beginner’s guide to snowshoeing | resources for 20 washington hikes
January 18, 2021
Every year, I’ve noticed the same snowshoe questions being asked. Sometimes in variations, but they generally fall under these categories:
What hikes within x time driving from x city should I do? (i.e hikes <1-2 hr drive from Seattle)
What footwear should I use for x hike? (i.e. snowshoes or boots?)
Does x hike have avalanche danger?
In an attempt to help y’all, I’ve consolidated and gathered information so you can be more informed and aware, and thus hopefully make the best decision for yourself so you have a good time outdoors! This is by no means an all comprehensive guide, but I do hope you can use it a resource or a launch point to keep exploring the outdoors safely.
Before we dive into the 20 potential snowshoe hikes, let’s briefly talk about general resources you can use. Winter travel is quite different than summer, primarily due to shorter daylight, colder temperatures, and the issue of snow and avalanche danger. Being prepared prior to your hike will give you the best experience possible! In the first part of this blog, I’ll talk about these common questions and general resources you can use. And for more details on each, check my other post on Winter Hiking.
Research and planning for hikes can happen in multiple ways, such as asking directly on facebook groups. But for the day-to-day weather and conditions, asking a local facebook group or checking recent trip reports are great ways to get a better understanding of the situation before heading out. And the more you explore, I’m sure the more you’ll get a feel about different conditions even without asking!
Since I’m in primarily PNW/Seattle groups, I will focus primarily on those hikes closest to Seattle, plus a few extra for those who want to drive a bit further. I hope you enjoy this post and that it’ll be a resource for you as you begin your journey snowshoeing around Washington. Happy trails!
I usually start with NOAA (or use your favorite weather app) for a general ballpark of weekend weather. Since the PNW has a unique topography and weather pattern, it’s hard to predict weather too far in advance. If you see heavy snowfall, that can mean high avalanche danger for the few days in avalanche terrain. However, it could all just be fun if you avoid areas like that! Another great weather forecast source is Windy. It’s an hourly map that shows weather patterns like temperature, cloud cover/height, wind, etc… I won’t link specific weather locations below, but be sure to check it before heading out!
Avalanche danger is a serious risk any time you have snow on a slope. I highly recommend taking an AIARE 1 class if you want to significantly venture into snowshoeing, especially if you might go off-trail. Though regardless, I believe everyone should at least be avalanche aware – many PNW hikes have fairly low avalanche risk throughout the season with a few exceptions now and then. And you want to be aware of those exceptions because getting caught in an avalanche can be fatal! The local PNW forecast is through NWAC. Generally, if they forecast green (low avalanche risk), it’s fairly safe to go; but always recommend paying attention to conditions because they can change. Low risk does not mean no risk. And often the risk is lower under tree line, which a good number of hikes fall under. To find out if it’s in the trees, use satellite imagery on a map. I like using Caltopo, toggling for global imagery (under base layers) and then also checking the slope angle shading. Safer, avalanche-free slopes are generally < 30 degrees, but you also need to watch for the slopes above the trails too! For trails below, I’ve mapped out examples of avalanche terrain and which hikes you have to pay attention to at the end of this post.
I find that footwear is a highly subjective topic. Some may say you must use snowshoes, but I find that microspikes are fine for many popular trails. Even if trails are called snowshoe trails, microspikes often work just because the trail’s been packed down well. But for some trails, especially less traveled, snowshoes are very helpful to keep you afloat on snow. To be most prepared, the best way is bring all your options to the trailhead and then decide from there!
You may have noticed there are many kinds of snowshoes out there but for beginners, any snowshoe would work. The more technical the hike (usually steepness and iciness), the more aggressive a snowshoe you’d want. Places to rent: Ascent Outdoors, Pro Ski Seattle, REI, Alpine Ascents (and there’s plenty more too), Wonderland Gear Exchange (for second-hand buys). And for how to use snowshoes: this REI guide is great, though as a beginner, you probably will be following a more well-traveled path that is easier to walk on.
However, whatever you choose, be mindful of which tracks to follow. Sometimes there are specific paths for skis or snowshoes and other times it’s a wide lane thru traffic for all. But unless you’re on skis, don’t step on the ski tracks! The hikes listed here are primarily foot path, but Hex Mountain and Artist Point sees a number of skiers too.
Also, if you’re looking to keep snow out of your boots, consider getting gaiters (alpine ones are best for deep snow), or use pants that cover the top of your shoes to keep your feet dry. I love using gaiters whether I’m using snowshoes or microspikes! See the snow travel section of my Winter Hiking post for more examples of what footwear is best for what conditions. Below, I’ll list generally what footwear will suffice for each, but please check conditions as they can change throughout the winter season.
If the trailhead is fairly close to a major highway, generally any car will make it! Just check WSDOT for highway and pass conditions and whether chains are required even if you have AWD/4WD. It’s also good to check if forest roads are open and know when highways like SR-20 (North Cascades) and SR-530 (Mountain Loop Highway) are closed for the season. The Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest has an great interactive map to check road and trail conditions. Another thing is Sno-Park Permits are used instead of Discovery Passes for designated Sno-Park parking areas. It’s only $40 for a season vs $20 for a day! To make it easy, I’ve linked the relevant sites for road conditions/permits for hikes below.
Like I mentioned before, it’s wise to look at trip reports before you go on any trip. It’ll give you a feel for what you might experience. If it’s not particularly recently, take the report and tack on whatever weather information you know the area’s had recently. If you’re hiking mid-week, the snow will probably be less packed (snowshoes could be nicer), vs weekends where many people have packed down the trail already. To find new trails, a great resource is searching for “snowshoe” in the trail map filter on WTA or selecting the snowshoe filter on AllTrails! I find that WTA has better descriptions than AllTrails, but use what works for you. Also, for beginner snowshoers, I recommend filtering for < 2000 ft gain and < 8 miles on your first couple outings till you get a good feel for it.
For more in-depth information about snowshoeing and trails, The Mountaineers has a great resource here. Or use their list of snowshoe hikes by selecting snowshoe under find routes & places. I find that this is less intuitive to use, but a resource nonetheless.
The highly awaited section: the most frequently asked snowshoe hikes and destinations
Disclaimer: Even though some of these are listed as almost always low avalanche risk, it’s smart to check NWAC before you go, just to double check! Each trail will list drive time from Seattle, difficulty, typical snow conditions, and a couple links to where you might find trip reports for them. For footwear, I list what’s usually needed, though after heavy snowfall, snowshoes are a great idea too. Again, this is a list of most commonly asked about trails near Seattle that I’ve seen, and there are definitely some (which I’ve marked) to avoid if you are unprepared for avalanche rescues.
Artist Point-Huntoon Point – Caution
Description: 4 miles round trip, 1000 ft gain, above tree line, open slopes
Avalanche Risk: NWAC, risk increases due to open slopes and passes near a lot of avalanche terrain, minimized if you stay along the ridge and don’t venture under steep slopes
Footwear: Almost always snowshoes or skis, snow is deep here
This shows each of the hikes described above. Blue is very minimal avalanche risk, orange should be hiked with caution, red should be avoided if you have little knowledge in avalanche safety. Avalanche terrain/risk are also generally marked.