Ah, spring, and a hiker's fancy turns to thoughts of trails. For most, that means warm, sunny days spent following sinuous paths through a reawakened landscape. For hikers in the Pacific Northwest, though, it's a time to cool your heels, literally. The high-country trails don't emerge from the snowpack until July or August, and fresh snow starts falling by October. To cope with a hiking season this short, you have to adapt by indulging in the joys of snowshoe camping.
Snow expands the backcountry, pushing trailheads down the mountain and turning roads into drift-covered trails. Destinations that are overrun with visitors in the summer become private enclaves. Because the days are warmer and longer, the sun consolidates the snowpack so there's less risk of avalanche. Winter-like conditions and high avalanche danger is always a possibility, so check with the land management agency before packing the car.
There's no better time to fall in love with a new wilderness pursuit, and no better place than the following locations.
Mt. Rainier National Park
Paradise Ranger Station to Louise Lake is a perfect primer for newbies. The route is moderately graded, easy to follow, and manageable at 10 miles out and back. Make tracks before mid-May, though, because the busy road reopens then. From Paradise, angle east, dropping off the roadway into the Paradise Valley. Continue downhill to the Lake Trail, which leads up and over a wooded hill before depositing you at Reflection Lake. Deep snow may obscure any sign of the trail, so sharpen your map and compass skills. Enjoy stunning views of "The Mountain," as well as the jagged Tatoosh Range to the south.
From Reflection Lake, push east along the road to Louise Lake. Camp on the lake's southern shore for inspiring views of the climber's route up Rainier. If the weather cooperates, you'll awaken in a front-row seat to one of the greatest shows on earth. Towering Rainier first glows in pink and lavender tones, then radiates in red and orange as the sun's rays move slowly downslope. Fair warning: High avalanche risk on this route may force a change in plans.
THE WAY: Enter Mt. Rainier National Park at the Nisqually Entrance. Paradise Ranger Station is approximately 18 miles east of the gate.
MORE INFORMATION: Mt. Rainier National Park, Tahoma Woods, Star Route, Ashford, WA 98304; (360) 569-2211. Permits are required and may be obtained at the Longmire Museum.
Olympic National Park
The 14-mile round-trip from Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center to Obstruction Point will have you wondering why people bother visiting this promontory during any other season. Stretched before you is a panorama of dazzling, talc-white mountains lorded over by glacier-capped Mt. Olympus. The distant peaks of the Bailey Range rear into view, and the dark Lillian River Valley broods below.
If snow conditions aren't cooperating or you're looking for a gentler outing, make camp at Waterhole just 4 miles out. For a more strenuous trek, push on to Obstruction Point. This 3-mile leg is treacherous in inclement weather, so heed weather reports and current conditions.
THE WAY: From Port Angeles, drive 17 miles up Hurricane Ridge Road to the Visitor Center, where overnighters are required to check with a ranger and sign in. Drive back down the road a half mile to a trailhead parking area near the first bend in the road.
MORE INFORMATION: Olympic National Park, 3002 Mt. Angeles Road, Port Angeles, WA 98362; (360) 452-0330.
Goat Rocks Wilderness
Visit Packwood Lake in summer and you'd better have a high tolerance for whiny kids, barking dogs, and the distant roar of motorcycles. April is another story altogether. The 12-mile round-trip to this blissfully quiet lake courses through serene old-growth forest. The jagged crests of the Goat Rocks Peaks-the remnant rim of a mammoth volcano-tower overhead. Make camp on the lake's southeast shore, where the threat of snowslides is lowest due to the gentle grade and surrounding deep forest. The views at this end are unsurpassed. Snuggle into your bag, draw back the tent flaps, and watch a fiery drama unfold as the setting sun plays on Mt. Rainier and 7,487-foot Johnson Peak.
THE WAY: From Seattle, drive south on I-5 to US 12 east. At Packwood, turn right at the Packwood Ranger Station and continue 6 miles on the Packwood Lake Road to the trailhead.
MORE INFORMATION: Packwood Ranger District, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, 13068 US Highway 12, Packwood, WA 98361; (360) 494-0600.