Escape the crowds within Mount Rainier National Park without going on a lengthy adventure. Visit one or both of two alpine lakes, the second one just a bit more than a mile from the parking lot.
The trail begins from the east side of the parking lot, and starts gaining elevation quickly on steps placed to limit erosion of the sandy soil. On a hot day, the temperature drop is welcome as you are quickly surrounded by greenery and small trees. Blueberries and huckleberries are a late summer treat all along this trail.
Even though Snow Lake is only 130 feet higher than the parking lot, the trail dips and climbs, resulting in a total one-way gain of 370 feet, much of it on anti-erosion check steps. Small children may need assistance.
At a half mile, a rock outcropping on the left provides a partial view of Mount Rainier looking back, and what appears to be a shallow tarn looking down. The tarn is actually the northwest end of Bench Lake.
At three-quarters of a mile, a spur trail to the left allows you the chance to visit the shore of Bench Lake. How was the lake named? It resides on a natural bench, a flat shelf of land poised near the edge of a steep slope heading down. The spur trail is short, but badly eroded, leaving large steps. Where the sometimes brushy trail splits, go right to get to the southwest shore. From here you can see how the land simply drops away from the bench at the northeast side of the lake. Walk the shore a short distance to take pictures of Mount Rainier with Bench Lake in the foreground, a view rivaling that of Reflection Lakes. When you are finished, return to the main trail; there is no trail around Bench Lake.
One mile from the trailhead is a junction. To the left is Snow Lake Camp (featuring two sites, a bear pole, and a privy). If you can score a permit to camp here, the two sites are close to the shores of the lake, where you can watch fish swimming in deep clear waters, and see them breaking the surface looking for food.
From the junction, continue right to walk to the shallow end of the lake. At 1.25 miles is a sign denoting “End of Maintained Trail”. Listen for sound of running water, booming under the large boulders of the talus field. Out of the rocks appears an inlet to the lake, flowing fast and clear.
Beyond the sign is access to a small pond just upstream of Snow Lake, and a climbers route up the talus slope to the southwest. Identify Unicorn Peak, with its rocky horn summit, almost due south. The talus allows access to several peaks along the Tatoosh Range, the highest being Unicorn Peak at 6971 feet.
There is room to wander here; just remember to respect the vegetation. When you are ready to return to civilization, remember that you will have about 240 feet of uphill to contend with on the way back. In late summer, blueberries and huckleberries along the trail can ease the burden.