This winter’s lack of snow has been a disappointment for skiers. For hikers on the other hand, less snow is a blessing. It means opportunities to reach spots generally inaccessible in winter and early spring.

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Ski slopes in Washington this winter were often empty due to snowfall levelssomewhere between meager and negligible. Mount Rainier National Park didn’t have much snow to boast of either, but it was surprisingly crowded.

Instead of its usual sledders and dedicated mountaineers, though, many flocked to the park for day hikes (and sightseeing).

Tracy Swartout, a deputy superintendent at Rainier, said the park gets most of its visitors after Memorial Day but said this winter and early spring, “The parking lots looked like it was summertime.”

2015’s early spring

• Typical snow level at Paradise: About 15 feet. Current snow level: about six feet.

• Snow accumulation at Crystal Mountain so far this year (as of mid-week): 213 inches. Average snowfall: 486 inches.

• Around the state: Most areas of the state have snowpack levels less than 50 percent from normal.

10 Essentials for hikers (according to the National Park Service): 1: Map of the area. 2: Compass. 3: Flashlight with extra batteries, bulb. 4: Extra food. 5: Extra clothing. 6: Sunglasses and sunscreen. 7: Pocketknife. 8: Matches in waterproof container. 9: Candle or other fire starter. 10: First-aid kit.

For many hikers, less snow is a blessing. It means opportunities to reach spots generally inaccessible so early in the year.

“People have definitely packed away their snowshoes and are lacing up their hiking boots,” said Kindra Ramos, a spokesperson for the Washington Trails Association (WTA).

Swartout estimated there were even more visitors to Rainier this December than in years past, despite the fact that the usual sledding areas have been closed.

“It’s exciting to see people who typically wouldn’t venture into the park at this time of year because they may see it as inhospitable,” Swartout said.

Where to hike

Among areas more accessible than normal, entrance hours have been extended for the drive from Longmire to Paradiseon Mount Rainier. Swartout said there’s normally about 15 feet of snow at Paradise in late March/early April. Currently there’s about six feet.

Mount Rainier park ranger Dave Oleson said people this season have hiked as far as Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, experiencing snow only during the last mile of the 12-mile round-trip jaunt. Other trails hikeable due to less snow include the Wonderland Trail and Rampart Ridge, according to Swartout.

For hikers looking to jump-start the season, WTA’s Ramos recommends trails around the Columbia River Gorge, Annette Lake in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Icicle Ridge in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and other places near Leavenworth.

Kalela Robison from Crystal Mountain Resort in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie Forest said the resort usually opens up all of its hiking trails in July, but speculated this year most would be open by early June. Robison said hikers are poking around the resort already.

“We’re looking like summer at the base of the resort which is not normal for this time of year,” Robison said. “If it keeps going the way its going, it will definitely be an early season for hiking.”

Tess Wendel, the Volunteer and Member Support Coordinator for The Mountaineers, said Frenchman Coulee near Vantage and Index are popular climbing spots seeing more action in early spring. She said Frenchman Coulee is often too cold this time of year, but warmer weather has allowed climbing.

Record low levels of snow in Washington has had a positive side effect for hikers wishing to access normally snowed-in trails, parks, and areas. The Annette Lake Trail begins about a half mile from exit 47 along Interstate 90 in the Cascade foothills. A western hemlock grows out of a moss covered nurse log along the trail to the lake.  (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)
Record low levels of snow in Washington has had a positive side effect for hikers wishing to access normally snowed-in trails, parks, and areas. The Annette Lake Trail begins about a half mile from exit 47 along Interstate 90 in the Cascade foothills. A western hemlock grows out of a moss covered nurse log along the trail to the lake. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Be careful out there

Swartout, Ramos and others did offer words of caution for hikers. Just because snow is not as prevalent doesn’t mean these hikes can be done without care, proper planning and gear. In other words, sneakers and a T-shirt may not cut it.

Ramos noted there may still be snow, if less, on many trails.

In the Olympics, Ramos said, you can hike higher than normal, but it “doesn’t mean you can get to the top of where you’re going.”

Snow has been replaced by ice on some hikes. Roads on the way to trails, and the trails themselves might be in rough shape. And Oleson said Mount Rainier’s budget doesn’t allow trail crews yet because their contracts are planned in advance, and the light snowfall couldn’t be predicted.

Late March saw some snowfall at Crystal Mountain, Robison said, and there is always the possibility of more snow in early spring. Swartout said hikers should always carry the “10 Essentials” (see sidebar).

“In general people should be aware of their limitations and recognize that conditions can change,” Swartout said.

If people do make the trek to Mount Rainier and other places though, there could be early season rewards — Swartout and Mount Rainier park ranger Dave Oleson predicted wildflowers on Mount Rainier may bloom a few weeks earlier than usual. Ramos said flowers were already out in the Gorge.

“We’re wondering what effect (a mild winter) is going to have on our flowers,” Oleson said. Wildflowers attract large numbers of visitors to Rainier. “We’re very curious to see when stuff is going to come out.”