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Originally published Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 7:06 PM

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Cut your snowshoe teeth at Snoqualmie’s Commonwealth Basin

When snow gets deep enough, this nearby winter wonderland is popular with newbies.

Special to The Seattle Times

If you go

When there’s snow, here’s where to go

Getting there

From Seattle, take Interstate 90 east for 52 miles to Exit 52. Turn right and look for parking on the shoulder of the frontage road (Highway 906). No permit required. Walk back along the road to go under the freeway and look for the bermed driveway on the right at the entrance to the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead parking (closed to vehicles in winter).

Guided walks

When snow is sufficient (call ahead to confirm), Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest offers 90-minute, one-mile guided walks into Commonwealth Basin every Saturday and Sunday through March at 10 and 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Groups learn about the winter ecosystem, wildlife and safety. Snowshoes are provided. Suggested donation: $15 for adults or $10 for ages 16 and younger. Reservations required: 425-434-6111.

Avalanche danger

Just because snow totals are low, don’t assume avalanche danger is low. Fluctuating temperatures and unstable snowpacks can create special hazards. Before you go, check with the Northwest Avalanche Center:

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If you’re one of the thousands of people who got snowshoes for Christmas, you’re now probably wondering if you’re going to actually use them, or if they’ll soon occupy the same closet space as your old Rollerblades.

My Tubbs were once a sparkling new Christmas present, and like you I had the same question. That was, until I discovered Snoqualmie Pass’s Commonwealth Basin a few weeks later.

Once I realized how much great snow tramping was less than an hour from my doorstep, experiencing the great outdoors in the heart of winter suddenly became a lot more realistic.

That’s because it’s hard to argue the convenience and sheer wonder this trail has to offer — especially for those new to the sport.

Since my first outing, I’ve discovered other trails equally as convenient and beautiful, but the Commonwealth Basin still holds a special place in my heart and I’ve returned at least a dozen times. It will help keep your snowshoes at the front of your gear closet for years to come.

Location. Location. Location.

The obvious draw of the Commonwealth Basin is access. It begins within sight of the Summit at Snoqualmie’s Summit West ski area (in fact, many hikers park in the same lot as the skiers and walk under Interstate 90 to the trailhead).

“It’s a good place for beginners because it’s free, a quick drive, and you can get into the basin and find pretty spots quickly,” says Kim Larned, a natural resource specialist who organizes guided walks for the U.S. Forest Service.

The down side is the trail’s popularity. But on weekdays or during heavy snows, it’s possible to go an hour or more without encountering another soul. For novices, the tracked-out trails can be comforting because it feels harder to get lost.

The route follows the Pacific Crest Trail for two miles under old-growth trees and then traverses a hillside. The changing landscape is full of unexpected creek beds, forested hills and windows with stellar mountain views.

While this winter has seen dismally low snow totals so far, don’t be discouraged. It’s only the beginning of the snowshoe season, says Larned. Our heaviest snows often occur in February and March when up to a foot can accumulate in a single day.

The proliferation of snow keeps the trail ever changing. Soft blankets smooth the landscape forming snow bridges over creeks, and making stumps look like soft bumps in the landscape.

At certain sections, you’ll encounter Commonwealth Creek, which appears to have cut giant canyons into the snowpack. These layered walls of snow often rise higher than a person by midwinter.

Things that make you go ‘Whoa!’

When walking through a landscape full of such marvels, it’s hard not to feel like a kid again.

When conditions are right and avalanche danger is low, you can try your hand at snow bowling. Look for steep slopes and roll a tightly packed snowball down the hill. Make a game out of seeing who can roll theirs the farthest — it’s not uncommon to achieve distances of more than 40 yards!

On your way back to the car, you can look for open powdery areas and see how fast you can run in your snowshoes, knowing that if you fall it will be a fluffy landing.

But the real joy is when you happen upon everyday sights transformed by winter — such as a frozen waterfall or a sheared-off tree capped by snow, making it look like a huge ice cream cone.

You’ll find a footbridge that appears as a Norman Rockwell scene: the snaking river and a quaint winding path. Other times it will be so buried it will look like a narrow overpass, barely wide enough for a pair of cross-country skis.

Avalanche awareness

You can’t talk about snowshoeing without discussing avalanche danger.

Fortunately, a majority of the Commonwealth Basin is heavily wooded, making it less likely that you’re hiking in potential slide zones. But it’s still possible to find yourself in sketchy situations without knowing it.

About halfway up the hill is a good example of an avalanche run-out area. This spot is spectacular in its own right due to the thousand-pound chunks of ice that litter the open slope.

Being aware of what’s above you is important for any backcountry activity, says Larned. To help educate hikers, the Forest Service offers guided walks in the Commonwealth Basin designed to help snowshoers make smart decisions.

And always check the conditions before you go. If the avalanche danger is moderate or higher, you should navigate around potential avalanche zones.

For more photos of snowshoeing in the Commonwealth Basin, visit Jeff Layton’s blog:

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