The trailhead at Longmire, 2,750 feet, is located between the road and the Wilderness Information Center. Your destination is Cougar Rock Campground which is at 3,200 feet. In a good (read, “low elevation”) snow year, this is a great, easy snowshoe trip. If there isn’t enough snow to snowshoe the whole way, strap your snowshoes on your pack and hike up the trail. The campground itself offers great snowshoeing opportunities along the campground roads and cross country through the campsites. There also is the picnic area across the road to explore, but you will want to remove your snowshoes when the snow plow has done its job of keeping the road clear. Pavement is hard on snowshoes.
If, by some quirk of fate, you find yourself at Cougar Rock Campground, snowshoes on your pack and too little snow to snowshoe, you will still have soaked up some of the serenity of a winter hike in the woods, with glimpses and sounds of the Nisqually River through the trees.
You can follow the Wonderland Trail signs if they aren’t covered by snow. When there is deep snow on the ground, you can follow the path trod by those who went before. If the snowpack is deep enough to venture off trail without damaging the underlying vegetation (yes, dormant vegetation can take a beating from heavy boots and snowshoe cleats) pay attention to the terrain. There are a few small ravines with bridges to be crossed, carefully.
Directions: Take state Route 7 to the town of Elbe. As you leave Elbe, head left and pick up state Route 706. This will take you to the park entrance. Continue on the road to Longmire, parking in the lot behind the museum and the lodge.
Difficulty rating: 2 (1 is easiest, 5 is most difficult)
Miles round-trip: 4
Elevation: 450 feet
Best time of year: Year-round
Map: Green Trails 269 Mount Rainier West or 269S Mount Rainier Wonderland
Pass: Mount Rainier National Park 7-day or annual pass.
Also: Check at the museum at Longmire for the latest snow and avalanche information, as well as for maps of the various trails and winter recreation opportunities. Snowshoes and poles with snow baskets (an essential bit of snowshoe equipment) can be rented at outdoor stores in town, in Ashford and at Longmire. Extra clothing and a thermos of something hot will make your lunch stop more enjoyable. Carry enough water or sports drink, protected from freezing. Restrooms are at Longmire.
Please remember that “leave-no-trace” does not mean burying trash or toilet paper in the snow – it is unsightly in the spring after the snow has melted. The road from Longmire to Paradise is closed at night and reopens in the morning, when the snow removal equipment has cleared the road. State law prevails in the park – all vehicles (including 4-wheel and all-wheel drive) are required to carry chains when driving in the mountains in the winter. Two-wheel drive vehicles are often required to chain up on the road beyond Longmire or are turned back.
Information: www.nps.gov/mora for road and trail information; “50 Hikes in Mount Rainier National Park” and “Snowshoe Routes in Washington” by Dan Nelson, both Mountaineers Books.
Hike of the Week is presented by The Mountaineers Tacoma Branch Hiking/Backpacking Committee.