In Washington, there are at least two snowshoe seasons. I never realized this until my fellow Tubbs Snowshoe Ambassador, Terry, pointed this out.
The first snowshoe season corresponds to the normal winter season that most of us are familiar with. In much of the west this year, it was lousy. In fact, there are plenty of other, less savory words that could be used to describe the season. The Central Cascades of Washington, where we usually do most of our snowshoeing is at 4% of normal snow pack according to the USDA's SNOTEL observations.
This means all the low-elevation trips where we can usually snowshoe in deep snow are completely devoid of the white stuff. Memories of epic snowy trips up Iron Bear Mountain and Putrid Pete's Peak as well as more pedestrian walks up Mt. Si and across Rattlesnake Ridge are just memories.
We've resorted to chasing snow to places like Artist's Point, which has snow even if it's well consolidated and far less than there should be at this time of year.
Even this is coming to an end, though. Conditions are more like June or July as high as 6,000 feet, requiring a 3,000 foot climb. In early March there were no big cornices on Snoqualmie Mountain. We usually see big snow in summer. In other words, the kids aren't getting there.
But as Terry pointed out, second snowshoe season was just about to get started. There are three highway passes in Washington that close due to snow.
Washington Pass is on the North Cascades Highway, which runs through North Cascades National Park. We don't get up there very much because it takes hours to get there. (Nonetheless, I'm looking for destinations in Washington's northernmost national park for this summer's backpacking trips.) The North Cascades Highway opened on April 3 to much fanfare. It took only three weeks to clear the snow and debris instead of the usual six weeks. This was the shortest time in the 42 years the highway has been in existence. The North Cascades Highway provides drive-up access to a wealth of destinations bursting with snow even in this low-snow year.
Cayuse Pass is in Mount Rainier National Park. It connects with Highway 410 and allows access from north to south along the eastern edge of the park. The 14 mile stretch of "highway" includes trailheads that lead into the high country like Owyhigh Lakes and Shriner Peak. It opened April 3, the second earliest opening ever.
Chinook Pass is on the boundary between Mount Rainier National Park and the Wenatchee National Forest. At 5,432 feet it's usually closed until much later in the year, but this year it opened April 3, the earliest ever. It was Chinook Pass that we chose to celebrate the beginning of the second snowshoe season.
Henry and I arrived at the Tipsoo Lake trailhead, freshly cleared of snow, at about 11am. The sky was mostly blue with a few clouds scattered about, mostly obscuring the Mountain to the west. Our goal was to snowshoe the Naches Peak Loop. In summer, it's an easy three mile walk with minimal elevation gain around Naches Peak. In winter, it was twice as hard, but promised to be much more rewarding.
Right away it was clear snowshoes would be necessary. There was 12 inches of fresh snow atop several feet of consolidated snow at the lake. Almost everyone we observed were skiers heading around the loop counter clockwise so we broke trail through untouched meadows of smooth white and up the hill toward Chinook Pass itself.
There, we joined the PCT and left the Park. We also saw the first snowshoers who had parked at the upper trailhead. Pro-tip: If you're doing the loop definitely park at Tipsoo Lake. Otherwise you have to climb about 200 feet at the end of the trip instead of at the beginning.
The northern side of the loop isn't terribly inspiring. We could see Highway 410 (also known as the Mather Memorial Parkway named for Stephen Mather, one of the fathers of the National Park Service and its first director) and the PCT extending northeast to Sheep Lake where Henry had his first backpacking trip. We followed the established track (made by skiers) that cut the corner and climbed high on the shoulder of Naches Peak.
As is usual for a seven year old, Henry expressed his... displeasure at all the hard work. M&Ms and the promise of hot cocoa kept him going. When we ended our climbing and could see the descent into a basin ahead of us he perked up a little bit. When I showed him how to plunge step through the powder his face stretched into a huge grin. He jumped, leaped, fell and rolled, slid, dove, and did it all again. He frolicked his way down the slope reveling in the powder we had been searching for all season long.
Completely reinvigorated, we crossed the basin, climbed a little hill, and were left staring at a gorgeous open meadow of untracked snow marred only by the occasional subalpine fir pointing to the sky.
Upon climbing a short rise we stopped where I'm sure everyone stops. It was the first view of the Mountain we'd had since leaving Tipsoo Lake. It was the reason the guides instruct you to follow the trail clockwise. It's one of the reasons we were there. Even with the clouds partially obscuring the base it was glorious. It was a perfect spot to finish our hot cocoa and stay a while.
We were back on the trail and in spots we could make out old tracks beneath the new snow. Henry led as we slowly descended through the open meadows. Even at 5,000 feet the snow was melting off quickly. It was 32F when we left the car at 11am, but three hours later it was close to 40F and the sun was beating down.
The only problem with the meadow traverse was a distinct lack of steeps to tromp down. We solved that by hopping a ridge to the top of the basin that hosts Tipsoo Lake. Straight down would have been amazing, but in the late afternoon there were already rollers on the snow and I wasn't in the mood to have to explain to anyone why my son was buried at the bottom of an avalanche.
Instead, we stuck to the ridge and still found deep snow begging for fun. Never ones to disappoint, we made the most of it until we ran out of vertical and had to make our way slowly back to the car along the road.
As we were changing into our comfy cozies for the ride home (or at least back to Wapati Woolies where we are bound by tradition to stop for ice cream) I asked Henry if he had a good time.
"YES! The climbing part wasn't so good, but running through the snow was GREAT! We should make Chinooky Pass and Nachos Mountain a tradition."
As a father, I think I'm bound to follow his advice. From here on out we shall celebrate the opening of Second Snowshoe Season with a tour of Nachos Mountain upon the opening of Chinooky Pass.
Of course, the snow will eventually melt out of the Naches Peak area and even the higher areas around the other passes. That's when the second season will come to a close.
After that, we only have third snowshoe season to look forward to. That happens when the road to Sunrise in Mount Rainier opens. That road usually opens in late June or early July. When it does, it's glorious.
Three seasons of snowshoeing? You bet. That's what makes Washington an awesome spot to enjoy winter. (When it shows up.)