Mount Baker, Stevens Pass and Mount Rainier are best trekking locales when snow is sparse.

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With a strong El Niño expected to dictate our winter weather, forecasters predict lower-than-normal snowpacks in the Cascades and Olympics. Fortunately, even that dreary forecast promises better snow than last year!

To get the most out of the limited powder forecast for the coming season, snowshoers should plan to get high this winter — strictly in an elevation sense — and stick to routes that leave the lowlands well behind. Having done lots of route research for a new edition of a snowshoeing guide during last year’s record low snowpack, I’m well prepared to share a few suggestions on where to play even when snowfall is meager.

Mount Baker

The current world-record holder for total annual snowfall (1,140 inches, in 1998-99) can always be relied upon to offer up decent snow, even during the dreaded El Niño years. Several great routes start from near the Mount Baker Ski Area base, including some good ones for families and novices.

To get there, from Bellingham drive east on Highway 542 (Mount Baker Highway) to the road’s end, about 55 miles, at the ski area’s upper parking lot.

Bagley Lake Loop — From the west end of the ski area parking, start snowshoeing west to descend a gentle slope to Lower Bagley Lake. This open snowfield is a great place to practice your downhill snowshoeing skills. The slope is gentle and well contoured so fun can be had by all. About a quarter mile from the parking lot, veer left and start uphill into the shallow valley cradling upper Bagley Lake. Be sure to avoid crossing the lakes — like all Cascade mountain lakes, the ice cover should never be trusted with your weight — as you continue east past Terminal Lake and then north to complete the loop along a ridge running back to the trailhead.

Artist Point — The broad wildflower meadows of Artist Point draw thousands of hikers and nature lovers each summer, and those same meadows offer spectacular winter views as well.

The preferred route leaves the south (upper) end of the ski area parking lot and climbs moderately toward Austin Pass. Avoid treading on the tracks of cross-country skiers who are heading for the deep, backcountry bowls beyond Artist Point. From Austin Pass, snowshoers may ramble through the meadows atop Kulshan Ridge before heading back to the trailhead.

Stevens Pass

While there are good snowshoe routes along Highway 2 on both sides of the pass from the foothills to the Cascade Crest, the best options when the snowpack is thin can be found at the Stevens summit.

To get there, from Everett drive east on U.S. Highway 2 to the top of Stevens Pass. Park in ski-area lots on the north side of the highway. To access the Lanham Lake route, continue east over the pass, turn right onto Mill Creek Road and drive a few hundred feet to park in the Mill Creek Sno-Park (the lower lot; permit required). The lot nearest the buildings is provided for commercial Nordic ski facilities run by Stevens Pass Ski Area. To avoid conflicts, avoid snowshoeing on the groomed trails.

Skyline Lake — From the parking lot on the north side of the highway, climb north along a groomed road leading past small skier cabins. The groomed snow-cat track angles north away from the highway and ends abruptly near a power shack about a quarter-mile up the slope. Dig your snowshoe cleats into the hillside and continue straight up the hill. Stay near the trees on the west side of the open slope to minimize avalanche danger and collisions with backcountry skiers carving down the open slope. The slope tapers off around 5,000-feet elevation, about a mile from the parking lot, and climbing becomes easier. Another half-mile on the tree-covered ridge opens onto what seems to be a broad, snow-filled meadow. This is actually the snow-covered Skyline Lake.

Lanham Lake — Leaving the Miller Creek Sno-Park, the trail takes off to the left a few dozen yards up the groomed Miller Creek Road. The snowshoe route generally follows the summer hikers’ trail along the west bank of Lanham Creek as it climbs the gentle valley to its headwaters at the lake. About a mile up the trail, the valley narrows and the trail rolls in close to the creek. Depending on snow depth and quality, this can be the place to turn back. If the snow is stable and supportive, though, the route continues another steep half-mile or so to the lake basin.

Mount Rainier

For all its glorious beauty in summer, Paradise is best served cold. The broad snowy meadows, dark forest groves and rolling ridges provide great foreground relief for the majestic, snow-covered peak of Mount Rainier.

To get there, drive east from Tacoma on Highway 7 and bear left onto Highway 706 at the town of Elbe. Continue east through the Nisqually Entrance of the park, and proceed up the plowed road to the Paradise Lodge parking area. (Note: Tire chains must be carried in winter months.)

Donna Meshke, of Puyallup, followed by her nieces, Stephanie Meshke, of Bellevue, and Shannon Meshke Ochs, of Rapid City, S.D., snowshoe up the snowy meadows above Paradise, heading toward Glacier Vista. (Dan A. Nelson photo)
Donna Meshke, of Puyallup, followed by her nieces, Stephanie Meshke, of Bellevue, and Shannon Meshke Ochs, of Rapid City, S.D., snowshoe up the snowy meadows above Paradise, heading toward Glacier Vista. (Dan A. Nelson photo)

Glacier Vista — Leave the parking area by climbing the groomed trail up through the tall snow bank surrounding the parking lot and stay left of designated sledding runs. As you move west you’ll approach a thin line of trees. Veer north here and follow the edge of the meadow uphill, working around the various drifts and dips in the ever-shifting snow. About a mile on, you’ll find Glacier Vista — an open ridgeline, with wonderful views of the Nisqually Valley, as well as up to the towering hulk of Rainier. From here, ramble back through the meadows, picking your own path as you return to the parking area.

Mazama Ridge — Climb out of the parking lot and head east past the Paradise Inn (closed in winter) to enter the broad open meadows of the upper Paradise Valley. The route crosses Edith Creek on a wide footbridge, just above ice-cloaked waterfalls, before continuing due east around the head of Paradise Valley to the wall of Mazama Ridge. Angle south as you climb the ridge wall to reach the crest at 5,700 feet. The broad meadows sprawl across the top of Mazama Ridge, providing stunning views of Mount Rainier and, to the south, the Tatoosh Range. On clear days, you can see Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens.