Standing at the top of a snow-covered peak, looking down the valley at tree blanketed in white, one thing is clear: Washington’s “4th season” is not to be missed. Seattle in the winter is filled with dark and dreary days, where each day melts into the next with the same sad shade of grey. But there is a cure for miserable weather-induced cabin fever! All it takes is a little drive and some snowshoes to turn the grey city winter misery into an alpine wonderland.
Hello, lovely snow friends. I hope you enjoyed the previous post in this series, How to Choose a Hiking Trip in Washington. As the season shifts and more snow is falling on Washington’s slopes, I thought I would address how to pick a snowshoe (or hiking) trip in the winter, when snow adds extra complications. Here are the 10 steps to I follow to go from my computer to enjoying Washington’s winter wonderland.
I am not an expert in avalanche safety, or winter travel and this post is meant to supplement to real-life training and classes. All readers must asses their own skill, experience, fitness and equipment before recreating in the outdoors. There is great risk to going in the mountains and the most important thing you can do is educate yourself and make safe choices. The author is not responsible for adverse consequences resulting directly or indirectly from information in this post.
1. Check the weather and narrow down your geographic regions.
Washington’s weather can be highly variable, especially in the winter. Luckily, finding a rainshadow can open up pockets where the sun is shining, or adding elevation can turn a soggy hike into a snowy one. My first step every time I am looking for a snowshoe is to check the weather all over the state to determine which regions are the safest and will be the most pleasant. First, I check all of my normal weather sites from summer, including the National Weather Service Mountains Forecast Page. This map lets you click-through to generalized mountain areas, and help you find those pockets. This site will also help you find out if winter storms are in the forecast, an extra hazard to consider. Lightly falling snow can be idyllic on a snowshoe, but whiteout conditions can be miserable and dangerous, understanding how to avoid those situations is important.
Secondly, the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) has a great mountain forecast page that covers the entirety of Washington’s mountain areas. It is simple to scroll through the different areas and find the best spot to hit that weekend. They also describe the weather system, so you can understand the greater details beyond simply precipitation. The forecast only includes two days, however, so it is not the easiest for long-term planning.
NWAC’s mountain forecast also pays attention to some pertinent details that you might look over when researching weather in the summer. Snow level and freezing level are listed for the different mountain areas, which is highly relevant for snowshoeing. If precipitation is in the forecast, snow-level will let you know whether to expect snow or rain on your snowshoe. 24-hour precipitation levels are listed, letting you know how heavy the snow will be and wind speeds. Understanding wind levels can make a huge difference on your hike, as wind chill can significantly lower your body temperature. Heavy winds can also move around snow and make it difficult to see, which alters the type of skills you need to complete the snowshoe.
After you have researched the weather options, use the forecast to narrow down which geographic region you want to target. Sometimes the entire state is available, other times it will narrow your options to one or two routes!
2. Check NWAC for Avalanche Safety
NWAC is the website I check the most often in the winter. Besides the mountain forecast, NWAC’s primary purpose is to provide avalanche forecasts for Washington’s mountain regions. NWAC collects extensive data from Mid-November through April to warn of relative risks for traveling in the backcountry when snow is on the ground. Avalanche risk is my number one priority in the winter–if the outlook isn’t safe, the route isn’t an option, no matter how amazing it looks. For more information about avalanche risk and awareness, read my post on avalanche risk for beginners, it has many more details on how to use NWAC and estimate avalanche risk.
To help you evaluate potential avalanche risk, NWAC provides a map with color-coded areas correlating to the level of avalanche risk for that day. The colors correspond to a rating system, low to an extreme of avalanche danger, with detailed descriptions of each category available on their site. In addition, NWAC breaks down the specifics of the avalanche danger, including how it varies below and above the treeline, and which specific avalanche issues are present.
In addition to checking NWAC, I highly recommend going to one of their classes. They have a bunch of free, outreach classes that teach you how to recognize avalanche terrain and use their website. Other outdoor education groups, such as The Mountaineers, and American Alpine Institute provide avalanche training classes that will allow you to mitigate the risks while traveling in avalanche terrain. The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) provides a list of all companies providing AIARE courses. The best way to move safely in the mountains is to ensure you are educated in avalanche safety.
Luckily, Washington has many enjoyable trails and it is easy to find a way to get outside even when the avalanche risk is extreme. With a little understanding of NWAC’s forecasting system, you can find hikes with low avalanche risk and enjoy the snowy trails!
P.S. NWAC provides an invaluable service to the outdoor community. If you use their avalanche forecasts (and you should!), consider donating. They rely on public donations to make the backcountry safer for all of us.
3. Check Mountain Passes and Forest Roads
Road evaluation is an important step for narrowing down geographic areas. If the road to your route is closed, perfect weather and avalanche conditions won’t help!
Places to check for road conditions include WSDOT, the national park or wilderness pages for your region, or WTA trip reports to see if anyone has been on your road recently. If there are no recent trip reports, finding a hike in a similar region and elevation may help. Lastly, facebook groups such as Washington hikers and climbers often have members posting about road conditions, and you can ask the community.
Some things to consider:
- Some passes and roads are closed during the winter, including Highway 20 in the North Cascades, part of Mountain Loop Highway and many of Mt. Rainier’s roads.
- Some forest roads are impassable after November and many snowshoe routes include walking up a closed forest road to get to the summer trailhead. This is sometimes lovely but needs to be factored into your mileage goals.
- Some roads are conditionally open, such as the road to Paradise in Mt. Rainier National Park or Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park. Both national parks have a twitter account that updates the status of the roads, and Hurricane Ridge is often only open on weekends.
- Some roads are open and navigable most of the winter, but weather or snow conditions may make it impassable, including major mountain passes like Stevens Pass or Snoqualmie Pass. Stevens Pass, Snoqualmie Pass, and Mt. Rainier have webcam systems, so you are able to check road conditions.
It is important to consider road conditions for getting to your route, but also the conditions you expect for getting home. Are there any winter storm warnings in the forecast, or chance of snow falling while you are out on your route? For example, for high amounts of precipitation, the road may be fine when you arrive but accumulate enough snow to make driving home difficult. Make sure when checking roads that you are able to get to your location, but also able to return home.
Some regions require chains, and it is a good idea to carry a winter driving kit in your car, with tools to help you get un-stuck. Make sure you understand the different rules of the mountain passes and how it pertains to your car. Mt. Rainier requires you to carry chains regardless of whether your car is all wheel drive or not, whereas many of the mountain passes require chains or all-wheel drive. Know your car and its capabilities. If you are getting information from other snowshoers that have been in the area recently, understand that their 4WD vehicle equipped with snow tires may get them to Talapus and Ollalie, whereas your sedan isn’t going to make it once there is 2″ of snow on the ground.
4. Get Inspired
Once I have an idea of my parameters it is time for the fun part: looking for inspiration. Unlike the summer, where I pull my inspiration from many different places, including Instagram and Facebook, in the winter I have a much smaller list that I turn to. This blog has many snowshoe trip reports here and is a great place to get started!
The first place I turn to is the book Snowshoe Routes Washington (3rd edition), by Dan A. Nelson. This book has 100 snowshoe routes primarily in western Washington. The book has some amazing tables in the front in which Nelson breaks down the snowshoe routes and rates them based on difficulty, avalanche potential, route time and elevation gain. The snowshoe routes are also organized by region, so once I have found my ideal region from step 1 and evaluated avalanche risk from step two, it is pretty easy to narrow down the list of routes.
In addition to the snowshoe book, I find routes from WTA recent trip reports, facebook groups, and Instagram. For more detail about which groups I follow, or how to find trips on WTA, check out the How to Choose a Hike in Washington post. WTA also has a great summary of lovely snowshoe hikes here. Lastly, sometimes I browse Alltrails, Outdoor Project, and The Mountaineers. Pop over to my Avalanche Awareness for Beginners post to read why I am very picky about where I get my inspiration in the winter and why I avoid Instagram and Facebook.
Once I have a few snowshoe routes in mind, I pick a few to research a little more heavily.
- I read the most recent trip reports on WTA to see the conditions on the trail and how many people made it to their destination.
- I search Facebook groups to see if anyone has been there recently to see what the snow coverage looks like.
- I check the national parks or national forest page to see if there are any closures.
- I pull up a map from CalTopo and determine what the avalanche risk is for the route and determine which NWAC forecast level I need to feel safe.
Then I google the hikes on my short list and the word blog to see if I can find some blog posts of the snowshoe we are going on. This helps me find alternate routes, specific conditions and get further inspired. Sometimes it can also be great to find places to eat after our trip.
Lastly, it is important to understand snow levels where you are going. NWAC can be helpful to understand the base levels of snow in different areas. In addition, many of the ski areas list their base levels of snow and have webcams as well. If you have an idea of your trailhead elevation and elevation at the highest point, comparing it to some of the ski resorts can help you determine how much snow will be on your trail
6. Check your skills, capabilities and goals
After I have narrowed down a few snowshoes and researched them to make sure that they are safe and accessible, I go through a list of goals to find the one that matches my personal plans the best.
- Mileage? Elevation gain?
Mileage and elevation gain can be different in the snow than on a normal hike. Snow takes longer to hike in, so on a summer trail you may be able to easily hike 10 miles in 5 hours, whereas in the winter it could easily be 10 miles in 10 hours. If you need to break trail, expect to be moving even slower. During the winter, you should also be considering what kind of additional skills you will need. Many routes require route-finding, as snow can obscure the trail. High slopes and avalanche terrain may need specialized equipment, such as ice axes and avalanche beacons. Some routes require snowshoes, and others may only need microspikes. Consider all the features of the trail before making a decision.
As discussed in section 2, checking NWAC is paramount. Understanding avalanche terrain and what the different ratings entail shape the snowshoe you pick. Don’t choose snowshoes with risky terrain features if avalanche conditions exist. I always keep a list of snowshoe routes that you can do even when the avalanche risk is extreme, so I am not tempted to go on unsafe trails. Just a few weeks ago I planned on doing Lake 22, which crosses avalanche paths, when I woke up the NWAC forecast deteriorated from the night before and I no longer felt comfortable completing the route. Luckily, I had a favorite route already picked out as a backup so that morning it was super easy to switch gears and do Skyline Lake instead.
- Permit or pass type?
Different areas utilize different trailhead parking passes, some of which are fairly expensive. If you already have one type of pass, you may want to search only for snowshoe routes that use those passes.
- Road conditions?
Did you find any road closures that will narrow down geographic regions? If the road to get you there is impassable, you can kiss that snowshoe goodbye.
- Seasonal goals, wishes?
Lastly, narrow snowshoes based on seasonal features. If the weather says heavy snow, you can be sure there won’t be significant views, so stick to hikes where incredible forests are the feature, like Lanham Lake or Commonwealth Basin. First bluebird day in a month? Head out on that snowshoe that promises views for days, like Artist Point or Mazama Ridge.
7. Pick your snowshoe!
With all of the information gathered from steps 1-6, you can pick your snowshoe route! Make sure to have a few in your back pocket in case something changes last minute.
8. Figure out your permit
There are many different wilderness types in Washington including national parks (we have 3!), state parks, national forest land, tribal lands and more. In the winter, there are even more passes and permit types, including sno-parks and winter-specific fees. It can be hard to keep it all straight, but using the wrong permit can lead to a ticket at the trailhead.
Here is a breakdown of Washington’s most common parking passes:
Discover Pass is for state parks or state-owned lands. It costs $30.00 for the year or $10.00 for a daily pass. The pass can be shared between two vehicles, but only used at one vehicle at a time. Some areas require a sno-park and discover pass to access the trails. Some popular hikes using the Discover Pass are Rattlesnake Ledge, Lily Lake, and Heather Lake.
Northwest Forest Pass is for federal lands, excluding national parks. Like the discover pass, it costs $30.00 a year or $5.00 for a day pass. I find this is the most useful pass for Washington, and the one I recommend if you are only going to purchase one. We have a lot of spectacular wilderness that uses the NW forest pass, including most of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and Olympic National Forest. Many snowshoes use the same winter trailhead as summer trailhead and utilize the NW Forest Pass.
Sno-park passes are for areas with maintained winter parking lots. Sno-park passes are required from November to April regardless of snow level. It is $20 per day, or $40 per season. There is an additional fee if you are going to select sno-parks that are groomed for cross-country skiers. Sno-parks can be convenient when looking for snowshoes, as these roads and parking lots are maintained for the winter. These passes give access to some incredible snowshoe trails including Wenatchee Crest, Kendall Peak Lakes, and Mount Margaret.
The greatest pass of them all. This pass is $80.00 annually and covers all national parks, national wildlife refuges and covers the NW Forest Pass for WA. My annual set-up is an America the Beautiful and sometimes an annual Discover Pass if we end up doing one of the hikes that require it. Some great snowshoes that use America the beautiful are Paradise at Mount Rainier and Hurricane Hill at Olympic National Park.
Individual Fees & No Passes Areas
There are many snowshoes in WA that don’t require any pass, including some that leave from ski areas and allow you to park in their parking lots, such as Skyline Lake or Artist Point. Other routes have no winter trailhead, and there is parking on the shoulder of the highway, like Hex Mountain or Lake Valhalla. Other areas have their own fee system specific to winter, such as routes that leave from the Nordic center on Stevens Pass. Mount Tahoma Trail Huts near Rainier have an overnight fee system, and you can visit and spend the night in yurts and cabins after snowshoeing!
9. Check everything again before you leave!
In the winter, conditions can change rapidly. When I wake up the morning of a snowshoe, I have a last minute check-through I like to go through, including numbers 1-3, in case overnight snows or changes in forecasts make the snowshoe I picked no longer a safe option.
I make sure to check the weather, WSDOT pass reports, and NWAC’s avalanche forecast before I leave the house. I double-check that my gear is appropriate for the hike that I am taking. If it all looks good, then you are ready to jump in the car and head to the snow!
10. Snowshoe your Snowshoe!
You have done all the work for a safe and enjoyable snowshoe! Enjoy the incredible experiences Washington has to offer, you won’t regret it! See you in the mountains!
Winter Leave No Trace Ethics
Leave no trace ethics are an important part of recreating outside and that is still true in the winter! There are a few elements that are different in the snow.
- In the summer, it is important to stick to durable surfaces. In the winter you want to stick to snow. Avoid avalanche terrain, cornices and tree wells for safety.
- Pooping in the snow is a no-go. If you need to go, grab some blue bags before hitting the trail and plan on pooping into the bag and taking it out with you. Some tips and tricks on Meghan Young’s blog here.
- Everything you bring into the wilderness comes back out with you.
- Winter can be a difficult time for wildlife so make sure to give them plenty of space and never feed wild animals. This includes accidental feeding, make sure your food is secure and animals have no way to access it.
- If possible, separate ski and snowshoe tracks, the skiers will thank you for it.
- Be aware of your surroundings and plan ahead. Hypothermia, losing your way and avalanche risks are all extra perils in the winter. Rescue operations are difficult on the environment and the best thing you can do for everyone is prepare as much as possible before starting out on the trail.