhead bathrooms or changes to public land access based on state and federal guidance. Assume that any guided or group activity, like ranger-led snowshoe tours, has been canceled.
Without further ado, here are 10 snowshoeing routes easily reachable from Seattle.
Amabilis Mountain | Annette Lake | Artist Point | Cooper River | Crystal Mountain | Hurricane Hill | Kendall Peak Lakes / Gold Creek Pond | Reflection Lakes / Louise Lake | Skyline Lake | Source Lake / Snow Lake
Round-trip trail length: 9.5 miles
What it’s known for: Long ascent to views of Kachess Lake, Mount Rainier and more
Distance from Seattle: 63 miles (approximately one hour)
Trailhead: Cabin Creek Sno-Park, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest; NF-4826, Easton
Parking: Washington Sno-Park permit with groomed sticker required
You’ll share the trailhead with skiers, but not toting the fat powder skis down the road at the ski resort. Rather, this trailhead serves the Nordic crowd, who rely on grooming from the Kongsberger Ski Club, founded in 1954 by Norwegian immigrants to Seattle. Pass the cozy Kongsberger cabin on your right, then make a right turn onto NF-4822, which makes a gradual climb up Amabilis Mountain. You’ll gain 2,100 vertical feet on the way up to a unique winter view of frozen Kachess Lake below you, a Mount Rainier panorama to the south, and the sharper lines of Three Queens and Chikamin Ridge to the north.
The long but gradual ascent and respectable amount of vertical gain makes for a great day outing to get a solid amount of exercise while avoiding avalanche terrain. If the Kongsberger Club has groomed the forest road, do not walk in the ski tracks. If it hasn’t been groomed, try to keep single file and don’t walk in any tracks that have been blazed by Nordic skiers.
Round-trip trail length: 7.5 miles
What it’s known for: A popular summer hike seems a world away in winter
Distance from Seattle: 47 miles (approximately one hour)
Trailhead: Annette Lake, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest; NF-5590, Rockdale
Parking: Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful Pass required
This popular summer hike is a potential winter hit for snowshoers, since it is located one exit before the ski areas at Snoqualmie Pass. That means a less busy scene than the winter crowds that descend on the pass proper, but also the risk of little or no snow at the trailhead (elevation of 1,800 feet). (While federal public lands pass is required, the trailhead is not plowed in winter.) Still, if this La Niña winter delivers abundant snowfall as forecast, Annette Lake makes for a worthy destination for winter solitude. Once you cross the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail (formerly the Iron Horse State Park Trail), the trail winds upward and you will steadily find deeper snow as you climb. Once the trail levels out and begins pointing due south as you approach Annette Lake, you will pass under avalanche chutes on the western flanks of Silver Peak. Don’t proceed unless you are comfortable with the avalanche hazard — not only on the way there but also on the way back, especially as afternoon sun can loosen the snowpack. The lake itself sits in a graceful cirque. While a short distance from home as the crow flies, under a blanket of white, this alpine valley feels a world away.
Round-trip trail length: 4 miles
What it’s known for: Spectacular views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan (if you can see through the snow)
Distance from Seattle: 135 miles (approximately three and a half hours)
Trailhead: Heather Meadows Base Area, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest; end of state Route 542
Parking: Check Mount Baker Ski Area website for updated information about parking; access to public lands is allowed under the ski resort’s special use permit
Artist Point is already a summer and fall favorite at the end of state Route 542, with Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker jockeying for competition in a feast for the eyes. Cover the whole scene in a blanket of pure white and you have a recipe for the ultimate winter wonderland — provided the weather cooperates and you can actually see the mountains, given how frequent snowstorms sock in this area.
From Heather Meadows, this snowshoe route skirts alongside Mount Baker Ski Area. Keep the rope line delineating the ski area boundary to your left. A short, steep climb brings you through avalanche terrain to Austin Pass, then a more gradual ascent takes you up to Artist Point. Don’t trust your summer knowledge of this terrain. Familiar landmarks like the highway and the Artist Point parking lot and restroom will be buried under feet of snow. At this point, you are in alpine terrain. In whiteout conditions, you will struggle to retrace your steps without strong navigation skills and GPS.
Between the ski resort and the popularity of this backcountry ski destination, don’t expect to have the place to yourself. But that doesn’t make the view any less spectacular on a clear day. If the public lands access parking at Heather Meadows is full, retreat down state Route 542 for 7 miles to the Salmon Ridge Sno-Park, where the Nooksack Nordic Ski Club maintains a trail network suitable for snowshoeing.
Round-trip trail length: 8 miles
What it’s known for: A walk along the river, away from the typical Cascade crowds
Distance from Seattle: 98 miles (approximately two hours)
Trailhead: Salmon La Sac Sno-Park, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest; Salmon La Sac Road, Cle Elum
Parking: Washington Sno-Park permit required
Salmon La Sac is just about the deepest you can drive into the Cascades on a plowed winter road away from a ski area, which makes this Sno-Park a special destination somewhat far from the madding crowd. While snowmobilers are regulars in this area, they mostly cruise up the Cle Elum River drainage to the northeast. That leaves the north side of the Cooper River a quieter place to contemplate winter’s beauty. The thinner tree canopy east of the Cascade crest also makes for a change of scenery from the old-growth routes on the west side as you follow along the gushing Cooper River.
If you keep the river on your left going out and on your right heading back, it’s nigh impossible to get lost here. While there isn’t much overall elevation gain, there are occasional ups and downs as you follow the riverbank. About 4 miles in, you’ll bump back into civilization when NF-4616 crosses Cooper River just below Cooper Lake. Press on to the lake if you like, which is easily reached by forest roads, and the Owhi Campground.
Round-trip trail lengths: 1 to 5 miles
What it’s known for: Varied routes, new last season at Crystal Mountain, to try while your friends ski
Distance from Seattle: 83 miles (approximately two hours)
Trailhead: Crystal Mountain Resort; 33914 Crystal Mountain Blvd., Enumclaw
Parking: Check Crystal Mountain resort website for updated information about parking
New last season, Crystal Mountain has blazed and signed six different snowshoe routes. While perhaps not a destination in and of themselves for dedicated snowshoers, they make for a great option on a day when your party has a mix of skiers and snowshoers — while some ride chairlifts, others explore on foot.
Two trailheads serve Lot C and the base area, respectively. At Lot C, the Blue Bell Loop climbs gradually while T&T heads up more directly. They both converge on an information sign, one of three along the trail network with natural history and environmental science about the area, from watersheds to wildfires. From the first sign, take the Mary Lee up and then choose among the Bullion Loop, Ted’s Trail or the steeper Chutes & Ladders.
Expect to encounter skiers returning from the backcountry on this trail, especially if you go in the afternoon. While you have the right of way if you are traveling uphill, stay alert, as skiers come fast. If you stay on the marked snowshoe trails, there is no avalanche danger. Beyond the trail network on routes that backcountry skiers take, avalanche hazard begins quickly.
Round-trip trail length: 6 miles
What it’s known for: The powdery treat of Olympic National Park in winter
Distance from Seattle: 101 miles (approximately three hours)
Trailhead: Hurricane Ridge Visitors Center, Olympic National Park; 3002 Mt. Angeles Road, Port Angeles
Parking: National park entrance fee required
The gate from sea level to ski level may only open Friday through Sunday (as well as the week between Christmas and New Year’s, plus holiday Mondays), but if you can make the trek out to Hurricane Ridge under cooperative skies, you are in for the rare treat of experiencing Olympic National Park in winter. The snow-capped peaks you admire across Puget Sound from Seattle now surround you up close and personal. And elusive Mount Olympus — the tallest peak in the range but one hidden from view across the Sound — basks you in all its majesty.
But enough staring, you should at least stretch your legs while enjoying alpine scenery to rival anywhere in the world. Head west from the visitor center (which will be closed this winter due to the pandemic) along snow-covered Hurricane Ridge Road and through stretches of forest with valley views below. After 1.5 miles, the road ends. Turn around here, or for more advanced snowshoers, continue westward along the ridgeline and past two avalanche chutes to the top of Hurricane Hill. From this promontory, the views just get better with a 360-degree panorama taking in the Olympic Range, Puget Sound, Mount Baker, Glacier Peak and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Round-trip trail lengths: 9 miles / 2 miles
What it’s known for: Just miles apart — one route for seasoned vets, another to get your feet wet
Distance from Seattle: 54 miles (approximately one hour)
Trailhead: Gold Creek Sno-Park, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest; NF-9090, Snoqualmie Pass
Parking: Washington Sno-Park permit required
Trying on your snowshoes for the first time or taking out young kids? This 2-mile loop up to and around Gold Creek Pond is the ideal introduction. The terrain is flat and the trail is easy to follow, with zero avalanche hazard. Paved in the summer and snow-covered in winter, you might think of this as the pass-level counterpart to Green Lake. While the 1-mile trail itself is likely to be packed flat all winter long given the amount of foot traffic that strolls the loop for views of Kendall Peak and Rampart Ridge, you can stomp around off-trail to get more comfortable with deeper snow. The winter trailhead is 1 mile east of the official Gold Creek Sno-Park along NF-4832. The final half-mile along NF-144 to the Gold Creek Pond Trailhead is unplowed and not suitable for day users’ vehicles, so park along NF-4832 and continue on foot. Getting your vehicle stuck on the snow-covered road is a rookie mistake you will want to avoid.
At the Gold Creek Sno-Park proper, a switchbacking, 4.5-mile forest road takes you up 1,700 vertical feet through evergreen trees until you top out on one of the flatter flanks of Kendall Peak. A short northerly jaunt through the woods — likely to be packed out given the popularity of this destination, but check your GPS if breaking trail — brings you to the first of two accessible bodies of water, almost certainly frozen and snow-covered, known as the Kendall Peak Lakes. Reverse course back down to the trailhead and enjoy views of Silver Peak, Granite Mountain and even Mount Rainier on a clear day. If you stay on the road the whole time, there is no avalanche danger.
Reflection Lakes / Louise Lake
Round-trip trail length: 4 miles / 7 miles
What it’s known for: Winter quiet in usually crowded Mount Rainier National Park
Distance from Seattle: 110 miles (approximately two and a half hours)
Trailhead: Narada Falls, Mount Rainier National Park; Paradise Road East
Parking: National park entrance fee required
Start your trek at the Narada Falls trailhead and turn left, snowshoeing upstream parallel to the Paradise River until you reach unplowed Stevens Canyon Road. While summer travelers know that the road leads to Reflection Lakes, there is avalanche danger along the road in winter. Best to turn left — there is a sign to guide you — and travel up and over a saddle on Mazama Ridge until you descend down to a meadow that spreads out to Reflection Lakes. In the warmer months, the lake is a mirror to the mighty Tahoma, but winter finds the lake almost certainly buried in snow. Nevertheless, the relative peace and quiet here is a stark contrast to the crowds visiting our crown jewel national park in summer. Relish the solitude. To extend your snowshoe, regain the road and continue downward to Louise Lake before retracing your steps.
Round-trip trail length: 3 miles
What it’s known for: An easy-to-follow route and a perfect complement to skiing Stevens Pass
Distance from Seattle: 83 miles (approximately two hours)
Trailhead: Stevens Pass, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest; 93001 N.E. Stevens Pass Highway, U.S. Route 2, Skykomish
Parking: Check Stevens Pass ski resort website for updated information about parking; access to public lands is allowed under the ski resort’s special use permit
This relatively short and accessible route has an exceptional payoff for the amount of difficulty. Park at Stevens Pass — parking will be an ongoing issue this winter as the ski resort typically fills up on weekends — and start from the north parking lot near a cluster of A-frame cabins. The route follows a wide service road. While steep in places, the wide route is easy to follow and can accommodate the large number of users, which includes snowshoers, backcountry skiers and avalanche safety courses. After 800 vertical feet, you’ll reach a radio tower. Continue up three more switchbacks and the road flattens out just above 5,000 feet.
Skyline Lake itself lies off the road, and through most of the winter, expect to find a track. If you are breaking trail yourself, check your GPS and head northwest for a quarter-mile until you reach the lake. At the lake, you have expansive views across to Cowboy and Big Chief mountains, which provide the backdrop for skiers at Stevens Pass. Other central Cascades peaks like Mount Daniel, Mount Hinman and the Chiwaukum Mountains are just barely visible over the immediate ridgelines.
Round-trip trail lengths: 5 miles / 10 miles
What it’s known for: A gentler course of winter sports action in the Alpental Valley
Distance from Seattle: 53 miles (approximately one hour)
Trailhead: Alpental Valley, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest; Alpental Access Road, Snoqualmie Pass
Parking: No permit required during ski season operations, park in Lower Lot, the first parking lot on the left at the Alpental “Welcome” sign
While skiers and snowboarders huck themselves off cliffs and drop death-defying steep lines at Alpental, the expert destination of The Summit at Snoqualmie, you’ll plot a gentler course on the opposite side of the valley. The endlessly popular Snow Lake trail doubles as a winter destination, heading northwest through luscious forest before opening up into the majestic head of the Alpental Valley, where Chair Peak reigns supreme. You will encounter avalanche hazard early and often on this trail as you cross south-facing avalanche chutes on exposed breaks between the tree canopy.
After 2.5 miles, you will pass under cliff bands and Source Lake will sit below you. Hang out at the lake watching backcountry skiers, then turn back home. Or, for a more advanced snowshoe outing that will easily take a full winter day, continue up the alpine slope below Chair Peak to the low saddle. You will be in full avalanche terrain at this point and must be very confident in the snowpack. Pro tip: Do not follow the Snow Lake summer trail at this point, but rather make your own path up the snowfield at whatever steepness you are comfortable with. From the Source Lake/Snow Lake divide, trend back south until you find a less steep approach down to Snow Lake, which lives up to its name. Amidst a quieter winter scene, you’ll find yourself hard-pressed to believe it’s the same place that ranks among the most visited destinations in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Allow enough time and energy to make the climb back up and over the divide.