Mt. Rainier Fling Part 2, Backpacking to Snow Lake

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Snow Lake and Unicorn Peak

In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about our first day at Mt. Rainier last week.  This post covers our second and third days, backpacking to Bench and Snow Lakes.

We took our time on Tuesday morning, packing up and leaving Cougar Rock Campground. The weather continued to be warm and clear. The Mountain was completely out this morning, and we stopped on the way to the trailhead to take a few photos from Reflection Lake.

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Mt. Rainier at Reflection Lake

When we arrived at the Bench and Snow Lakes Trailhead, the parking lot was almost full, but we managed to squeeze in on the end. Many people weren’t sure where the trailhead was, as the sign is small and hidden behind cars.  It is at the easternmost side of the parking lot. There are no toilets or other services at the parking lot.

Mt. Rainier towers over the parking lot, and we enjoyed our view of it as we made and ate lunch and organized our packs. This took longer than expected, and I was demoralized by how big and heavy my pack was. Somehow I need to figure out how to reduce my pack size and weight, but for now I did my best to decide what really needed to come along and what could stay behind.

We  eventually had our stuff organized and packed, and headed up the trail. It starts off paralleling the road, but soon turns south and climbs up to the bench.

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Huckleberry Heaven, Bench and Snow Lakes Trail

There are huckleberry bushes galore in that area, and we would have stopped and picked berries if we hadn’t been tired and hot and wanting to get to camp. The trail has some ups and downs as it traverses the bench to the aptly named Bench Lake.

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Bench Lake through the trees

We didn’t take the turnoff to Bench lake, because it required losing elevation (and then gaining it again on the way back) and we were feeling the weight of our packs.

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Hot and Tired Hiker

After Bench Lake there is a climb up and over the forested ridge. Some of the steps on these ups and downs are very tall, and were difficult for Annika with her shorter legs, and for all of us with heavy packs. We stopped many times to catch our breath and drink some water. We were glad for trekking poles to help us push ourselves up the steps. We were thankful it was so beautiful, and the scenery took our minds off the difficulty of the trail.

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Mountain Ash turning brilliant

Bench Lake and Snow Lake Trail, MRNP

We have to go up that forested ridge

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Annika gets ready to cross a magical stream

Over an hour after we started, we made it to Snow Lake, and followed the signs around to the campsite area. We had to cross the outlet stream, which required walking on a wide, flat log over other logs and Unicorn Creek.

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Crossing Snow Lake Outlet Creek

Annika wasn’t very happy about this crossing, but she did it slowly, and we made it across just fine.

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Snow Lake and Site 1 near the peninsula

Some other campers were already set up in Site 1, so we took Site 2, which is a bit more secluded but farther down the trail. Both sites have nice flat areas for tents to be pitched, and access to the lake for water.

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Emerald Waters of Snow Lake

The water of Snow Lake was the most lovely shade of green, deep and clear. In the area of our campsite, it dropped off pretty steeply, so I didn’t feel comfortable letting the kids wade, though I did let them dangle their feet in the water to cool off. We could see fish swimming, and lots of them were jumping for their afternoon meal. After we rested and snacked, we set up our tents and got dinner going. The kids explored and took turns taking photos, and we enjoyed the evening light while swatting at mosquitos and flies. The bugs were biting but not as bad as our Sheep Lake trip. They got me mostly on my feet, in between the fabric of my Keen sandals. We heard pikas meeping in the talus slopes on the other side of the lake, and juncos and other mystery birds flitted around in the trees. I heard and saw a Pacific Wren, as well.

As I was cooking dinner, I realized that I had way more food than we would ever need for such a short trip. We ate home dehydrated turkey and white bean chili, with some home-dried pasta and cut up cheese sticks. We added in some sausage on the side, and the salt and fat really hit the spot after sweating all afternoon. We had jelly beans for dessert. The camp robbers are brazen and fearless in this area. One of them came so close to us on the trail, causing me to give a tiny screech, and Annika named it Startle Wing. The birds in camp knew exactly when we pulled out our food bag, and were very hopeful they could snatch something from us. But we worked hard to keep a clean camp, so they were disappointed.

There is a bear pole that the two campsites share, so as it was getting dark we hung our food bag. We had more than what fit in my dry bag, so I had to use Annika’s backpack as a secondary food holder. It was kind of comical trying to get our bags on the bear pole, but we managed in the fading light. The campsites also share a toilet. It is demoralizing to realize that you have to walk steeply uphill to get to the privy, but it is probably the most advanced and fancy backcountry toilet I’ve used.

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Fancy Shmancy Toilet at Snow Lake

There is even a plastic seat and a cover to go over that, so you have a dry seat all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a urinal in the backcountry for the guys, but did appreciate that little touch. There is a sweet view, too, so we couldn’t complain too much about having to walk uphill and far away to use the toilet.

Gabe and I sat out late watching stars and experimenting with my camera and tripod to try to take star photos. We enjoyed fiddling with the equipment, but we have more to learn about the process, and didn’t get any good star shots. There is less of a view in the lake basin than there was at Paradise, but we could still see an amazing amount of stars once it got fully dark. It was special to be able to spend that time with Gabe chatting and listening to the night sounds.

None of us slept well that night – I woke up and needed to use the toilet, but hate going out at night in the woods. I was also thirsty because I hadn’t drunk enough water the day before. But thankfully it wasn’t too cold, perhaps down into the upper 40s, so we weren’t too uncomfortable.

We woke up to heavy dew in the morning, however, and since the lake sits in a sheltered bowl, the sun took its time coming over the edge to dry everything off.

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Wet and saggy morning tents

We ended up packing the tents up still wet, after a breakfast of oatmeal and cocoa.

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Good Morning!

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Checking in with my husband

I felt like being the only adult in camp made it difficult, as most of the work was on me to get everything packed up and situated. The kids have a hard time with all of the details of packing, though they can do a lot, so it took longer than I expected to clean up camp and pack our gear for the trek out.

It was so pretty at the lake, but we were ready to head home, and we tried to be efficient on the hike back to the car. We did end up stopping to catch our breath several times, and had to stop for a longer snack break around noon.

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Almost Back!

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Snack Stop above Bench Lake

The view of The Mountain was in our faces for much of the time, which helped pull us along, up and down the large steps again. We were happy to make it back to the car in the early afternoon, and loaded up and drove down to Longmire to use the restrooms and have a proper lunch. We made it home in good time, which made my husband relieved for us.

This was a great backpacking trip. There were enough people around that we felt safe, yet not too many so that we felt crowded. The campsites are large and private. The scenery is incredible. The down side is the difficulty of the elevation gain and loss; this 1.1 mile hike felt much harder than a typical mile.

If You Go:

The Bench and Snow Lake Trailhead is located on the Stevens Canyon Road, about 1.5 miles east of Reflection Lake. The trail descriptions vary in mileage; either 2.2 or 2.5 miles RT with 700 feet elevation gain. Though short, it is classified as moderate. If you are camping, you will need to secure a free permit from one of the Rainier ranger stations.

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Glorious Mountain