Sapphire ovals set between jade green hills and emerald foliage, Bench and Snow Lakes are a Mount Rainier “must-see” once the trails have melted out. We’ve moseyed around some mighty fine alpine lakes in our mountain-top meanderings, but perhaps none as fine as these twin gems.
The 2.6 mile round trip hike to both lakes starts on the south side of Stevens Canyon Road, 1.5 miles beyond Reflection Lakes. It features enough ups and downs to thrill any step-aerobicizer as you cross a series of low ridges in the shadow of Mount Rainier. You climb quickly from the trail head, sometimes on boardwalk. Descend the far side and the trail levels out onto “The Bench,” a broad plain hosting killer views of the Mountain.
If you can tear your eyes off Rainier for a moment, focus on the mountain meadows. They’re in a class by themselves. Blazing in autumnal garb in mid-September, every huckleberry bush, clump of bear grass, vine maple and deciduous leaf in sight looks like someone just set it on fire.
At about 0.7 miles, a short spur offers a steep, often muddy descent to Bench Lake as well as stunning images of Mount Rainier. On a calm, clear day, the reflections of Mount Rainier off Bench Lake are the stuff of legend.
Climbing back up and continuing on, the trail skirts more meadows, crosses Unicorn Creek and empties out onto the shores of Snow Lake, whose turquoise waters offer an Academy Award-winning performance of Most Perfect Mirror Image of Rainier. It’s hard to tell where water stops and sky starts.
Try this hike late in the day when the Mountain’s draped with sunset. The solitude and scenery are well worth the aerobic effort required on the return trip up “The Bench’s” back.
Getting there: From Enumclaw, drive east about 47 miles on State Route 410 to the junction with SR 123 at Cayuse Pass. Stay right (straight ahead) to merge onto SR 123-Cayuse Pass Highway. Drive south about 11.5 miles to the junction with the Stevens Canyon Road. Turn right (west) and pass through the Stevens Canyon Entrance to the park. About 16 miles from SR 123, park in the long parking area on the south side of the road.
From the south, drive US 12 about 8 miles east of Packwood to the junction with SR 123. Turn north on SR 123 and continue about 6 miles, passing Ohanapecosh Campground, to the Stevens Canyon Road. Turn left (west) and pass through the Stevens Canyon Entrance to the park and find the trailhead as described above. From the west, via Paradise, drive SR 706 through the Nisqually Entrance and continue approximately 17 miles east to the trailhead on the south side of Stevens Canyon Road.