This down-and-back has a lot of what the average hiker might look for — enough up and down for aerobic challenges but not too strenuous for children and the creaky kneed, nice wildflowers and foliage, a couple of good payoff lake destinations, and breath-taking views along the return trek. The latter makes this a lot more like a loop hike, since there is more to explore on the way back to the trailhead.
The Bench & Snow Lakes Download
Highlights: Two highly reflective alpine lakes, summer wildflowers and fall foliage, wildlife, strong views of Mount Rainier.
Travel Time (from Urban Centers to Park/Trailhead): About 2 1/2 miles from Seattle, about 2 hours from Tacoma, 3 hours from Portland.
Nearby Supplies and Gas: Eatonville and Ashford.
Must Stop Along the Way: Cottage Bakery in Eatonville for the best maple bars ever, packed lunches.
Difficulty: Enough hills for a workout, but easy enough for children.
Distance: 2.6 miles (out and back).
Entrance Fees: $25 per vehicle (for a week) or $10 per individual (walk, bike, etc.) or various passes.
Top Elevation: 4,703 feet.
Elevation Gain: 715 feet.
Trailhead Waypoint: N 46° 46′ 04″, W 121° 42′ 26″
Maps: Green Trails No. 270S, Paradise; USGS Mount Rainier East.
Getting There: From the Nisqually entrance to the park, go 15.6 miles toward Paradise and take a right onto Stevens Canyon Road. Head three miles east, past Reflection Lakes and Louise Lake, to a turnout on the right that can accommodate about a dozen cars.
(NOTE: Clicking on an image opens full-sized version).
This was one of the most overall pleasing hikes I’ve ever taken, so it’s a wonder why the trail wasn’t overrun with people.
My wife and I hiked this trail on a sunny weekend, during which scores of cars were parked in the overflow spaces down Paradise Valley Road. It doesn’t seem to occur to many Mount Rainier National Park visitors to explore Stevens Canyon Road. Even the lots along the spectacular Reflection Lakes were not jammed full.
To top it off, this outing had an HCQ, or what my wife termed as “high chipmunk quotient.” The little rodents were seemingly everywhere, often performing acrobatic feats off branches and bushes, apparently getting a jump on pre-winter fattening.
After an ascent-descent over what is better described as “rolling hills,” you emerge onto “The Bench,” flat meadow that opens to the right to grand views of the Tatoosh. It also seems prime area for wildlife viewing (black bears sometimes are spotted in the area), though we didn’t see anything more than birds and chipmunks. I returned at mid-fall and, though the foliage had turned very pleasant, it seemed like I just missed the peak colors.
You’ll gain tree cover as the rolling hills resume and at 0.6 mile, you will reach a grand overlook of Bench Lake. A little steep, rocky and narrow, the trail down to the lake (which is well marked) is a bit of a scramble, but doable for most people. It’s worth it, because, under the right conditions of course, the reflection of Rainier in the lake as almost as spectacular as the Reflection Lakes setting.
Snow Lake, about 0.5 miles farther, has a bit steeper approach, which quickly will be forgotten. The setting, a high amphitheater with Unicorn Peak looming, and deep, green-blue water, is spectacular. The high ridgeline also shields out a lot of sun, so we were able to get quick decent photographs, despite taking them at mid day, when the light elsewhere is often too harsh.
The maintained trail ends almost to Unicorn Creek. The best views of Snow Lake, however, are from the Snow Lake Campsite, which is a marked cutoff.
All of this is enough to spur a giddy return trip, but maybe the best is saved for last. On a clear day (which this definitely was), Mount Rainier looms large almost the entire way back. If you didn’t look over your should on the way out (as we did not), this is a very, very pleasant surprise.
Sometimes it pays to be so totally focused on moving forward, and not looking back.