I was following snowmobile tracks up a logging road deep in the Cascade Mountains, surrounded by billowing snow at least 5 feet deep.
My group was traveling the last few miles to Alpine Lakes High Camp for a weekend of backcountry skiing when our shuttle driver suggested we snowshoe the last few miles to our remote cabin.
It had been a long week at work, with heavy traffic getting out of town, so stretching our legs sounded delightful — even if it was already 9 p.m. and we were at an altitude of 4,000 feet in the dead of winter.
When you do any kind of night hiking, your headlamp can create a tunnel effect, and at first, none of us could see more than a few feet beyond the edge of the road. So, a few minutes later, we decided to snowshoe without our lights on.
That’s when our splotchy vision gave way to a stunning, rolling landscape.
When the moon broke through the cloud cover a short while later, an amazing scene unfolded. The alpine winter setting came alive in a way I’d never experienced. Dazzling snowfields glimmered in every shade of blue. Even with just the ambient light to guide us, it was so bright that it seemed like we were snowshoeing by daylight.
I spied a blurry motion, glimpsing a snowshoe hare in its white winter fur kicking up contrails of fine, powdery snow. In a flash, it dove into a hole and submerged beneath a snowbank.
Snowshoeing by moonlight feels like a sport unto itself — and if you’re willing to brave the dark season after hours, it’s a terrific way to experience the heart of winter.
An eye-opening experience
Since that first eye-opening experience, I’ve been a huge fan of after-hours snowshoe trips.
In my early snowshoe days, I would typically start to feel nervous near the end of any given hike. A small voice in my head screamed, “Don’t get stuck outside after dark!”
When it gets dark by 4:30 p.m., that could mean spending half the outing feeling pressed for time.
But that first evening snowshoe trip was different because we’d planned to hike by moonlight — and, somehow, that shift in mentality made all the difference.
Once the sun goes down, the winter scenery takes on new properties. Gone are the harsh, glaring reflections and sharp contrasts. In its place, subtle blues and grays own the countryside. Animal tracks seem to pop out of the snow around you, put into stark relief by the natural light.
On bright nights, the snow simply dazzles under the moonlight. As the temperature drops, the snowpack refreezes and tiny ice crystals begin to sparkle, which can make the landscape appear to gleam with millions of tiny diamonds.
Whether you choose to travel by full moon or no moon at all, both have their advantages. When the moon is bright, you can see for miles with your headlamp left in your backpack (although you should always bring several lighting sources, just in case).
On the other hand, if you really want to see an amazing night sky, plan for no moon at all. Stars never seem brighter than they do in the clean mountain air of winter.
Dodging the crowds
Commonwealth Basin near Snoqualmie Mountain is one of the most popular snowshoe locations in the region. From downtown Seattle, it’s only an hour drive to the trailhead.
With deep, reliable snow, easy parking and an I-90 commute, it’s ideal for a quick snowshoe outing. Unfortunately, on busy weekends, that means Commonwealth Basin can feel more like a gold-rush stampede than a nature escape.
But after dark, the crowds disappear. In that sense, moonlight snowshoeing offers more solitude and a truer experience of the winter wonderland.
Once you start considering the idea of a moonlight snowshoe, places like Commonwealth Basin suddenly open up for an after-work trip. After all, in the summer, you wouldn’t think twice about hiking around 8:00 p.m.
At travel destinations in the far north, where winter daylight hours are in short supply, nighttime snowshoe walks can provide their own drama. Embracing nocturnal snowshoeing also sets you up nicely for a sunset outing, like the time my family planned a trip into the White Mountains. Near Fairbanks, Alaska, we enjoyed an orange sky when day turned to night, then waited for the Northern Lights to appear to conclude the spectacular natural light show. Similarly, in Abisko, Sweden, we planned our trek for moonless nights and were lucky to witness dramatic displays of the Aurora Borealis.
And unlike with summer trails, where it can be easy to miss a turn in the dark, it’s much harder to get lost on a snowshoe trail. Tracks are usually established — or, worst-case scenario — you can simply follow your footprints back to the trailhead.
Try a guided outing
Planning your own moonlight snowshoeing trip is as simple as choosing popular trails or seasonally closed Forest Service roads. You don’t need any extra gear, aside from a few precautionary headlamps.
If you’re not keen on venturing out alone, guided snowshoe trips are popular for organized groups. There are several ways you can join an excursion.
A good introduction is the annual Full Moon Ski & Snowshoe Party in Plain, which is Saturday, Jan. 11 from 7-9 p.m. Hike 2.4 miles of trail around open fields and woodland under a brilliant moon. This event is free and open to the public. Snowshoes can be rented at Plain Hardware, across the street from the trailhead.
REI offers several guided tips every month to nearby locations like Gold Creek Pond and Echo Lake State Park. Snowshoes, gaiters, poles and headlamps are provided. Groups are capped at 12 participants, and popular outings can fill up fast. Reservations start at $49.
Local Meetup groups, like Seattle’s winter backpacking group, frequently plan nighttime snowshoe adventures for group members.
White Pass offers twilight snowshoe tours every Saturday from Jan. 5 through Feb. 23. Groups are limited to 24 people with two guides. Cost is $42 per person, which includes snowshoes and headlamps.
At Whistler, evening snowshoe tours embark on an Après Teepee Tour, which travels to a cozy, warm teepee where participants snack on cured meats and mulled drinks next to a toasty fire. That 150-minute experience is a bit pricier: about $82/adult ($109 CAD), $75/child ($99/CAD).
For the true beginner
For snowshoe basics and a list of what to bring, visit this page for WTA’s introduction to snowshoeing.
Then — perhaps after a daylight excursion — strap on a headlamp to see snowshoeing in a whole new light.