Mazama Ridge at Mount Rainier’s Paradise area offers an especially scenic intermediate-level snowshoe route in the midst of snow-covered alpine meadows. The wide-open views from the ridge are absolutely jaw-dropping: Mount Rainier, the Tatoosh Range, rolling subalpine meadows, wind-sculpted drifts – and there are boundless opportunities to explore. –WTA
I was sure Mazama Ridge would be all those things and more, if only we could find the damn thing. Despite 2 full attempts at snowshoeing Mazama Ridge, the first being several years ago and the most recent in December, and nearly a dozen trips to Paradise, I had not managed to find Mazama Ridge. I could point it out on a map and show you the ridge from the parking lot, but despite my best efforts, we had not managed to actually set foot on this classic Rainier snowshoe.
Persistence is an interesting thing. I have given up on a lot of hikes because conditions weren’t safe, I wasn’t feeling it or any other number of reasons. I always qualify it with–oh we will come back someday and finish it, but I rarely do. It is hard to repeat most of the route, and when we can opt for something brand new. Every now and then, however, a specific route calls out begging to be finished. I have learned that sometimes, it is right to listen.
Getting Lost Again
Late Saturday night, I arrived home from a full day spent at the crag in Vantage, relearning how to climb outside on a rope, and it was time to figure out where to go on Sunday. Too tired to go through the full “find a hike” checklist, we quickly brainstormed for places we knew with low avalanche risk, that would properly take advantage of the super sunny Sunday in the forecast. Mount Rainier was the obvious choice. We decided to repeat the route we tried in December, when poor visibility sent us off route. We were returning to Mazama Ridge.
However, it was a bluebird day at Mt. Rainier, when the forecast was in the 50’s. We knew we had to get there right when the gate opened and try to beat the crowds on the trail. As soon as we decided on a route, I went to bed, determined to recover from a full day of climbing in the desert in time to snowshoe a sub-alpine route on Washington’s tallest volcano. The fact that both of these things are possible in one weekend in Washington is one of the many reasons I love living here.
We pulled into a mostly empty parking lot and quickly geared up. We pulled out our GPS, determined not to make the same mistakes we had before. GAIA clearly showed two different trails to Mazama Ridge, one that crossed the skyline trail, myrtle falls and then continued onto the ridge–about where we turned around the previous time. The other route showed a road walk followed by a steep climb up to the ridge. Always down to avoid a road walk and usually down to avoid a steep climb, we opted to take the first route. This was also the route outlined in our snowshoeing book, and we figured we could use all of the guidance we could get.
After strapping on our snowshoes, we retraced our steps behind the ranger station and lodge. We passed the field where I had my first snow camping experience with PNWOW–this weekend was their second snow camping event for the season at Rainier and their tents were still set up in their little village. I hope everyone was having as much fun as I had in January!
We rounded the corner and saw a dramatic lenticular cloud over the peak of Mount Rainier. It had a spectacular geographic quality to it, and it looked so cool I was not even sad that I couldn’t see the summit.
Shortly after, we reached the Edith Creek bridge and it looked so different from December, you could hardly tell that it was a bridge. Unlike the previous time, we could see for miles and had an excellent view of the route. Which is where I saw that the route cut across some avalanche run-outs. The entire purpose of going to Mazama Ridge was to minimize our avalanche risk, while still enjoying the snow and winter vibes. Crossing these avalanche chutes was the opposite for our goal for the day (have fun, minimize risk), so we turned around and headed back to the parking lot.
Luckily, this time we knew the alternate route and set out on Paradise Valley Road.
The road was plowed and annoying to walk on with snowshoes. I was coming down with a cold and walking down the road felt like treading water in molasses. When downhill feels ridiculously hard, you know you are in trouble.
After the bend in the road, below the area I was worried about for avalanche risk, the route split off from the road and began to climb steeply. I was so glad to be in fresh snow that I didn’t mind the steep incline. It also felt great to be tired because I was working hard and not because I hadn’t slept and was getting sick.
Finally, we reached the ridge and it opened up to a new set of views. The Tatoosh range looked incredible and Rainier continued to shine as the cloud cover constantly shifted. We weren’t sure we would see anything else quite as pretty as that moment, so we decided to stop and enjoy some lunch.
We saw a few people wandering through the meadows, but our primary companion a grey jay hoping for some food. As per leave no trace standards, we didn’t let the bird get a morsel, though we did enjoy his company. According to wikipedia, an old folk story from Maine says a man plucked all of the feathers of a grey jay and woke up bald the next day. Feeding grey jays can disrupt their diet and the health of the forest around them, so hopefully by resisting its pleas our food and habitat will remain sound as well.
We spent a pretty long time sitting in the sun, enjoying the sights. It was the first time we had been warm outside in a long time and we wanted to enjoy it. Plus the views of the mountain were constantly changing and looked incredible, so it was easy to lose track of time.
The ridge was filled with open meadows so we began meandering south. We took whichever path struck our fancy, generally hoping to reach the viewpoint for the lakes. I started to get tired and feel sluggish again, so approximately half a mile short of the lookout we decided to turn around and complete the loop.
We ambled slowly up the road and arrived at a very full parking lot. Completely different from the quiet morning we left, and peaceful solitude at Mazama Ridge, Paradise was absolutely slammed. We hurried to the car and made our way off the mountain, before the bliss of the day could evaporate.