I spent several hours laying in front of the fireplace in our apartment the day after Christmas cycling through our long pre-snowshoe checklist. Just when I thought I found the perfect route, the final check would declare it ineligible and we would start again from the top. Snow was in the forecast, the roads would get worse as the day wore on, and we were pretty much guaranteed to be snowshoeing in a giant cloud. Anything with panoramic views at the top, or if it had “ridge” in the name, was out. I had a cold and wasn’t sure how many miles my sad, sick body would accept, so no forest walks over 10 miles. Avalanche conditions were moderate, so high avalanche risk zones were out. Like a flash of light, Commonwealth Basin emerged from the piles of routes we sorted through. A variable route with features only one mile in, plenty of snow, and only 1.5 hours away; it turned out to be the perfect route for the day.
Old Commonwealth Creek Trail
We parked at the Snoqualmie ski area, in the West Summit parking lot. Gathering our gear, we walked under the freeway overpass where a small trail led to the PCT summer parking lot. There are about 30 different ways to go up the valley, with tons of social and ski trails in every direction. With a map, GPS and a bit of gumption, it is easy to choose your own adventure to get to the basin. When we reached the parking lot we had the choice of going up the PCT or to the opposite end of the parking lot following Commonwealth Creek. Knowing that we might not make it to the end and that there were several scenic spots on Commonwealth Creek, we planned to follow the creek to the basin, then cross over and loop back on the PCT.
I was right to believe that panoramic views of the valley were unlikely today. Visibility was fairly poor as we made our way up the trail, but as we rounded a corner and were greeted by a majestic snowy mountain.
We followed the main trail for about three-quarters of a mile before we began taking every side route we could find. Though we were several hundred feet above the creek bed, I knew that there was a waterfall about one mile up the creek, so we frequently checked to see if we were getting any closer. Sure enough, after about a mile we rounded a corner and heard rushing water. To the left was an old snowshoe path partly obscured by several inches of fresh snow. We followed it through the woods and it led to a lovely view of the creek, with a baby waterfall.
The creek tumbled over the rocks through an ice tunnel that had formed over the rocks. I couldn’t tear myself away from the rushing water and icy features, so we stayed for a bit to take pictures. I wanted to see the falls from the front, so we retraced our step and found a route that approached a little lower. The area is surrounded by a ravine, so finding a safe snow crossing proved to be a little tricky, but after a few dead-ends, we found a route in.
After returning to the main trail, we walked about a quarter-mile when we heard more waterfall sounds and another trail covered in fresh snow to the left. Unable to say no, we headed back towards Commonwealth Creek, ducked through some snowy trees and were rewarded with a gorgeous waterfall.
We left the waterfall and headed back to the main trail, again. This time we remained focused for a bit and continued through the snowy forest. The snow-heavy branches hung low and lovely fluffy snow abound.
Before too long, the route took us back to the creek. The approach to Red Mountain continues on the west side of the creek while the main trail continues straight to Commonwealth Basin (and Red Mountain, because, really, all of these trails go to the same place unless you accidentally go in a circle). The log crossing turned out to be a little bit sketch but is totally optional, which is how I prefer my sketchy crossings.
It is hard to tell in the photos, but the crossing is super narrow, with the first step the same width as the snowshoes. I kept my first snowshoe parallel to the log and scooted it forward with my back foot until it was wide enough to swing around. Then I basically let momentum carry me across. Slightly terrifying, but it worked! Michael followed and also made it quickly across. Below the crossing was a pool with enough water enough to soak your boots and possibly break a limb with a fall.
Red Mountain Approach
We continued on the trail for a bit until we reached another creek crossing. This creek crossing I was much less sure about. The trail we were following was not as well established, and even though the crossing was much shorter and honestly we could probably jump it, it felt much more sketchy to me. Michael crossed quickly and confidently but I took my first step about three times before deciding I would not be crossing. My first few steps caused the snow on the bridge to crack and begin to slough off. We had already seen waterfalls and had a lovely time wandering in the snow, I was fine with turning around here.
Luckily, after retracing our steps we found a switchback that we had missed, ensuring that we didn’t have to do the creek crossing after all. We continued to climb the west side of Commonwealth Creek. As we got closer to the basin, we started looking for creek crossings to move east and meet up with the Old Commonwealth Trail, as we were trying to make a loop and we weren’t quite sure where the best spot would be. We didn’t find one on the way up, but our constant wandering to the creek did mean that we saw a surprise waterfall. Bonus!
We crossed a few boulder fields with dramatic rocks and huge icicles. We gave up on crossing the creek and decided to climb to the basin, where the creek may be snowed over. Sure enough, when we reached the basin it was just a big field, easy to cross over.
We stopped near some picturesque icicles for lunch and some planning. According to our GPS, we were still a bit off from the Old Commonwealth Trail and quite a bit away from the PCT. Our route was the approach to climbing Red Mountain and the established trail we had been following continued to the summit, something we were not equipped to do that day. We followed the trail for awhile, hoping it would eventually meet a junction with a route heading southeast, but all we found were ski tracks that abruptly turned and went down the mountain. We knew that we could continue route-finding until we met up with the right path, but given that it was getting later in the day, road conditions were expected to worsen and I had a cold, we decided to return on the route we came up to make sure we got back before dark.
Turning back, we quickly plunge-stepped down the powdery slopes and snowshoed on the established trail on the west side of Commonwealth Creek. I continued to keep my eye out for places to cross the creek, knowing that if we crossed further south we increased the chance of finding the main trail on the other side, instead of route finding and breaking trail our whole way back. Sure enough, I found a creek crossing that had been used before the most recent snow that looked totally doable. We scrambled down the bank, crossed, and met up with a myriad of established trails meandering throughout the meadows.
Old Commonwealth Creek Trail
We followed the routes that were heading back towards the road with the most solitude. Eventually, we came across our first creek crossing from the other side, achieving our goal of not having to do that creek crossing again! We went on for a little longer and reached the PCT junction, where the PCT meets with the Old Commonwealth Creek Trail. It had some old signage that was aptly covered in cobwebs.
Michael wanted to finish our loop on the PCT, as we were hoping to find some of the markers in the snow, so we took the less-traveled PCT route. Also, our snowshoeing book recommended the PCT rather than the Old Commonwealth Trail, so I was excited to check it out. Perhaps for the first time, our made-up route felt significantly safer than the route in the book. The PCT turned out to be much dicier than the lower routes. Steep avalanche chutes covered in recent avalanche debris made forging a path difficult. High exposure was beautiful but nerve-wracking, so after two open scree fields, we decided to climb back down to the creek and enjoy the simple but lovely walk out.
The snow began to fall gently and it was the perfect snowshoeing snow. Without wind, the fluffy snowflakes softly fell onto our shoulders, rather than blowing into our faces. It was incredibly picturesque and before we knew it, we emerged from the trail to the parking lot on the exact route we were hoping for to complete our loop. Satisfied, we walked the short route to the road, back under the freeway overpass and made our way home.
We ordered huge bowls of ramen when we got home and enjoyed hot soup after a snowy day under our new wool blanket. Winter break was shaping up nicely.