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Originally published Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Winter hiking on webbed feet: 5 snowshoe routes for beginners

A Northwest authority on snowshoeing, Dan A. Nelson, offers routes for beginners and tips for enjoyment.

Special to The Seattle Times

Tips on snowshoeing safety and enjoyment

Snowshoeing isn't quite as easy as hiking. Not only is it more physically challenging, but there are more dangers inherent in the sport. Most notably, the risk of avalanches must be considered anytime you venture into the winter wilderness.

Also, good skills with map and compass are vital for safe snowshoeing, since you won't always have a nice clear path to lead you home. Your routes in the snow will often lack the physical presence of a well-defined hiking trail. Rather, snowshoe routes are somewhat arbitrary. You can aim for a lake or a ridge, but your path will depend much on the whims of winds and snow. Heavy snow cover can bury underbrush, making it possible to hike an arrow-straight route to your destination. But drifts, avalanche slopes and other obstacles can also force you into a weaving route that requires you to hike twice as far as you anticipated.

With that in mind, rather than be overly concerned about reaching a destination, let enjoyment in the journey — and in the chance to be out in the winter wilderness — provide the payoff in snowshoeing.

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It's hard to set aside a part of your life for four or five months. That could explain why snowshoeing has become such a popular pursuit. Summer hikers, tired of hanging up their packs and boots when the first snow falls, have found that snowshoes let them extend their favorite pastime into the fourth season.

Over the past 20 years, snowshoeing has been the fastest-growing outdoor winter sport. The ease with which beginners can become accomplished snowshoers helps explain this growth, as does the relatively low cost of entering the sport. Anyone who knows how to walk knows how to use snowshoes — strap them on and walk. Simple as that.

Here are a few routes to consider for your first outing on snowshoes. Before you go, though, remember: Every time you plan to venture out into snowy mountains, you should first contact the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center to get the avalanche danger report for your area of interest (see www.nwac.us). And see our sidebar for more tips.

Kendall Peak Lakes, Snoqualmie Pass

The roar of freeway noise is unmistakable when starting up this track, but soon the beauty of the winter wilderness surrounding the trail makes everything else fade into the background. The dark-green firs and hemlocks lining the ridge, the open, quilted meadows of snow, and the wide avenue of the trail make this a perfect route for snowshoers.

The trail leads to a pair of small alpine ponds nestled in a deep cirque on the flank of towering Kendall Peak (5,675 feet). The mountain dominates the skyline from the lakes basin, as well as along the last mile of the trail leading into the basin. Although the trail ascends nearly 2,000 feet, the climbing is gradual and the trail is easy to follow. Because of that, first-timers and kids will enjoy this outing as much as experienced snowshoers.

Getting there: Drive east on Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass to Exit 54, two miles east of the summit. From the exit, turn left and cross under the freeway to reach the Gold Creek SnoPark, just a few hundred feet north of the highway interchange. Snowshoe up the Gold Creek Valley, staying close to the left (west) side of the valley, and in a few hundred yards, find an old logging road climbing left into the trees along the valley wall.

Skyline Lake,

Stevens Pass

A short but somewhat strenuous climb to a high alpine lake buried deep in snow awaits snowshoers here. But the climb pays off by providing an inordinate amount of natural beauty and winter wilderness. The beautiful little lake basin is situated in such a way that snowshoers who pause here for lunch may enjoy unmatched views of the whole of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area — from Mount Daniel to Mount Stuart — as well as the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area to the north, the Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness to the east, and the beautiful Skykomish Valley to the west.

Getting there: From Everett drive east on U.S. Highway 2 to the summit of Stevens Pass. Park in the ski area parking lots on the north side of the highway. From the parking area, climb north along a groomed road leading past a number of small skier cabins on the edge of the forest above the highway.

Eagle Point,

Olympic National Park

With the sweeping line of white mountains that ends at glacier-capped Mount Olympus stretching before them, snowshoers will wonder why they ever bothered visiting this area in the summer. The hike begins with a short, steep descent, and then wanders over fairly level terrain — just a few rolling hills — as the trail stretches east under the flank of jagged Steeple Rock and Eagle Point. Snowshoers will find great views of the distant peaks of the Bailey Range and look down into the dark Lillian River Valley. Overnighters looking for a gentle outing can pitch their tents at Waterhole Camp, just 4 miles out.

Getting there: From Port Angeles drive 17 miles up Hurricane Ridge Road to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. Sign in at the center (required for all users), and then drive back down the road a half-mile to the trailhead parking area near the first bend in the road.

Haney Meadows Loop,

Blewett Pass

The Blewett Pass area may be one of the finest snow recreation spots in the state, with trails set aside for motorized and nonmotorized recreation. When you want solitude and serenity without a lot of uphill effort, the Haney Meadows Loop is a great option. The route doesn't soar up onto high, windswept view points, but it does roll through an abundance of open meadows and dark forests, and along a few low ridges that sport modest views. What's more, you'll find a great diversity of plants and animals to examine and enjoy along the way, and you'll likely have all or part of the route to yourself. From a trailhead shared by snowmobilers, skiers, dog sledders and snowshoers, you can venture out and in a couple hours be off by yourself, exploring untracked snow.

Getting there: Drive east on I-90 to Cle Elum. Take the second (easternmost) exit and continue northeast on Highway 970 about 12 miles to a junction with U.S. Highway 97. Continue north on 97, following signs toward Wenatchee. At the crest of Blewett Pass, about 27 miles from I-90, turn right (south) into the Blewett Pass SnoPark.

Begin as if you were heading to Diamond Head (Route 68). Walk up Forest Service Road 9716 as it leads south into the trees. About a quarter mile out, climb left off the road to find a poorly marked, but generally well-traveled, trail paralleling the road for the next mile.

Paradise Meadows, Mount Rainier National Park

Paradise. Close your eyes and whisper the name. The image that pops into the minds of most folks will be white-sand beaches and warm, blue waters. But for some of us, Paradise is best served cold. Rather than white sand, we see undulating drifts of cold, white snow. Rather than warm, blue waters, we see deep-sapphire ice. Palm trees are replaced with alpine firs. Paradise, to us, is the alpine landscape of Mount Rainier.

Snowshoers can experience this wintry wonderland at the aptly named Paradise meadows of Mount Rainier National Park. From the visitor center head off into the meadows. If you climb straight toward the summit, you'll reach the Alta Vista viewpoint in less than a mile for grand views in every direction. From there, wander left, right, forward or back as time and your energy levels permit.

Getting there: Drive east from Tacoma on state Highway 7 and connect to Highway 706 at the town of Elbe. Continue east through the Nisqually Entrance of the park, and proceed to Paradise.

Dan A. Nelson, of Puyallup, is author of "Snowshoe Routes: Washington" (The Mountaineers Books) and regularly writes outdoor gear reviews for The Seattle Times.

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