Mount Rainier is a great place for beginner and experienced snowshoers to explore the winter landscape. Generally, the best months for snowshoeing in the park are December through March, but you can check conditions by calling the park or viewing current conditions on the webcams.
Know Before You Go
Most of Mount Rainier's roads are closed for winter. The road from Nisqually Entrance to Longmire is open year-round but may close during extreme weather. During the winter season the road between Longmire and Paradise closes nightly, though it may also remain closed during the day due to extreme weather or high avalanche danger. The daily opening/closing status of the gate at Longmire is posted on Twitter @MountRainierNPS (account not required to view).
All vehicles are required to carry tire chains when traveling in the park from November 1 to May 1. This requirement applies to all vehicles (including four-wheel drive), regardless of tire type or weather conditions.
Many dangers await in winter including avalanches, hypothermia, frostbite, and changing weather, but with a little planning we hope you will have a safe and fun trip to the park. Since conditions change so rapidly on the mountain, it is important to be prepared for anything. Wearing layers is helpful as the conditions change throughout the day.
Especially during the shoulder seasons of winter recreation, it is extremely important to be conscious of unseen hazards. Water flowing under melting snow can carve and melt large voids that may be partially or completely invisible from the surface, hidden under thin layers of snow called snowbridges. Snowbridges are often not marked and can be deadly if they collapse underfoot. To avoid this danger:
Do not hike alone. A companion may be able to call for help.
Check in with a visitor center for current information about hazards in the area where you will be hiking.
Stick to well-marked routes over the snow.
Avoid hiking in drainages where water is likely to be moving under the snow.
Look for holes or depressions in the snow, and listen for the sound of rushing water.
When hiking in steep terrain, carry an ice axe or wear traction devices to prevent falls.
Carry the "10 Essentials", including extra food, water, clothing, and navigation aids.
Read more about winter safety.
How to Snowshoe
Snowshoeing is different than any other form of recreation. Depending on the depth of the snow, snowshoeing can be much more tiring than hiking the same trail without snow. It is important to adjust your expectations of how far and how steep you can travel on snowshoes versus hiking in the summer.
People who are not used to walking with snowshoes often find it beneficial to try walking in different ways, such as swinging your hips differently than walking normally. The snowshoes will force your stride to be wider than normal, which can lead to achy hips.
If the snow is particularly deep, use the kick-step technique to flick snow off the front of your snowshoe. As you are bringing your foot up, kick your foot to dislodge the extra snow. You may also need to stop periodically to pick out any snow clumps that have gathered in the spikes of the snowshoe. A trekking pole can be handy for this.
All trails outlined below are good options for beginner or intermediate snowshoers. Maps are available at the Longmire Museum, Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise on weekends and holidays, or in the tunnel to the Plaza (Slate) Restrooms at Paradise.
- Nisqually Vista Loop
Distance: 1.2 mile loop trail
Estimated Hike Time: 1 hour
Trailhead Location: Lower parking lot at Paradise
Description: Throughout most of winter, rangers will put trail markers along the Nisqually Vista Loop, which is a great option for beginner snowshoers. Check with a ranger at the visitor center to see if the trail is marked during your visit. This trail is mostly forested with views of Mount Rainier and the Nisqually Glacier terminus into the Nisqually River. One of the flattest snowshoe options in the park.
- Alta Vista
Distance: 1.5 miles
Estimated Hike Time: 1.5-2 hours
Trailhead Location: Main trailhead near the Jackson Visitor Center at the upper lot at Paradise
Description: This is a popular route for skiers and is usually well established even though it is unmarked. This can also be a good option for an intermediate snowshoe if you continue towards Glacier Vista or Panorama Point. On clear days, views of Mount Rainier, Mt St Helens, Mt Adams, and Mt Hood.
- Paradise Valley Road
Distance: 0.6 miles to 4th Crossing or 1.8 miles to Reflection Lakes junction
Estimated Hike Time: 45 min - 3 hours depending on turnaround point
Trailhead Location: East end of the upper parking lot at Paradise
Description: Out-and-back option that begins with elevation decline. This area can be prone to avalanche so be sure to check avalanche conditions at the visitor center prior to starting. This is also a good intermediate option if you continue up 4th Crossing to Mazama Ridge.
- Reflection Lakes
Distance: 3.75 miles
Estimated Hike Time: 4 hours
Trailhead Location: Narada Falls parking lot
Description: The lake is frozen over most of winter and is only accessible by snowshoe or cross-country skis. Mostly forested trail with view of Mount Rainier from Reflection Lakes. Throughout most of winter, rangers will put trail markers along to assist with navigation. Follow the marked trail to avoid avalanche prone slopes.
- Westside Road
Distance: 3 miles to summer gate
Estimated Hike Time: 2-3 hours
Trailhead Location: One mile after the Nisqually Entrance
Description: In winter Westside Road is closed to vehicles at the junction with Nisqually Road, but snowshoeing and cross-country skiing is allowed past the gate. The road is a gentle incline for the first three miles to the summer gate at Dry Creek, which can be a good turnaround point for beginners or a rest stop for those wishing to go further.
- Wonderland Trail to Cougar Rock
Distance: 1.7 miles
Estimated Hike Time: 1-2 hours
Trailhead Location: Next to Longmire Wilderness Information Center
Description: The Wonderland Trail is a 93-mile trail that circumnavigates Mount Rainier. In winter most of the trail is inaccessible, but the section from Longmire to Cougar Rock is accessible. The trail parallels the Nisqually River but stays mostly forested. The trail is often packed down from use so snowshoes are not always necessary but will be helpful after a recent storm.
- Rampart Ridge
Distance: 4.5 mile loop
Estimated Hike Time: 4 hours
Trailhead Location: Back side of the Trail of the Shadows Loop, across the street from National Park Inn in Longmire
Description: This trail often starts with minimal snow on the Trail of the Shadows but the snow deepens as you gain elevation (1,400 ft) to Rampart Ridge. It is mostly forested but will open to views of Mount Rainier at the ridge crest. From the viewpoint, return the way you came or continue the loop to finish on the Wonderland Trail.
For an enjoyable snowshoe walk, you will need:
Snowshoes - The park concessioner rents snowshoes to anyone wishing to snowshoe in the park; check at the Longmire General Store for availability and rental rates. Or you may use your own snowshoes.
Suitable, waterproof/water resistant boots (you will sink into the snow even wearing snowshoes so it is important that your feet stay dry.)
Dress in layers (avoid cotton which does not dry well)
Trekking poles (not necessary but can be helpful)
Food and water (you will need more food and water in the winter to maintain body temperature)
It is also important to carry the winter 10 essentials:
Shovel (avalanche rescue)
Full length insulated sleeping pad
Stove and fuel (melt snow)
Goggles and wool hat
Reliable weather and avalanche forecasts (check at the visitor center)
Map, compass, and GPS (with extra batteries)