|Distance:||2.6 miles, RT|
|Hiking Time:||1.5 hrs|
|Elevation Gain:||700 ft|
|High Point:||4,700 ft|
|Snow Free:||July - October|
|Trailhead Pass:||National Park Pass Required|
Trailhead: N 46° 46' 04", W 121° 42' 26"
If you like a hike with plenty of stunning views, two picturesque alpine lakes, and a trail with ups and downs, then Bench and Snow lakes on the southwest side of Mt. Rainier is the destination for you.
Once you've driven to the Nisqually entrance to Mount Rainier National park on Highway 706, continue 15.6 miles on the Longmire-Paradise road to the Stevens Canyon turnoff. Turn right and proceed three miles east on the Stevens Canyon Road, past Reflection Lakes and Louise Lake, to a small turnout on the right side of the road. The elevation here is just over 4,500 ft. The parking lot, which has only a dozen spots, is usually full in the summer.
Plan to get there early, do the hike and, perhaps, go up to Paradise Lodge or back down to the Longmire Inn for breakfast or brunch. It's a nice family outing.
Looking at the map, you see that the lakes are at about the same elevation as the trailhead. Don't let this fool you. You have to ascend and descend three major ridges to get to these twin beauties. On summer days, the trip can be hot on a dusty trail. Early morning is a refreshing option. You'll be rewarded with sprawling meadows, gorgeous wildflowers and two of the most colorful lakes you'd ever want to see. Besides, a few ups and downs won't slow you down too much, right?
From the trailhead, you climb quickly up a ridge, occasionally on a boardwalk placed over a muddy or dusty area (depending on the weather). Once over the ridge top and down to flatter terrain, you'll be rambling on what's called The Bench, a broad open plain that is mostly meadow with a few old snags and incredible mountain views.
Take it all in a wondrous sensation. At just over 3/4 of a mile from the trailhead, you'll notice a short spur trail leading down to Bench Lake. Don't take it. The steep, neglected trail doesn't give you any better views than you already have. Furthermore, dense growths of alder and other shrubs prohibit you from walking on the shore around the lake. Just continue on the main trail. Snow Lake lies up ahead. You won't be disappointed.
After crossing a marshy area and climbing another ridge for another 1/2 mile, you enter a virtual cathedral of sorts -- Snow Lake floating in a glacial cirque below 6,935-foot Unicorn Peak, the king of the Tatoosh Range. The view of the lake is so amazing it could well take your breath away. Walk past the inlet to the far side for a view of Mt. Rainier.
The deep, turquoise water of the lake is splendid against the astounding backdrop of Mt. Rainier. Stay and relish this truly magical moment. Protected by ridges, the lake likely will have some patches of snow until late July.
Take time to rest, have a snack or lunch, and regain some energy for the return. That's because you gain about 300 ft of the hike's total elevation gain at the end. You'll feel better having done Bench and Snow lakes right away, and not leaving it to the end of the day, as some hikers have done after already accomplishing several grueling hikes and then not fully enjoying the experience of these stunning lakes. Bench and Snow lakes are worth doing in their own time and space.
Go back in the autumn to enjoy spectacular displays of bear grass, varied reds of mountain ash, and the intense reds of huckleberries.