A Hiker’s Guide to Bench and Snow Lake at Mt. Rainier National Park

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During 2023 Mt. Rainier National Park saw 1.7 million visitors pass through its iconic gated entrances. And chances are, if you hiked to or visited any of the popular areas (hello Skyline Trail) within the park, it probably felt like they were all there with you!

If you’re looking for a break from the crowds then the trail that leads to Bench and Snow Lake is just what you need.

This trail would be one of the most popular in the park if there were more parking available (there are only around 20 – 30 parking spots at the trailhead) as the views and camping opportunities are out of this world!

Mt. Rainier from Bench Lake along the Bench and Snow Lake Trail

About the Bench and Snow Lake Trail

How to Get to the Trailhead

The parking lot for Bench and Snow Lake is located along Stevens Canyon Rd just east of the Paradise Rd cutoff. If you’re coming from the west (Nisqually Entrance) you’ll pass by Reflection Lake and the crowds that come along with it.

After another 1 1/2 miles there will be a small pull-off style parking lot on the right side of the road. This parking lot only holds 20 – 30 cars so get there early if you want a spot!

There are no other parking options unless you want to walk the road for a ways. This is nice as it keeps the crowds low along this beautiful trail.

You can also try for a spot later in the afternoon evening although this area can get quite busy with folks trying to capture the alpenglow on the mountain.

Moody forest along at the Snow and Bench Lake Trail

When to Visit Bench and Snow Lakes

This is an incredible hike as soon as Stevens Canyon Rd is open for the season. For most of the hike, you’ll be wandering in and out of towering forests so the wildflower displays are more muted than other trails on the flanks of Mt. Rainier.

A real treat along this trail though are the huckleberries which ripen up in late summer. We last hiked the Snow and Bench Lake trail over Labor Day weekend and the berries were in prime picking condition.

The changing autumn colors also make for some amazing photo opportunities.

If you’re planning on camping at Snow Lake then keep an eye on the trail reports for early season bug and snow conditions.

What to Expect Along the Trail

Snow and Bench Lake Trail looking back at Mt. Rainier

This short trail is a great option for families as the elevation gain is minimal along the length of the hike!

Starting from the trailhead you’ll have a short uphill section followed by some rolling hills through prime huckleberry picking territory.

Keep an eye out for wildlife, especially during berry season! We passed by a rather large and fresh pile of bear scat in this section so keep the bear spray handy!

Exploring Bench Lake

At the 3/4 mile mark, there is a spur trail that leads downhill to the left. This takes you down to the sandy shoreline of Bench Lake and one of the most incredible views of Mt. Rainier you’ll find anywhere in the park.

Reflection Mt. Rainier at Bench Lake

Most folks will head to Reflection Lake for a shot like this and so can you if you feel like lining up with dozens of other photographers.

Or you can head over to Bench Lake and enjoy this view all to yourself (we were the only ones here for close to 30 minutes.)

On to Snow Lake

From Bench Lake, it is less than a half mile to the alpine Snow Lake. There is one short climb to contend with and, once again, when we hiked the trail in early September there was a large wasp nest right in the middle of the trail on this uphill section.

Obviously, these things are seasonal but keep an eye out if hiking later in the year as bee stings are no fun!

Snow Lake at Mt. Rainier

Once you get to the lake you can either turn left which takes you to a rock outcropping overlooking the lake. This is a popular spot to set up a tent so take a look if you’re looking to camp for a night.

If you head to the right you can hike to the other end of the lake and some mudflat-type areas where you can walk down to the water.

While Snow Lake doesn’t have any views of Mt. Rainier this lake has an incredible deep green color and feels like you’re in a totally different world compared to Bench Lake.

Things to Know About the Trail and Mt. Rainier

Stay on the Trail

The trail is a lot more forested than some of the higher trails on Mt. Rainier but you should still stick to the established trails. Off-trail trekking can lead to significant erosion and the fragile fauna that calls this area home can take years to recover when trampled.

Luckily there are plenty of huckleberries within easy reach of the trail so no need to tromp off trail to find them!

Watch for Wildlife

Like most areas of Mt. Rainier National Park, there is an abundance of wildlife along the trails. During our rather short hike, we saw numerous deer as well as a large, fresh pile of bear scat.

We’d recommend keeping bear spray on hand when hiking in the park.

Pack the Hiking Essentials

Weather conditions can change quickly and accidents do happen along the trail so come prepared with appropriate clothing, water, snacks, and a first aid kit. We saw numerous groups who got stung by bees during our hike so unexpected things can happen!

It’s an Easy Mt. Rainier Hike

Mt. Rainier National Park is home to some pretty epic hikes that aren’t always family-friendly if you have little ones in tow. This hike is one of the few that has a huge payoff with minimal effort as it clocks in at under 2.5 miles round trip with little elevation gain.

If you want an even shorter option then just do an out-and-back to Bench Lake which comes in at just a mile and a half!

About the author
Derek Carlson
Pacific Northwest native, cross-country skier, hiker, mountain biker, wannabe fly fisherman, writer and owner of Roam the Northwest