As my last day at Mount Rainier dwindled, and the top of the mountain continued to hide underneath a layer of clouds, I wrestled with deciding which trail deserved my final hiking effort. I could go back to Paradise, or leave the park entirely and seek out a trail in the Glacier View Wilderness. But I decided there wasn’t enough time left in the day for either option. I needed a nearby, and relatively short trail. So, I settled on the Bench and Snow Lakes trail, east of Paradise on the way down Stevens Canyon Road.
“Settled”, though, really isn’t the appropriate word. At the time, the trail was low on my list of priorities, but it ended up being one of the most memorable and meaningful hikes of my trip. I got to see some fall colors, meet a couple of nice people… and a bear.
The Bench and Snow Lakes Trail has its own parking area, at the side of Stevens Canyon Road, just east of Louise Lake, before the road plunges into the canyon. At first, the trail involves a little bit of uphill hiking — nothing major, but after a full week of hiking daily, it was all I could handle. As the trail climbs, Mount Rainier is at your back, so remember to turn around and take a look at it from time to time.
If you’re hiking all the way to Snow Lake, the farther of the two, it’s a 1.25 mile (one way) trip. Bench Lake is about half that distance.
Not far into the hike, perhaps about halfway to Bench Lake, there’s an unadvertised attraction — a “silver forest” of old, dead trees that still stand upright.
These old trees are like ghosts, pleasantly haunting the trail. They have a lot of character…
… and in late September, they provide nice centerpieces for the fall colors that burst to life here. Who knew, fall foliage at Mount Rainier?
About halfway into my hike, I came upon a split in the trail. Bench Lake was to the left, at the end of a short side trail that dropped rapidly to the edge of the water.
Since I was determined to hike all the way to Snow Lake, I took a brief look out at Bench Lake, then continued up the trail.
A brutal climb followed. Maybe it was just because I was so tired, but it sure seemed like a lot of switchbacks. Every time I turned a corner, another natural staircase came into view. It got to the point where I thought I knew what I was going to see around every bend. Until I got here:
Now, I realize that this picture is not very shocking. But, there’s one thing missing from it — a huge black bear.
Yeah. Something like that. Right there in the middle of the trail. And no more than 20 feet away from me.
Now the thing is, he saw me before I saw him, which is not the preferable order of things. When I realized he was there, he was already trying to decide what to do. I’m pretty sure he and I were having the same thought — that I was close enough to be a threat, not just an annoyance.
I thought about my extensive experience with black bears — which amounts to just one other encounter, a year earlier, at Crawford Notch State Park in New Hampshire. That time, I announced, “Hello, Bear! I’m a Human!”, and the bear turned and bounded away into the forest. But in New Hampshire, the bear was much further from me, we weren’t sharing a trail, and it was a much smaller bear. This guy was full-grown, very close, and this time, he had surprised me, not the other way around.
Nevertheless, I decided I didn’t have much choice, but to take the same approach. After a stunned stare-down that felt like it lasted forever (but was probably only a few seconds), I greeted the bear and proclaimed my humanity. He took another moment to think about how much he had already eaten that day, and whether he really needed another snack, and then made the decision I had hoped he would make. He ran.
The only problem is, he ran downhill — next to the trail I had just climbed. This meant I had two options. I could hike on to Snow Lake, which had to be close by now. But then, in a little while, I’d have to pass through this area again, and I’d have no idea where the bear was. My other option was to turn around (after all that uphill climbing!) and head back the way I came — but this would take me in the same direction that the bear just ran.
I knew it would be unwise to go any further. I needed to turn around. And so I did. As I walked down the trail, towards the next switchback, I could hear the bear rustling in the brush. I couldn’t see him, but it was obvious that there was a very big creature in there, nearby. I kept talking to the bear, hoping to convince him that I wasn’t delicious enough to be worth his time. I slipped by, safely, then kept going, losing all that altitude I had just gained.
Once I was back at the Bench Lake turnoff, I took the trail down to the lake. It was short, but steep, and not very well maintained. The “steps” were huge, some were muddy, and the trail was somewhat overgrown. I figured it would be just me and a few million mosquitoes here, but much to my surprise, I heard some human voices.
Down the shoreline, just a short distance, was Sally Johnson, sitting on an old log — the only suitable seat in the area. Her husband was just around the corner, fishing in Bench Lake.
Sally and I hit it off immediately. She is also a photographer, and probably knows more about when and where to take pictures of (and around) Mount Rainier than anyone. Her camera was set on a tripod, looking towards that cloud-covered mountaintop.
Sally told me that she had hiked out to Bench Lake today, looking for fall colors. She told me that in a week or two (by mid-October), the entire lake would be ringed with colored leaves. The orange and red brush I had seen on the hike to Bench Lake was merely a preview of what was to come. These lakes, she said, were among the best places to watch Autumn arrive at Mount Rainier.
We talked for at least 10 or 15 minutes, about trails I had hiked and should have hiked, places to go on rainy days, and the best place to get a hotel room in the area (I told her I was staying in Packwood, and she apologized, saying that Ashford would have made a much better base). I told her about the bear I had met, just up the trail, and she was surprised — saying they are rarely seen in this area.
At Sally’s recommendation, on the way back, I paid special attention to the colors along the trail. When fall arrives here, it’s not in the treetops, it’s low to the ground. Shrubs and small plants turn red and orange…
… while the evergreens stay green.
I wrapped up the final hike of my week-long stay at Rainier with several new stories to tell, from a trail that turned out to be much better than I had expected.