Mount Rainier National Park | Reflection Lakes
Snowshoeing Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park to Reflection Lakes is a prime winter activity as Mount Rainier has many trails available for enthusiasts with varying experiences. Mount Rainier National Park is well known for its dense forests, waterfalls, wildflower meadows, and of course its vast snow fields and icy glaciers. The mountain, at 14,410 feet, is the highest peak in the Cascade Range and from various regions of the park you can see four other Cascade volcanoes: Mount St. Helens, Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker, and Glacier Peak. Outdoor activities are endless, with opportunities for scenic driving, bicycling, hiking, backpacking, and mountain climbing. The most prominent hiking trail is the 93-mile Wonderland Trail which circles Mount Rainier and offers the most diverse scenery as it traverses many ridges and valleys throughout the park and takes you though lowland forests to subalpine meadows.
Offering recreation all-year, winter camping is allowed almost anywhere in the park as long as snow depth has reached 5’ at Paradise and 2’ elsewhere in the park. My friend Christian and I thought that a 5-mile roundtrip snow shoe to Reflection Lakes and an overnight camp at the lake was a good choice as I have read that a trek to Reflection & Louise Lakes is a quintessential Mt. Rainier snowshoeing experience. Reflection Lakes received its name from a near full reflection of Mt. Rainier and has become one of the most photographed locations in the park. As it freezes over in the winter months, you will not see the reflection, but rather a view of the beautiful frozen lake frozen covered with snow. Always up for a good snow camping adventure, we headed out to Mount Rainier with the goal of spending the night at Reflection Lakes.
In winter the only two park entrances open are the Nisqually Entrance, in the southwest corner of the park, and the Carbon River Entrance, in the northwest corner of the park. Driving from Portland, we entered through the Nisqually Entrance on Highway 706 and drove the plowed yet icy road to Paradise and checked in at the Jackson Visitor Center for our backcountry permit. After signing in and checking our gear, we headed from the overnight parking lot to the orange and black poles marking the trail to Reflection Lakes. At this point we had the option of shoeing down on the Narada Falls trail or taking the longer way by staying on the Paradise Valley Route which during winter months is a primary avalanche danger area. With the avalanche forecast low, we continued on the Paradise Valley Route for 1.8 miles until we reached pole markers for the way up to Inspiration Saddle. The 1.8 miles to this junction was easy since it was moderately downhill in grade and a clear route to follow. The 0.3 mile up to Inspiration Saddle was significantly more strenuous since it was steep, switch backed a few times, and with our 45-pound packs on our backs, they took their toll. Once we reached Inspiration Saddle and took in an expansive view of Mount Rainer, we reached the markers leading the 0.4 miles down to Reflection Lakes. This part of the trail descends greatly and was a nice reprieve.
Once we were near Reflection Lakes we had a clear view of the surrounding area and made our own trail a few hundred feet and set up our camp between a snow bank and a few large trees to offer some protection from the possible wind whipping off of the meadow. After setting up our tents, it was getting late in the afternoon, approximately 4:30 PM, and my thermometer read 21 degrees. After a snack on some peanuts and a couple of bottles of Deschutes Black Butte and Jubelale, I shoed a little bit around the area to take some photographs. Initially, I was disappointed with the current weather as the light was not right and clouds were rolling in and obscuring the tip of Pinnacle Peak. Finally, as the sun went down, the clouds parted and unveiled Pinnacle Peak with a violet glow and I was able to take a decent shot (see photo).
After coming back to our base camp, my friend and I dug a couple of snow lawn chairs, lit the Duraflame logs we carried on our backs and made dinner while listening to music as we had brought some battery powered speakers and an iPod Nano. We ate lasagna with red meat sauce, drank some Jim Beam, and at around 8:30 called it a night. Before I went to bed it was 18 degrees out, but absolutely zero wind, and I was quite warm with all my gear and my bag. Around Midnight we heard quite a bit of noise at our camp and something was walking around inspecting our tents. It was very loud; my tent moved (twice) and I lay there motionless until whatever came to visit apparently lost interest with us after a few very long minutes.
Safe and sound, I woke up around 7:30 AM and put on my frozen boots, packed up my gear and waste, and helped my friend tidy up our camp before we headed back on the trail. We made it back to the junction with the Paradise Valley Route. Instead of taking this same route to our car, we decided to take the Narada Falls trail which was noted by another set of orange and black poles in the snow. This trail was certainly a much more scenic route and also shorter at 0.60 miles. However, it was very steep and on portions of the journey it felt like I was climbing rather than shoeing. Thankfully, the distance was short and overall it was a rewarding workout. We made it back to the parking lot and warmed up for a bit at the visitor center and then drove home to Portland.
Mount Rainier National Park opened up my eyes to all of the outdoor hiking and photography opportunities in Washington. I was impressed by the beauty of the mountain and the pristine nature of the surrounding trails. My snowshoe trip to Reflection Lakes lives up to the recommendations I have read and I am pleased to add my own experience for fellow outdoors enthusiasts to read. I encourage you to explore Oregon and make your own adventure.
To Get There:
The park is 150 miles from Portland and is easy to find due to the frequent signs to Mount Rainier National Park. From Portland, take Interstate 5 to Highway 12. From the town of Morton, take Highway 7 to the town of Elbe and take Highway 706 to the Nisqually Entrance and follow the road to Paradise.
Be sure to visit the National Park Service website for Mount Rainier National Park to read and understand the park’s regulations, guidelines, and current road status and weather. Many of the trails we were on to reach Reflection Lakes were not marked with signs naming the trail and at times, made route finding difficult.