Whether you’re toting a toddler or just aiming to get the hang of snowshoes for the first time, here are five easy trails to try around Washington’s Cascades.
Taking a young child snowshoeing is a delicate balancing act.
It has the potential to be a blissful outdoor experience they’ll remember for a lifetime. Or alpine weather and challenging terrain can turn your winter weekend into a disaster.
As my son, Ian, has grown into a toddler, my wife and I have learned how much fun it can be to share Pacific Northwest wonders with him, but knocking out summits just isn’t in the cards if we want to bring him along.
We’ve quickly learned to seek out short, easy treks that have the potential to impress, but are close enough to the car that we can bail if a meltdown ensues.
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That’s why I was so excited to discover Snoqualmie’s Lower Gold Creek Basin last winter. At four miles round-trip with only 400 feet of elevation gain, it met my criteria for a kid-friendly snowshoe trip: easy to reach, easy to hike, and in no time we could introduce Ian to some terrific winter scenery.
It happens that these five walks are also perfectly suited to first-timers seeking an easy outing until they get the hang of snowshoeing.
Easy trek, lots of wonder
When deciding where to snowshoe with a kid, it’s helpful to remember that it takes about twice as much energy to travel over snow.
That’s a big reason Lower Gold Creek Basin is a good fit — it pays off with scenery within the first mile, long before most kids come unglued.
From the parking area, we followed a well-beaten path laid flat by snowmobiles accessing a handful of cheery cabins along the trail. It’s a very popular destination, so we didn’t have any trouble with footing or finding the trail.
Ian is too small to hike on his own, so the flat grade was ideal for hauling him in a backpack, and we saw large groups of young children, and even several new moms nursing newborns as they hiked.
We traveled among snow-laden evergreens for less than an hour until we reached our payoff — a frozen pond. Here the trail does a 0.3-mile loop around Heli’s Pond.
At the far side of the pond we took a lunch break and let Ian frolic in the downy powder. He worked on his balance as he picked his way back and forth along the snowy trail while my wife and I observed the dramatic cliffs in the distance where massive icicles hung in huge spikes.
This is the turnaround point for most, and a satisfying conclusion to your day, but we ventured further into the basin, following Gold Creek. Soon the weekend crowds gave way to solitude.
The trail skirted a couple of avalanche zones, which we recognized by the steep slopes and RV-sized ice chunks littering the chutes. We crossed with care, glad that we had checked the Northwest Avalanche Center forecast (nwac.us) before leaving home.
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We traversed little bumps and humps as the trail meandered through the forest until we came to a wide snowy beach along the river. We taught Ian to make snow angels in the fresh powder. Feeling like Houdini, we learned how to change diapers while keeping Ian snugly wrapped inside his snowsuit.
It was a busy Saturday and we were less than two hours from Interstate 90, but we hadn’t seen a soul in an hour. And we managed to make it back to the car without a single meltdown. Parent victory!
Directions to Lower Gold Creek Basin: From eastbound Interstate 90 take Exit 54 and turn left, crossing under the freeway. Just past the onramp, turn right onto a narrow paved road and drive parallel to the freeway for 1 mile. Park on the shoulder near the trailhead. A Sno-Park pass is required.
Other good routes for kids and newbies
The Cascade Mountains are loaded with excellent snowshoe trails suited to young legs and beginners. Here are some favorites suggested by local outdoor experts.
Nisqually Vista Trail Loop, recommended by Marc Blackburn, supervisory ranger at Mount Rainier National Park
Paradise is a terrific place to learn to snowshoe. There’s plenty of snow and lots of freedom. “We don’t groom any trails so where there is snow, you can go snowshoeing,” says Blackburn.
From Dec. 23 through March 26 rangers organize guided walks on weekends. Adult and children’s snowshoes are provided on a first-come, first-served basis for a $5 donation.
The trail has minimal elevation gain and the guided walks traverse 1.8 miles round-trip in about two hours. The payoff on a clear day is a stunning view of the mountain, Nisqually River Valley and Nisqually Glacier.
Guides show you animal tracks (usually weasels and birds) and describe how plants and animals adapt to the winter conditions.
Mount St. Helens
Ape Cave, recommended by Ray Yurkewycz, executive director of Mount St. Helens Institute
One of the more unusual snowshoe trips in the Northwest leads you into a dormant lava tube. Follow a semi-open forest to the entrance and explore underground before returning, for a total of three miles.
The journey is easy enough to pull kids in sleds if they’re too young to snowshoe. Yurkewycz says the entrance of the cave can be icy, so use caution. The trail starts around 2,000 feet elevation so the snow can be spotty in low-snow years. Be sure to check conditions first and bring a flashlight or lantern.
Mount St. Helens Institute offers naturalist-led hikes to Ape Cave Jan. 21 and Feb. 11 (mshinstitute.org/explore/winter-adventures.html). A Sno-Park pass is required to park
Salmon Ridge Sno-Park, recommended by Magenta Widner, forestry technician, Mount Baker Ranger District
On your way to the Mount Baker ski area, Salmon Ridge is a nice, easy option with about 2½ miles (one-way) of marked snowshoe trail plus many more miles of groomed cross-country ski trails.
Trails wind through the forest, hugging the North Fork Nooksack River with nice views of the valley. If you just want to play in the snow, the Silver Fir Campground across the highway is a part of the Sno-Park and offers a flat location with access to a nice beach by the river, says Widner.
This location starts at around 2,000 feet elevation so the snow may be iffy during low-snow years. A Sno-Park pass is required to park.
Thunder Knob Trail, recommended by Rosemary Seifried, wilderness ranger, North Cascades National Park
While some of the North Cascades Highway is closed in winter, you can still access good snowshoe terrain on the western slopes via Highway 20 before reaching the closure gate.
Seifried says the Thunder Knob Trail is an ideal trip for youngsters because of the gentle elevation gain (425 feet). You must cross a small stream near the beginning, so steer clear if there have been heavy rains.
After 1.8 miles you’re rewarded by views of the aquamarine waters of Diablo Lake plus jagged peaks of surrounding mountains.
The trail begins at the Colonial Creek Campground. Walk through the north part of the camping area until you see a series of footbridges that lead to the trailhead.