Snowshoeing in Paradise
Literally — Paradise, Mt. Rainier National Park
A winter wonderland was exactly this. Snowshoeing in one of the most beautiful locations of the world — a 14,409 foot volcano covered in miles upon miles of untouched snow. This was like something one would read from a book or see in a movie. As far as the eye could see in every direction we were amidst snow covered ground and trees. Being out there and looking up at the top of the mountain is a feeling that’s not easy to explain. Surreal. Peaceful. Beautiful. Unbelievable. Those are just a few things that immediately come to mind while thinking back on this experience.
This is a story of our first snowshoeing experience. And it certainly will not be the last.
This was our first time at snowshoeing. We’ve been wanting to try it for a while, after seeing so many photos of others sharing their wonderful experiences. We didn’t know anything about it — sure, put on snowshoes and walk — but we did not want to spend a lot of money on snowshoes that we might never use again. So we opted to join a group adventure that was put together by the Tacoma Nature Center.
The price per person was $65 which included a ride to Paradise from Tacoma, a pair of decent snowshoes, and a 3 hour guided tour that eventually brought us to the top of a ridge in the area with amazing views in every direction.
We met up at the Tacoma Parks main building at 9:00 A.M. and headed out from there around 9:10. We were waiting on a straggler to show up, otherwise, everything was ready to go at 9.
There were two vans, 10 snowshoers and 2 guides: Kyle and Belinda. Once everyone arrived we divided up into the two vans, Kyle was our driver. He was good natured, very friendly, easy to talk to, helpful, and full of great information about a good deal of things. Any questions we, or the others had, he tried to answer.
The drive from Tacoma to the park entrance took about 90 minutes, which included a quick restroom/snack break in the town of Ashford.
Shortly after driving into the park we reached a point where all vehicles were required to chain up, unless they were all-wheel drive, had good traction tires, and had chains in the vehicle if needed later. Both vans pulled over, along with 6–10 other vehicles, and chained up quickly. The rest of the drive up was great. We honestly didn’t need any chains but we suppose it didn’t hurt. The road was plowed very well and we passed two plow trucks coming down.
As we got closer and closer to the visitor center the snow level from the sides of the road continuously grew in height. By the time we reached our destination the snow was well above the height of the vehicle.
The parking lot was pretty full. We didn’t realize so many people would be here. It consisted of other tour groups like ours, families with children, couples and individual explorers, plenty of park personal, an ambulance on standby for any emergencies, and also expedition groups that were most certainly heading to Camp Muir for the night and probably ascending the mountain early the next morning.
First things first, it was time for a bathroom break. We had all stopped in Ashford along the way, but nature was calling again. The rest of the group took a 15 minute lunch break while we opted to hold our lunch for afterwards. We grabbed a cheese and egg bagel in Ashford during our stop on the way up, so we weren’t all that hungry. Once everyone was ready we all went back to the vans to gear up.
We were each handed a pair of snowshoes that we weren’t putting on quite yet. The tour did not provide poles but some people brought along their own. Once everyone was ready we all walked across the parking lot to the main entrance.
…So, that walk across the parking lot…it may have been the most difficult thing we did all day. The lot was covered in ice throughout most of it. Very slippery and slow going. We witnessed several others fall…
Back to the story. We headed up through a snow packed trail that led to the snowplay area for sledding, tubing, and just having fun sliding down a nice sized slope. This area was filled with families and their children. It was busy.
After navigating past that we continued onto a trail that passes by the three-storied Paradise Inn which was completely covered in snow up to its roof. It immediately reminds one of The Stanley Hotel from The Shining. It was a spectacular sight to see.
As we continued onward, the trees in our path began to thin and the landscape before us opened into a vast snowscape. Other people and groups at this point started to get further from each other.
So far so good. We had previously read that snowshoeing uses up to 40% more energy than walking or running at the same pace. We had not noticed that at all. It was pretty easy going. Not much harder than a regular hike. We were fairly excited, however, and likely that put a deceptive gloss on the actual amount of effort we were exerting.
Obviously everyone is different. This was quite a workout for some in our group, while like us, others were doing pretty well. As a group we did stop at times for everyone to catch back up and then take a break.
By now we were in the wide open. Still on a trail from earlier explorers that made it for us, but no one else near. There is no rule that anyone must stick to the trails. The entire park, from what we gather, was open for the taking. And that’s exactly what some were doing. You could see people in all parts of the park, who had obviously traveled to their spots by cutting their own trails.
Some of us in the group certainly took the time to go off trail and into fresh, untouched powder. We suppose this is where that 40% idea comes from as it is a bit more of work to walk through and create your own trail. Your pace slows down quite a bit, so it takes longer to get to where you’re going.
Some of the off trail spots did have us sinking past our knees, as the unpacked powder was quite deep. We did a good deal of tromping around like children in the fresh snow.
We eventually came to our hardest part of this adventure. Difficult to determine ahead of time due to everything being white, but we were now ready to climb to much higher ground on a much steeper slope.
Here we stopped for a break before proceeding. Once ready we all set out at our own paces. We’re not exactly sure how far we traveled here, or what the elevation gain was, but it felt like a lot. Even keeping track of the amount of time to complete this was hard to figure. That’s one of many of the strange things out here. Losing track of time, unable to clearly tell topographic changes, not quite sure on distances, and other things. Being in this all white, expansive open area has a certain something to it.
By the time we reached the top we were out of breath. First thing was to drink water. After catching our breaths we began to truly take in the amazing views.
But we’ll try…
Initially, distinguishing earth from sky was a challenge as it was all the same hazy white. We were in low cloud cover, but as we topped the highest point in our journey (about 6,000 ft. according to Kyle), the clouds began to break.
Peek-a-boo moments of blue sky and momentary glimpses of Rainier’s summit came into clear view. There was a waterfall in the distance, all the trees were burdened with snow and people much further up in elevation were merely distant dots.
We spent probably 30 minutes here as we needed to wait for the rest of our group to make it up and give them some time to break and enjoy the area.
Our guide told us that normally we would continue down the back of this slope and weave around some trees that he pointed to and somehow make it back to the parking lot.
But because we were starting to run low on time we would take the same route back that we just made.
We began heading back and it was much easier going down than up. Although we still wished we were like many around us who had skis or snowboards. Speaking of that, we did see a few people off in the distance building an enormous jump ramp out of snow. We never saw them use it though :-(
We made it back to the visitor center, removed our snowshoes, used the restrooms, then back through the slippery lot to the vans.
We certainly could have spent another 3+ hours doing this. We felt great as far as health was concerned. We weren’t tired at all. But, it was time to leave. A short while after driving away fatigue began to set in and we were getting pretty sleepy.
Back in Tacoma we got out of the van and our driver said he’d put up some of the group photos he took onto the park’s Facebook page. Then we left. Then the Jeep’s navigation system took us in circles because it’s terrible. We were too tired to open Google Maps on a phone so we opted to press the “Go Home” button in the Jeep’s dash. Never again with that!
Opting to do this group snowshoe outing was a great introduction for us. Having never put on snowshoes and knowing so little about the activity, we received a nice, brief education. We met a great group of people and just had an excellent time. We love hiking, and having snowshoes would extend our abilities to explore areas otherwise inaccessible by foot.
If you’re a social person, this group setting is a piece of cake. Someone drives you to the mountain and back, you can work on your thermos of coffee while kicking back and enjoying the ride. You receive instruction on fitting the snowshoes, how to move in them, and you’re guided on your journey. This was enough of an introduction for us to confidently go out and buy our own snowshoes (we haven’t yet, but soon).
New to the area, new to an activity, people who don’t want to venture out solo or those who just enjoy the dynamics of a group activity are afforded a wealth of opportunities with programs like this. We recommend giving it a try!
If this looks like something you’d enjoy, we highly recommend you take a look at the Outdoor Adventures program from Tacoma Nature Center. Their upcoming, and final snowshoeing group of the season is May 19, 2016. We had a blast and you will too!
Wander More, Worry Less!
We went back about a year later. Have a look at that trip report on Kuhl's blog.